Microsoft wants to position itself as the top cloud provider for governments, schools, financial firms, and healthcare companies and one key executive is at the center of it all of those ambitions: Toni Townes-Whitley.
Townes-Whitley, the company’s president of US regulated industries who joined Microsoft in 2015 and took on the role in 2018, has already made her mark on Microsoft’s $15 billion public-sector business when she helped the company land a $10 billion cloud-computing contract with the Pentagon in late 2019.
Then, the importance of her role expanded unexpectedly this year as the coronavirus crisis has forced Microsoft customers to adopt cloud-computing technologies at lightning speed.
She’s steering Microsoft’s government and regulated industries business at an unprecedented time, as the company courts massive customers and shifts its strategy to target industries in her purview — such as healthcare — with new industry-specific clouds. While it’s a big role, Townes-Whitley is well-suited to it after a career consulting to government organizations, most recently as president of government IT consultant CGI Federal.
While Microsoft declined to make Townes-Whitley available for an interview for this report, she accepted questions via email, where she said that she grew up in the public sector, too: Her mom was an elementary school principal and her dad was a three-star Army general. “Our family mantra was and continues to be, ‘To whom much is given much is required,” Townes-Whitley told Business Insider.
Townes-Whitley helped Microsoft win the Pentagon’s cloud contract, and it’s not slowing down despite a continued fight from Amazon
Microsoft scored a major win last year when the Department of Defense chose it for its Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) deal, a colossal cloud project around storing and managing sensitive military and defense data. Amazon, which is largely seen as the leading cloud provider with the greatest market share, quickly challenged the decision in court, alleging political interference from President Donald Trump, a frequent critic of the online retailer, and pointing out an error in the procurement process.
While the decision is still playing out in court, Microsoft got another vote of confidence on September 4 when the Pentagon reaffirmed its decision to choose it over other contenders like Amazon.
Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives, who is typically bullish on Microsoft, called the Pentagon’s confirmation of its decision a “game changer” for the company, in a note to investors. “JEDI will have a ripple effect for the company’s cloud business for years to come and speaks to a new chapter of [Microsoft] winning in the cloud,” he wrote.
Following the Pentagon’s latest decision, Amazon pledged to continue fighting the contract award, writing in an unattributed statement that AWS “remains deeply concerned that the JEDI contract award creates a dangerous precedent that threatens the integrity of the federal procurement system and the ability of our nation’s warfighters and civil servants to access the best possible technologies.”
While Ives believes that Amazon could “drag out” the start of the contract — temporarily blocked by a federal judge — he wrote that Microsoft will remain the “lone winner” in the dispute.
Messy lawsuit aside, Microsoft does not appear to be slowing down.
The company is said to be courting foreign government for JEDI-like cloud contracts, according to a CNBC report, and recent job postings reveal new openings for what Microsoft calls cleared technology jobs, or “CTJ,” meaning those requiring active security clearances. Microsoft declined to comment on the JEDI deal or the CNBC report.
Townes-Whitley in her emailed responses did say that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the move to the cloud for governments and regulated-industry companies, which were already adopting private sector technologies and building their own tech capabilities using Microsoft products prior to the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has fast-tracked this modern cloud-technology adoption at speeds that are unprecedented in the history of our nation,” she said.
Those organizations, she says, are turning to Microsoft to migrate away from physical data centers, adopt collaboration tools, and deploy virtual desktops. But across both regulated industries and the public sector, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Relying on digital technology and data has proved to be a necessity — not a luxury — for government during this time,” Townes-Whitley tells Business Insider. “Restarting economies successfully will be a defining moment for government leaders.”
Townes-Whitley’s purview includes the industries Microsoft is working hard to court
While throughout most of its history Microsoft has built products for general purposes, it has shifted in recent years to a strategy of finding ways to tune products for specific problems and situations in industries such as retail, manufacturing, automotive, and healthcare.
Microsoft in May introduced its first industry-specific cloud for the healthcare industry, and it has also brought on experts from the financial services and energy industry within the past year, suggesting those verticals could be on the docket next.
All of these industries fall under Townes-Whitley’s purview.
Microsoft’s work with governments, particularly law enforcement such as federal immigration enforcement, has also faced criticism from activist groups and its own employees.
“Microsoft holds itself accountable in ensuring the technologies we create are used ethically,” Townes-Whitley said, adding that the company, in 2018, established a committee to govern ethical concerns with emerging technologies including artificial intelligence.
Townes-Whitley also pointed to Microsoft’s introduction in December 2018 of six principles said it will use to develop and deploy facial recognition technology. Since then, Microsoft president Brad Smith in June committed to not sell facial recognition technology to US police unless and until a national law is passed regulating the technology.
“That being said, there is still much to learn as the issues involved are novel and complex,” Townes-Whitley said. “We fully anticipate these principles will evolve and we commit to the responsible use of technology.”
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