'Digital First Responders': How This Tech Giant Shifted its Focus in the Time of COVID
Andrés Ortola is no stranger to change. In a span of three decades, he has shifted careers and moved around four continents—eventually leading him to his current post as Microsoft’s country general manager for the Philippines.
Hailing from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ortola started his career in the field of aeronautical engineering. “I got an opportunity to work for an airline in my home country,” the executive recalls in an interview with Esquire Philippines. “That was the day I got confronted with what technology was. That day, I understood (its) potential and power.”
In 1999, he left Argentina in for Spain, where his parents were based. This was where he landed his first role in the technology firm. “This was the time that Bill Gates was CEO and Microsoft was by far the fastest-growing company in Spain (then).”
Ortola started as a technical consultant in technology, then moved on to sales, where he assumed a position in global accounts management. “(This role) took me to the Middle East, Africa, and Western Europe,” he shares. “I was blessed, and Microsoft has given me the opportunity to work with so many countries and people.”
But Ortola later had to depart from the company when his wife accepted a great career opportunity, which entailed moving the family to Dubai. But from here, he joined a startup company where he managed offices in the Middle East and Pakistan. The executive considers this period as years where he “learned the most” as he was a foreigner who needed to engage with a lot of people and understand different cultures. After the company was acquired by IBM, he was appointed field director of software brands for the Middle East and Africa.
“That opened a new door for me in learning when I got exposed to Africa,” he shares. “I saw the ability to make an impact (on) the extreme poverty (in the area). It made me completely in love and fascinated with the region.”
A very interesting role
In 2014, when current Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella assumed his post, Microsoft called Ortola to offer what was described as “a very interesting role.”
“Back then, we needed to transform the business right after Satya (was appointed),” Ortola says. “There was a big push to transform our company. They offered me a position to come back (to help) them setup what would be the beginnings of digital transformation stories.”
The executive had two career options: a role in the African city he was in, or a position in the Asia Pacific. “I could not refuse the opportunity to come to Asia,” he reveals of his choice, which was to lead Microsoft Singapore’s enterprise commercial business.
“I came back to a company that probably looked similar to the one I left. But from 2014 to today, you probably won’t recognize the company,” the executive says. “It’s completely different. It took the good things of the past, made them stronger, and changed with them.
“First, we moved from having a know-it-all culture to a learn-it-all culture,” Ortola says of an approach Nadella introduced to the company in 2016, which he learned from reading Carol Dweck's book, Mindset. “That is essential because it changes your perception, the way you engage with people, the way you do business. Learning versus telling; listening versus telling. It’s extremely important.”
His passion for learning and the platform Microsoft has go together – allowing him to further his personal mission of creating something good. “We could have better conversations, help uncover insights, help customers,” Ortola shares.
The executive also spends extra time taking a deeper dive on what ultimately matters. “I bought a couple of books on Filipino culture. Do I really need it? No. But it makes it a lot easier for me to make connections between Latin American and Filipino culture.” He also seeks out what he is not paying attention to, like emerging trends like cryptocurrency. “It’s fascinating how this completely unknown concept to me is an upcoming trend.”
Microsoft is big on coaching, according to the executive, and how potential can be uncovered based on what drives an individual, what one has done for the organization, and how they help others succeed. “That was also a fundamental change that we have seen under Satya Nadella. The openness, communication, transparency. It’s probably the best Microsoft I remember,” Ortola reveals.
A major challenge Ortola went through, and continues to confront, is running the business during the COVID-19 pandemic. “When it started…we met with leadership to try to discuss and agree on what our role would be in the upcoming months,” he narrates. “We left with the resolve of becoming the digital first responders for the Philippines. We tried to make bold decisions and our decisions were (not always) business-bound but impact-bound.”
He has led Microsoft Philippines’s COVID-19 response that includes the delivery of the RapidPassPh app, and TraceCovidPh that helped the government identify authorized vehicles and personnel. Currently, the tech firm is also working with the Department of Health to centralize information in its vaccination efforts.
“We enabled 18 million children to have access to education,” he reports, referring to the Microsoft donation of free Office 365 accounts for students in some 47,000 schools throughout the Philippines.
“The Supreme Court story is one of my favorites,” he adds. “We enabled more than 240,000 virtual hearings and some 100,000 PDLs (persons deprived of liberty) were released because of this intervention. We delivered an impact that was essential to us. That was the mission.”
Aside from supporting the work-from-home transition of employees of big companies like Banco de Oro, UnionBank, Inspiro, Everise, Jollibee, and Meralco, Microsoft Philippines also entered collaborations to assist small businesses and startups trying to navigate the uncharted, turbulent waters of the pandemic.
One of these is a partnership with the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) and the Dado Banatao Incubator (DBI) to enroll around five startups in an ISV (independent software vendor) program that Microsoft will hand-hold through Azure and Modern Workplace.
Ortola is buoyed in seeing smaller merchants and companies recover. “I think hybrid scenarios will stay with us for some time. And anything that has to do with these scenarios of enabling companies to operate in hybrid is part of our opportunity. We still need to deal with big tickets in the Philippines, in my opinion, like financial inclusion.”
The executive believes the industry has reacted to the public health crisis well. “It’s not been just Microsoft,” he points out. “But I think our mission of connecting with people quickly set us apart. We have had a fantastic 2020 despite the conditions. It was our 25th year anniversary, so we celebrated it with record growth for our business and tremendous impact on some things. We celebrated by being awarded ‘Best Company to Work For’ (by HR Asia in the region) which, in a year of COVID-19 lockdowns and people being separated, means a lot to me. It meant a real cultural transformation.”
Ortola is excited to witness how the creativity and tenacity of Filipinos will drive the country’s future with technology tools. “The Philippines has tremendous potential,” he declares. “We will be driving big investments for the country, more lines of services. We want to put the Philippines at the leading edge in Southeast Asia. I personally believe that potential is here; the appetite is here. I’m very optimistic and what I keep telling some of our customers is ‘I’m open for a dialogue. I might not have all the answers, but we’ll ask the right questions out there. So, if you’re thinking about transforming, give me a call.’
“One of the things I’m passionate about, since I’m far away from my home country: I am invested to leave something behind,” he adds. “I don’t want my story to be (about) just a guy running a business but someone who used Microsoft as a platform to do something else. Humbly, little things like that really motivates me. Not many companies like Microsoft offer that ability today.”
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