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Reality Check: Microsoft's Barrie Sheers

As part of Idealog's Technology Month, we've picked the brains of some of the movers and shakers in the industry to find out their favourite tech-related things, their biggest fears for the future and what other companies and individuals inspire their work. Here's Microsoft New Zealand general manager Barrie Sheers.

What’s your favourite...

Technology you can’t live without?

BluOS, my wireless home music/entertainment App. Music wherever I am in the house. Truly awesome and makes singing in the shower more fun!

Underrated or old technology?

The fax? Kidding! Again, music… Big fan of vinyl. It’s cool again because it was beautifully designed, it works, music sounds incredible. It’s hard to improve on some technology.

New Zealand tech company or individual that’s doing seriously cool things?

Volpara is a great company making a massive difference in breast screening, they have developed very clever software that can measure the density of breast tissue, which can show whether a woman needs extra scans even if the doctor can’t see cancer in a mammogram. This is a homegrown Wellington-based company taking phenomenal technology to the world, marketing its software to 34 countries around the world. It may not be Snapchat but, nonetheless, it’s seriously cool.

Global tech company or individual in that space that’s doing seriously cool things? 

Elon Musk.

Tech project or product you’ve had a hand in?

There are two local projects I’m delighted to be involved with. Two very different projects which involved the same hardware – HoloLens – and show the true stretch and scope of technology.

We are using HoloLens to capture and re-tell some small part of the story of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. This is a lovely intersection of culture and cutting-edge innovation, of preserving important stories and re-telling them to new generations in a spectacular three-dimensional, interactive way.

I am also very proud of the work we did after the Christchurch earthquake where the HoloLens was used to reduce the ‘danger time’ that inspectors have to spent in buildings after the earthquake.


After the Kaikoura earthquake last November, Microsoft and our partner Datacom, plus a group of very talented students, all teamed up to develop an app to do the job better, to map a building faster than ever before, in order to detail the danger areas and get the inspector out in record time. That was a local project, and it really felt like a deeply practical use of technology. 

I’m very proud of these two pieces of work and I hope they both progress into greater things in the future.

Tech project or product that isn’t yours, but your envious of?

Elon Musk’s Hyperloops! We need a Hyperloop in Auckland to smash our gridlock!

What first drew you to this industry? 

Honestly… I was working in a pub in London and met a bunch of regulars who were dressed in nice suits and drove smart cars, who obviously earned more than a bartender. I asked them what they did and they told me they worked for EMC and data storage company. So I said, "How do I get a job there?" And the rest is history…

What do you enjoy the most about working in tech? 

Seeing how tech can enable people and organisations to achieve more and do cool stuff…

How would you describe New Zealand’s tech culture?

I have lived all over the world and everyday I think how incredibly lucky we are to live in such a beautiful country and also to have it populated by so many clever and innovative people.

What I love at the moment is how our primary industries – gumboot industries, as I call them– are becoming some of the most cutting-edge industries in the country. That mix of ancient farming techniques rubbing alongside cutting-edge technology is fascinating.

New Zealand has some gold standard examples of IoT on the farm. So instead of IoT just being your fridge telling your phone that you’re out of milk again, it is about a detector in the soil warning the water system that it needs moisture in the next ten minutes or the crop will be affected. The work being done by Schneider and Waterforce is phenomenal. This mix of farming methods and sharp tech is fundamental to our economy and so exciting.

Where does inspiration come from for you? 

Many sources: my family, my friends, my colleagues, and our CEO Satya Nadella.

Reality check

How has tech impacted on your work? How will it impact on it in the future?

It’s an enabler. I’m constantly learning new things and how to utilise technology to be more productive, better informed and enable my team, our customer and partners to achieve more.

What’s been the most concerning change that technology has made to human behaviour, in your experience? 

Idiots who endanger their lives and those of others by texting whilst driving!

How would you describe your relationship with technology? Do you think you’re addicted to any form of it? 

It’s funny actually… as soon as people learn that I work for Microsoft, some automatically assume I am a tech guru, and often ask for some tech support or advice. They are quickly disappointed! I love technology and what it can do and where it can take us. But there is a responsibility we all have to ensure that technology is used for good. For the right reasons, and not to the detriment of humans.

Do you think social media is a blessing or a curse?

In the main, it’s a blessing. Technology itself is neither bad nor rude, it’s merely mirroring society. Personally, I believe anything that connects humans is good, anything that gives us a little window into the world of other people is good, anything that encourages empathy is powerful. There are few things more important than understanding one other, and I believe that social media fosters and encourages that. There are also some pretty funny cat videos out there!

Do you think technology needs more laws surrounding it, or a form of resource consent regulation?

Regulation is a fundamental part of most industries and we encourage it. For instance, recently Microsoft joined the AI Forum in New Zealand and that allows us to sit with competitors and consultants and define how we see that technology evolving.

What needs to be done to tackle the diversity issue in tech?

Our industry is built on data, but the data of diversity tells a dismal tale. Even though one in three IT graduates are women, only 21 percent of IT employees are women. Beyond campaigns the hard fact is that to make an impact we need to do the hardest thing – change our thinking. This means interrogating our assumptions, from considering how to integrate technology into early education to being aware of our own unconscious bias. I love Dr Wayne Dyer’s maxim, ‘When you change the way you see the world you change the world you see.’

Diversity is not just a moral issue, it’s a business imperative. Few things are as powerful as a fresh perspective and diversity offers new points of view. More than ever before, technology is woven into the fabric of our existence, touching almost every race, age, gender, and nation. Following this thread of logic: the people creating, making and selling technology should reflect the users and consumers of that same technology. Ideas are the fuel of innovation and great ideas are born of diverse thinkers from all spectrums of life.

What worries you the most about technology?

The fact that my children like staring at their screens more than they like talking to me. No. Seriously… I’m an optimist, I believe the good outweighs the bad. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t work in tech. Again, for instance, doctors are using HoloLens to assist in remote surgeries, to get to patients in places where the specialist simply cannot be. Inspiring work.

What’s your scariest prediction for the future? Will the robots kill us all?

I’m don’t subscribe to the Killer Robots school of thought. We talk about AI as if it is some Terminator in the future, some abstract idea that we are all waiting for, when in fact AI is already here, all around us, already integrated so beautifully and seamlessly into our lives that we barely notice it.

We have just released a mind-blowing app that uses AI to assists people with visual impairments. This Seeing app helps describe the world for people with visual impairments. It’s a free App that began life as a hackathon idea.  
 

The app can see people and describe them, it can even describe the mood of the people around you, it can also scan and read out an entire menu for you. That is a life changing App for many visually impaired people. This is AI right now at its best improving people’s lives.

What will New Zealand look like as a country in 2037?

If we do the right things and learn from our mistakes and those of others, then… it will look as beautiful as ever and hopefully remain on the cutting edge of technology…a digital nation! We are a scrappy, hyper-innovative nation of go-getters. We are far enough away from the world to independently get on with great work, and then we are also connected enough to succeed on the world stage. We are nimble and brave enough to try things. I’m very hopeful for the future of New Zealand.