Women in Leadership: Noelle Walsh

Corporate Vice President, Cloud Operations & Innovation, Microsoft

Noelle Walsh leads the Microsoft Cloud Operations & Innovation organization, the engine that powers the Microsoft Cloud and its services. Her organization owns the cloud physical infrastructure and operations charter for Microsoft, with the goals of ensuring safety and security, maintaining high customer availability, and achieving competitive infrastructure growth.

Walsh joined Microsoft in July 2017, bringing her strong operational background in leading large, global teams across geographies and businesses for a Fortune 50 Science and Technology company. She has worked in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Germany, and the US, and has traveled extensively around the world on business, running large-scale commodity businesses and manufacturing facilities as well as leading major strategic divestitures and integrating acquisitions. Prior to joining Microsoft, Walsh spent over 25 years at The Dow Chemical Company, where she worked across multiple businesses.

How did you lead your team through the early days of the pandemic, given how important uninterrupted service is for datacenters?

A lot happened simultaneously. Schools and work quickly switched to being from home, and the demand for digital services increased dramatically. Where companies normallymay have taken years to digitize, now it was taking months. There was a major surge in demand, which brought a greater focus on availability and reliability.

My first concern was for the safety of my employees, not only those who needed to be physically present in datacenters, but also those behind the scenes orchestrating the new complexities and adoption to a hybrid workplace.

We did a lot of monitoring and testing. Given the measures we put in place, I aspired to create a work environment that would be safer to go to than the grocery store. For example, we helped with transportation or put people up in hotels where sudden local restrictions limited the movement of people. We also worked with governments so that we could be considered an essential business that would provide travel exemptions where curfews and restrictions limited travel. First and foremost, we wanted to make sure that our people were safe, and that they believed that they were safe, to reduce any anxiety when going into work.

Decarbonization is top of mind for the industry. Can you share your views on sustainability and key programs that Microsoft has underway?

The rate at which demand for digital services is growing requires both land and power, and that’s a big deal for me. From a land perspective, as a company we ensure that we protect as much as we use. If we have to knock down one tree, then we will plant two or three additional trees, for example. We also work hard to restore the local ecosystem so that as much as possible, we are restoring as much of the land to its original state. We take the preciousness of land very seriously.

From a resource perspective, think about how your computer overheats—now think about how we have to control the temperatures of thousands of servers in datacenters to prevent overheating. They need to be kept at a constant temperature for them to operate at their best. In the datacenter industry, water-cooling is one of the most common ways we can manage temperature, but we are getting smarter with the way we use water, and indeed, where we get that water from. In fact, in most parts of the world, we can use outside air to cool down our servers and only use water when absolutely necessary, which is beneficial for places where environmental conditions don’t allow year-round air cooling, such as in very dry locations, like Phoenix, Arizona.

In Phoenix, for the hottest five months of the year, we need more than just air to keep the servers cool, so we use a system called ‘adiabatic cooling’ which sprays the servers with a fine mist of water. This can use about 90 percent less water than a conventional water-cooling system. When designing for water efficiency, we avoid using potable water, aiming to use resources like recycled municipal wastewater or rainwater where appropriate. More recently, we’ve developed a technology called Two-Stage Liquid Immersion Cooling that allows us to immerse servers in liquid to help maintain temperature, which further removes the need for water.

Longer-term, we’re looking at new designs that could potentially eliminate the need for water entirely, but Microsoft’s goal is to be water positive by 2030, meaning that we’ll replenish more than we consume. While we have a long way to go, I’m proud of the progress we’re making in this space.

We have also set ambitious targets of being carbon negative by 2030 and to have removed all carbon we have created since our inception by 2050. To achieve this, we have already purchased over 6GW of renewable energy in the last year alone and will continue to invest as we scale. That requires a fundamental change in the way we consume and buy energy, and even influences how energy itself is generated. That’s why we’re also committing to powering 100 percent of our operations, 100 percent of the time, from zero carbon or renewable sources by 2030 as a way to try and influence the way that energy across the entire grid is bought.

On our construction side, we’re also looking at the challenges of carbon removal. Embodied carbon accounts for around 11 percent of all global carbon emissions. So we’re exploring new avenues to address this by looking at timber in construction instead of concrete. We also deploy the use of our Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) to help identify building materials that reduce embodied carbon. Through EC3, we have identified several opportunities to reduce concrete and steel embodied carbon.

Eventually, we’ll need new technologies for power, like hydrogen power or power storage with batteries—but we’re some way from seeing those technologies become mainstream in the short term.

As far as progress towards our zero waste by 2030 ambitions, our circular centers are already making strong progress. These centers aim to recycle, restore, or repurpose as much of our equipment as possible, aiming for a 90 percent reusability rate by 2025.

Can you talk about the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) programs that you have instituted in your career and at Microsoft?

Microsoft has a relatively long history of cultural change that encourages us all to address our biases, adopt a growth mindset, and understand and appreciate the value of difference.

The company has invested heavily in inclusion and diversity programs, as well as employee resource groups covering all manner of interest areas or nationalities and ethnicities. These provide employees a place where they can be their authentic selves and also allow allies to learn about different cultures within Microsoft. Additionally, we’re implementing some of Dr. Brene Brown’s teachings on courageous leadership and vulnerability from her book ‘Dare to Lead’ to help our teams go further than they thought was possible by learning how to face new and tough challenges in a constructive manner. These are important new skills that I hope can be applied both in and outside of the workplace.

In respect of hiring, to fulfill expectations and maintain our growth, we need to bring in the very best talent from around the world. This means that the hiring pool needs to be large and diverse. I want the diversity of both candidates as well as the interviewers to ensure a broader range of perspectives and relatability. A lot is being done at grassroots levels to open up and create opportunities in the industry—especially at a young age—but it’s also important that there is a representation at all levels so there are people to look up to.

That within itself isn’t enough. We must be inclusive. If we are diverse and do not listen to diverse thoughts, then it doesn’t work. Being inclusive can be somewhat messy. We are not going to all agree at all times. I enjoy the debate, but then let’s agree and move on. It has been fascinating to watch the growth. Things could be moving faster, but we are making strides. The culture and the business are better as a result.

As Microsoft expands its datacenters and Azure cloud availability zones, what major opportunities do you see on the horizon?

We are almost like the power providers a hundred years ago. When we all go home now and turn our lights on, we expect it just to work. Ultimately it all should become a commodity, with a minimum expectation of high-cloud availability at all times via multiple services and global connectivity. As a result, we have to look at all countries and demographics to compete in this increasingly complex global world.

Regarding the availability zones, it’s now three times everything when we go anywhere—three datacenters, three working power stations, etc.—and that can be incredibly complex to manage and deliver, especially during a pandemic. It also places a greater burden of responsibility on us to deliver this growth with the highest levels of personal safety and security, and that we act and behave as good neighbors to the communities in which we work. Community engagement doesn’t just start when we launch the datacenter; we actively engage with our community stakeholders from the very beginning of the process so that we can understand their needs and concerns from the get-go.

What does the post-pandemic future of work and digitization look like to you?

What we saw in the first year of the pandemic was a huge demand for an increased capacity, including network. We thought THIS was a huge upsurge. This year we are seeing the same, so it seems that even when the pandemic is over, there’s no going back to how we were. There will be more hybrid workplaces, working remotely, and digital transformation. With the surprising number of people leaving the workplace, we are going to evolve to a new way of working that depends a lot more on digitization.

With ubiquitous connectivity, enabling work from anywhere, I think that we are at the early stages of a revolution. As an industry, we’ll need to support this growth, but in a smarter, more sustainable fashion. Our technologies will need to change as well to higher performance computing, higher server densities, and more intense cooling. It will be a balance of growth mixed with technology, innovation, and evolution as we go.

As a successful woman leader, what message do you have for the young woman who are looking to join this industry?

Welcome, it’s a great industry. There are a lot of opportunities with a lot of facets. Back in the day I enjoyed science and math and didn’t know where it would lead me, but I followed my passions. I think that sometimes as women we are more aware of being unsure if we can do this or that. However, you’ll never be fully qualified for everything, so think big and just go for it. There are no datacenter degrees, so there is so much learning on the job. After many years of working, I still learn every day. Your degree from ten years ago or mine from way back hardly count today! Being a lifelong learner is so important. Secondly, take your seat at the table. Women are just as valuable as everyone else around that table, so speak out. Looking at my daughter in her early 20s, I love that she and her group of friends believe that they’re at least as good as everyone else.