IMPACT20: The National Conversation Report: An interview with Amali De Alwis MBE

Amali De Alwis

Digital skills aren’t just vital to the future of workers and jobseekers, but also to the success of the UK economy as we build back better, says the Managing Director of Microsoft for Startups UK and the former CEO of Code First: Girls.

On the digital divide

The pandemic has really exposed and exaggerated the digital divide in this country. I think businesses, education institutions and the government have a crucial role to play in supporting and investing in UK digital skills – boosting the confidence of young people starting their careers, and helping experienced workers to upskill or switch jobs. Microsoft has been doing significant work in this area over recent years, from running workshops for small businesses in Microsoft stores (now delivered virtually), to launching The AI Business School, which offers free, online courses to help people unlock the potential of artificial intelligence. Together with organisations such as KPMG, Unilever and the Department of Work and Pensions, we’ve also just launched a five-year campaign – Get On 2021 – to help 1.5 million people in the UK build careers in technology and connect a further 300,000 with technology-related job opportunities by 2025.

On diversity

The jobs market has taken a significant hit due to COVID-19, and the effects are being felt disproportionately in deprived areas. Our Digital Edge programme, created in partnership with Catch22, is all about opening up digital careers to those facing barriers to work. Catch22 finds and recruits candidates with a range of challenges – from gender and ethnicity barriers, homelessness, mental health issues, school exclusion and disability – and helps them to access a digital apprenticeship with a local employer within Microsoft’s network. I truly believe that we need cross sector partnerships to bring about change.

On young people

Young people are our seeds: they’re our future bosses and teachers. We need to support them not just to be users of technology, but to be builders of that technology. And we need to show them how exciting and rewarding a career in technology can be. Our Microsoft DigiGirlz programmes, for example, gives Year 9 girls opportunities to learn about careers in tech, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops.

On targets

I’ve always been a big fan of setting proper goals and being transparent. Look at gender pay gap reporting, for instance: it has encouraged companies to have a public dialogue about gender equality, measure it, and bring in tactics to improve it. Microsoft does this not only through the publishing of our own diversity data, but also through our membership of organisations such as the UK Government supported Tech Talent Charter, where coincidently, I was one of the founding members. By asking charter signatories to make a number of pledges in relation to their approach to recruitment and retention, it’s boosting inclusion and diversity in the UK tech sector in a practical and uniquely measurable way.

On inclusive design

We’re hugely focused on inclusive design, from adding functionality that allows real-time subtitles to PowerPoint for the hard of hearing, to building the Xbox Adaptive Controller for people with limited mobility. Disabled people make up 22% of the UK population. To be frank, if technology isn’t designed and developed inclusively, then more than one in five people in this country will not be served.

On transitioning into work

Business leaders need to be taking a longer-term view and helping to inform the strategic direction of Britain’s educational institutions. Who are businesses hiring? Where are the skills gaps? What will future roles look like? Business and educational institutions alike would benefit from more open and honest dialogue between schools and local businesses. Whether it’s through apprenticeship schemes or work- experience placements, businesses play a critical role in helping young people make that transition out of education and into work.

To create a more inclusive society, I would...

...make sure that every child, by the age of 10, has learnt how to build something with code. For kids, building an app should be as natural as building with Lego.