Mastering the message

Mastering the message

Huawei's Bangkok-based chief digital officer has a lot of things he wants to share, and a plan for doing it effectively.

Photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya
Photo: Pornprom Satrabhaya

The room where Michael Macdonald, chief digital officer of Huawei Technologies, works every day doesn't look like a typical executive office. Most of the large space is almost empty and without furniture, except for a plain desk with a large-screen PC on it and a microphone stand clamped to one corner.

In front of the desk, on the right-hand side, a big green curtain covers two sides of the wall, with a chair in front of it, bathed in the glow of two big studio lights. All that's missing is a director to call "Action!"

"Up until 2020 I wasn't really doing a lot of my own content in terms of the videos," says Mr Macdonald, a seasoned presenter and keynote speaker with a gift for engaging large audiences.

"When Covid happened, I decided to shoot some videos at my home. When I came back to the office, I spoke to my boss and he really liked the idea of continuing that. They got behind me and they let us build this video studio which is just half done," the 46-year-old Canadian tells Asia Focus at his office in downtown Bangkok.

Mr Macdonald, in a white shirt that's a similar colour to his hair, says Huawei believes it's important to produce its own content, including executive interviews. It helps the company explain its technologies, and also to respond to the controversies surrounding the giant Chinese communication network equipment maker.

"(The idea) really has given me a new interest of what I can do. It gives me another platform to explain Huawei's business to people that don't understand it," he says.

"I think that is one of the biggest challenges that Huawei has. They have lots of fantastic technologies and good engineers. But they are not always able to say that to the general public. And my objective is to try to solve that image."

The videos cover several fields, he continues. One goal is to introduce some basic concepts that average consumers need to know more about, for example what to look for when they buy a 4G or 5G package.

"I really want to create some content where they watch a two-minute video so they can better understand what 4G means and then what the 5G and 5.5G would bring, why would you need it, or how artificial intelligence is going to change their lives," says Mr Macdonald, who has been with Huawei for about 10 years, all in Bangkok.

"I want to create a direct channel to consumers where they actually see Huawei for its legitimate technical expertise and they feel a lot more comfortable because we are helping educate them about the technology."

Building public goodwill toward Huawei is an important part of the campaign to counter accusations made by the United States that the company's technology, especially 5G in which it is an acknowledged world leader, could contain backdoors enabling surveillance by the Chinese government. Huawei has consistently denied the claims.

Another type of content is geared toward chief experience officers (CXOs) of Huawei's commercial customers. "For that, we interviewed some of our internal experts and more importantly, we try to bring in CXOs from the industry and I will be discussing things in an interview format. Some of them take some of the questions," Mr Macdonald explains.

"I don't want it to be just my opinion but at the same time, I definitely want to make sure that the people I am speaking to say something in a way that the audience can appreciate.

"Sometimes they only speak in technical jargon and nobody understands. I'm comfortable with being interviewed and hosting but at the same time I have the technical depth to be able to have a proper conversation with them."

The interview format videos run for about 10 minutes and will be hosted internally as well as on the Huawei website with more of corporate feel. Another series of videos is more specialised and can run for 10 to 20 minutes with a technical deep dive.

"Those ones we expect to be targeting architects that work as customers or with our partners who want to know more about our particular products," he says, adding that the company brings in others to do pre- and post-production of the videos.

"In the ideal world, my vision of where this will go in the next six to 12 months would be that the people being interviewed are less important than what they say," he says.

"There are two ways to approach this. One is to have the most important people speak. And the other is to involve the people who have the most important thing to say. I think we need a combination."

Michael Macdonald's office does double duty as a studio where he can produce videos to spread the word about Huawei. Photo courtesy of Michael Macdonald

DREAM JOB

Growing up in the suburbs of Canadian cities, Mr Macdonald recalls that he did a lot of physical labour when he was a child. "I was always involved in farm work. My mother was a teacher and she had her own school and I was a janitor on the weekends. I also worked in a grocery store.

"As long as I can remember, I always enjoyed working. I always liked to be busy. My parents taught me that if you want to purchase something, you need to earn it. At the time, I didn't recognise how valuable that would be as a skill."

As a child, he wanted to take the same route as his father who was an engineer with the air force. "When I was young, I was really amazed by the air force because I saw my dad being able to move to new cities every three years and it seemed very exciting," he says.

"But the truth is I didn't know much about the job. As I got older, I realised that the military was very heavy on structure and not really about creative individuals, and I didn't realise until later in life that my father wasn't particularly happy in the military. When he joined, he was excited but over years and years, he got caught up in government systems which rob you a bit of your entrepreneurial drive."

In his last year at high school, he changed course and decided to attend a regular university rather than to one of Canada's military colleges. "A couple of years after I graduated, my dad opened up to me and he said he was actually happy that I didn't take that [military school] route."

Mr Macdonald arrived in Asia 16 years ago, with Thailand his first official overseas location. At the time he was with Nortel, a Canadian telecom vendor.

"It was by choice. I was quite happy in Canada at the time but my job required me to fly around a lot. I was flying to Australia, China, all through Europe and North America," he says. "Eventually I kind of suggested to my boss that it was now or never [for a move]. At my age, I felt like I had the right skill set, and was ready to appreciate Asia now. That was in 2004 and I was about 30 at the time."

He was later recruited by Huawei in Bangkok with as chief technical officer (CTO), which traditionally means the head of the R&D or product development officer. "That's not really how the role works in Huawei. Their idea of the CTO is a job title that allows me to match the customers I am speaking to."

Without direct responsibility over the R&D function, which mostly takes place at the Shenzhen headquarters, Mr Macdonald's job was to stay on top of as many technologies as he can.

"So, I can speak in depth and take responsibility for a range of anything from enterprise to carrier solutions, to what is happening with consumers, to one of the latest solutions," he says.

"I've learned over time that the people I'm talking to don't necessarily want to hear all the bits and bytes about technologies. They don't want to know the physical characteristics of how 5G works.

"Instead, they want to know what are the practical applications and so I try to build stories to explain why that technology will work for businesses, why the technology will work for the purchasers."

Then, he realised that the CTO designation wasn't really appropriate for what he does. "Now I go by chief digital officer. It means I'm more in touch with what's happening with digital transformation, what's happening to the digital economy, what do we see people doing on smartphones today versus tomorrow. To me that's much more in the digital space as opposed to the normal CTO that is focused on on R&D and the product cycle.

"If you asked me 20 years ago, this would have been my dream job," he continues. "I really want to be a technology adventurer. Now I would say, it's about as good as I can get."

In North America, such jobs are fairly common. In Asia, they are less common because Asia tends to associate jobs with traditional ways of measuring success and key performance indicators (KPI). "I think in Asia, they typically struggle with how to build a matrix for roles like this. In North America, they kind of understand that maybe people need more soft skills.

"I'm really happy that Huawei gives me enough space to allow me to have that flexibility, so they don't hold me to the same type of internal calibrations that maybe they would have for my Chinese colleagues," he acknowledges.

"But to get there, it requires a lot of trust building so it took quite a few years for me to establish trust with the executives, so they will recognise that … I'm not going say something that is not what they really want me to say, or something that reflects poorly on the industry or me or the company."

MARKET OPPORTUNITY

Looking at the digital world from his professional perspective, Mr Macdonald says the growing craze for TikTok, the popular video-sharing social network owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, is a prime example of a big business opportunity for telecom companies.

"The problem is telcos are really trying very hard to sell IT and to sell digital solutions," he notes, adding that most of the major telecommunications companies have been around for decades and the people in controlling positions are well over age 50.

"If you have a CEO of a major telco, you try to get him to understand why they should have a partnership with TikTok when they think that TikTok is something that children do. It's very challenging," he says.

"I try to look at what the generations are doing every year and how to put it together as business value. So rather than dismiss it, let's encourage it and figure out the way to monetise it."

The skill Mr Macdonald uses to observe and analyse market opportunity seems to come naturally to him. "I always think that if I hadn't become an engineer, I probably would have become some kind of behavioural psychologist," he says, adding that he spends a lot of his time "trying to understand why people do things differently".

"Quite frankly, you need that type of mentality, especially when you're out of your own country. Why do customers react to buy things in different ways? Why do people in Thailand treat punctuality differently than somebody in North America? Rather than get frustrated with it, why not understand it? And I found that over time when I understood it, I could solve the problem."

So quite often, a father gets upset when a child spends a lot of time on the phone and playing games. "If we look at it in a different way, we can see the revenue opportunity. Quite frankly, you cannot prevent the younger generation from doing something. So, either you accept it and somehow you take advantage of it or you just frustrate yourself."

That brings the discussion back to TikTok. "What is the social mechanism that makes people want to upload a one-minute video of themselves? Rather than dismiss it as vanity or social pressure, maybe we should help them by having a better-quality selfie camera or higher resolution upstream, things like that."

ALWAYS IN TUNE

Away from the job, Mr Macdonald derives a great deal of enjoyment from his lifelong passion for playing and listening to music. Asked about his likes, he says "music for musicians" and elaborates: "I like music that is complex, music that makes you think, makes you work. It could be progressive jazz, progressive rock or progressive metal. But the idea is I just like to hear how far competent musicians can take their skill."

When he was young, his mother had him take piano lessons, but he also took up drumming at home and a brass instrument in a band. "When I was in late high school, I picked up guitar because my dad suggested it's more portable than drums. Today I play all of the above and have a lot of fun working with the music and figuring things out."

While most people listen to music to relax, Mr Macdonald says sometimes he likes music that some people might find "almost like reading a complicated article".

"I like listening to the same song three to four times in a row because I want to know how they did this part and that part. A lot of my friends wouldn't necessarily agree with the songs I like but that's okay. Like I said, it's music for musicians," he says, laughing.

Music is also a great way to clear one's head, he says.

"When I was studying for exams in junior high school, one of the best ways to clear my head was to just go and play the drums because anytime you play a musical instrument, it's almost impossible to think of something else at the same time," he says.

"If you go to the gym, you're on the treadmill, you can still think about the stress of the day. When you play music, you can't. It is just impossible for your brain to be able to think about the music and at the same time worry about something."

As a person whose job allows him to fly frequently across Asia, Mr Macdonald is looking forward to the end of travel restrictions. Japan is the first place he wants to go. "I've always loved Japan and I've spent more and more time going to smaller cities. I used to go Tokyo a lot because of work-related things. Now I go to places like Osaka."

At the same time, exploring more of China is on his mind. "Before I joined Huawei, I felt like China has so many stories and history but when I travelled to China, it was Beijing or Shanghai, for work only. I kind of regret that.

"I hope that China will be the first country that opens and I want to go to second-tier cities," he concludes with a smile.

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