Don’t pursue a career. Pursue moments.

Rory Preddy, Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft South Africa, shares some insights into the challenges facing employees with disabilities in SA, the potential for AI and advances in technology to be a great transformer, and his experience working for multinational technology company Microsoft.

1. What do you feel are some of the biggest challenges for persons with disabilities in SA in terms of the workplace?

Right off the bat, I can tell you that bandwidth infrastructure, and accessible, affordable equipment are two of the biggest challenges we face. 

The fact is that in South Africa, we still don’t have significant market penetration for network connectivity and laptops. What makes accessibility easy is means to use the tools and technologies and especially Microsoft tools and technologies on bandwidth appropriable equipment.  It is why we believe that developers and organisations need to think of accessibility upfront, when you design your app, when you design your website to make sure that it caters for the South African populace which has a broadband deficit.

We need to superimpose the technology challenges, with some of the more classical challenges for people with disability, which includes being chosen for a role.  In other words, organisations need to cater for disability, they need to hire disabled people, because they are not only advocates, but they also they work on solving challenges in the business. They work harder to ensure that they can meet their dream of catering for disabled people.

2. Do you find most SA businesses have accommodation policies in place for people with disabilities?

Absolutely not.  For many organisations, when they think of accommodation policies, they only think of wheelchair ramp access.  Disability has changed recently to also include ADHD, autism and other neuro-spectrums, and disability might also apply to the silver generation (people with failing eyesight). 

The world has changed, and true accommodation policies should include a work from home, remote access policy, beyond the lockdown that COVID-19 has enforced.  We have only been remote working for four or five months because of COVID-19 – everything has changed, almost overnight.

The world has moved forward and accessibility has really gained from that because we finally have a voice, we’re no longer limited in the ability to walk and talk and act, as long as we have a technical avenue, we are as able as the next person, if not more, because we’ve always been involved in and leveraged technology.

At the end of the day, we must all remember that there are no limits to what people can achieve when technology reflects the diversity of everyone who uses it.

We realise that each organisation has its own pace and starting point.  The first step is recognising that if you don’t design for accessibility, you are actively excluding a large segment of the global population.

3. Can you comment on Microsoft’s accommodation policies in SA?

Microsoft believes disability is a strength, and over the years we have woven inclusivity into the fabric of our company to ensure our products effectively meet the needs of all our customers.

Some of our first employee disability resource groups, initiatives and accessibility features date back to the 90’s. From launching Sticky Keys in 1994, to the latest and greatest native accessibility features in Windows and Office – we have a longstanding commitment to building a company-wide imperative to create products and services that can be used by everyone.

In recent years, our leadership has made it clear that in order to create transformative technology, inclusion needs to be a priority. Today, accessibility is embedded into the DNA of our company culture, product design and innovation pipelines so that it remains a core priority for the years to come.

We believe that building a robust culture of accessibility across all business groups leads to breakthrough technologies. Diverse backgrounds and points of view enable the positive changes we need in the world.   We also know there is an untapped pool of talented people with disabilities with skills aligned to the work we are doing every day.

Through the company’s 16 disability employee resource groups, accessibility education collateral, and inclusive recruiting initiatives like the Autism Hiring Program, we have learned a lot over the years about building, maintaining, and improving our accessibility workplace culture.

We are always eager to share these learnings and practices with other organisations in hopes of systematically reducing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities, which is double that of people without.

4. How did you come to work at Microsoft? How long have you been there for?

I was approached by Microsoft, while I was employed somewhere else.  At the time, I was advocating for accessibility in the South African context and one of the reasons Microsoft approached me is because they saw that we had similar cultural values, that I believed that if you didn’t actually initiate contact with your colleagues around certain prevalent issues, then nothing would change. Since joining the team in December 2018, it has been a whirlwind. I’ve learned so much and I consider myself really privileged to be actively involved in helping them reach their accessibility goals.

5. How do you feel artificial intelligence is going to build careers in the future?

There is no doubt that AI will be a great transformer, improving the efficiency of many sectors and enabling the creation of higher-value services that can lead to overall economic growth. Like other technologies introduced since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, however, AI and its combination with automation also raises concerns about its long-term impact on employment. 

We do not foresee artificial intelligence fully replacing humans in the workforce; rather we see it as a universally accessible tool to augment human abilities. As AI continues to open new businesses and create new employment opportunities, capitalising on unique human capacities for creativity and agility – human characteristics that are difficult for computers to mimic – will only increase in importance. 

6. Specifically, can AI make the future of work more inclusive for persons with disabilities?

Absolutely.  We believe that AI can unlock solutions to some of the biggest challenges people with disabilities face. That’s why in 2018 we launched AI for Accessibility, a $25 million, 5-year programme aimed at leveraging the power of AI to create new assistive technology. Examples include:  iTherapy/InnerVoice (Communication/Connection); ObjectiveEd/Braille AI Tutor (Daily Life); Leonard Cheshire/career path tools (Employment)

7. What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career to date?

Over the duration of my career, I have had three fundamental spinal surgeries and in each of those, I lost a certain amount of mobility. Each time, I had to adjust, to cater for the changes and look at how I could use artificial intelligence and technology to enable me to work at my optimal.  And I learnt so much while doing that because it gave me empathy for people, who had experienced similar challenges and hardships as me.  It gave me the drive to speak on these topics.  When I went through these issues, it was a learning experience and I am committed to finding ways to ensure that other people don’t have to go through that.  I want to make sure that people have the technology to get up and about, to find gainful and meaningful employment, despite any challenges they might face.

8. What has been your career highlight so far?

This is a deeply emotional story for me to tell, because I had to learn how to bare my soul to the audiences that I was presenting to.  The first time I had to do this, I was doing a talk to an audience of 500 people, about how Microsoft technology assists people via the Xbox Adaptive Controller.  At the end of the talk, I told them about how this was dear to me because it gave people the same avenues of mobility that I had battled with throughout my career.   In preparing for the talk, I asked my colleagues whether I should show emotion, or hold it together and remain composed.  I felt that I owed it to them and myself to be able to show emotion. And I remember the exact moment that I learned how to open up in a group of thousands of people, and I’ve never stopped since then. But it was difficult.  In the end, it was the greatest achievement I can honestly say in my career.

9. Where do you live at the moment?

I am currently based in the Johannesburg area.

10. What advice would you give to other people wanting to pursue a career in IT?

My advice is this.  Don’t pursue a career.  Pursue moments.  Those moments that are fundamental to yourself and to others so that you can look back at and say that you weren’t only focused on the career and the money and the goals but there were distinct moments where you have changed your and other people’s lives.