Didier Ongena (Microsoft): “Technology should not be a geek affair”

HAS the head of Microsoft in Belgium and Luxembourg Since 2018, Didier Ongena has intended more than ever to position his company as a “partner”. Partner of its customers to manage major challenges such as climate transition, data exploitation or artificial intelligence, for example, but also an active partner in terms of training and raising the awareness of many audiences.

Didier Ongena.

When you hear “training”, what do you think of?

A major factor in the evolution of society. At Microsoft, training is above all a state of mind: telling yourself that you are curious, that you want to learn, to acquire new knowledge. This is all the more important in a technological environment where change is permanent and tends to accelerate. Overall, however, the signals are not as encouraging as they could be. Many people still see change as a source of anxiety and therefore have a somewhat too mitigated apprehension of “life long learning”.

In the IT field, the needs are enormous, but are not met…

When we talk about IT skills, we must distinguish between the specialists who are used in our industry (in data management, network architecture, etc.) and all those professions for which the technological intensity is increasing. Like many, I plead for these skills to be considered cross-curricular, like French or mathematics, and therefore to be taught very early in the course.

Education is one thing, attractiveness another.

In this respect, we must also work much more upstream. Around the age of 12, children are already starting to think about what they want to do later. This is why we invite them, for example, to discover technologies in a fun way, in partnership with Brussels Airport. Before the pandemic, we had more than 10,000 visitors, including girls, of course. We have also Minecraft Education Academy, which allows you to immerse yourself in writing codes. What is important is to break the a priori, to avoid reserving the mastery of technology only to geeks. On the contrary: technology should not be a geek affair…

Since we have not chosen this sector, we are therefore not “lost” for this one?

Certainly not ! Many people can become enthusiastic much later: we are also working on this, in partnership with Becode Where MolenGeek, for example. We also recently launched, with Proximus and PwC among others, the “Become Digital” tool, which allows everyone to position themselves in relation to the development of their skills in the future: either we want to anticipate the way in which technology will modify its profession and prepare for it; or you want to change careers and know the skills you should acquire to practice a new profession. This obviously affects a very large number of people: the work of nurses, to take just one example, will be supported even more by technology in the future.

An example ?

The use of artificial intelligence (AI – Ed) will allow nursing staff to focus much more on their core business, dialogue and patient care, by delegating to technology various tasks that divert them today. today. The direct transfer of a dosage to the hospital pharmacy on the basis of the conversation with the patient, rather than spending time having to encode the thing again, for example, is looming before us. But to take full advantage of what AI can bring, it is better not to be afraid of it but, on the contrary, to learn to master it, in order to get the best out of it and continue to enrich the way in which you do your job.

For a company like yours, which delivers such solutions, is training a crucial tool?

If we have been very active, for a long time, in the field of training, it is indeed because we are convinced that innovation should, in the end, make it possible to simplify. Technology should not be a hindrance but, on the contrary, a vector which, if well mastered, makes it possible to generate more value in the exercise of one’s profession. We try to share this vision.

More generally, when we see the way in which the United States dominates the IT universe, can we not only regret that Europe has missed out?

I share the diagnosis, but I prefer to look to new opportunities: you have to focus on the future, not on the races that have already been run. In this regard, there are new starting lines looming. The exploitation of data is one of them, which is of capital importance and of which we are only at the beginning. We are talking here about a major paradigm shift, which will upset our economies: we will have to reinvent ourselves, think about how we can exploit this data in order to make our economies more competitive. You should know that 90% of data is not of personal origin but is created by machines, algorithms and production processes. The way we will invent new drugs, on this basis, will be revolutionized. Combine this exploitation of data with artificial intelligence, and a new world is emerging before us.

Are the various recovery plans post-covid or linked to the climate transition sufficiently focused on the digital transition?

We do a lot of catching up, but it is essential. The digitization of justice, for example, we have been talking about for almost twenty years… Besides that, we absolutely must not underestimate the IT dimension of the climate transition. The management of new electricity networks, which will be much more flexible depending on the vagaries of green energy production, in particular, but also because of the development of electric mobility, will require a great deal of IT skills.

If I want to work on electricity networks, should I apply to Elia or to Microsoft?

I want to say: it doesn’t matter, because we are increasingly involved in co-engineering processes with our customers. If you want to work on the climate transition, you can therefore do it just as well with them as with Microsoft. We still have the image of product suppliers, and this is normal since we have been known to the general public through Windows or Office for forty years, but in reality, it is essentially co-innovation that we are doing today . One of my objectives is to work on this change in our image as an employer. We are evolving in Belgium towards a workforce of 400 people and are currently recruiting 60 employees, many of whom will be assigned to this co-creation – “cloud architects” and “customer engineers”, in particular.

Due to recent developments, this new balance to be found between “face-to-face” and “remote” also requires training. Your opinion ?

We introduced flexible working at Microsoft over fifteen years ago, so we have a story to share. The change is actually less technological than managerial and cultural, as many employers and employees have seen in the wake of the pandemic. After the observation by the employers that this flexibility which they were reluctant to grant was not detrimental to productivity, and after the discovery by the collaborators of the benefits of reconciling freedom and efficiency, questions arose about the “good balance” to to find. 100% distanciel is not manageable, and is moreover not desired by employees: the coffee machine, to sum up the point, remains very important, not only for conviviality but also for informal conversations, even creativity. What is important is to set guidelines (objectives, schedules, meetings, etc.), but also not to go too far or too quickly in the regulations: each organization must give itself the time to ‘learning.

Do you understand the people who, today, see less the benefits of technology than the fears it arouses?

Of course, and this is at the heart of our thinking, as evidenced for example by the success of the book Tools and Weapons written by our President, Brad Smith. What is at stake is not so much the technology as such as the use we make of it. The question of meaning, of ethics, is fundamental, and this is the reason why, at Microsoft, we are rather in favor of a framework for the development of technology by the public authorities. So there are risks, it’s true, and they must be rigorously analyzed and controlled, but let’s not forget all that technology brings us on a daily basis, including for people who have problems with inclusion: finding themselves in front of a payment terminal, today, can be experienced as hell by some, while the “text to speach” technology, for example, allows a person who is totally reluctant to technology to be taken by the hand. Basically, therefore, I rather see in technology the promise of positive developments…

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