Innovation requires the courage to take risks and the leadership skills to show others that risks are worth taking. That’s why I love working with people like Joe Dadzie, a partner group program manager in identity governance. Joe has a long history of championing disruptive technology breakthroughs and delivering for our customers. He’s never shied away from pushing boundaries or breaking free from “the way we’ve always done things” to build better solutions. By his example, he inspires fearlessness in his team and in those he mentors. Joe’s achievements remind all of us in identity that when we focus on the needs of our customers, everyone wins. I hope you enjoy his remarkable story.
The power of “Why not?”
The first time Joe Dadzie traveled outside his native Ghana, in 1991, he flew to Boston on a one-way ticket. “I had no freaking clue what the U.S. was like,” he laughs. Inspired by a U.S. State Department advisor whose husband was the first Ghanaian ever to attend Dartmouth, Joe was heading to the New Hampshire-based college to study engineering. “I didn’t know anything about computers,” he admits. “And I had no idea New Hampshire would be so cold!”
Thirty years later, Joe works in a warmer climate, designing governance technologies in the identity division at Microsoft. “Organizations have security and compliance requirements,” he explains. “They need to reduce the risk of data loss or leakage, and if they’re in regulated industries, they have to pass audits. At the same time, they need to empower their employees to work effectively, with the fewest possible constraints. My team designs tools to help them.”
Every project Joe’s ever worked on started the same way—with some customer challenge he became fixated on solving. “I’m never going to be a computer science dude,” the twenty-five-year software industry veteran confesses. He finds “super hard problems” infinitely more fascinating than technology. “Utility is more interesting to me because when I look at the groundbreaking technologies I’ve worked on over the years, they rose up, and now some of them are gone.”
The successive extinctions of technology paradigms in favor of the “hottest new thing” form the mile markers of Joe’s career: from floppies to CDs, from the FAT file system to NTFS, from shrink-wrapped software to cloud-based services. He not only takes change in stride, he pushes it, leading more than one manager to question his sanity.
“When we proposed Windows Update, the whole notion that you could install things over the Internet didn’t exist,” he recalls. People worried about the optics of taking control of people’s machines for automatic updates. “Are you guys crazy? Nobody wants that!” he remembers his colleagues shrieking.
“When we did that first Windows service pack, 250 megabytes over the internet, that was revolutionary,” Joe asserts. “Were we going to bring the internet down? We didn’t. And now, Windows Update is baked in for securing users around the world. It just happens.” Software updates that once started with tearing the plastic off the latest release and inserting a disk happen today whenever someone launches a program. Twenty years after Windows Update first started patching PCs, the whole world goes “crazy” every day.
The “try it” spirit
Joe is not, in fact, crazy. He’s simply incurably optimistic, responding to each no-one-has-done-this-before challenge with an unassuming “Why not?”
He’s greeted challenges this way since an early age. “Where I grew up, nobody applied to the top high schools,” Joe says. “I thought it was weird. Why does the teacher say that nobody from our elementary school should apply to this high school? Why not? I think I’m smart enough.” Joe did apply, and he ended up at a top high school in Ghana, where he became a top student—one of the few who achieved a perfect score on the national Ordinary Level General Certificate of Education exam.
He credits his parents with instilling in him the “you should be able to try stuff” spirit that got him where he is today. “Both of them actually left Ghana to study,” Joe says. “They took this leap of going to England to try something new, did okay, and came back.” Following their lead, Joe applied to colleges in the United States with support from local mentors. The U.S. State Department advisor reassured him that scholarships would cover the tuition he couldn’t afford. An eye surgeon and Stanford University professor who worked with his mom, a nurse, covered his SAT test and college application fees.
“I got into Dartmouth and told myself to take the leap of faith,” Joe recalls. “Try this. I may not know where it goes, but what’s the worst that could happen? I would go back to Ghana.”
Before matriculating at Dartmouth, Joe had never used computers. He was stunned to learn that the engineering department required all students to buy one—a Mac. “I was like, what the heck is this thing?” he jokes. While other students arrived already knowing how to code, Joe started with basic computer science classes, his sense of obligation fueling his work ethic.
“I was conscious of not wasting the opportunity that I had,” Joe says. He literally did the math, calculating how much a skipped class would cost in scholarship dollars—a lot of money when converted to Ghanaian currency. “Look,” he reasons, “if you’ve got into someplace through the help of others, maximize it and focus on performance.”
At first, Joe had no interest in the software industry. “I did a project with a physics professor that ended up being a computer project,” he says. That project, listed on Joe’s resume, caught the eye of a recruiter who encouraged him to attend an info session about Microsoft’s summer internship program. Intrigued by the prospect of visiting the American West Coast, he applied. “Hey, I may not get it because I’m not a computer science guy, but why not try it out?” he told himself. He flew to Redmond, did the interview, and got an offer.
His summer project—figuring out how to make the software setup process easier for customers—established the tone for the rest of his career. “That internship was fun,” he reminisces. “I got to learn new things, didn’t have to dress up for work, and got to play soccer every lunchtime.” By the end of the internship, Joe was sold on a career in software. He turned down higher-paying offers from consulting and Wall Street firms to return to Microsoft, casual attire, and lunchtime scrimmages.
Advocating for customers
In 2000, after working on Windows Update for several months, Joe proposed a corporate version in a paper he submitted for Bill Gates’ ThinkWeek. “Enterprise customers were telling us that they wanted a way to manage updates themselves. I got an email about ThinkWeek that said anybody can submit an idea. I said, ‘Okay, let’s submit something.’ I didn’t know if anyone would read it, but I wanted to respond to customer feedback, and the ThinkWeek paper seemed like an opportunity to do that.”
Reviewers, including Gates, liked the idea of what became the Software Update Service (SUS). Within six months, Joe and his small team of “one other program manager and two or three developers” shipped a beta. Customers responded to SUS with a request that Microsoft extend it to help them manage updates to devices for remote employees and road warriors. Thus, Intune was born. Joe proudly recalls the “awesome customer feedback” they received when Intune shipped. “They wanted to use it!” he enthuses.
A decade later, Joe returned to Ghana for his sabbatical. “It was 2011. When I talked to people, I realized that I was way too Microsoft-insular.” He noticed, for example, that much of the technology others now used had no Microsoft bits in them. When he returned to work, he struggled to reconcile what customers were telling him they wanted with the strategy his leaders wanted to follow. His father’s death in February 2012 forced him to reassess his priorities, and after seventeen years at Microsoft, he left.
With no clear plans on what to do next, Joe spent the next two years on a soccer field, training with his pre-teen son, and “learning the non-Microsoft stack” by developing an app for managing soccer teams. For about a year, he also worked on the loyalty platform for a major retailer.
Then serendipity struck again.
A new mission
A Facebook post from a Microsoft friend that said, “When your CEO asks you to take on a new job, you can’t say no,” piqued Joe’s curiosity. “I had been hearing people say that Satya was changing the Microsoft culture,” he says. “So, I reached out.” After talking with several Microsoft managers about potential roles, he decided to take another leap of faith: rejoining the company.
Although he had an offer from one of his previous teams, Joe liked the identity division’s customer-centric culture and the allure of the unfamiliar. He missed the thrill of seeing a new product area come to life. “All of my previous successes had come from listening to customers, and I liked the idea of taking an unknown thing, then pulling in disparate data to figure it out, plan, and just go solve it.”
When Joe joined the identity effort, he inherited a single program manager and an on-premises governance tool, Microsoft Identity Manager (MIM). The first thing he did was to resurrect the process that had served him so well in the past: listen to customers, spot the trend, and propose big bold solutions to address it.
“I knew nothing about identity, so I was like, okay, go on a listening tour,” Joe muses. “What issues did people have with this tool that I own? All the customers were saying, ‘It requires a bunch of consultants. The UI is complicated,’ et cetera.” Microsoft partners told Joe they didn’t use any of the governance capabilities in MIM because they were too complex and not fully integrated. “But even though people complained about MIM, almost every large company had deployed it in some critical area,” Joe reveals. “We concluded that making governance tools easier to use and more integrated would probably solve their problems.”
An integrated approach
When Joe embarked on his new mission, the industry had been treating identity governance as separate from access management. Joe doesn’t feel an obligation to preserve their dictionary definitions by insisting the two functions stay separate. “If you focus on the customer problem that governance is a means to help reduce access risk in an organization,” he contends, “then all the things you need in access management and governance have to form a continuum. It cannot be two separate things.
“The customer is trying to solve a problem that these tools will come together to solve,” he insists. “It’s an end-to-end problem that’s not just about compliance. We also have to enable productivity.” This means simplifying the process of granting people access to resources when they need them and removing access when they don’t while ensuring that IT managers have a complete history they can easily report to regulators.
“In the governance space, we are trying to help organizations answer four basic questions,” Joe says. “Who has or should have access to resources? What can they do with their access? Should they continue to have that access? And how do you prove that?”
Customers, whether end-users or IT managers, shouldn’t have to “worry,” Joe emphasizes. The system should provide answers automatically. “If there’s a regulatory need to insist that people get approval before accessing a particular resource, then we’ll provide those tools,” he says. “We make it easy for employees to go to the resource, request access, and get that access quickly. Then we automatically remove access when the project ends.”
Joe’s Microsoft career has been a series of challenges, choices, and serendipitous opportunities to work on pioneering projects: CD boot, unattended install, common installers, patch updates, Microsoft Intune, and now identity governance. He’s tackled them all with the same aplomb that got him into the high school his teachers had said wasn’t meant for students like him.
“If you focus on the customer problem, most of the time you get it right,” he offers. “And if things get screwed up, you can fix it and move forward. So why panic and get all riled up?”
Reflecting back on his career path, he says, “Sometimes it’s about not being afraid of serendipitous opportunities to go learn something new and experience the good things that come out of it.”
He shares his own story to encourage others to take on new challenges. “My experiences may help other people do more than they think they’re capable of,” he says. Recalling his first flight out of Ghana, when he was a teenager heading to college in a strange land, he asks his mentees, “What’s the worst that could happen? You may fail and have to start over. Or maybe you will change the world. So…Why not?”
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