by Shane O'Neill

Microsoft’s Tony Scott: Tips for Work and Life as a CIO

Jun 03, 2010
CIOIT LeadershipMentoring

Microsoft CIO Tony Scott sat down at Redmond headquarters with's Shane O'Neill to chat about the CIO's evolving role, how quitting smoking made him a better CIO, and other intriguing topics on life in high tech.

As Microsoft CIO, Tony Scott oversees the software giant’s security, infrastructure, and messaging and business applications, and helps support the product and corporate business groups as well as Redmond’s global sales and marketing organization.

So you know, it’s kind of an important job.

But even though he is in charge of the technology for one of the world’s largest and most complex companies, Scott, who was previously CIO of Walt Disney Co. and CTO at General Motors, still has the same day-to-day challenges as all CIOs, including giving guidance to employees, staying focused on the customer’s needs and striking a healthy work/life balance.’s Shane O’Neill visited Scott in his office at Microsoft headquarters to discuss the changing role of the CIO, how Microsoft is treated by the press and how kicking cigarettes made him a better CIO.

What are most challenging day-to-day aspects of being CIO of a giant company like Microsoft?

I think the challenge and the fun of it is you never quite know what’s going to happen that day. We at Microsoft live in a pretty dynamic world. You feel good about the systems you have in place and the work you’re doing, but there’s always an unexpected element, in tech in particular, whether it’s what competitors are doing or what you’re own company is doing, or how the market is reacting to something.

Tony Scott
“Different mentors over time have given me good advice. The best? Always pay attention to the customer. Having an outside-in view of the world rather than an inside-out view has really stuck in my brain.” Tony Scott, Microsoft CIO

There are always people who love what you’re doing, there’s people who are ambivalent about it, and there are people who hate it. So dealing with that on a daily basis is both the challenge and the opportunity.

I get mail everyday from people at Microsoft who say ‘great job on this project!’ and then right behind it will be somebody who is complaining that the very same thing is the most screwed up thing they’ve ever seen.

How do you choose what elements of the CIO role to focus on and what to put in the pending file?

I think if you have a long-term focus it can get you through the daily highs and lows.

I think it’s also important to be reflective and look at the progress you’ve made. We have objective and subjective measures of that here at Microsoft, whether its employee satisfaction or customer feedback, that’s what gets me going because it tells you what you’re doing well and what you need to work on.

How much do you read the press to gauge how Microsoft is doing?

I think you have to pay attention to the media, particularly in this day and age. There is a court of public opinion and whether a CIO personally thinks the press is right or wrong is irrelevant in some respects. Even among your harshest critics there are elements of truth. There are people who think Microsoft is never going to do anything right and you’ll never satisfy them, but even with those critics there are some things you can learn.

What are some Microsoft criticisms in the press that you think are unfair?

I think generally the press is pretty fair. On balance I don’t have too much of an issue. What I find annoying is when the media is just uninformed, when they do the old “if A and if B then C”, but C has no connection to A or B. It’s lack of knowledge. That bugs me. There was an article written recently about something we did on a Web site that didn’t go as well as we wanted to and somebody in the press said it was an indictment of Microsoft’s ability to do cloud. But the Web site had nothing to do with cloud. Not even remotely. It was just uninformed.

Once we explained it to that person, there was an admission that it was the wrong conclusion to make. So I think we have the requirement to correct perceptions when they are wrong. Shame on us if we don’t look in the mirror honestly, but we should also correct uninformed perceptions.

What’s the best advice you were given when you became Microsoft CIO and what have you learned from mentors throughout your career that you use today?

I didn’t get a lot of advice coming in to this role. I had known most of Microsoft’s executives and had good relationships with them. But one thing that somebody said to me is that it’s a pretty complex place. You don’t really understand what that means until you get here and immerse yourself.

Different mentors over time have given me good advice. The best came out of the consumer-oriented organizations that I worked for like General Motors and Disney. And that advice is: Always pay attention to the customer. Having an outside-in view of the world rather than an inside-out view has really stuck in my brain.

At Microsoft, the customers are consumers, enterprise users and we also have a vast partner network. A lot of what enables Microsoft is this partner ecosystem that take what Microsoft makes and combines with other things and delivers a solution for the customer. In my previous job as CIO at Disney I didn’t have a good understanding of how all that worked and how powerful it was. Now being at Microsoft I see how that manifests itself all over the world. A lot of customers don’t actually have much of a direct relationship with Microsoft. They may in the future as we move into services.But even in services, that partner ecosystem is really important to us, and makes us unique.

What advice do you have for CIOs looking to strike a healthy work/life balance?

I personally think work is a state of mind, so it’s hard for me to distinguish in some ways between work and play because the things I’m interested in are aligned with what I do. I’m interested in sailing and music and i’m learning to fly an airplane. Over the years I’ve played ice hockey too. But with all those hobbies it’s the technology associated with them that intrigues me as much as the activity itself.

Also, I’m old enough now to remember when we used the expression “I’m going to work”, meaning you physically transported yourself to a place and that’s where you did work. And that’s long since disappeared from my vocabulary. Work is now wherever you want it to be. And my measure of success there is: Am I happy as a person? And are the people around me happy as well? And you can tell pretty quickly when that’s not true in either case.

What do you do as a leader when you sense your direct workers are discouraged or unhappy?

You have to have a conversation at that point and dig into it. I’ve found that it’s very individual how that surfaces for people. Some people are plain not happy. And some people are unduly happy, and maybe shouldn’t be so happy. Everybody I think internalizes work or pressure or relationships in a different way. You have to get at the individual root causes.

Years ago I quit smoking and I quickly got recruited to train other people to quit. The thing I discovered is that there is no one way to do it. The reasons why people smoke and why they quit both vary widely. And the methods for quitting vary. To be successful at that meant you had to figure out what would work for each person and help them go on a discovery journey to figure it out. I think finding happiness in life and in a job is the same journey.

Speaking of journeys, what are the big changes CIOs will be forced to make in the next few years?

There are three big trends that will have profound implications on our profession. Certainly the move to the cloud is going to be huge. What I’m also hearing from other CIOs is the pent up demand for IT. We’ve been saving money and getting more efficient. And we went through the downturn. But now, the businesses that have survived and got recapitalized have become stronger. They want to grow quickly and take advantage of the market. I think that will put unprecedented pressure on IT to provide the flexibility to grow. I think that’s going to be a challenge from a technical capacity and human capital perspective. Companies have to figure out where the talent and resources are going to come from.

The last trend is the blurring line between what’s IT and what’s business. We are all digitizing our businesses in many ways. Business people will have to be more IT savvy and CIOs must be more collaborative and embedded in the business. We will have to stretch our skills as CIOs.

Shane O’Neill is a senior writer at Follow him on Twitter at Follow everything from on Twitter at