Taking Microsoft and Africa to new heights

Microsoft South Africa’s new Managing Director, Lillian Barnard


Microsoft South Africa’s new Managing Director, Lillian Barnard, is a woman who has taken her career and female empowerment seriously for over two decades and one who has no plans to slow down anytime soon

In fact, six days into her new role at Microsoft, Barnard was proud to announce that Microsoft cloud was finally local, with the opening of enterprise-grade data centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and that the company was opening up a world of possibilities—enabling and driving economic growth and stability for both public and private enterprises.

Enabling a digital world in Africa

The data centres will offer Microsoft Azure immediately, and Office 365 and Dynamics 365 in the near future, and will power the emerging cloud, artificial intelligence (AI) and edge computing innovations across the continent. This is a massive first for Africa as, previously, all cloud data centres—and the business aspects and concerns associated with them, like security and geographical placement—lived overseas.

“I have been given a unique opportunity, as part of the Microsoft team, to truly effect change in South Africa. The opportunity to accelerate digital transformation journeys with customers while driving economic growth is high on my agenda from a career point of view and I feel honoured to be at the helm of Microsoft at this pivotal point of 4IR where Microsoft can play an important role in setting up the country for digital success,” she says.

As a technology leader, Microsoft envisions a different future and it’s one that will be driven by AI and cloud, which are major drivers behind the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Business can play a defined role in upskilling people, increasing digital literacy and deep tech skills, ensuring they can participate in the new world of digital. Barnard says AI brings many opportunities and challenges with it but it will not be replacing humans. Rather, it will amplify and augment their roles in business.

Barnard feels strongly that her position at a global heavyweight like Microsoft will give her the foundation she needs to pursue one of her passions, which is driving digital innovation, embracing disruptive technologies and using both to find answers to South Africa’s most pressing societal and economic challenges.

Enabling skills development across the continent

Barnard’s first week in office, so to speak, was a busy one. In addition to seeing the launch of data centres in South Africa, she also announced the evolution of Microsoft’s Equity Equivalent Investment Programme (EEIP).

In 2011, as part of its transformation approach, Microsoft committed to investing a percentage of the total revenue of the South African operation into its EEIP each year, over seven years. At the time, this investment was ring-fenced for the support of local independent software vendors (ISVs) but, at the event hosted earlier this year, Barnard announced that it had evolved to include investment in technology solutions in agriculture and digital transformation in manufacturing—two sectors where key government priorities and Microsoft focus areas overlap.

But Microsoft’s investment in skills development across the continent doesn’t end there. With multiple programmes running today that focus on skills development in young women, coding, cloud and students, Microsoft has again and again shown its commitment and dedication to raising the bar in the skills development arenas. Theirs is not simply a CSI obligation, it is a dedication to bring the skills that South Africans and Africans alike will need to embrace the new digital world.

The road to the helm at Microsoft SA

With a career predominantly grown in the technology industry, Barnard started her working journey as an intern at IBM, moving across various roles over the next 15 years, which allowed her to understand the industry from an extremely deep and hands-on place. At the young age of 28, she was offered a position in leadership that took her abroad for seven years and enabled her to develop intense skills across sales, operations, strategy, governance, transformation and leadership development.

“Working outside of South Africa was a great opportunity in that it leapfrogged my career in a brilliant way. I grew as a person, both personally and professionally, and my view of the world opened in a very deep and meaningful sense but, nonetheless, I found myself excited to return to South Africa when the opportunity to lead the partner channel for Africa at IBM became available,” she says.

After over 15 years of fast and focussed personal growth and development, Barnard left IBM to start her own consulting firm, called Lillian B Consulting, and she describes this as yet another incredible learning experience. Hungry to do something on her own, she spent the better part of three years assisting corporations in empowering and developing women, zoning her focus in on making sure the advancement of women was a conversation businesses were having on serious platforms.

Throughout this time, Barnard also sat on various boards, including Mango Airlines and Vodacom—ultimately, joining the latter as Chief Sales Officer for the Enterprise Business unit when the time to return to a corporate environment arrived.

But it was in joining Microsoft two years ago that Barnard found her home. Filling the role of Public Sector Director since 2017 gave her an incredible opportunity to forge relationships with the government, advising around what it is that technology can do to help our leaders explore the opportunities that it represents to countries like ours—innovative digital solutions that give citizens a better quality of life.

Lift as you rise

As a woman in power, Barnard feels that there is a lot more that can and should be done in terms of bringing women into positions of leadership.

“There are so many opportunities for businesses to turn things around for women in South Africa and across the continent and, for those fortunate enough to be working for them, the world is full of unending opportunities to grow.

“I was always ambitious and wholeheartedly embraced all of the opportunities presented to me, making my aspirations clear. I eagerly availed myself to mentoring and coaching opportunities within these organisations and took full advantage of any and all moments of learning.

“I have learnt from my own experience that going to the top is not without its challenge and so it is with this in mind that bringing women into the boardroom and senior positions is a focus for me, however, I strongly believe it is up to the individual to get into the driver’s seat when it comes to their own career progression,” she says.

From a personal perspective, Barnard’s mantra is: you need to lift as you rise.

“I’m heading up one of the largest blue chip companies in South Africa today and still, my driving force is people.

“It is vital for me, when I go home at night, to know that I have focussed on our greatest asset, our people, and that I am creating a plan where everyone can do their best work. In order to be able to do that, you need to be very agile and bring an ability to adapt and accept change along with an openness to learn. Only then will you truly find yourself in a position to create a platform for your people to shine,” Barnard concludes.

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