Microsoft’s Michael D. Robinson: helmsman for the world’s IT giant
He’s in charge of Microsoft’s ops in seventy-nine countries in the Middle East and Africa for education, healthcare, government and defense
From his professional IT work in Dubai in the UAE to his private venture to build a school in Cameroon in Central Africa, it’s Michael D. Robinson’s personal mission to improve the world around him.
Robinson is a general manager for Microsoft Corp (Redmond, WA). He’s in charge of the company’s operations in seventy-nine countries in the Middle East and Africa, an area that’s home to a total of some 1.5 billion people.
Thirty years in technology prepared him for this top job at Microsoft, Robinson notes. He’s used his skills to build businesses and work out solutions to complex problems.
Work with governments
Robinson oversees the work that Microsoft does with governments in his region. His “partnership for technology access” team of ninety Microsoft employees works in four areas: education, healthcare, government and defense. He’s held this complex job since July 2007.
“Some of the things we’re engaged in are mind-boggling, especially where some of these governments are still in the process of first adopting technology,” Robinson says.
For example, the team came up with a plan to help Senegal in western Africa. Once-ubiquitous telephone centers were quickly being made obsolete by the spread of mobile phones. The team is working to morph them into Internet-connected government technology centers, where people can do everything from registering for a birth certificate to obtaining a business license without traveling to the capital.
Every day is a challenge
Most of his team members are in their thirties, single and flexible, he notes. Robinson himself is a grandfather, divorced and free to go globetrotting. He loves the diversity his job provides in terms of geographic locations and the people he works with.
“My area includes both the richest and the poorest countries in world, and ninety percent of the conflict in the world is in my area,” he says. “We have every religion, every shade of political leanings, environmental issues from oil to agriculture, powder kegs like Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan. You name it, every day is a new challenge.”
Robinson recently attended a series of workshops in Uganda, where participants worked on stimulating software use, incubating local software businesses and building applications on a mobile platform. “In a case like this Microsoft’s involvement is very basic.
“The local businesspeople use our technology to understand what the price of coffee is and what they can get for their crop in the city. These are banking and mobility apps, a big step forward where technology was never present before,” Robinson explains.
Robinson’s team executes plans in multiple dimensions, including public/private partnerships and partnerships with funding organizations. Robinson himself may be working with government ministers or a crown prince, depending on the country.
Language barriers haven’t been of huge concern to Robinson. He likes his base in Dubai because “it’s very expatriot friendly,” and English is the primary language, although he’s working to learn French and Arabic.
Who could have dreamed that the young Robinson would someday be a helmsman of the world’s IT giant? He grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City. His father was an exterminator, his mother a phone operator.
Robinson quit high school before graduation but later finished up with night classes. He got a job as a repairman at the New York Telephone Co, then left to join the Marines. He served and learned with a communications unit for three years but never really liked the military: the environment was too structured.
When he left the Marines in 1976 Robinson used the GI Bill to attend Manhattan College (New York City), majoring in EE while working fulltime at the phone company. For fifteen years he continued to amass responsibilities at the phone company, moving into data processing in the late 1970s and working in programming.
In 1989 he left the telco to move to Atlanta, where he and several partners launched Robinson-Cole and Associates, an IT consulting firm. He left there to become managing director of services for KnowledgeWare (Atlanta, GA, now Sterling Software). He worked in the application management group, consulting for Fortune 500 companies.
Consulting at Hitatchi
In 1991 Robinson joined Hitatchi Ltd (Tokyo, Japan). He had been working on a Y2K plan for Sterling, and “Hitatchi approached me about its own newly minted Y2K practice,” he explains. There were already four or five people in the practice. “It was an interesting time, coming up on the mid-90s,” Robinson reflects.
Hitatchi was a major computer presence, competing with IBM on mainframes and storage, and wanted to move into services as well. As VP for professional services, Robinson started in the Southeast and expanded throughout the country.
He and his boss, Jim Glueck, envisioned a high-value consulting practice to handle systems integration and custom application development. In 1998 Hitatchi agreed to launch them as a new subsidiary, Hitatchi Data Systems Solutions Group. The business was up and running early in 1999.
Meanwhile Robinson finished his BS from National-Louis University (Wheeling, IL) and began his 2000 MBA with a concentration in finance at Pace University (New York, NY).
Networking into Microsoft
The dot-com bust made the new Hitachi group’s success problematical. Robinson moved on in mid-2000, starting a search firm with a friend.
Then his professional networking paid off. He’d been a member of the IT Senior Management Forum (ITSMF, www.itsmfonline.org) for several years. Through ITSMF, he met some senior Microsoft people who wanted him to join their firm. He was offered a job running Microsoft’s services organization in Washington, DC.
General manager and more
Robinson had hoped to come into Microsoft as a general manager, but it was agreed that he should first prove himself with the company. In mid 2004, after a couple of years in Washington, Robinson moved to a GM position in New York City.
Meanwhile, he’d been part of Microsoft’s executive development program, working with an executive coach. “One of the things that came out of the process was my request to do something on the continent of Africa. It had always been in the back of my mind,” he says. A series of in-depth discussions with Ali Faramawy, Microsoft’s VP for the Middle East and Africa, led to his current job.
The new umbrella
“This was a new umbrella organization to bring it all together, all the public sector leads,” Robinson says.
He notes that he’s a “big evangelist for ex-pat assignments.” He’s looking for people to join him overseas, particularly African Americans, “because we are viewed differently in the world.”
Robinson is particularly excited about his private project to build a school in Cameroon, selected because he has traced his ancestral roots to that country. The project is still in the concept stage, and Robinson hopes that Microsoft will agree to match the funds he puts up personally.
“The local people need that school, and I equate the help I can give there with the reasons I came to the region. I would like to leave a legacy,” he says.
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