by Paul Rubens

Meet a tech industry pioneer who leads by example

May 05, 20157 mins
CIOIT LeadershipIT Skills

Microsoft’s Vice President of IT Strategic Enterprise Services Jacky Wright is more than her title suggests -- so much more.

Picture Microsoft’s vice president of IT Strategic Enterprise Services and you might imagine a slightly stressed, middle-aged guy in a suit who looks a little like Steve Ballmer.

But Jacky Wright doesn’t match this stereotype by a long shot: she’s a woman of color from North London, and she talks about her senior technical role at Microsoft with quiet authority. If there’s any stress, it’s certainly not discernible in her not-quite-cockney London accent.

So what exactly is the role of the vice president of Strategic Enterprise Services at Microsoft? It turns out it is something like the CIO position — but it’s not quite as simple as that. “I am not the overall CIO, but I do have a great portion of the CIO role,” explains Wright.

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Part of this role involves working with Microsoft’s product teams, helping them to develop a product strategy and understand what needs to be added to a product to make it enterprise ready. It also involves testing these products to get them ready for general release more quickly.

“My primary role is to ensure that our products are fit for purpose, and meet current and future needs,” she says. “I have worked on Office 365, Power BI, System Center, Azure — anything outside the gaming division.”

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Much of the testing is done by Microsoft staff in their day-to-day work. “We work with the product team by dogfooding,” Wright explains. (Dogfooding refers to the practice of implementing a product internally before it is released — as a show of confidence in the product, but also as a way of discovering any shortcomings or hard-to-find bugs or usability issues.)

jacky wright 2 Courtesy of Microsoft

Microsoft’s Jacky Wright: “My primary role is to ensure that our products are fit for purpose, and meet current and future needs,” she says. “I have worked on Office 365, Power BI, System Center, Azure — anything outside the gaming division”

“That makes it different to a company that provides services at a mature level,” Wright points out. “We also have to work out how to deploy something at scale while it is still in beta, and test it in an agile way — we mustn’t bring down the business.”

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Working with such a wide variety of products — from cloud-based end-user productivity suites like Office 365 to data center management systems like System Center — requires a level of expertise across an extraordinarily wide area of operations. So what does Wright do to keep up with the latest developments?

The answer is that she does a bewildering variety of things. “I work with our technology teams to identify what enterprises need, and I also read a lot — both about technology and also things that are not necessarily technology-related,” she says.

Wright also takes networking seriously. “Every company is going to be a technology company, so by bringing them together you can understand their needs and emerging trends. I sit on the DEMO CIO Council, which looks at startups and the leading trends in startups.”

And finally, she feels it’s important to stay in touch with the cutting edge. “I like to connect with millennials and find out how they think,” she says. “If you look at the average age of startups, they are not the same age as Jacky, so I need to do this to remain relevant.”

How a young girl from North London ends up at Microsoft in Seattle

Microsoft’s campus in Seattle is a long way from England’s capital, which begs a simple question: how did she get into the IT business and end up at one of the biggest tech companies in the world? “For a young girl in North London, the chance to be exposed to technology wasn’t there,” says Wright. “But I was always quite competitive — captain of the netball team, in the track and field team — and that competitiveness played a part in my ambitions,” she says.

“I also had a forte for maths, and that played into sciences and mathematics, and along the way I became more interested in technology. That drive helped me to achieve.”

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Was this achievement made harder by being a woman and a minority? Wright seems ambivalent about this. “Ever since I have been involved with technology there have been very few women, and slim to none black women. So it took a long time to overcome unconscious biases and for people to feel comfortable with me,” she says.

“But there’s also a surprise factor: ‘a woman, and a woman of color, and she has delivered fantastic things!’ That has helped me, and also helped other people understand that people who don’t look like them can deliver. So I am a pioneer.”

Does she feel that this is a burden — that as a pioneer her success or failure will shape the attitudes of many people towards women, and black women in particular, in IT? “No, it’s not a burden,” she replies. “When you are a pioneer then all eyes are on you, so it is a responsibility you bear. You have to take that responsibility.”

Wright’s work/life ‘integration’ theory

Wright is a big believer in mentoring thanks to her own positive experiences with mentors. “When I got my first job I technology, I had a mentor who helped me navigate the IT culture, warned me about some of the pitfalls, and pointed me at the leaders I needed relationships with. That helped me greatly,” she says. “So I do think that people like me should mentor others, and show people how to achieve.”

She also has a keen desire to address social issues, using her position in the industry to right inequalities of opportunity when she can. “When I think of the lack of opportunities for underrepresented people, I think it is incumbent on people like myself to push to ensure they have the right opportunities in technology,” she says. “So I think ‘How can I utilize my influence to help an agenda such as this?’

To that end she sits on the board of Year Up, an organization that helps young adults complete college and get employment opportunities and internships at places like Microsoft. She also sits on the Women’s Innovation Council, which strives to change education policy to make science, technology, engineering and math more attractive to girls.

“Folks have to be aware of technology and try it out. So for females, persons of color, young people, it’s about providing opportunities,” Wright says.

When you consider her workload at Microsoft, and the additional demands on her from the various councils she sits on, how does she manage a work/life balance? “I would describe it more as work/life integration,” says Wright. “I try and integrate the two, and spend more time on work when I need to, and relax when I need to. Work is important but it doesn’t define me.”

And so to the final question: What drives her to do all of this. How does she hold a top job at Microsoft, volunteering her time on various councils — and being a mother as well?

Her answer is disarmingly simple. “That’s who Jacky is.”