Growing Microsoft in Greece, and Greece in Microsoft

Microsoft’s bet to invest in a hyperscale data centre in Greece was prompted by a change in mindset within the country combined with the growth potential of the Greek economy, says Theodosis Michalopoulos, CEO of Microsoft Greece, Cyprus and Malta. One year after the tech giant’s investment announcement, Greece has upped its digital game at an unprecedented pace, says Michalopoulos, with overall progress outperforming countries like Spain, the UK, and Estonia. “We can see the results (…) The opportunity in Greece is real.”

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GIG: October marks one year since Microsoft announced its intention to develop its first data centre region in Attica, and almost two years since you took the helm of the company’s activities in Greece, Cyprus, and Malta. Can you tell us a little bit about this investment and your priorities moving forward? What is the state of play?

Michalopoulos: Let me share a few things that happened this year, which make me very optimistic about the future. The first relates to the actual infrastructure part of the GR for Growth project, bearing in mind that we will develop three data centres that jointly ‘form’ a hyperscale centre. In this respect, we have already purchased the first plot of land in Attica and we are close to finalising the other two in the same region – albeit with some geographical distance between them.

This is a project we have planned over a 10-year horizon so choosing the right plots and doing everything in an optimal manner is, by far, crucial. It usually takes two to three years to finalise investments of this kind, so while there are still multiple unknowns we need to walk through, I’m hopeful the data centres will be up and running within this timeframe.

Secondly, there’s the investment in Greece’s human capital and talent, and by this I refer to digital skilling. This also relates to the project infrastructure because developing the skill set to utilise this huge investment is key.

We committed to upskill and reskill 100,000 citizens, of which 15,000 have already been trained. It’s happening across all demographics – including the public sector, private sector, and students.

I’m very proud of the growing number of Greeks who are posting their Microsoft certifications in cloud or artificial intelligence on LinkedIn.

And the third thing that’s happened relates to the growth we are already seeing. The momentum around cloud and the market opportunities is rapidly growing. To give you a sense of this, and answering your question, when I took on this role , in September 2019, we had 140 people employed at Microsoft Greece. Today we have more than 200 employees, from diverse backgrounds, nationalities, and ethnicities – all working with Greek and regional customers. That’s a big change considering we haven’t even started building anything yet!

As for my objectives, I started this journey two years ago with the dream of creating an impact in my country and the company I work for. Then, a global pandemic took over our lives – changing our priorities – and I found myself sailing in uncharted waters like most of the people I know. During this period, I did my best to support our employees to achieve their goals and we worked collectively, as a team, to support the economy, the educational system, and society at large to keep going through the use of technology. It was a demanding time that was followed by the announcement of the data centre investment. You know, there’s always a team of people behind these things. We set out to make this project happen and while it’s been a very challenging period, it’s also been a great period. I think we leveraged the opportunity to show the best side of Microsoft – and while we’ve been able to grow Microsoft in Greece, we actually also grew Greece in Microsoft.

GIG: How has the pandemic impacted investments in digital and cloud infrastructure (globally)?

Michalopoulos: The pandemic has provided a huge opportunity for technology to show its best face because it has enabled people to work from home and provided students with the opportunity to learn from home. In a way, technology enabled many of us to continue with our lives throughout the pandemic.

In this context, many companies started to invest more in technology and security because they saw how technology could contribute to change the way they work: From the way companies interact with their clients to how they deliver their products and all the way across to the way they produce them.

The pandemic acted as an accelerator and contributed to boost investments in technology, which is what we call “digital optimism” at Microsoft. We strongly believe that technology will make our lives better. And we are optimistic about the future and the use of technology in that future. I think we are seeing this in our daily lives. A great example is the transformation of the Greek public sector that has been taking place over the last year. It’s quite impressive. And that’s something we expect to continue.

Headquarters of Microsoft Greece, Cyprus and Malta in Athens, Greece. Copyright: Microsoft

GIG: What role do large-scale investments in cloud infrastructure play in the digital transformation of economies?

Michalopoulos: Let me explain this by focusing on what has happened in Greece. There are multiple KPIs of Greece’s past digital performance. Our country used to be ranked in the last positions, something that we have been struggling to improve for years. Just recently, however, the European Center for Digital Competitiveness released the Digital Riser Report 2021, a study that values the digital maturity and progress of the overall digital landscape, taking into account national digital strategies.

Greece ranked fourth, coming ahead of traditionally very strong countries like Spain, the U.K., or even Estonia. Why? Because Greece has taken many steps in the right direction.

That’s what is so great about technology – as long as you have a strategic direction, you can make big changes happen – and fast.

Take Greece’s vaccination platform as an example. It uses cloud technology to deliver an online portal through which you can book appointments. Cloud technology enables users to access different databases, which in turn enables appointments to be booked correctly and efficiently through a very good system. Now, in other countries – including many in Europe – on-prem (on-premises software) was used resulting in a very different experience for some of our fellow European citizens. When they tried to book their vaccination appointment online, they had to wait for an hour before they were given a 15-minute slot to complete their appointment, in a process that seemed and felt like they were waiting in a physical queue. This happened because the system didn’t have the capacity to expand and allow many users to simultaneously access the site.

In Greece, on the other hand, when appointments were opened for 50–65-year-olds practically everyone entered the platform at the same time. The difference was that we had the capacity to deliver. This was quite an accomplishment.

Another example is the system that has been developed for the KEP – the Citizens’ Service Centres. You can now go online, book an appointment, and even have a Teams video conference instead of going to a centre physically. That’s a big change because it’s about inclusivity. Imagine how many Greeks were and are unable to go to a KEP due to accessibility reasons. And now, this system – that was built as a result of the pandemic – will remain in place for the future.

GIG: Digital investments constitute a core of Greece’s economic recovery efforts, with a number of steps having been taken by the government during the past two years to accelerate the digitisation of the Greek state, speed-up investments, and improve the country’s international digital score card. What is your assessment of Greece’s IT investment landscape today?

Michalopoulos: I think that it’s changing fast. We were behind in terms of skilling, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of mindsets, and cultures. But we are at a point in time where we are catching up. Just to give you an example, 90 out of the 100 biggest companies in Greece today are using Microsoft Cloud. That’s actually quite close to the EU average and we’re growing fast. It means that the private sector is also looking towards the opportunities that technology is creating and is catching up.

Nonetheless, I think that to truly assess Greece’s IT investment landscape you need to look at the trend, or the course – you need to dig a little, talk to people, and understand how the overall mindset is transforming.

When we made the bet to invest in data centres in Greece, we did this based on the fact that we saw there was a change in mindset and in the way that things were being done. One year on, we can see the results, particularly in the transformation of the public sector. The opportunity in Greece is real.

GIG: What 3 additional changes would you like to see to improve Greece’s digital score card?

Michalopoulos: The first change relates to education. This has to become the number one priority if Greece intends to speed up. And while the so called “brain re-gain” is happening, we need more technical talent to come out of Greek universities. And here’s the paradox: If you look at the output, in terms of the technical profiles that Greece’s educational system produces, the percentage of STEM graduates – out of the total – is very close to the EU average. The issue, however, is that many of these graduates go on to pursue a career in education – to become mathematicians or chemists – or academia, or to continue their studies abroad. We lack a connection between the educational system and the job market, and we need these people to understand that there is an opportunity for them in the private sector and that they can fulfil their purpose in life by working in technology within the private sector.

The second is infrastructure. While I think 5G and mobile communications are doing great in Greece, steps need to be taken to make the fixed line faster. We all realise that Greece does not have an easy geography – we have mountains, a concentrated population with 60% of the population living in the wider Athens area – and this works against investing in fixed lines across the country. But unfortunately, we have one of the lowest fixed line internet speeds, and this is an impediment for the development of cloud technology.

The third change relates to legislation. I will speak based on our experience: We are working on purchasing land to create a large-scale investment and while there is a real appetite on behalf of the people who are trying to support us, there are still many obstacles that need to be overcome. So, we need to increase the pace of regulatory reform to effectively attract large investments.

GIG: A new law on strategic investments is set to be tabled soon by the Greek parliament, which, if passed, will create a number of incentives targeting data centres and technology support projects. Do you see this creating new opportunities for Microsoft?

Michalopoulos: We’ve been present in the market for 29 – almost 30 – years during which we’ve been working and adding value to the Greek economy. We invested in the country throughout this time, even during the ‘crisis’ years, and now we’re investing even more. And we started our new investment before this new law came about.

Having said that, it’s very positive to see this kind of legislation and I think it will definitely contribute to the Greek economy, ultimately boosting investments. In fact, further to our investment announcement, a number of other companies followed suit announcing data centre investments in the country, albeit of a smaller scale.

Together with the law on 5G, a very important step that was taken in Greece last year was the approval of the cloud-first policy by the Parliament. This is now starting to be reflected in procurement policies, which is key because it will enable new technologies like cloud and AI to be purchased and utilised in the best way by the public sector.

Data centre. Copyright: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

GIG: The Greek government has expressed ambitions for the country to become the leading innovation centre in SE Europe. How do you think landmark investments like Microsoft’s are contributing to put Greece on the global digital map?

Michalopoulos: While it is true that Greece lagged in the first, second, and third industrial revolutions, the country has the capabilities to get ahead in the fourth. Let’s not forget that Greece is the location of Microsoft’s first data centre in the region.

We do believe Greece has the capacity to become a digital hub for Southeastern Europe, but let me stress that this is not a self-fulfilling purpose.

The importance of Greece’s positioning in the global digital landscape lies in the many opportunities it creates, firstly, for Greek businesses to become more competitive and export oriented, secondly, for Greek talent to thrive and add value to our country’s economy and society, and, last but not least, for the Greek people, who are able to experience all the positive changes and benefits that technology is bringing into our lives.

GIG: So why did Microsoft choose Greece?

Michalopoulos: You know, the answer that comes to my mind when asked this question is, why not? Greece is very well located geographically and geopolitically to serve as a hub. We are also a country with great access to green energy – solar and wind power – something that will prove crucial to reduce our data centre’s energy footprint, bearing in mind that by 2025 all of Microsoft’s data centres – across the world – will run fully on green energy.

Overall, we believe in the growth potential of the Greek economy, we believe that investments in technology will increase in the near future, and we can already see great progress one year after our announcement.

More and more Greek companies are moving to the cloud, across industries, while the modernisation of the public sector is also happening at a very fast pace.

GIG: What steps is Microsoft taking in Greece within the scope of inclusion and diversity in the workplace? What responsibility do you feel to lead by example bearing in mind the weight Microsoft carries within the market?

Michalopoulos: Inclusion and diversity are something we stand for as a company. But let me take one step back. It’s not so much about what we are obliged to do guided by our principles, it’s about what makes us better in our everyday work and results. Having worked for the private sector for quite some time, I’ve learnt that diverse teams are more efficient. We all need to understand that we would be doing ourselves a favour by embracing different mindsets and diversity, not only in terms of gender, but also with respect to ethnicity, sexual orientation, and personality types.

This is extremely important to me, which is why I’m so proud of my leadership team and what we’ve accomplished so far in Greece. More than 50% of the country’s technology sector is comprised of women, whereas approximately 40% of Microsoft Greece’s staff are women.

Having said that, we need to do more to embrace diversity in Greece as a country. When I go into meetings with other CEOs, my counterparts are mainly men and I believe this is something we need to change. I have two daughters, and I want them to have more examples of women in leadership positions to follow. The reality is that this isn’t only a Greek challenge, it’s global. But we can do better. And I think that we need to break stereotypes.

GIG: Looking ahead, what do you see as Greece’s unique value-added proposition?

Michalopoulos: When you are Greek, and you are raised and schooled in Greece it’s easy to take for granted the role of our historic and cultural heritage. In my case, working with global teams regarding the data centre investment and engaging in discussions at a very high level in the U.S., I was able to understand what Ancient Greece means to a global audience.

We are extremely privileged as a country to be the place where democracy and the Olympic ideals were born. We have so many virtues and values, and I’ve been able to see what a positive effect these have on people worldwide. I’ve realised that the international appeal of Greece isn’t so much about the monuments and historical sites; rather, it’s about the values and about democracy. That’s a huge differentiating factor.

Many companies across the world would like to relate to Greece and to what it represents. And that’s something I think we – as a country – haven’t fully capitalised upon.

It’s something we need to understand, and we need to highlight further.

I am convinced that our most recent project, the digitalisation of Ancient Olympia in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Sports, will make a major contribution in this direction. By digitalising the site, we are not only creating an amazing new way to experience the monument itself, we will enable everyone to experience and feel what this historical place meant for our predecessors and why it has a strong message to deliver in today’s world as well.

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