Ken Miller

General Manager, Azure Intelligent Cloud at Microsoft

Strategy planning & execution interview

30 Minutes

During his interview at the Strategy Fest, Ken Miller shares his point of view of how technology and data are impacting the way we set goals, and therefore strategy. He talks about the culture at Microsoft, and how they make decisions when faced with different challenges. He also shares his vision on hiring and the importance of focusing on what really matters when it comes to doing a great job. 

More about
Ken Miller

Ken is an 18-year veteran at Microsoft and has been engaged with emerging technologies throughout his career. Since 2010, Ken has been focused on the Azure Cloud Platform and has played a key role in building the multi-billion dollar Azure business into what it is today. In Ken’s current role, he leads the Azure Enterprise Business across the West Region of the US, which includes many of Microsoft’s largest Azure partners tied to key GTM initiatives. In this role, Ken also focuses his time on providing thought-leadership around Microsoft’s High-Tech initiatives and Microsoft’s market opportunity in the High-Tech vertical. As part of Ken’s charter, he also has responsibility for running a Team with a deep focus on recruiting late-stage start-ups and unicorn customers to the Azure platform.

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Video Transcript

Lucas Goransky: Thank you, Karim and Sara, for that lovely introduction, I'm so happy to be here and I have with me the amazing Ken Miller again. Good morning. Good afternoon. Good morning to me. Good afternoon to you. How are you?


Ken Miller: I'm doing great, Lucas. How are you doing, man? Really appreciate the opportunity and wish I was there in person, of course. But this is as good as it's going to get right now.


Lucas Goransky: This is what a global pandemic looks like. Absolutely. So for those of you that are asking, I'm here in Sydney, Australia again. You are in California,


Ken Miller: San Francisco Bay Area.


Lucas Goransky: Awesome. So, Ken, for those of you that don't know you or are just tuning in, can you tell us in a nutshell who you are?


Ken Miller: Yeah, I know. Really appreciate it, Lucas. So like I said, I live out of the San Francisco Bay Area. I've been at Microsoft now for about 18 years. I run our Azure business in the west region of the U.S. and also have a team that focuses on late-stage startups and unicorns.


Lucas Goransky: That's incredible. There's a lot of questions that I want to ask you today. We're going to go for quite a few minutes. But the first thing that I want to ask you is, you said you've been around Microsoft for quite a while, so you lived through Steve Ballmer and then all the change from Steve to Satya. How was that in terms of a leadership change? How did that impact your job and the life of Microsoft?


Ken Miller: Yeah, so it's a great question. I wouldn't say that it's impacted my job directly, but it's really impacted, I think, Microsoft as a company. Right. So it starts at the top. I think that you know, when Satya became CTO, I guess, or CEO, I guess about five or six years ago, really, there were a lot of new concepts that were totally new to Microsoft. Right. I don't know if you've read hit refresh as an example, but there's a lot of focus on culture. There's a lot of focus on empathy. There's a lot of focus on having a growth mindset. There's a lot of focus on collaboration. So instead of, for example, you and I are competing to see who can do something better, it's about you and I collaborating, working together, creating best practices, sharing those best practices with others around us, letting those folks then lean into those best practices and make them even better. So it's also really about the ability to fail fast. Right. Don't be afraid to try something new. I think that when I first started at Microsoft, you know, I had a kind of fear about if I try something new and fail, how is that going to look for me? Right. So I think that that's been big. I think empathy in general, especially as we're going through covid. Right. I mean, we've got to have a different mindset. So there have been some pretty big changes there for sure.


Lucas Goransky: That's what's really exciting and obviously a huge transformation to you got to live in your time at Microsoft. So I think that kind of leads into the reason why we're all here together today, which is what is strategy for you? And maybe has the meaning of strategy changed for you in your time at Microsoft or I mean, in your experience since you started your work life?


Ken Miller: Yeah, and I think that you know, when I think about strategy, right, it's about creating a winning plan. How are we going to do something that allows us to compete stronger and win together? Right. But what I've learned recently over the last 12, 15, 18 months since we've been going through this global pandemic is that you've always going to have a plan B, right? So the best-created strategies you and I can work together, right. Build a new company. We've got this great strategy, a very strategic approach. But then all of a sudden overnight, the world changes. So you've got to have a plan B, you've got to be able to pivot quickly. You've got to be able to think on your feet and move in a different direction. I also think, too, that regardless of the best strategy, what's happening with data and A.I. today, right. Artificial intelligence is forcing us to change strategy. Digital transformation is forcing companies to change their strategy. If you think about, you know, what Uber did to the transportation industry. Right. If you think about now how at least in the U.S., and I'm sure it's the same for where you are, but there's this concept of everything is a service. If I want food, I get on my computer, I order it. If I want groceries, I get on my computer and order it right. So even the best-laid strategies have to have a plan B. And I think that for me, what I've learned over time is that even the best strategy you've got to be able to say, OK, stop, focus, shift and go a different direction if that's what we need to do to be successful.


Lucas Goransky: Absolutely, I couldn't agree more. You're looking at the data, and the data, I think, is something incredible because every time we have more and more. So then the challenge is not to have it, but to understand it. So I think the natural question after this is: what do you think drives strategy and do you think is data related? Do you think data needs to drive strategy in an organization?


Ken Miller: I think it absolutely has a place for sure. I mean, when we go back even five years ago as an example, right. Because part of the Azure that I run focuses a lot on data, the ability to consume massive amounts of data and do something meaningful with it. When we think about consumer trends, right, you go to the grocery store and they collect data and then they start target marketing toward you. Right. So that's all part of a strategy. Right. So if we could get in your head and understand the brands that you like, the types of food that you like, the types of things that you're interested in, we could target specific products towards you. Right? It could also be for customer service. There are a lot of vehicles today, for example, being built that have sensors. And instead of you saying, oh, you know what, my brakes went out, you're going to get an alert, you know, two months in advance. Hey, Lucas, your brakes are going out. You need to make an appointment. Here are three appointments that are available in the next 30 days. Select one boom. And it's, you know, very preventive. Right. So there's this whole concept of predictive maintenance, whether it's aeroplanes, whether it's elevators, whether it's automobiles, that's all going to be part of the strategy. That data is a huge component. But I think in a nutshell, really, public cloud has given us the ability to collect massive amounts of data in real-time and do something meaningful with it. We never really had the ability to do that previously. And this is really only in the last, I would say, three or four years where this has become prominent.


Lucas Goransky: Yeah, yeah, I'm going off track here a little bit because one of the things I know is that you are a big wine enthusiast and wine is all about stories and wine is all about that human touch. So I want to relate this to that. Where's the human touch then? Like, if we're going to be driven by data, where's human creativity, where does this come into play, if it does, in terms of strategy.


Ken Miller: I mean, I think that we all always have to think about how we interact with people, how we interact with customers, how we can change. I mean, digital transformation is great. But to your point, data is data. There still has to be a human touch. Right? Like when I make a phone call, I mean, we all get frustrated, right? When we head kind of like an automated phone bank and it's a bunch of different recordings and prompts. I just keep pressing zero zero zero zero because I want to talk to a human, right?. So I think that there's still got to be a focus there. I think that data, data, artificial intelligence, all of these ways that we're seeing companies transform give us the ability to do things differently, to create new revenue streams, new models. But there still has to be a human touch, human interaction. Right. Computers can't do that. Artificial intelligence can't do that. So I think that you know, it really depends. There are great ways that companies are marketing towards us. They collect information on us so that we get a very specific product mix or movies or recommendations pushed to us. But at the end of the day, we still want that human interaction. Right. Like, when I go out and eat, I would much rather eat a meal with you and have a glass of wine with you than do it with a computer as an example. Right. So you need that interaction.


Lucas Goransky: Absolutely. Or even this way, I mean, this is the second-best choice. But I would rather be there in San Francisco where you kind of have this conversation. Then, you're also a startup enthusiast. And that is also something that I think connects us because I'm also in love with the startup ecosystem. And I'm pretty sure that the way that startups manage their strategy versus the way that big organizations like Microsoft and especially at your level, the way that you guys manage strategy, how do you work around it? How can you empathize with startups and how different it is in terms of driving that strategy in a smaller and dynamic organization. And probably with way less data as a startup, especially in their early stages versus a big organization?


Ken Miller: It's a great question. And honestly, you know, we recently formed earlier this year, you and I have talked a lot about this just kind of in our interactions. But earlier this year, we formed a business to focus on late-stage startups in what we call unicorns. Unicorns are really defined as companies that have a billion-dollar valuation or more. Right. And, you know, honestly, as a company, we've never done a really good job in surrounding late-stage startups. Right. We just haven't done that. We're now building a business around it. But to answer your question, we have a different strategy for the enterprise side of our business and startups. It's actually two different markets. And quite honestly, when we first formed the business, I wasn't that aware of it. But what appeals to Wal-Mart and Home Depot and all of these large enterprises, it's not the same as what will appeal to startups. The other thing that I found is that startups follow each other, right? Like, well, you know, what did this other hot startup do? Like snowflakes, computing is very big and here in the U.S., right. So someone might look and say, well, what is Snowflake doing right? What cloud platform do they select? And startups follow each other for that reason. Right. So I think part of the strategy has to be how we decide to market specifically to startups to create a new and different value proposition. And it could be, you know, how we look at the competitive landscape. It can be how we go to market. It could be pricing models. It can be how we partner with small startups versus large enterprises. It's totally different. It's a super exciting space. I love what we're doing. We're making huge investments and we're seeing a ton of progress, which is great. So the strategy is working.


Lucas Goransky: Yeah. Oh, that's awesome. And what would then be the vision of your job? What is the main value proposition that you deliver to these startups, and what would make you happy? And you think it would make them happy in order to achieve that goal?


Ken Miller: Yeah. So a lot of the startups that we're talking to today are building solutions on top of Azure. They act as an ISV essentially. Right. So that sounds great. But what is so compelling about working with Microsoft? Well, we have field sellers literally all over the world, globally, local language, local currency that essentially get compensated for helping partners resell those solutions. So you're a small startup. You decide that you're going to use Azure as your cloud of choice. You build some. And on our platform, we say, great, not only are we going to give you great pricing and licensing and we're super competitive, we have a global footprint, but now all of our field sellers all over the world are going to help you resell that solution. So maybe you're not in certain markets. We've got field sellers in markets where you have demand, but you don't have a sales force. So you see top-line revenue increase. You see market share increase. So there are a lot of reasons why we're seeing Visa want to partner with Microsoft as well. We're very enterprise-friendly. We've got a long list of huge enterprise customers that's very appealing. And again, a reason why we're seeing demand to build on our platform.


Lucas Goransky: That's great. Well, that's really, really interesting and can you think about any particular project? Rolling back to this idea of strategy, when you think about strategy, anything that comes to mind maybe is this last role that you've taken on, maybe a specific project that you worked with, maybe a startup or another big business? What is the first thing that comes to mind on the first project that comes to mind when you think about strategy?


Ken Miller: I mean, I really think it's about how we change Microsoft's position within kind of late-stage startups and unicorns, how we get more traction there, how we work with private equity firms that are investing in these companies, how we work with venture capital companies that are making investments. Right. There has to be a strategy to get closer to private equity, to get closer to venture capital, to get closer to founders. How do we find ourselves among founders? How do we focus on diverse founders? Are a lot of female founders, for example, that are doing great things and they're not getting the appropriate attention they deserve. How do we go after those markets? It's all about having a strategy to do that, right? So sometimes that strategy, quite honestly, has several different layers. Right. We're working on venture capital and private equity. We're working with diverse and female founders. We're working within the startup world itself, tracking, you know, which companies are getting funded, which sectors are getting funded, you know, what types of technology are getting funded. I mean, that's really what for me, this last year has been super motivating and super exciting. It's been a huge learning experience. And we've changed our strategy along the way because we get feedback from customers. We learn something new every day. It's like that's actually a very good point. We gotta move in that direction. Right. Maybe we've got to do more on social channels. Maybe we've got to do more on LinkedIn. Maybe we've got to do more on Instagram, whatever it is. But our message has to resonate with these startups. Our message has to resonate with private equity firms. The traditional Microsoft message doesn't necessarily resonate. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just we've been going after a different market for a very long time. We're now going after a new market. We've got to change directions. But again, as I said, it's always in the back of my mind now. What if tomorrow the world changed? I've got to have a plan B, right? Because the thing is that if you don't have a plan B, some of the most successful companies coming out of this whole global pandemic will be the ones that changed direction and had the ability to pivot very quickly. The companies that said, you know, oh, my God, what am I going to do? And it just sat there for the last 15 or 18 months. They're losing revenue, right? They're losing market share. They're losing employees. Now that the job market is opening back up. You know, these employees that have been sitting there kind of doing nothing are all going to go after all of the companies that are growing again. So it just has taught me a very good lesson. You've got to be able to move quickly. You've got to be able to pivot. You've got to be able to be nimble and fast.


Lucas Goransky: That's really interesting, I think it threads the needle into the kind of second big topic of today, which is teams, and you're talking about how dynamic a strategy can be and how important it is to have a Plan B. Now, how important is it to communicate strategy to your team? How do you even do that? And how did you even do that in the first instance? And then when something like COVID happens, how do you get back to them and communicate what the idea is? And let me kind of double click on that, because one of the big challenges that we see or that I see in terms of strategy is communicating it. But then in order for our teams to feel related to that strategy, to feel that there's a reason behind it and not that it is just the way or is just something that came from your mind. And it's like now you have to do this, but it's for them to also fall in love with this path that we have chosen.


Ken Miller: Yeah, it's a great question. And here's what I would say. Like when I'm interviewing people for roles on the team as an example. Right. I tell people that, you know, regardless of how much you want this job, unless you have passion, you will not be successful. Right. So I think that, first of all, you've got to have passion for whatever it is you're doing. The more passion you have, the less it feels like work, right? You want to wake up every day, you're excited to do it. So I think that having passion, finding team members that are passionate is super important for me. I look for people and it goes back to what you're asking me initially, right. About Sosha, people that have a growth mindset, right. I don't have all the answers. I don't have the best strategy. But what I'm looking for is people that have a growth mindset that is not going to get stopped by like, you know, the customer said no. Well, the customer said no. So here's what I think we could do better or differently to create something that works for everyone. Right. So I think growth mindset is super important. I think having the confidence to fail fast, let's try something new and empower people to do that. Right. If you came to work and you felt like, hey, if I make a mistake, I'm going to lose my job, that doesn't work. You need to come in thinking, OK, I'm empowered to try something new and different. It's OK if I fail. Now, if you do the same thing 10 times in a row, we'll have a conversation about it. Right. But like everyone should have the ability to try something new and if they fail, they fail. I think that for me, fighting people that did are born leaders in a way. Right. I mean, everyone has the ability to lead. But a lot of times we operate in an environment that is very ambiguous. Right. I don't know what you do today. Right. The cloud landscape changed. One of our competitors introduced a brand new model. That doesn't mean the world is ending. It means that, like, we're working in a very ambiguous environment. What are you going to do to move this forward? You have to have a growth mindset, right? So I think that at a very high level, there's a charter, right? We have a mission we're trying to do. And this example is to recruit more late-stage startups and unicorns to Microsoft. That's the mission we're on. How we get the day to day execution is leadership. It's a growth mindset. It is having the ability to think creatively. Right. All of those things are super important. So I know that answers your question, but that's kind of how I look at it.


Lucas Goransky: It does. It does. But what I have connected with is then covid happen. Right? You guys are on a mission and it happened then maybe didn't change a lot for you guys. But I'm sure that from the top hierarchy in Microsoft, there was a change in direction or at least there was an adjustment in some way. And at the same time, it's a big time of uncertainty, of personal uncertainty for every employee at Microsoft, for every person around the world. What do you do then? How do you gather your team in a room and you have a conversation? Do you just let it flow? How does that change in terms of obviously you as a leader, but then again, in this idea from a strategy perspective, how do you give what the new direction? How do you introduce everyone to these new changes or new directions and strategies?


Ken Miller: Yeah, it's a great question. And I think that what I learned by going through coverage and also what I've learned in my career. Right. It's not just about getting people in a room and focusing on the business, I think the first thing we need to do actually takes an empathetic approach for one another. Right. One of the things that I learned is it's OK not to be OK. We don't have to wake up every day and feel positive, like, hey, we're going to go out. And, you know, when the world if you if you've got challenges, right, maybe you have kids at home, your parents are sick. Something has happened in your life. We've got to take an empathetic approach and take care of the people around us, give them the space that they need. Those people will always come back stronger and they're going to be even more loyal to you right. In the future. So I think that people first empathy having that empathetic approach. Right. I think it's also giving people confidence that things will be OK. Right. Because I know that if I've got a leader that is like, oh, my God, this sucks. This is horrible. I don't know what we're going to do. It just makes you feel like, OK, now we're I mean, I don't know what the strategy is. The person is leading us doesn't have a clear mindset. Right. So it's like you've got to have you provide focus and clarity. Right. That clarity is super important for the people that are around you. I also think, too, it's like, you know, caring for people, coaching people, letting them know that like there will be light at the end of the tunnel. We're going to get through this. You know, everything around us has challenges, right? Let's stay focused. Let's go through this together. We will get there. If we've got to change our strategy, we will. Fortunately, you know, working for Microsoft, it's been a great experience because this isn't a Microsoft commercial, by the way. But this is truly how I feel. Microsoft is a great company. Right. And great companies do great things for their people. You know, Microsoft will do whatever's right, whatever is right for people. Right. We went through a very challenging time with covid. Microsoft was very supportive. So remind people that all the time, like, look, we work for a great company. We can ask to be in a better place. We've got the support we need. We will get through this. I think that it's sending that message that, you know. Promotes or creates more confidence for the people around you, and again, self-care, empathetic approach, taking care of people, all of those things are super important.


Lucas Goransky: It's OK not to be OK. I I love that. I think it's a beautiful thing. And again, it's something that it's not that common. So that's super comforting. So thank you for that one. 


Ken Miller: I think that's also just part of being just, you know, encouraging people to be vulnerable. Right. To the extent that they want to be right. You don't have to show up every day with your game face on. Right. Because you have challenges. I have challenges. You might have kids at home and they're now in some classes. And it's just chaos in your household. It's OK to not be OK. Like, look, I had a super rough morning. I got to take the afternoon off. Right. And that actually brings people closer. It creates stronger connections. So we've actually also done a lot of work at Microsoft around just vulnerability. Right. And that leads you to point out that it's OK to not be OK.


Lucas Goransky: That's great. That's really good. Again, so moving on, one of the things that I did that I was really interested to learn from you is and going back to this idea of building strategy, is that one of the common mistakes or one of the common problems that people face when implementing strategy is that they sit together in a boardroom or is a team meeting. They put everything in a spreadsheet or in a PowerPoint. And then it's like everyone walks out the door. It's there where it should be. And then nothing happens. It just lives and dies in that spreadsheet. But it's not alive. It doesn't change. How do you guys manage that on a day to day basis? Do you do reviews? Do you think strategy is an everyday thing as it's business as usual or is it something that you allocate a certain time per day or week to discuss?


Ken Miller: It's a great question. And I think, you know, honestly, we've all been in meetings. Where you have a two-hour meeting with a partner, for example, you talk about all of these synergies, all of these great things, and then everyone high fives at the end of the meeting and then nothing ever happens, right? I think that's what you're getting at. And it's very common. Right. So what I've learned is that we've got to create accountability. Right. So let's just, for example, you and I are building a partnership, OK? And we're super excited about it. We high five, but after that, we create very specific metrics. OK, we're going to do a quarterly business review. Our goal is to create 50 new leads every quarter of those 50 new leads. We're going to close 20 of them. We're going to get our field teams together on a quarterly basis to review technology, business, elevator pitch, basic sales training. We then have to hold ourselves accountable for that. I would even take it to the next level and if we could get executive sponsorship of both companies. Right. So your boss's boss's boss and my boss's boss's boss. So there's a connection at the highest points of the company to drive accountability. Right. So we've created these core priorities. You and I have agreed that these are the metrics that drive success and then holding ourselves accountable to that and having enough trust between us where I could say, like, look, you know, you committed to meet with me on a monthly basis to go through these metrics. You missed the last two meetings. We're not going to be successful if we can't execute on our commitments. Right. So I think there's got to trust in that relationship as well. There's got to be the ability to get back to vulnerability. I've got to be willing to say that to you. Like, look, you know, you kind of let me down because, you know, we agree to do this. I had a meeting, you know, with our executive sponsor, and I had nothing to say because you and I miss his connection point. Right. If we're going to do this, we've got to do it right. So I think that it's setting out a very clear strategy. Right. Laying out very specific goals and metrics, holding ourselves accountable to them. And then again, getting that executive sponsorship to ensure that there's a good connection there.


Lucas Goransky: Accountability. Yeah. Yeah. I love it. I really love it. So we're getting to the end of this wonderful conversation. The last thing that I wanted to ask you is this idea of who decides on strategy. Obviously, as a leader, as a manager, as a VP, the higher up you are, the more decisions you have to make. But there's this idea of collective decision making. How do you feel about collective decision making and how open are you in your teams, not only internally, but obviously with your partnerships with startups to do something like that? Do you believe in hierarchies when you are in small boardrooms or in small meetings or is it more about who has the best idea and how can we back each other up and how can we get everyone on board in terms of building that strategy or executing it?


Ken Miller: Yes, I mean, I would say that it's like at a high level, right? When I say a lot to my team, when we're talking about just opportunities in general, less is more. I actually believe that. Right. I mean, I think that you know, it's great to have a lot of opinions and get a lot of people in a room, but sometimes that creates a lot of noise and confusion and it prevents you from actually making progress. Right. So I think that in a lot of cases, less is more getting back to how you execute a strategy. So Microsoft is a company, huge company with one hundred and fifty thousand employees worldwide or whatever. Right. We have a mission statement. OK, but the charter for the businesses that I run aligns with that mission statement. But it's not the same. Right. So how do we create a mission statement? How do we have a charter for our team that basically accrues to Microsoft all mission statements? I think that it's like getting clarity around what success looks like. One of the things that I say to people frequently is, you know, we're talking about planning or strategy or execution. If you were going to write your review 12 months from now, what would you want to say? What would you want to report is what success looks like, right? Ask yourself, what does success look like? You and I are going to have a meeting with a startup. OK, if this meeting goes well, what does success look like? We're going to get the next steps. We're going to go to the customer is going to commit to something, whatever it is, but set out a goal, right? Like, you know, we've got to have a vision of what success looks like and how we are doing accrues to success. I think that we've got to give people the ability to think on their own. People have to feel like they can bring new ideas forward. Someone once told me and I think about it all the time. It sounds funny, but it's true that you always hire people that are smarter than you, right? You can't be afraid to surround yourself with people that are subject matter experts. Right. Because, again, there are a lot of things that I don't know about the startup space, about private equity, about series ABCDE and all of these different funding mechanisms. Concept of ice packs, I'm not an expert on that, but if I hire people that are smarter than me in those areas, guess what? It accrues to the goodness of the team. It allows us to have a strategy and execute. So those are some examples. You know, hopefully, that shed some light. But I think it's all about having a growth mindset, as I've said a few times. Absolutely.


Lucas Goransky: Absolutely. Again, I appreciate so much this time that you have given us. I think we're already happy to have you here at the strategy fest today. And I think that kind of wraps it up. So unless you want to add a last-minute comment or if maybe you feel that something that I should have asked you and I didn't, this kind of brings it all together.


Ken Miller: No, listen, I really appreciate the opportunity. It's been fantastic working with you and your team. You know, an outstanding concept that you're executing on. I love the content of what you've shared and hopefully, look forward to participating in future events as well. So thank you for the opportunity. I really appreciate it.

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