Irish educator lands global role with tech giant

Wild Geese: Steven Duggan, director, Worldwide Education Strategy, Microsoft

Steven Duggan spent 12 years as a secondary school teacher before being in the right place at the right time landed him a job offer from Microsoft in 1995. He has been with the corporation since, working in education roles in Ireland, Europe and, most recently, the US as director of Microsoft's global education strategy based at company headquarters in Seattle.

When a big company such as Microsoft comes knocking, not many people would turn them down. But Steven Duggan did.

“I was head of English in Sutton Park school at the time. I had kids facing Junior Cert and Leaving Cert exams and felt I couldn’t abandon them midway through the year,” he says.

“In the event, Microsoft allowed me to continue to the end of the term and to come in to ‘work’ in the afternoons and evenings. I spent 12 really great years teaching in Wesley College, King’s Hospital, Sligo Grammar School and Sutton Park. I have been really fortunate to have been able to continue working in education throughout my 20 years at Microsoft.”

The Duggans moved to the US in 2012 and live in Redmond, Washington, close to the Microsoft campus. They have six children, a family size that challenged administrators. “We were the largest family Microsoft had ever relocated,” Duggan says.

Passion and vocation

Education is still his passion and vocation: his current role involves managing Microsoft’s partnerships with global organisations including Unesco, and with NGOs and cultural institutions such as World Vision and the British Council. He also sits on the governing board of the Unesco Institute for Information Technologies in Education based in Moscow.

Duggan says because Microsoft is a global company, work culture is much the same regardless of geography. “What I have found, and it’s a cliché but true,” he says “is that many of my American colleagues live to work rather than work to live. Career has much more importance than it does in Ireland.

“Work-life balance is a constant challenge here, but I brought an Irish set of priorities with me and still refuse to do email or conference calls at the weekend. I have to travel quite a lot and don’t want to miss any more of the kids’ soccer games or family outings than I have to.”

The biggest difference the Duggans have noticed between Ireland and the US is the education system.

“The Irish school system is often attacked – and rightly so – for placing too great an emphasis upon rote learning and on a competitive exam system that pits students one against the other, when the most important skill they will be asked to demonstrate at work is the ability to work collaboratively, as part of a team,” Duggan says.

“That said, the Irish school system also encourages students to be outspoken, creative and to demonstrate consistent effort, which I believe is why Irish people are so often successful in multinational organisations . . .

“In the US school system, by contrast, assessment is constant and unforgiving of difference. As both a parent and a teacher, I have found that praising children for what they do well, rather than grading them on what they find difficult, is a vastly more effective approach.”

Duggan says that what he likes most about the Microsoft environment is that it is a workplace that embraces diversity.

“Under Satya Nadella’s leadership, employing people from different backgrounds is a core tenet of our recruitment strategy – not to meet quotas, but to benefit from the unique talents and experiences that people who are differently able can bring to the company,” he says.

“As someone with bipolar two, it is comforting to know that my abilities as well as my challenges are recognised and valued. I also admire the way employees are encouraged to risk failure in pursuit of a new idea or way of working.”

Challenges

Uprooting a young family (aged two to 18 at the time) was not without its challenges for Duggan and his wife, Sylvia. However, they felt the opportunity it gave their children was worth the effort.

“They sit in classrooms each day with children of every race, creed and colour and when we return home to Ireland – whenever that may be – they will bring that life experience and cultural awareness with them,” he says.

The tech sector in the US is always on the lookout for suitably qualified people, he adds.

“Despite high unemployment, there are tens of thousands of unfilled jobs for technical people of both sexes with the right qualifications or skills. And as my own background shows, you don’t have to be a ‘techie’ to succeed,” he says.

“If you are looking to pursue an opportunity in the US one of the biggest hurdles can be cultural,” he adds. “American job applicants are quite happy to proclaim their own abilities and self-promote.

“For Irish people, who are more inclined toward modesty and expect their qualities, to be recognised rather than extolled, this can prove a challenge. My advice is embrace it and remember that those with the loudest voice are seldom those with most to say.”