Fireside Chat: Ryan Ozimek and Watt Hamlett on Microsoft’s Vision for AI

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This episode features Watt Hamlett and Ryan Ozimek. With Kyle Haines, they all were invited to attend the inaugural Microsoft Global Leaders Summit. Kyle has known Watt and Ryan for a long time, so they seemed like a logical pair to bring their perspective around what was learned at the conference from Microsoft and its vision for Artificial Intelligence.

They also got to hear from the nonprofit sector and learn how nonprofits are engaging and using AI in their work.

Probably most exciting, Trevor Noah was the guest speaker, and they learned that he is not only an amazing comedian and satirist, but an amazing philanthropist and knows his way around technology.

Our Fireside Chats are designed for audiences with varied experiences with technology. In this Fireside Chat with Ryan Ozimek and Watt Hammett on Microsoft’s vision for AI, learn more about how to lead nonprofits by understanding new technologies as they emerge, and how those new tools can fit your use case.

Like podcasts? Find our full archive here or anywhere you listen to podcasts. Or ask your smart speaker.

Transcription: Ryan Ozimek and Watt Hamlett on Microsoft’s Vision for AI

Kyle Haines: Watt, Ryan, thank you so much for joining me again. Watt, you’ve been on a webinar with me before, and that clearly led you to turn to Transforming Nonprofits. And Ryan, you are our most frequent guest. This will also be your last appearance. I think this is your third time on Transforming Nonprofits.

And why I wanted to meet with both of you is we were all recently at the very first Microsoft Nonprofit Global Leaders Summit. Did I get that right? Close enough.

I just wanted to meet with both of you to get your takes, because we met a couple of times during the conference, hear what you thought, hear what led you to come to the conference, and hopefully give people who are listening some more information about what we learned from Microsoft.

How’s that sound for a Friday afternoon? I thought this was an interesting place to start. I’m curious, we obviously get invited to a lot of conferences. It’s challenging to go to all the conferences. Ryan,

What led you to come to this conference?

Ryan Ozimek: Yeah, our Soapbox Engage team, we’ve been sailing in the nonprofit tech communities for 23 years now, which just continues to sound crazy to say, but it’s technically correct. I feel like Microsoft and the things that Microsoft has been doing has been around prior to us engaging in the community. It’s been really interesting to follow where Microsoft’s gone through the last three-plus decades in our nonprofit space.

We’ve been a partner in the Microsoft ecosystem, specifically the Dynamic space for the last five-plus years or so. We’ve had a chance to see firsthand some of the stuff that they were doing internally around the nonprofit common data model, their work on CRM solutions for nonprofit organizations, thinking about Azure and cloud-based solutions.

When I first heard about the event, I thought, oh, this is going to be really cute. Microsoft’s going to get a few of us together and we’re going to be chatting and very few folks are going to show up because this is just a completely new type of event. I was originally thinking I’d show up to be like, hey, I just want to help them save face. I knew that they’re going to have a great event, but I had a feeling that the people that were going to be there were going to be some of the most highly involved folks.

I had no idea how big the event actually was. So my view of it is, we’ve seen Microsoft do a lot of great work in the nonprofit ecosystem for 30 plus years. For the last five years, we’ve been behind the scenes seeing this stuff on the CRM side.

What are they going to do with all this AI, Copilot, other solutions out there? So that was my draw.

Kyle Haines: It was out of sympathy.

Ryan Ozimek: Mostly, you know, because Soapbox Engage, we’re always looking to help out large enterprise ecosystems.

Kyle Haines: I think that they probably appreciate it. And I think that it probably goes without saying that the event was enriched by the participation of Soapbox Engage.

Watt, no one knows why you were there, but I’m curious, what led you to come?

Given that your history is in the Salesforce ecosystem, and you continue to be really invested in that space with Watts List and advising nonprofits, I’m curious, what drew you to the conference?

Watt Hamlett: In addition to all of that work around Salesforce for the past five years, I’ve been part of Microsoft’s Advisory Steering Team. They have convened a group of folks with various interests to work with them as they have grown their presence in the nonprofit sector.

I’ve just been all for that from the beginning because as great as I think Salesforce is for so many nonprofits, it’s not going to be the right technology for everyone. And I think competition in this sector is a really good thing. It helps keep everybody accountable and drives innovation and helps keep things cost competitive. So I’ve really been rooting for them in the work that they’ve been doing.

And frankly, it’s moved a little slower than I wish that it had. But especially over the past year, I feel like I’ve seen more momentum from Microsoft. Because I guess to me, they’ve gotten to a place where their solutions are really good. I just feel like they haven’t been as effective as really connecting those in the market.

But I’m with Ryan, when I saw the number of people they were able to bring out to this event, how many nonprofits were there, the level of folks within nonprofit organizations that were there… I think they said that 24% of their nonprofit attendees were CEOs or executive directors and they’ve got some senior folks in there.

So, they’re getting good attention from potential buyers. And that, to me, was really on full display. So I was very pleasantly surprised at how effective I thought the event was.

Ryan Ozimek: How about you Kyle, what brought you there?

Kyle Haines: Well, I mean, it’s interesting because we’re also on the advisory steering group. I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think I was surprised by the size of the event itself or the level of investment from Microsoft based on what I’d seen.

I mean, honestly, what I was surprised by were the number of vendors who attended, who were surprised that Microsoft was talking so much about AI. And my reaction was, did you not read the conference materials beforehand? I was really interested in hearing what Microsoft was going to say about AI and honestly with a little bit of skepticism about AI in general.

But I agree with everything that you said. I don’t know that I had an expectation about how big it was going to be; I definitely knew it wasn’t going to be as big as Dreamforce.

Ryan Ozimek: First of all, I also want to add that I am on the partner steering team as well. So I just need to just add.

Kyle Haines: But you’re more on the, are you on the junior varsity one? Because I don’t see a lot.

Ryan Ozimek: Frosh soft, frosh soft. Okay, we got lots of padding on. They don’t let us run around the room without a lot of padding.

We have two good follow ups:

  • One is Microsoft Tech for Social Impact is a newer division, business unit organization within Microsoft Philanthropies. And so I felt like this is their first opportunity to have a big showing, like a big first, aha, here are purpose built solutions that Microsoft has made for the nonprofit community.

Here is them expressing their vision to the world, which I thought was a really good scene setting, which is what I was expecting to get out of it. I did expect the AI piece of it as well.

  • The other thing that I was curious about is, I wanted to see what the next generation of professionals in our industry looked like from the nonprofit space, the consultant space, the vendor space.

And I was intrigued to go to an event like this that would be so new, but so focused on nonprofit technology, just to get a sense as to what that looks like.

And I talked to folks like John Kenyon and Beth Cantor and some other folks that have been in the nonprofit tech community with us for a long time.

And I asked many people, if you look through the doorway, would you see yourself 20 years ago walking into this doorway, wanting to come to an event like this? And have the generations changed? Is the engagement still the same?

Who are the types of people that we’re going to get as the next generation of folks that are leading our community forward? And so my hope was to get a sense of what that audience looked like as well. So it was interesting to see that happen.

Watt Hamlett: And do you have an impression based on what you saw there, Ryan, in terms of that question?

What does that new generation look like? How is it different or how is it the same?

Ryan Ozimek: I feel like by pivoting the event around or on AI, it was calling out to the next generation of folks, this is the technology set that you can grow and shine on.

When I was first getting involved, it was getting organizations digitally connected. And then the next way was getting organizations digitally online with CRM and websites.

And now I think we’re going into like a third or fourth generation the last 25 plus years, and this is their next opportunity to shine.

I think the younger folks that I saw there were very interested in this and they were less interested in just social media, websites and CRM. Those are tools you had to use, but the excitement was around the AI.

So Kyle, on the AI side, I agree, I was definitely intrigued to see what they could lean into heavily on the AI side. And I do feel like it drew that new younger audience of folks as well, too.

Kyle Haines: I agree. That’s interesting. And when you say what drew them in, what I thought was interesting is they thought about it primarily around impact. It wasn’t around, oh, we can use generative AI to write marketing content, or we can use a custom mastering to create an optimum donation ask. Is that what you both heard as well? Around the excitement?

Watt Hamlett: I was surprised at how little there was about Microsoft’s technology for nonprofits, frankly. I think about the vendor technology conferences that I’ve gone to. If it’s back in the day, the Convio Summit or BBCon or Dreamforce, inevitably the keynote is gonna center around, let us click you through some screens and show you the latest and greatest from our solutions. That was there, but it was kind of way down the list of things that I feel like they were trying to communicate and talk about at this conference.

It really was a much broader scope of societal challenges, the roles of nonprofits in meeting need, and then where some of these tools and technologies fit in. I was so pleasantly surprised at the level of conversation. I feel like I hadn’t gone to a vendor sponsored conference that kept the level so high.

Kyle Haines: This was going to be one of the questions that I thought would be interesting to talk about.

I came into the conference with some skepticism, might be too strong a word, around AI as a general proposition.

Is AI the next blockchain? Is there any “there” there?

Trevor Noah was the keynote speaker. And first of all, I thought, okay, Trevor Noah was going to come in and just crack some jokes. He’s the Microsoft Chief Questions Officer. Like, they probably gave him that title a couple of weeks ago, but he was actually really thoughtful.

And he said something that was, of course, funny. He talked about how cavemen harnessed the power of fire and they cooked some meat. And they said, oh, that tastes really good. And then someone burned down a field and nobody said, no more fire.

That opened up something for me around AI that even though I have some skepticism and some questions, and there’s some danger associated with it, I have yet to be dissuaded from the idea that it’s not something we can turn away from. It’s here, it’s coming, and we need to think about how to harness it to cook meat or tofu for our vegetarian audience. Whatever you’re cooking, heat food and not entirely fear it, that the toaster oven is going to burn down the house.

And I bring that up because that’s what I felt was the intention of the conference: what are the opportunities this affords and what are the potential risks and less about the products?

Watt Hamlett: I didn’t feel like I was really being sold anything there. I think I was being invited to think about the role of technology in general, but specifically about AI and what it’s going to mean for the work that nonprofits do.

Just thinking about Trevor Noah’s talk, I’m such a fan of his, that was such a treat to just get to be in the same room as him. I didn’t realize he had a foundation. I didn’t know the work of his foundation, but one of the things he said that stuck with me was that in the developed world, technology advances are often around luxuries. Like, Spotify or DoorDash or things that just enhance, make life more fun, convenient, what have you.

But in the developing world, technology developments are often around necessities. He shared an example of some work that an organization has done with AI that basically helps better pinpoint what specific areas in a local community are most at risk for different types of natural disasters. I don’t remember if it was floods or fires.

Kyle Haines: I think that was Seeds India, wasn’t it?

Watt Hamlett: Yes. And previously, when the tools weren’t as advanced and an environmental threat would come about, basically everybody would have to evacuate, right? And this is very disruptive, and some people wouldn’t do it because they weren’t able or weren’t willing, and so you’ve got loss of life and so forth.

But now with this technology, they’re able to really pinpoint, at almost a house-by-house level, who’s likely to be affected and just focus evacuation efforts on that very small number of people and have a higher success rate in doing that.

There were a lot of examples like that that were shared during the conference that made me really understand and appreciate at a deeper level what AI can actually mean to humanity.

I guess my thought coming in is more from that lens of it’s a luxury. It’s adding convenience to my life. A chat bot is just kind of a faster way to get the same answer I could get by going to Google. So it really did help reframe for me how I think about AI. And I think it stoked my excitement about it.

Kyle Haines: Ryan, I’ve been to a lot of conferences that you’ve been at. And to poke fun at you a little bit, I often see you on your laptop. Maybe multitasking, working on some other things while trying to listen with one ear and the challenges of running a company, keeping that present.

And you made a comment at the conference, you said, “I got to find a notebook.” I don’t remember the last time I was at a conference where I felt like I needed to start scribbling things down. I didn’t ask what you were scribbling down, but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring both of you to today’s conversation. I think you both had, as did I, similar reactions. I got to start writing things down that I’m hearing.

I’m wondering, what were you writing in your notebook? What were you hearing that you thought, I need a notebook for this?

Ryan Ozimek: I started at one of the keynotes with my laptop on my lap in a big dark room with a thousand other people checking email. And then I started to hear things. And then I think I closed my laptop, opened my phone, and I think I may have texted you saying, this is awesome.

Which is just so weird to say because oftentimes when you hear that, it gets connected to some gee whiz marketing stuff that’s being spun out.

What I realized was really valuable that I saw for the first time in a long time at a tech event was drilling down, not on the “what.” There were a lot of “what” conversations: What can this technology do? What are ways to integrate it, et cetera?

It was the why and the how that I felt was really getting drilled into.

An example would be that Microsoft sent Brad Smith, their president, chairperson, very high level corporate executive, to give a very compelling, persuasive presentation for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, I don’t know, it felt like it went forever, specifically about our sector and the challenges it’s facing and why it’s important to use technology in a certain way in this modern era and use AI to do that. The why is missing. So much is the fascination about the tech and not enough about why are we using this to begin with?

What are the problems we’re trying to solve and how are we going to use it most effectively?

So I do feel like Trevor Noah brought some humor as well as some practical and pragmatic approaches that I felt were really useful.

Brad Smith delivered on why it’s important to Microsoft. Why are they in this fight to help make the world a better place, as silly as that might sound. And I just thought that those are really, really compelling. And there was a bigger picture there that I think often gets missed in modern technology conferences, which tend to have an underlying focus on marketing, technology, tools, apps and services.

I felt that that was really interesting and compelling for sure.

Kyle Haines: So if we were to get access to your notebook, what would be some things we’d see in there? Like, what were you writing down?

Ryan Ozimek: Yeah, one big example is what Watt you were saying, like, could I just get this information from Google? Like, what’s different? What are we doing? Why are we just reinventing something that I could already get somewhere else?

One of the things that I heard in a couple of different flavors was how and why would we use technology to help us take one big step backwards and to say, well, what are the right questions to ask?

Trevor Noah found a couple of ways to frame this really well. They said, if you come to technology assuming you know the questions, then you’re missing one huge step, which is, do I even know the right questions to ask for the problems that we’re facing?

I felt things related to concepts like that, that were just like going from on the ground to 30,000 feet and then zooming back down again and using AI to help you go between those different altitudes was really intriguing because I feel like everything we’re focusing on gets drilled down to the micro level. And everything about the keynotes that I’ve been hearing was more about like, let’s take one big step backwards.

Is this technology different? Is AI going to help us think differently about this rather than just quickly get to the answer as fast as possible? That didn’t even come to mind.

I was thinking about a better Google. What I should have been thinking is a better buddy helping me riff on ideas and thoughts before I then drill down into Google or something else, maybe AI, to get very specific questions answered.

Kyle Haines: Watt, I’m curious. Did you take any notes? What would be in your notebook?

Watt Hamlett: Yeah, to pick up on what Ryan was saying, one of the things that I wrote down that Trevor Noah said was to not just ask AI for answers, but to ask AI, what do you think I should think about? I think there’s maybe another speaker who hit on that theme as well of asking AI, how would you think about this problem? You’re not just trying to drill down to what’s the quick answer to the summary. But what are some ways that the tool can actually help you enhance the way you think?

So I think Trevor Noah was the number one highlight, but number two was probably that talk that Brad Smith gave. I’m kind of a history buff, and I just so appreciated the historical perspective that he wanted to put in this conversation about AI and taking it all the way back to the printing press.

He spent some time talking about the implications of the printing press in its day for how quickly societies develop literacy, and the gains were not equally distributed. Where there was greater adoption of the printing press, those cultures advanced more quickly in terms of literacy.

He then talked about electrification. So again, places that adopted electricity sooner saw faster economic development and raising the standard of living. A part of me thinks that’s a little grandiose, to associate AI in the same category as the printing press and electricity. But I don’t know, maybe not.

Maybe history will show that that’s actually a spot-on place for it to be. But one of the real standout comments that he made to me, and it almost sounds silly to say, but I’m so glad he pointed it out, which wasin order to make this technology possible, there are things that have to happen in the real world that Microsoft as a business has to be about.

It’s not just engineers and programmers. It’s people who can build data centers. It’s people who can get the correct permits for a given locality to run the sewer lines and the water lines and the power lines and the internet cable to these facilities. And he just talked about it. He talked about how capital intensive bringing AI to life is just in general for a company like Microsoft. It sort of grounded it for me, almost literally, like it tied it to the earth, what’s required to actually make this technology possible.

And so again, that much broader perspective on what we’re really talking about when we talk about AI was something that helped me get a better handle on what it actually is and what it means.

Kyle Haines: It’s interesting because I think that for all of us, we have the same list of speakers who were most impactful: Trevor Noah and Brad Smith. To build on what both of you said, Brad talked about how despite the invention of the Gutenberg Press, and despite electrification, there’s vast parts of the world that still don’t have access to electricity and vast parts of the world that suffer from illiteracy. And so his call, as I recall it, to the nonprofit community was how can we make AI benefit people equally?

And I was really left with that question. I don’t know that I have answers, but it made me really think about the opportunity for the nonprofit community to use AI to reach communities that have previously had unmet needs. And I think Trevor Noah’s foundation is thinking about how AI can serve as individual tutors for individual students and be really personalized and grow educational attainment.

I think that I came away from the conference with specific things that I could be hopeful about in terms of how AI could not just make my email sound a little clearer, but actually do something measurable and meaningful.

Ryan Ozimek: One of the things I like to talk about from the bigger picture context is, in the United States, as a society and a democracy, we continue to vote to not have our governments do as much. We’re adding more of a burden onto the NGO and the nonprofit sector. So what better time to have hopefully the best next generation of tools and technologies to help those organizations thrive than when we’re making decisions for better or for worse that are going to require these organizations to do more with potentially less?

While I do agree that generative AI to make emails and PowerPoint presentations sound slicker and sharper is nice, there are bigger things to do.

I think a lot of nonprofits, from a productivity perspective, that’s going to be critical for communications and other efforts. Microsoft did insert itself and kind of show off some of the cool things it’s doing behind the scenes with its Office and Outlook and other Copilot services that it’s creating with AI. That also stuck with me as well, that we’re asking a lot of our sector and we’re giving it less funding to do it with.

We have to do everything we can to empower them with the most modern technology that’s going to allow the average nonprofit superhero to do what’s necessary to really shape the modern world.

I feel like this technology has that benefit of doing it, even if it’s just like, “What’s the most important email that I need to read from the last two days?” because I was out taking care of my sick kid, because I’m a single mom, whatever that might be. I feel like there’s something there, there.

Kyle Haines:

We get questions sometimes from our clients, what should I be doing about AI? How would you answer that for an organization asking that question of either of you?

Watt Hamlett: I have heard that question and I wish I felt like I had a silver bullet around that, but I’m actually going to come back to something that one of the speakers at the conference said. This was Karen Kimbrough, who’s the Chief Economist at LinkedIn.

She was talking about how, and this is actually one of the things I really love about Microsoft conferences, they can bring LinkedIn to the table. Let’s talk about what’s happening from the employer and employee side of things.

She talked about how in the past year, there’s been a 70% increase in job postings for AI skills, but certainly not a 70% increase in AI talent, right? So there’s even a real gap in the market today between what companies are looking for and what people actually possess. So she was really encouraging people that you don’t have to be a technologist to have competency around AI. The number one skill is really communication.

But her advice was, don’t feel overwhelmed like you have to make a five-year plan. Think about a six-month plan. That was one of my takeaways from the event is that it’s okay to think small right now because we’re only a year and a half into this to begin with. And what it can be is a long way off from what it is today.

And one of the other speakers, give her credit, Afua Bruce, she recommended identifying your pain points as an organization and identifying your decision makers related to those pain points. And then just explore. Explore options, explore tools. Just try to understand if there are any advances related to AI that can be applied now that would help alleviate some of those pain points you’re experiencing now.

Ryan Ozimek: Yeah, I was just going to add on to that. I think that in popular culture, AI is newer because of ChatGPT and generative AI, giving it some prompt and then having it predict what the response should be. Machine learning and other services have been around for a decade plus.

And so it feels like there’s some underlying systems opportunities that organizations should be recognizing that have been around for a long time. And we’re seeing a new era of what’s happening in AI when it comes to generative content or generative learning.

When I’m talking to organizations, I often ask the same thing that Watt just said, what are the pain points? What problems are we trying to solve? Which just goes back to, don’t insert technology like it’s a panacea. It’s just not going to magically solve the problems.

We need to determine:

  • where technology would be a good fit
  • then recognize there are different types of AI.
  • For those different types of AI, where could it be the best tool for the job?

But I get the sense from a lot of organizations that they’re fearing being left behind. And I keep telling them artificial intelligence has been around for a decade. We’re seeing it in a new era through generative AI.

Keep mindful, keep your eyes open, keep learning. But Watt, as you were just describing, this isn’t that you need to have a five-year plan and get ready to, like, reinvent your organization tomorrow.

Kyle Haines: I hope this wasn’t my metaphor, but it was a metaphor I heard about AI as a tsunami and what I tell people is that it’s way offshore and we have three choices. We can swim towards it where it’s just a little bit of a ripple. We can stand on the shore with our back to it, or we can try to outrun it.

And right now, I think that the best course of action is let’s head towards where the tsunami started. And just let’s take one stroke at a time. It doesn’t need to have an entire plan.

But I just tell people, and I think I wrote about this in a blog post, even a conversation like today with your senior leadership team about what AI means for your organization, that’s doing something about AI, rather than it being something that you don’t talk about.

I’m going to leave both of you with that. You both look like you got the most profound wisdom you’ve ever heard. I’m not sure what the laughter is, but I thought that was the look that I got.

Ryan Ozimek: Sorry, I’ve been on mute. Bent over laughing.

Watt Hamlett: I was looking for the leave meeting button.

Ryan Ozimek: I think that makes a lot of sense. I agree with that as well. I don’t know if I’d use tsunami. Let’s work on the imagery. Let’s ask ChatGBT about the imagery. What could we be thinking about? How can we work this a little better? We’ll workshop it.

Kyle Haines: Yeah, I agree. It’s not a great metaphor, but I think it also does capture the fear that a lot of people have, right? But a tsunami is not a great metaphor.

Watt Hamlett: I think one of the concerns I’ve had related to AI is largely because I just haven’t really understood it. Saying AI is almost like saying computers. It’s such a general term. It’s not until you really get into the specifics that you can start to get your head around it or make judgments about it.

Dr. Fei-Fei Li, who’s the co-director of Stanford’s Human Centered AI Institute said that there’s nothing “artificial” about artificial intelligence. It’s made by humans. It’s used by humans, and it will have to be governed by humans. I hear that as an invitation, you know, that it is a conversation that we’re all invited to. And I think, like you say, Kyle, let’s take a stroke at a time or a step at a time towards it, because there is clearly such potential.

There’s risk. And there’s ethical considerations and security and privacy and all of those kinds of things, right? But we can’t be intimidated by that into not trying to make the best of this opportunity that we have to shape what that future is going to look like.

Kyle Haines: Yeah. Ryan, did you notice that Watt quoted another person? I feel like this has become who took the best notes at the Microsoft Global Leaders Summit. I mean, doesn’t it feel like that?

Ryan Ozimek: It feels like we all know who actually listened in school and who was daydreaming.

Kyle Haines: Great note taking. We get it.

Watt Hamlett: I’m just trying to lead by example, guys.

Kyle Haines: Well, I really, really appreciate it. Firstly, I appreciate all the conversations that we had at the conference. And this was emblematic of why I wanted to have this conversation today. I definitely appreciate you making time to share your thoughts and insights with our audience and with me. And it’s always great to have a conversation with Watt and Ryan.

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