Hugh Eaton, Non-Exec Director, UK MOD & Former Global Head of Government, Microsoft

Hugh Eaton has over 25 years of experience in helping public and private sector clients leverage the power and potential of emerging technologies to create value, enhance citizen services, and address global challenges. As the Former VP of Worldwide Government at Microsoft, he led the company’s engagement with governments around the world to deliver outstanding outcomes in areas such as sustainability, AI, digital transformation and security.

Before joining Microsoft, he was a senior leader and public sector expert at Cisco, where he worked with governments across Europe, the Middle East and Africa to help them use technology effectively and innovatively. He currently advises and collaborates with international organizations such as the UN, the EU, NATO, and individual governments on topics such as smart and connected communities, IoT, cybersecurity, and edge computing. He is passionate about advancing sustainability and corporate and social responsibility in how we look after ourselves and our planet.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Hugh shared his insights on the future of AI in the next decade, his career trajectory, significant career milestones, personal role models, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

According to you, what will be artificial intelligence in the next decade?

Right now, we are fed a thousand daily stories about artificial intelligence, ranging from hysteria around job losses to genuine excitement about what generative AI, in particular, can do for us in our daily tasks. Going forward I believe we will see a little less hype and more practical discussion and consensus building around how use this capability to our collective advantage as humans. As with any technology, given it’s non-deterministic nature, there is the potential for great benefit and the potential for misuse.  And those two sides of the path of progress are both in the technical field – such as presenting cyber vulnerabilities; and in the more philosophical and moral fields, such as the quandary it is presenting school and university leaders looking to work with AI whilst still developing and testing the student’s ability to think and reason through a problem.

As with other technologies that we have learned to scale I am confident we will come to ways of governing and using AI in a productive, progressive way.  We have all been using versions of it for years and personally I find it useful and time saving to be pointed by an algorithm to my typical shopping items, and we have all been trusting computers to manage our air travel and traffic flows for many years.  Of course there are different concerns, technical, moral, and social that come to mind when considering its employment in more personal issues like health, but here I point to the excellent Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari when he posits that a robotic GP  with access to all the medical knowledge available across the world in all the intranet and internet pooled knowledge resources may – may – be able to provide a more accurate prognosis than a GP who graduated from University some 40 years ago.

Of course, we need to be cognisant of a world that includes bad actors, be they state or non-state actors, but I fear this less than some given that that is already today’s condition, and there are plenty of bad actors trying to seek individual or state advantage, who we contest and compete against each and every day.  I see that cat and mouse game of threat and capability development – which has gone on since the dawn of time – continuing, it will just do so with an AI dimension.

In summary, I feel positive about AI, whilst being very clear eyed about its potential for harm in the wrong hands. If I look across at work that I’m doing for work, or my children are doing or my friends are doing, we all of us have examples of time-consuming activity which we would happily avoid in order to get on with the more valuable or interesting or purposeful or exciting work.  And in the future of work, we should not be looking to protect jobs per se, we should be looking to protect the role we all have and seek as purposeful, useful contributors.

In an increasingly challenging and unknowable world, why social responsibility matters to businesses now more than ever?

I find this a fascinating area, and to be honest I am more excited about this than about AI, because I think it speaks to all of our better natures that as men and women across the world, we have collectively decided that it is no longer okay for a business to be driven by profit alone. There are many, including my children, who have told me that my generation has been far too slow to realise that – and that even now we are not doing enough about it.  Having led a delegation to COP26 and worked with the UK Government’s response in Glasgow I accept that criticism.

However, my positivity comes from seeing numerous examples of companies who have recognised that whether it is shareholder value, public opinion, voting rights of the younger generation, or the many ways in which brand reputation can be understood, communicated and influenced – they realise that environmental and social responsibility are no longer areas of discretionary effort, but central to the way we all do our business.

We all know that this hasn’t always been the case and even in my lifetime of working there have been times when corporate social responsibility, or commitments to the environment or the circular economy have been in the discretionary spend box for when profits are high, and the economy is booming.  What I see now is a more enduring, more systemic approach that reflects a greater recognition across society more broadly of the responsibilities we have to our planet and future generations.

Hugh, can you tell us about your professional background and areas of interest?

My family has had a very long connection with the military and so when I discovered the British Army did in service degrees I headed off to Sandhurst and what was a wonderful 18 years learning how to be a soldier, learning how other people operate, and learning how to lead.  Ultimately the very long periods of separation from my family caused me to move across to industry and take what I had learned about people and crisis into the commercial environment.  After a short period as a consultant working in the intelligence arena, I was offered an opportunity at Cisco to help lead their public sector business and never looked back, taking leadership roles in the public sector, digital transformation and sustainability areas in both Cisco and Microsoft.

What were your primary roles and responsibilities as a leader at Microsoft and Cisco?

Both at Cisco and Microsoft my responsibilities as a leader were very similar, though the manner in which I was able to execute differed, largely because of the effect of Covid and the restrictions in travel, visiting clients, and being with teammates that limited some of my time at Microsoft. I was very clear though about my primary purpose, which was to help governments around the world understand the art of the possible in emerging technology and how they could create the conditions for success.  In some ways that sounds rather simple, but rapid advances in technology, often matched by significant reductions in government staff levels, means that helping decision-makers to understand what technology can do, in clear terms, without jargon, and with their operational capability and outcomes as the lingua franca, is more important than ever.

So that is the customer focus, but as a leader you want to look after your partners as well, and critically the team around you.  The technology world has some cool stuff in it, but ultimately business is about people, and advances in AI, or Quantum, or Phages, or Bio-Mechanics, is not going to change that.  Leading teams and managing business is all about the people you work with and the people you partner with.

Can you share some of the instances (projects) where you helped smart and connected communities leverage IoT, enhance cyber security, and advance their edge capabilities?

Three recent achievements stand out as relevant to readers.  Helping the NHS deal with the pandemic was a massive challenge and a great privilege at the same time. A combination of great human skill and dedication, intelligent us of collaboration techniques, and leveraging AI meant we could do things like vaccine development in record time, as well as ensuring that care homes, hospitals, and trusts across England were better connected and better informed.  Equally, it showed the limits of technology when it comes to organsational design – it matters to look at both and improve in tandem. As a global company we were then able to scale that across the world with doctors and academics across Europe, North America and Asia.

A second area I won’t delve too deeply into here has been helping Ukraine with their national resilience and cyber security.  My army reserve role has trained me and helped me understand the different sort of threats that emanate from different state and non-state actors, and how to collaborate across the public and private sector enterprise to defend against those.  It is difficult to say more right now, but in time it will be clear just how important – and at times mission critical – the private sector support has been for Ukraine.

A third area would be the work on sustainability and helping to build solutions to support the public sector, both at Cisco and Microsoft.  Governments have more extensive responsibilities than commercial enterprises in this space, and helping to articulate what those up-stream duties are, such as weather prediction, vulnerable area protection, enhanced range of responses, rapid mitigation capability etc  has been helpful for the administrations we have worked with and the citizens they serve.  Much to do of course, but for men and women looking at that area as a career the world of technology offers great opportunities to make a difference.

What are you particularly proud of in your career?

Clearly, I am most proud of my children, and seeing Harry, India and Anastasia grow into people of energy and purpose is above any other achievements.  Outside of that I am very proud of a very busy operational military career and having been decorated several times by her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Building teams that stuck together and were successful at Cisco was a great joy, and seeing people advance and promote and get on is always a huge thrill.

What are the aims and ideals that guide you as an individual and a professional?

In terms of aims and ideals I have a simple guide I live by, and I expect the same of my team, and that is to be FAIR.  Fair and equitable in all we work with and connect to; Authentic and open in our activities and bringing all of ourselves to the workplace; Impactful so that we live our purpose to support customers and so we can say – at the end of a day, or week, or month – that we have had purpose and made a positive impact on our world; and finally Resilient – it is a wonderful world, but it has challenges and obstacles and whatever business you are in you will need to be able to modulate the ups and downs, to be able to see a bad patch as simply a phase and not an end state, and to think your way through to better phase and bring your team with you.  There are lots of other things I could say about leadership but be fair and you won’t go far wrong!

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

Two people have had the most impact on my life, the first is one of the greatest military leaders of our generation, General Sir Graeme Lamb.  As the ex-director of UK Special Forces he has always been a role model for me because in addition to his military prowess he has the rare elasticity of mind to consider two opposing Ideas in complete equilibrium – a critical quality in leadership anywhere.  He has also been incredibly supportive and helpful – during the Pandemic when I would be driving into London each day (passing all the ambulances and sirens and perhaps a little nervous about what challenges the day would bring), he would be on the end of the phone for a few minutes at 5 or 6 AM just to talk through some of the options he saw as being available for those challenges.  I will always be grateful for that support at a tricky time.

The other person who I have always admired is the current chief executive of Cisco, Chuck Robbins. I am a great admirer of his predecessor John Chambers, but I got to know Chuck better and he is a truly authentic individual who lives his life with the same authenticity and purpose off camera as he does on camera.  It is in those little moments, the little unseen moments in a leader’s day that we really know them – and indeed ourselves.  I’ve seen and heard Chuck Robbins in those small, private moments and he has shown the same genuine and considerate nature for all, and his authenticity is infectious – it causes the rest of us to reflect on our own drivers and our attitude to the task and the people around us.

What are you most excited about in the next few years?

That is a hard one, as I am excited about lots of things!  I think I am most excited about my generation finally buying into a more sustainable future for our children, and I will be honest with you and that as a youngster, I didn’t always care very much about it.  I do now, and the experience in the UN COP series has shown me how many things we can improve and preserve if we get this right.  Away from tech I am loving the rising profile of women’s sport. With two very sporty daughters I have often wondered how we end up with two levels in some sports, and so seeing that area improve will be good for us all.

What advice would you give to aspiring tech professionals?

Two or three things to think about.  First, don’t obsess about technology – enjoy it, understand it, be creative with it, but remember that most of the world doesn’t really care.  When you and I go to the dentist we don’t care about the new metal composite in the drill bit or the chemical composition of the mouth wash, or the enhanced lens quality that allows the dentist to see more clearly, but we really do care about getting rid of our toothache or getting a clean bill of health from our check-up.  So it is with technology, most people really don’t care about the bits, bytes or Qubits, they just want a better or different outcome.  So, your job becomes building a team, or an approach, or a solution, that creates the conditions for that success across the different areas you are responsible for.

Second, empower people.  Allow them the freedom to be creative and innovative and to be able to generate things for themselves, not just respond to what is demanded of them. I think technology companies are often very good at unleashing that creativity, whether it be individual creativity or innovation through communities of interest, and I trust that will continue.

Third, for those in positions of leadership – be deliberate about your approach.  And if you think that sounds really obvious and unnecessary, go and ask some of your current leaders what their leadership approach is, you will be surprised by what you don’t hear.  To some extent, it doesn’t really matter exactly what that approach is. What matters is that you have been thoughtful and deliberate about understanding your team and the task, and how you as an individual are best able to inspire others to be all that they can be.  Good luck!

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