Season 2 · Episode 11
Thriving Communities: How Diversity, Inclusion, and Resilience Drive Significant Impact with Microsoft’s COO of Cloud & AI
Charlotte Yarkoni, COO of Cloud and AI at Microsoft, started her career as an engineer and grew to a variety of leadership roles at companies like AT&T, VMware and EMC. Today, she shares how she's facilitating the customer journey across multiple products at Microsoft, the role diversity and inclusion play in creating thriving communities, and what horseback riding has taught her about leadership.
Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast featuring tech leaders from some of the world's largest enterprises and fastest growing startups, hosted by DataStax Chairman and CEO Chet Kapoor. Each episode follows a leader's journey to scaling a massive business while inspiring their teams. Join us to learn about the experiences that have shaped them, challenges they've overcome, and the advice they'd give to their younger selves.
Narrator: Charlotte Yarkoni, COO of Cloud and AI at Microsoft, started her career as an engineer and grew to a variety of leadership roles at companies like AT&T, VMware and EMC. Along the way, she had the opportunity to run her own business, which gave her an end-to-end view of how technology can be used to solve problems. Today, she shares how she's facilitating the customer journey across multiple products at Microsoft, the role diversity and inclusion play in creating thriving communities, and what horseback riding has taught her about leadership.
Chet: Charlotte, welcome to the podcast. It is so awesome to have you here.
Charlotte: Thank you for having me.
Chet: So you have worked at many large corporations: VMware, EMC, AT&T and IBM and so many more. And now you're focused on cloud and AI at Microsoft. Tell us a little bit about your journey.
Charlotte: Oh, as you note, my journey is quite broad. Thankfully I've had the privilege and the pleasure to work in a variety of different companies throughout my career, in a variety of different industries, and actually in a variety of different locations both within the US and outside of the US. With all of them having the common ground of being grounded in technology in terms of the role that I served for the company. I started out in my early career as an engineer. So I wrote code for a living, and I grew from there to a variety of leadership roles. And then actually about the midpoint in my career—at least at this phase—I was afforded the opportunity to go run my own business. Actually run a startup, if you will.
Charlotte: And that was a fantastic experience that kind of enabled me to move beyond just running, say, engineering-led groups into actually thinking about not just how to build great technology, but how do you monetize it? Who's going to buy it? How do you market it? What's your sales and distribution? How do you support it? How do you operate your business? How do you manage a P&L from a financial point of view?
Charlotte: And then from there I actually started to gravitate more towards roles that had that full end-to-end view of how technology was being used to solve a problem. In many cases, I was doing new things for a more mature company, like VMware, who was launching the industry's first open source platform-as-a-service set of tools that was called Cloud Foundry. And then moving into my role today at Microsoft, where I work in the Cloud and AI organization. And my role today is very much while I'm in a product team, and we're very functionally organized in Microsoft.
Charlotte: My role is to really think about the customer journey across multiple products, not just one product domain. So, today I try to answer three questions. One, how do people discover us? And that's people who may not necessarily be part of our ecosystem: developers and emerging technical community spaces, students that are just learning basic STEM capabilities and computational thinking to thinking about building a career in that space, young companies that have an idea and actually want to innovate where technology is their enabler, et cetera.
Charlotte: Once you've discovered us, then the next question I try to answer is how do you best engage with us in today's world. That's very much a self-service motion, which is meeting people wherever they are, not having them have to come to you. So I run a lot of our online assets– everything from some of our marketing websites, at a product level, to our commercial marketplaces to our open source learning and skilling platform, Microsoft WAN, et cetera. And then the final question I try to answer is after you've gone through that discovery and engagement, how do we just get easier to do business with? And that really is quite a large engineering effort for us across Microsoft, where we are transforming our transactor, our commerce platform across all our products and all our channels.
Chet: That must be hard doing these three things in a large company like Microsoft that's growing exceedingly fast.
Charlotte: When I came to Microsoft–and you mentioned some of the companies I've worked with before, several of which are large in, in their respective fields–but I was a little bit in all of the landscape that Microsoft covers. It's a global company with a global workforce and a global set of customers and partners. So you're not thinking about the world in one particular region. You're thinking about what serves all. And that's very reflective of how we all do business today. But doing that and thinking through what it means to be compliant in every single country, and thinking about all the different currencies you do business in and all of these nuances. It is quite complex in terms of all the channels we support and, on a product level, it's really fascinating because I spend a lot of time with each of the product groups. And when you think about infrastructure as a service, you can think about the top players. You can think about Azure or AWS or GCP or Alibaba.
Charlotte: In our world, we think about Teams versus tools like Zoom, or even tools like Slack. And then you think about business applications and you think about Dynamics versus Salesforce. In each one of these areas, there's a competitive field. But when you look at the full stack of Microsoft, including some of the fantastic developer capabilities we have, we are very grounded in developers, our visual studio capabilities, the great community that we interact with through GitHub, even low-code and no-code through our power platform. It's a massive landscape to cover. But the real power and impact you can have in working for a company like Microsoft is when you can bring the best of all of that together and actually create more value, right? For the people who use it in your world. And in our world, it's a global affair. So I get very excited when I talk about it. You can probably hear that in my voice.
Chet: As I used to say when I was at Google in my conversations, the problems are not planetary anymore. They are intergalactic, right? And so you're solving problems that are massive and getting the elephant to dance, or however you want to talk about it. If it dances, it is so beautiful. It's so satisfying. It's worth all the heartache that we go through.
Charlotte: That's right. When you have to think about these things at that type of scale, it feels like it takes longer. You definitely feel like you have to be more thoughtful. In some ways, you worry a little bit about your agility. But when you do something correctly and it has a positive impact, it can really impact a significant amount of the world. And that is very fulfilling to me. It is all about trying to have that positive impact. Right?
Chet: For sure. If you reflect on your years and your experiences, what came naturally to you?
Charlotte: It's a good question. And I think we kind of touched on it already. I love solving problems. This was a lesson I learned when I started college. I started out in a double major field: electrical engineering and computer science. And I remember I hated it. It was a very academic approach to technology. And I didn't have a lot of passion about it. I remember sitting in the four subfloor basement in the university I was going to, and writing a... I'm going to date myself here, but writing a video game in Lisp at the time, the programming technology. And I was like, "I hate this." And at the time I really loved statistics. I don't know what was wrong with me then, but that was what I got excited about– queuing theories, things of this nature.
Charlotte: And it wasn't until I graduated college and got my first job. I was helping a company build a program where they had been doing a set of work on Excel spreadsheets to figure out how to load their product on the back of tractor trailers and distribute it across the United States, without having to unload the truck every time to find the right piece of equipment to be offloaded at that destination. And it was a very simple problem. And it was a problem that actually was solved very, very quickly by technology. And something flipped in me there. I all of a sudden came to really appreciate the fact that technology was just such an enabler to solve a lot of the world's problems much better than it could be done manually. Then I all of a sudden had this great passion for technology and that's sort of where my career took me. But I think it goes back to just problem solving.
Charlotte: I get very excited about that. And obviously the bigger the problem, the more invested I get. The flip side of that, on a personal note, as I also grew up in sports and rode horses. I still ride horses today. I do not ride nearly as well as I did as a teenager. But that's part of the fulfillment I get out of. It is continuing to aspire to some of these goals in a sport that I have a pretty long history with. And I'm just naturally a competitive person. So if you like solving problems and you're naturally competitive, it's worked for me, for sure. I think these would be the two sort of attributes or natural modes of approach that I didn't have to work hard for. Of course, there've been many others I did have to work hard for, to kind of balance myself out throughout the years. And that's still an ongoing, continuing education for all of us, but certainly for me. But those would probably be the two call-outs that I would have.
Chet: And so what was hard?
Charlotte: A lot of it has been about appreciating the broader community and learning to steer as opposed to directly doing. And, again, just a life lesson for me. I remember one of my first jobs. I was still an engineer, and in my mind I was the best engineer in the world. I wrote amazing code, nobody could write as good of code as me. And my manager at the time actually put me in a team lead role... I think there were five or six people underneath me at that point.
Charlotte: And I was horrible at it. Like I micromanaged the heck out of everybody. I had to review everybody's code. I didn't trust that anybody was writing as good a code as I would've done. It was horrible. Like I think I was probably one of the worst people managers ever at that point in time. And I remember my manager pulled me aside at the time and said, "Charlotte, you are really missing the point here. Your job as a manager is to find the superpowers for everybody in your team around you and put those to use. And if you do that, a couple of things are going to happen. First and foremost, you're going to deliver something way better than you could have done on your own, guaranteed. And two, you are actually going to create more opportunity, most importantly not just for you, but for everybody around you. And so your job here is not to put yourself in everybody's critical path. All you're going to do is be a bottleneck. Your job is to actually find ways to make yourself unnecessary."
Charlotte: And it took me truly a few years to really digest that learning, but it's been a learning that I have gone back to repeatedly throughout my career. And now it's something that I really embrace. One of the biggest pieces of fulfillment out of any job I have today are the people I get to work with, the people I get to work around, the people I work for. And still having that competitive spirit, still being really just excited about solving the problem. But solving the problem with the collective is always a better answer. You'll always get a better answer than if you try to solve it individually. And as we talked about before, in today's world, that is absolutely the challenge at hand for us.
Chet: It's funny Charlotte, this thing about doing it with others and making sure that it's not about you. Very few people get it early. I think a lot of people accelerate and get it. But in the first five years, it's a really hard concept. And I think it's got to do with a little bit about how we're educated. And I think some of the education is based on what I call the industrial era. We don't learn the way we live. Have you found that to be the case as you mentor younger folks who are coming out of college to think differently?
Charlotte: It's a really good point. I do think the sense of community is more inherent and less called-out. As you're growing up, you kind of take it for granted. And you don't really appreciate it until you start actually understanding your role in the community and how you can help grow it. And that is absolutely a journey. I think the other piece of it is just kids today are... Well, I would say we're all a little stressed out after the last year, the kids in particular, they're very focused on how do they grow themselves? How can they get a career? How can they start establishing a paycheck and create their independence? They set goals for themselves.
Charlotte: And it is a very individual path that you map out. I was no different, right? When I got out of school, the immediate focus was: I've got bills to pay from college so I need to to get a job and pay for those bills. And I was pretty myopically focused on the economics of what kind of job I can get and how I can pay off my debts, and things of that nature. It was a very individual journey. And as I've gone through my career, it has become much less individually focused to how do I actually become a member of this community to how can I help this community to how can I help broader communities?
Charlotte: I think a lot of that is probably true regardless of what industry you're in, but certainly in technology where we do focus a lot on names and brands and trends. These tend to be things that you associate individuals for. We all aspire to be part of that perpetual transformation that technology represents. But I think the biggest area of impact anyone can have is not just making a name for themselves, but actually creating a community that sustains and thrives well beyond them. It's a hard lesson to learn. I do agree that culturally, we don't really teach ourselves that way. It's certainly not in today's age.
Chet: We've talked about diversity. I know you've been very focused on it. It is hard. Inclusion is even harder. What would be a couple of tips and tricks that you would tell our viewers that you've used to increase diversity and inclusion?
Charlotte: Yeah. We spend a lot of time on this at Microsoft. I have really enjoyed working for Microsoft. Our thought leadership starts at the top, as it does pretty much with every company in my mind. And it's wonderful to see a leader that shares the values that you have. I think our CEO, Satya Nadella, has spent a lot of time in both external and internal forums talking about the importance of diversity and inclusion for the company. And he absolutely walks the walk. And that has kind of set the tone for us. For me, I kind of start with the definition. First off, I think they go together. I don't think you can be diverse and not inclusive, and I don't think you can be inclusive and not diverse. They're very much commingled terms.
Charlotte: And really when I think about it from a work sense, it goes back to what we've already talked about. If you want to build great products and services, you need to have people that represent the community that uses those products and services building those products and services. So you have to build teams that represent the communities you serve. Our world is a global world. We have to think about every region of the world. We have to think about every gender in the world. We have to think about every experience, and all these different dimensions. You really need to embrace that mindset to have diversity and inclusion be part of your core team values.
Charlotte: That's something that I spend a lot of time on. If we want to actually serve the communities that we're responsible for and that we shepherd the best, we have to have teams that represent those communities. That's the way we're going to actually build a product that is meaningful for everyone, not just a subset. And we think about it all the way back through how we think about recruiting, for example. And we use what we call a "screening in" process, not screening out.
Charlotte: I remember when I was interviewing for jobs early in my career, you were expected to have a certain level of competency and qualification. And then you went through days of interrogation, if you will, about what you know, what you don't know, and are you the right fit? Do your competencies match this job? I think if you kind of flip that on its head and look at each candidate with more of a mindset of, "Hey, could this person be successful here?" What skills and experiences do they have that we need? Do they share the passion for our company's mission? Which is absolutely about empowering every person on the planet to achieve more, which is diverse and inclusive in its own sort of definition.
Charlotte: And so if you take the approach of how do we succeed together as opposed to the process of elimination, that's one way that we've tried to weave it in. Even to how we think about increasing our team size or hiring new talent, what have you. And then there's been some great programs that we've done across the company and a variety of different focus areas to find people, if you're transitioning from military to civilian. Or, for example, we have an autism hiring program. So, you know, how do we tailor some of this to actually find those communities that we wouldn't necessarily find in a traditional sense? But I think it all starts with your mindset and how you think about diversity and inclusion. If you start there and ground yourself with what does that mean to you? And what's the core value that you're trying to represent? You can build all these motions in a way that actually gets you where you're trying to go.
Chet: I couldn't agree with you more. By the way, I love the idea of "screening in." That's just a great concept. I think the listeners would love that. One of the things I talk about with diversity and inclusion is exactly this: make it personal. You have to internalize it and then you have to externalize it, not the other way around. Otherwise, you will just try to check boxes and it won't come naturally. It needs to become part of the way you think. And that's exactly what you said. That was great. I'm going to go through some rapid fire questions. What new technology are you most excited about?
Charlotte: This is very top of mind, I think for all of us these days. The science of vaccines, and particularly like the coronavirus vaccine. And just being educated on that in mass media over the last several months. The fact that we were able to bring that to market much faster than typical vaccines. The technology that was used behind it. One of the main reasons that that started being under development in the first place was sort of pre-pandemic, but it was focused on curing cancer. It's such an amazing technological advancement. I've been really impressed with how science evolved in response to the global crisis that we've all felt in various ways across the regions. That to me has probably been the most top of mind new technology that I've learned about. And I also think it's just extremely relevant for everybody on the planet right now. We talked a little bit about impact, and that's one that's having massive impact where it's getting rolled out.
Chet: What are you reading or listening to right now?
Charlotte: I read a variety of different things, but my good standby is the book Humans by Brandon Stanton. I started reading his original work when it was... I think Humans of New York was the first one that I read. I love the short stories. They've been very poignant for me, particularly during the pandemic where you can't go to any of these places and meet these people on your own.
Chet: If you can have a dinner party with just three people, who's on your invitee list?
Charlotte: Genghis Khan, Winston Churchill, and Amelia Earhart.
Chet: That's a great list. One word or phrase that defines a great leader.
Chet: You said you loved horses. You and I have talked about your love for horses. Do you think it has impacted the way you've approached leadership?
Charlotte: Absolutely. I think it's a constant act of humility for me. Anybody who interacts with horses or animals in general, you can ask a horse to do something... The famous saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." You can't make them do it. You have to build a relationship with them. And it really is all about trust. And I do actually think that's one of the core tenants of a great team. There is an inherent level of trust in each other to do what needs to be done. So, that's probably an immediate answer I would give to that. There's several other aspects of learning I could apply, but that one probably stands out the most.
Chet: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
Charlotte: Keep going. It probably translates differently to different folks, depending on what phase of the journey they're in. If you're young and worried about taking a step in a different direction than what you had planned for yourself, do it. If you're at a different stage of life and you've had multiple repeated setbacks for whatever reason, keep going. The one thing that when I reflect on my career, I do talk about this a good bit... I think resilience is one of the most understated virtues that we have as humans. And it's an amazing thing. I've spoken about the pandemic a few times, but that's a great example of just how resilient we have been as a common and global society. People are amazingly resilient, no matter who you are and what you are. You have the ability to overcome.
Charlotte: You have the ability to move in different directions. And so that would be my advice: embrace your resilience, and don't be afraid to try new things. I was very fortunate. I would not give any success attributed to me by any grand design. I think it was a lot of luck, which is awesome. But it was also being open to the opportunities that came my way. And when things didn’t work out, I took the opportunity to learn from them. And then go do the next thing. And just embrace that resilience that life brings at you with all the adversity. Life is full of adversity, but resilience makes you so much better of a person
Chet: That is awesome advice. I think we can all look at our careers and say, whenever you feel you're in a situation where you failed or succeeded, make sure you just quickly take the next step. It doesn't matter whether you've succeeded or failed. Just make sure you keep moving and keep doing things, because that's how you keep the momentum of your personal life and your career. Is that fair?
Charlotte: That's right. That's how you keep growing. And it's all about growing.
Chet: Charlotte, this has been awesome. Like every other conversation I have with you. Deeply appreciate you joining us for the podcast. Thank you.
Charlotte: Thank you, Chet.
Narrator: Technology can solve many of the world's problems. If you want to deliver meaningful products and services, you have to build teams that represent the communities you serve. As a manager, your job is to find your team's superpowers and create opportunities for everyone to succeed together. Great leadership is all about trust, authenticity, and resilience. In Charlotte's words, "you have the ability to overcome anything."
Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and amazing stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new episode is released. And for Apple Podcast listeners, please rate and review the show to help give it a wider reach to listeners such as yourself. Feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.