Leslie Magid Higgins
Robbie Bach urges young people to “develop strong civic habits rather than think you have to change the world.”
Madison will host a whirlwind tour of philanthropic talks and meetings by Robbie Bach, former president of Microsoft’s Entertainment & Devices Division, on Jan. 28. Bach led the division responsible for Xbox and Xbox 360, phenomenally successful video game platforms that feel distinctly un-Microsoft. Bach’s new calling is to preach the gospel of becoming “civic engineers” in our communities. He himself has engaged civically by getting involved with the Boys & Girls Club of America.
In his book, Xbox Revisited, he proposes a “3P Framework” — Purpose, Principles and Priorities — arguing that lessons from his Xbox experience can help solve social issues we face offline. Bach, who lived in the Milwaukee area as a youth, and now calls Medina, Wash., his home, is waiving his regular speaking fees, underscoring his own message. He answered some questions from Isthmus via email in advance of his visit. For a schedule of his tour, see this item at Isthmus.com.
The “silo” approach seems to have worked well to free the Xbox team from restrictions brought on by Microsoft as a larger corporate entity. Is this the future of product development at Microsoft, or do teams need to be more integrated?
There is never a simple answer on this topic. So much of what needs to be done is situational. In some cases, projects require a great deal of coordination and sharing across various groups and functions. At other times, something very precise and focused in a specific area of expertise is required. During my 22-plus years at Microsoft, the company was successful utilizing both of these approaches — and naturally failed using both of these approaches as well. I think both the successes and failures are likely to continue into the future.
What kinds of career paths do you think are the most promising for young people today? Of course, I’m thinking mostly about technology.
There is certainly great opportunity for those who develop an aptitude and/or formal degree in the broad fields of computer science and engineering. That has been true for quite some time, and I don’t see that changing in the near future. That said, I think we view these opportunities too narrowly when we only focus on technical disciplines. For example, there is tremendous demand now for strong designers, both in software and in hardware. Designers have become essential members of product teams and are key to producing great customer experiences. Likewise, as we progress in the areas of big data and software as services, those with data analytic skills will play an important role and be in high demand. The technology can make it possible for us to gather so much data — but that isn’t really that helpful if we don’t have the tools and skills to analyze the data effectively.
We have a gender imbalance in STEM careers. Any thoughts about how to encourage young women to pursue these paths and what the challenges/rewards are?
There is no quick solution to this imbalance. The most important thing is to encourage girls to explore math and science when they are young. They need to understand that these subjects are important to their future and that doing well in them is “cool.” This is especially true during the highly formative years in fifth through ninth grades — these are years when the pool of candidates in the STEM fields gets narrowed unnaturally. It is equally important that girls and young women understand that excelling in STEM does not pigeonhole them into computer programming or engineering. These skills are valuable in a wide variety of careers including health care, business management, teaching, research and marketing, to name a just a few. They need to be the foundation for any educational path and really are core to your future, whatever direction you decide to take it.
Civic responsibility can seem difficult on top of a career, especially for young people. Does your book address easy ways to get involved?
For those early in their career, the most important thing to do is to explore and find an area where you have deep passion. That could be in health care, human services, youth development, education, transportation, government issues, international development or many other areas. The topic is much less important than finding the passion. Once you have a focus area identified, you can then determine how best to pursue that, given the current state of your personal and professional lives. The way you pursue your “civic engineering” work will likely evolve over time as your career and family life develop — and that is as it should be. At the beginning you might only be able to volunteer occasionally — but that will lead to other opportunities. When you are young, the important thing to do is develop strong civic habits rather than think you have to change the world while you work full time. Every bit of civic work we do builds on top of the other work being done — and as our passion is developed, we will naturally find ways to scale our impact.
Is there more of a practical or spiritual driver to your most recent recommendations on civic engagement?
I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive at all. Certainly my faith and spiritual life influence the work I do in civic engineering and motivate and sustain me as I pursue various projects. At some level, doing social impact work requires a certain level of passion and commitment — and for many, including me, that is a faith-based passion. With that said, much of my motivation is quite practical (indeed, perhaps self-interested) and focused on making communities better because that enhances all of our lives. Put another way, we all have to find a way to translate our passions and desires into strategies and concrete plans we can pursue to achieve our goals. Without that level of practicality, it is very difficult to drive real change in our communities.