It is often said that people are resistant to change. However, Bob Muglia, a 23-year long veteran of the emerging technology space, would disagree –– despite experiencing first-hand multiple waves of pushback towards technology.
Muglia started his career working at Microsoft in 1988, and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming President of their $15 billion Server and Tools business.1 He also was the 12th and final witness for the defense in the well-known 1998 US vs Microsoft lawsuit.2 Following this, he served as the CEO of Snowflake, a cloud computing company, which made headlines in 2020 for — in the words of CNN — being the “biggest software IPO ever.”3
Most recently, Muglia finished writing his first book: The Datapreneurs: The Promise of AI and the Creators Building Our Future, where he details his optimistic vision of human-AI interaction.
Muglia shares insights from his career — and why he urges readers to keep an open mind about the future of human-AI interaction — in the second edition of FCAT’s Tech Trendsetter series.
“The word I would literally use is naïve. It was a lot more naïve back then,” Muglia tells FCAT when asked how he would compare the world of tech from the 1980s to now.
He continues: “Back then computer technology had only had a limited impact on people's lives, mainly in large businesses is where you would see computers before the personal computer revolution hit. Microsoft had a vision of a computer on every desk in every home — and we actually achieved that.”
By 1995, 90% of the world’s personal computers were running Microsoft software.1 For Muglia, Microsoft reaching its goal was both a blessing and a curse. Microsoft became the face of this novel industry, and thus the pressure and responsibility of making sure human-computer interaction was seen positively rested on Microsoft’s then late 30 and early 40-year-old founders.
“We didn't really understand fully the implications of bad actors and security requirements. And certainly, the initial products that we released did not have the security capabilities that were necessary. And that was a challenge in the early 2000s for Microsoft. So, we learned an amazing amount,” Muglia says.
Muglia tells FCAT’s readers that setbacks, in hindsight, were great moments of learning.
“We learned what we could and could not do,” Muglia says.
He continues: “Even the DOJ lawsuit was one of those major learning areas for organizations because it really generated a lot of law and precedent that's now been applied later. And every company …that tangled with the federal government has had the benefit of learning from what we went through at Microsoft.”
The Evolution to Customer Centricity
Around the late 1990s to early 2000’s, Muglia moved up the ladder at Microsoft, becoming the president of its server and tools division. During his time there, he oversaw the releases of Windows Server, SQL Server, Visual Studio, and System Center products. While there, he is credited with helping lead the company from a product-driven shop to a customer-minded business service company.
“When you listen to your customer, you should hear what they have to say and hear what they need, but not necessarily do what they tell you to do, because quite often they can't think ahead,” Muglia says.
He continued: “Businesses make long-term decisions when they partner with technology companies and they really they expect you to listen to their needs and to work with them to help them solve their problems.”
Humans and companies adapt… when needed
Muglia then touched on tech’s top topic: artificial intelligence.
In a way, the present pushback with artificial intelligence is similar to that of the early stages of personal computing. It’s a powerful technology that many believe will upend our way of life.
There are pushbacks against the use of AI including issues ranging from bias and security to more structural fears that AI uproot our lives by replacing people's jobs.4 Others are concerned with how AI could be leveraged by bad actors, for example with deepfakes making it possible to make just about anyone say anything.
Muglia disagrees with these narratives.
“The reality is at the macro level when you look across society, people are remarkably adaptive to change,” the former CEO says.
He continues: “look at how fast smartphone technology has spread across the world in an incredibly short period of time.”
Muglia mentions that with this new technology, new opportunities will be available to people. He also believes that humans will build new skillsets in learning to differentiate between what is generated by AI and what is human. In the same way we learned to deduce if a photo is photoshopped, we will have to determine whether something we see is real or created by AI.
Friendly, Useful Robots
Muglia urges young people and students to view the emergence of AI as a positive, potentially life-altering force.
While there was a lot of controversy over students utilizing AI to cheat on final exams last year, Muglia believes that savvy educators should utilize this opportunity to start sowing the seeds for a future where humans interact with robots regularly.6
Speaking of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, whose writing Muglia feels encourages optimism for the upcoming human-robot era. “He's played a big role in my life because I read a huge number of his books and stories in my teens and twenties. And he was incredibly prolific. He wrote over 450 books and he envisioned a world of people living together with intelligent machines. Back in the 1940s before digital computers were even invented.” Muglia says.
Muglia argues that innovators ought to keep Asimov’s vision of friendly, useful robots in the back of their minds when building AI technologies. Before leaving, he jokes that our mental image of AI should be more like the cheerful C-3P0 of Star Wars than the menacing Terminator.