Michelle Simmons is the General Manager of Microsoft’s Multi-Country* subsidiary, consisting of 24 Central and Eastern European countries, including Croatia. She has been with Microsoft for more than 20 years and has significant industry knowledge and experience. During her career, she has held numerous positions throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and the United States. Michelle has been responsible for initiating strategic growth in multiple markets, as well as building relationships with partners and customers.
You are leading a region with 24 countries. Even though they are markets in development, what’s it like to run the business in this multi-country environment? What are the main challenges?
Multi-country is a very diversified region, its beauty deriving from differences – multiple languages, distinctive cultures, and impressive history. It is a large region with a population of almost 200 million people, from Estonia with 1,2 million to Ukraine with a population of more than 44 million. The main challenge being various levels of business maturity, so our approach must be tailored to the specifics of each country – customers’ needs in the industry are usually standard. Still, the type of solution and its implementation progress depend on many factors, like infrastructure, legislation, partners, and readiness to embrace innovation.
What is the position of Croatia in that region? How is the Croatian market developing and what are the main trends?
Croatia is a fast-paced, evolving market with digitalization ongoing in many areas. There, we have a strong ecosystem of partners with which we’re developing numerous projects that help to accelerate the digital transformation of society. For example, the Neostar platform, with the end-to-end process, combining financial institutions’ services, providing an experience of buying a car from the comfort of your home in a secure and safe way, makes a notable example of successful transformation in the automotive industry. Rimac is also revolutionizing the global automotive sector powered by technology. If we are talking about trends – Croatia has a very active startup scene – with great foreign investments in Croatian startups. It is worth mentioning that M12, Microsoft’s Venture Capital fund invested 9,3mil USD in Croatian startup Memgraph in the autumn of 2021. Building on that, our prediction is that by 2025, Croatia could employ 127.000 new ICT roles, so the importance of skilling for those roles is essential. Looking ahead, global trends are showing an increasing number of people working remotely. Croatia is in an excellent position to take more advantage of this opportunity and become a Digital Nomads hub.
The multi-country region you lead is often mentioned as the region with the source of tech talents. How can it become an even stronger digital hub, not only talent pool but innovation pool as well?
The region has very strong technical talent and innovative potential – we recognized this and have two development centers in the region – Estonia and Serbia employing around 900 experts. Innovation thrives when not constrained by things like lack of tech knowledge, existential issues, or inadequate legislation. To become a true global Digital Hub, the region should build on its advantages, adopt new technologies faster, upskill tech talents, and adjust legislation to accelerate digitalization. Within our skilling initiative, Croats have free opportunity to gain digital skills needed for the most-demanded jobs today, like IT administrator or software developer. In the last two years, free online learning opportunities were used by more than 36.000 people, while learning was supported by Algebra that offered webinars in local language College in additional support to learners. We cooperate with numerous faculties across Croatia, in Dubrovnik, Varaždin, Rijeka, Zagreb, and Opatija, to bring free learning opportunities and future career boost to their students.
What are your main principles in building relations with partners and customers?
Our path to success is made of our ability to meet people and organizations where they are, with what they want and need. Microsoft has been present in Croatia for 25 years, and together with our partner ecosystem, we provide value to customers by delivering innovative solutions and services to businesses and the local economy. Technology should be a force for global good, and we’re intentional about recognizing partner organizations and technology that is inclusive, trusted, and that enables a more sustainable and equitable future. We continue to support the local community and are focused on investing in skilling, starting from our employees and extending our impact to wider society.
Talking about the digitalization of the country, what are Croatian most successful areas, and what are the ones that need improvement?
With Digital Future Index, we have a snapshot of the level of digitalization in 16 European countries, including Croatia. If Croatian companies invest more in the Cloud and advanced digital technologies like AI, that will further accelerate digital transformation. Digital Government and Public Sector – existing digital services are used to a large extent, but the key opportunity lies in digitizing more public services. In the Digital Infrastructure sphere, Croatia should improve connectivity to encourage more people to become active digital citizens. Croatia has excellent results in the field of talent and skills, which have strong correlations in all segments in terms of innovation, productivity, and wages. The level of digital skills among young people aged 16 to 29 is 48% above the CEE level. Digitalization of public services, embracing digital transformation by the SMBs, and digital skills upgrade – these top three priorities can speed up Croatian digital growth and accelerate the economy.
Today, Cloud is business as usual. What is the next mile for business in Cloud? What do users want?
As companies’ experience shifted to remote work, there were increasing demands for efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Cloud plays a central role in solving these complex business needs and helping customers digitally transform. Following trends, challenges, and opportunities in different industries such as health, retail, and finance, we bring the best out of our products and solutions jointly with independent software vendors through our industry cloud per specific industry. Given the importance of sustainability, no matter the industry, we support our customers with technology tools to accelerate their sustainability progress (analytics, reporting, monitoring, insights on how to manage environmental footprint). A huge opportunity for the business community in Croatia lies in investments in digital infrastructure. The European Union’s Recovery and resilience facility provides resources for digital transition so the community should explore all the options on how to use them.
Hybrid work and remote work are the norm today. Employees prefer that, but how can companies benefit from this way of working?
As we figure out how we manage our return to the office and how we can leverage learning from the past two years, we’ve explored trends in the labor market with the Work Trend Index research. It shows that flexibility is the key – enabling employees to choose when and when they work brings much better productivity. Also, employees now have a new “worth it” equation and prioritize their well-being. Managers feel wedged between leadership and employee expectations, and there is a need to design workplaces with enough flexibility to support every employee. To add, the study has shown that flexible work doesn’t have to mean “always on” and that creating networks outside of the immediate team contributes to creativity and innovations. The new way of working puts an emphasis on the need to balance our productivity and well-being. We are creating solutions to make things happen – for example, Microsoft Viva, an employee experience platform, provides recommendations to enable us to plan our productive hours better, but also to focus on rest and enjoy private time.
Cybersecurity is a priority for companies today; the highlight is resilience nowadays. How can companies achieve that?
We live in turbulent times, and the world is facing many changes. Security has always been an important topic, but now it has become a priority for companies and organizations. Those who persevere on the road to digital transformation will be more resilient than those who do not. Cybersecurity and resilience approach the problem differently – while security tries to prevent the problem before it happens or to manage the one that has already happened, resilience comes from a different perspective. It answers the question of how to recover from the problem, and the question is how to continue your operations. New ways of thinking should be embraced to build cyber security and cyber resilience that will enable organizations to detect and prevent threats. It is not just how we protect but also how we recover. That comprehensive approach asks for the help of the organizations that have additional capabilities, the right tools, and expertise.
How is Microsoft adapting to global changes? What new things do you offer to partners, customers, and employees?
We are now at a place where every organization needs to be a digital organization, and every nation will become a digital nation. In this era, digital technology will be the key input that powers the world’s economic output. The world now stands at the crossroads of momentous change: geopolitical, economic, social, and technological. This places us at a historic intersection where tremendous opportunity is matched by an equally great responsibility towards the world around us. The Cloud must be an engine for inclusive economic prosperity. It should drive economic growth in every country where it operates. As a cloud provider with a leading global presence, we know that we must continually earn the trust and confidence of those we serve.
*Multi-Country is a subsidiary within Central and Eastern Europe, including 24 countries: Armenia, Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.