Vahé Torossian is the corporate vice president of the Worldwide Small and Midmarket Solutions and Partners (SMS&P) group at Microsoft. On a recent visit to the region he sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Executive in Beirut where he talked about how the company is adapting to regional events, and its role supporting small and medium sized businesses in the Middle Eastand North Africa.
You’ve come to the region at an exciting time in history. How has Microsoft reacted to what’s been happening here?
The way that we are looking at the situation today is [to see] what we can do from a business and an IT leadership perspective to help mitigate the [economic] impact and, whenever the economy recovers, help the small and medium enterprises [SMEs] and public sector to recover as fast as possible.
How many staff do you have in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt?
Over all in North Africa it’s about 200 people.
What were some of the projects Microsoft was pursuing in those countries?
Most of the times in these places they are sales marketing and services organizations… there are [a] few that are doing development or engineering types of jobs.
So the customers were mostly the government and government entities?
Yes, that’s right.
A lot of Western and multinational companies have done business with regimes that are known to be human rights abusers and who suppress democratic movements and political opposition. How would Microsoft, one of the largest corporations in the world, reconcile the ethics of working witha regime like that?
I think that Microsoft is very well known in the world in terms of affixing values and of course human rights protection, but we need to be clear that the role of a company like Microsoft is to stay at a level that it should be on, which is to say not engaging in any type of political consideration.
[We] are in countries where there are international rights to do business. Once you are there, if you have an organization in the country which is not respecting intellectual property, what you want to do is to help the government understand that if they establish [anti-piracy legislation] and then enforce it they can bring wealth to the country, increasing taxes and reducing the ‘brain drain.’ Most of the countries you are talking about have had years of talent moving out, especially the younger generation because nobody wants to stay in a country where you can’t protect an invention.
So it’s a business role…
It’s a business but also a citizenship role… We ask two things [of our] general managers anywhere in the world. One thing is, of course, that you run your operation, bring in a profit, develop your people, attract talent and so on, but there’s [another] component which is what you are contributing to the society. We always say 30 percent of your time as a general manager needs to be [spent on] what you are giving back to your country.
[It could be] based on education, giving free some software to a university, for schools, or educating people, helping them be aware of some of the risks found in some countries… or helping parents to be aware of what their kids can do on the Internet and how to protect them. After disasters, for example, we have always given free time [for employees] to be in the street, helping to reconstruct.
Today, I met with the municipality of Beirut and had the chance to share some of my experience of working with municipalities around the world and helping to fix some critical problems. We were talking about, for example, the parking situation, traffic, how to file a complaint on the internet, how to print a visa. All these things are part of a contribution to society but are not necessarily related to the business perspective. It’s about how we are lucky to be educated and how we can bring these things back to the society.
Most small and medium-sized businesses use the Internet. Here in Lebanon we’ve recently been ranked last place in the world out of 185 places in download speed and 184th in upload speed; does that limit the effectiveness of products that Microsoft could bring to the Lebanese market to help SMEs?
For sure, as cloud computing and online Internet services are increasing, the capacity of broadband is going to be critical. In this case [our role] is really to go to the government to explain that there is a huge opportunity to bring back talent and that the bottleneck is going to be inevitable, and what should be done with a telecommunications operator… to accelerate [closing] that gap.
Today people are using multiple devices — it’s not only the PC. You might have phones, tablets, or different types of formats. It is difficult to use these devices to accelerate the development of more opportunities [with poor] broadband, so that’s why in a country like Lebanon the broadband is going to be the bottle neck of expansion.
There are multiple ways to use technology when you observe the behaviors of citizens, and so you fix a problem, and most of these are SME applications. For example, I was mentioning this morning an example in Estonia where you have a concept of e-parking; you use your phone when you want to park your car. You park your car and put in your [license] number and there’s an application that will help you to pay; when the police come they can just check the terminal to see if you have paid to park or not.
How are you adopting your strategy in the MENA to compensate for recent events and the fact that we don’t actually know what is going to happen next with events progressing so rapidly?
We are reinforcing in the places where we are [already], and allocating resources to accelerate the growth and to compensate in the places where we might be behind.
There are still some businesses that are operating [in states hit by unrest] and they [still] have to consume [Microsoft product] licenses because they are still recruiting people, they are still invoicing, and for these ones we try to make sure they are all using genuine operating systems and genuine software, because the piracy rate is quite high in emerging markets; Lebanon is around 72-74 percent, which is quite high.
The technology business was really rocked when the Egyptian government completely shut down the Internet. How do you adapt to the fact that the system on which all your products are based could one day be completely shut down?
Usually we have highly secured lines and we have redundant lines that help us to recover very quickly from this type of [event]. When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia [in 2004], all the cables which were under the sea were destroyed but it took us just 48 hour to find new paths for the employees in Southeast Asia to reconnect to the Internet. Because of that we were able to allow the citizens to find their families and lost friends and so on.
If a country decides to close the Internet and protect its borders there is not much you can do. But experience shows that it’s never a long-term situation; it’s always fixed at some point of time. Today as a country you can’t close off the internet for too long; there will be a revolution!