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James Lawson

James Lawson, Director, CTO Defence, Microsoft

What has been your path to power?

My career started in management consultancy working on business transformation and innovation projects for Deloitte. I led various data-driven initiatives for chief officers to design and justify radical changes. To pick one example, I helped the Metropolitan Police save 20% from its annual £3.2bn budget, while increasing front-line police numbers, cutting crime and improving public confidence. I also supported the rationalisation of its £1bn capital plan. I was commended by the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) for my work with police forces.


I wanted to get closer to the technologies I was advising customers to adopt, so then made then moved into start-ups. I joined WorkFusion (an AI and RPA venture) as a founding member of its EMEA team. We achieved rapid growth on entry into the market and I helped a diverse range of companies embrace automation, including Spotify, ICA, Santander and Deutsche Bank. I then took on a global role as head of strategic markets, overseeing the design, launch and delivery of pre-packaged automations, like payment screening and open-source news analysis to fight money laundering.


My next opportunity was with DataRobot (a leader in automated machine learning) as its chief evangelist. This was a broad role dispassionately educating the market on the opportunities and challenges of AI. This also included deepening key partnerships with data platform Snowflake and automation companies UiPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism. In parallel, I have held longstanding pro-bono relationships with The Entrepreneurs Network and Adam Smith Institute (ASI) as a Senior Fellow and author.


The role at Microsoft (which I started mid-pandemic) then offered the opportunity to empower our most strategic customers to achieve more with technology, particular collaboration capabilities and cloud computing. For example, Microsoft’s Azure is at the heart of MODCloud, which is enabling the Defence sector to enhance mission capabilities (like Defence Medical Services, with an integrated health records system).

What impact has the pandemic had on demand from your clients?

 The pandemic forced everyone to rethink, so the demand for our services and data-driven insights increased. It will come as no surprise that with my Microsoft clients, usage of Teams rocketed. Other technologies that enable hybrid work were also brought to the fore, like Azure Virtual Desktop and (our new offering) Windows 365 for virtualisation.


In my personal volunteer role, as a senior fellow of the Adam Smith Institute, parliamentarians were extremely keen to understand the latest Covid-19 data and identify opportunities to accelerate the vaccine campaign, protecting the vulnerable and eliminating restrictions. Over half of our recommendations in my paper, “Worth a Shot”, were later trialled, partly adopted, or fully embraced – the speed of vaccine distribution increased ten-fold.

Do you get a seat at your clients’ strategic discussions? If not, what will it take to get

you there?

 Yes, Microsoft is very fortunate to be a trusted and long-term partner in my clients’ strategic discussions. For example, I was fortunate enough to recently take the data and IT leadership of the Ministry of Defence to our US HQ. We enjoyed a very rich and intense two weeks of briefings and workshops, ranging from data science researchers on new mission capabilities, through to the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) on how we counter the threats from increasingly sophisticated nation-state sponsored cyber attacks.


What are your key areas of focus for the business in 2022?

My role can be very broad as I am advising clients on their technology strategy across the full range of Microsoft capabilities. A few clear priorities come to mind. It’s essential that my clients transform their legacy estates, remediating security vulnerabilities and supporting better data cataloguing, collaboration and analysis. For example, many remain heavily reliant on unsupported vintages of Microsoft SQL servers and need to rationalise their inefficient on-premise data centres.


My primary focus though is on enabling new mission capabilities. In the hybrid era MS365, Teams and Viva are essential to collaboration and boosting productivity. Platforms like Power Apps and Power Automate enable rapid low-code and no-code development, making business processes more efficient. 


Microsoft Azure is the biggest growth area with my clients increasing their adoption ten-fold over recent years – it is the fundamental enabling infrastructure at home and at the edge, particularly for data analytics, cognitive services and machine learning. 


How do you apply your leadership skills a) within your own business and b) on behalf of your clients?

 Working with highly complex clients and managing a big team, there is a natural tendency towards accepting the status quo. I try to counter this by creating an environment where it is always safe to challenge what we are doing. I want to encourage a mindset with those around me which is much more entrepreneurial and open to delivering things that have never been done before. I try to lead by example, questioning our most basic assumptions and pushing for things that may not be possible, but are worth exploring, from new commercial models for Microsoft through to rapid pilots of new capabilities to “learn-by-doing”.


What key skills or attributes do you consider have contributed to your success in this role?

Pragmatism has arguably been the most important attribute for success in this role. Resources are scarce (time, money, skills, network connectivity, compute, etc) so we are forced to make trade-offs. For example, my clients have highly bespoke requirements, like wanting to run AI models in austere environments, so we have to focus on overcoming these practical challenges.  


How did you develop – and continue to develop – these skills or attributes?

As with many other data professionals, a lot of my skills were self-taught over the years, usually working on real projects rather than in a classroom. Perhaps it helps that I read Economics at university, which is a relatively empirical field, and have maintained an active interest in quantitative research ever since. 


I occasionally do MOOCs through Coursera, EDX and Linkedin Learning. With the pandemic, I also dabbled with Code Academy to improve my limited SQL and Python skills. My favourite data-centric sites are Towards Data Science, KDnuggets, Visual Capitalist, FiveThirtyEight, Works in progress, and Oxford’s Our World In Data. While not strictly about data, the EconTalk, 80,000 hours, and Pin Factory podcasts are particularly informative. 

How do you ensure that your proposition keeps pace with your clients’ goals and requirements so that you are leading rather than lagging behind their demands?

Microsoft spends over $20billion annually on research and development to ensure it remains at the leading edge. The UK was Microsoft’s second subsidiary, established 40 years ago, ensuring our propositions are tailored to the needs of our clients here. In addition, since 1997, our UK world-leading research centre in Cambridge has provided a lab for technology innovation.


The Microsoft Reactor developer hub in Shoreditch has also helped launch more than 65 companies over recent years and £5.8m of Azure (cloud computing) credits have been granted to support UK research projects. More broadly, Microsoft has a strong partner network across 25,000 organisations in the UK, employing 570,000 people. 

James Lawson
James Lawson
has been included in:
  • 100 Enablers 2022 (EMEA)