Q&A: Microsoft president talks Vancouver, immigration, housing and NAFTA

Microsoft President Brad Smith | Greater Vancouver Board of Trade

Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) president Brad Smith took a trip up the I-5 to visit Vancouver on June 28 in an effort to promote stronger ties between the Vancouver and Seattle tech sectors.

After speaking at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, Smith sat down for a media roundtable to discuss immigration, housing, mixed reality and the tech giant’s future in this city.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Business in Vancouver: Donald Trump’s next travel ban, it goes into effect [June 29]. How does something like this impact business? Is Vancouver in play at all as a destination where you guys can look at and say, "The political situation is a little bit more stable, immigration is a little easier right now"?

Smith: … In the short run, the Supreme Court decision did narrow the impact, especially when it comes to the impact on business. I think it’s the broader question that’s probably more interesting and important. I think that one of the many strengths of Canada right now is the way it’s made itself a friendly destination for talented people from all over the world. They’ve raised the immigration number to 300,000, gave the country more capacity. The fact that it really has an immigration plan that gives priorities to people who clearly are a great talent, the fact that there is this sense of stability in the immigration system in Canada are all strengths.

The ultimate opportunity of course is to combine great local talent with great global talent. You would never go to a place if you didn’t have great local talent. And there’s great local talent here in Canada. There’s great local talent here in Vancouver. And then there’s the opportunity to combine great local talent with great global talent. And I think that is a competitive advantage for Canada in the world economy right now.

BIV: With regards to this mixed reality/augmented reality space, beyond Finger Food Studios here in Canada … in what way can you see this ecosystem evolving in the near term?

Smith: I think that there’s an opportunity for growth in, I’ll say, four areas. The first is at the platform level. There’s a growth opportunity for us at Microsoft. We’re very excited about the growth we’re already experiencing here. We’ve been adding jobs here, we’re hiring people who we feel extraordinarily fortunate to attract … Finger Food Studios is exhibit A. They’re just such a strong company. But we’re seeing a collection of companies. Third, I think there’s a great opportunity in the university and higher education space. BCIT is really embracing holograph computing to transform the way it teaches. And I think that is the kind of thing that will just add more fuel to this ecosystem growth.

And then finally, there’s the new startups. And I think this is where they’ll focus on creating accelerators, incubators. A good deal of that is happening already but there’s an opportunity for more of it. And what that really means is there’s an opportunity to see students coming out of UBC, Simon Fraser, other institutions. In some cases, students who are two years away from graduation but four years from now may have very exciting young companies.

… Ultimately what people always aspire to in the world of information technology is to create what they call a flywheel. You just start something moving and it keeps spinning. You can start to see how someone creates such a flywheel here in Vancouver.

Vancouver Sun: I’m wondering if you could talk about Vancouver being such an appealing place for a company like Microsoft that is also appealing for international candidates that come from other cities around the world. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the housing market here. It’s appealing but also expensive.

Smith: Definitely housing is a factor. Housing in Vancouver is very attractive — and expensive. I do think it’s important that there be the recognition as has now emerged that people who have come from other countries who are going to live here, not be required to pay an extra tax. It’s one thing to have a policy that says that you’re going to buy something and you’re not going to live here, there may be a higher tax. But housing is expensive enough without requiring people to pay a higher tax for the place they’re going to live in. And I think that is some progress over the last 12 months.

I think that all around us in every city where technology is really flourishing, we’re seeing higher housing prices because these tend to be attractive cities. I think it is something of an issue for the kinds of people we would attract. But in all honesty I think we all have to worry about it a lot more for the other people who may be pinched or forced out by higher prices.

Because I think the young people that we attract want to live in a healthy community and they recognize that a healthy community means a healthy diverse community. And that means a community that people of a variety of incomes can afford to live in.

Canadian Press: Isn’t it risky though to be investing in Canada at a time when the flow of goods and services across the border seem so uncertain? I mean, aren’t you concerned about the possibility NAFTA could wind up being ripped up and then suddenly products that are created in Canada could face a significant levy when they cross the border?

Smith: Just as we are big supporters of what I’ll call a healthy immigration system, we are big supporters of what I’ll call a healthy trading system. So I would say that there’s really two ways to think about your question.

First, the [NAFTA] issue is not without risk. But the world is not without risk. We don’t really have an alternative that says let’s only focus on the places that have no risk because I’m not sure there are any places in the world. There are challenges everywhere.

But second, we do bring to the whole issue some sense of optimism. As Prime Minister Trudeau has pointed out, NAFTA has been revised and improved over 15 times since it was initially signed. And so I’d almost go as far as to say that evolution and improvement are and have been an inherent part of a healthy trading agreement.

… I also just have an optimistic sense that at the end of the day, common sense tends to prevail.

BIV: It’s been a year, just about, since Pacific Centre’s expansion happened. Ultimately, what was the goal there and how would you grade it with regards to reaching those goals you had in mind for that new office?

Smith: Our goal was then and remains, I would say, twofold. One is to create a world-class software development centre. And the second is to become a constructive and responsible part of this community in ways that will help the tech sector and community grow.

And I’m not going to sort of give ourselves a grade just because if I give ourselves an A, you sort of say, ‘Well aren’t you a little too highfalutin?’ or ‘Aren’t you too easy a grader?’ If I give ourselves a C, then I have to go to [global headquarters, Redmond, Wash.] and explain why we got such as bad grade.

BIV: See, you almost fell for my trap, though.

Smith: But what I would say is this: I’m actually really pleased by the progress. So you ask yourself how do you measure progress? Well, No. 1: are we hiring great people? The answer to that is clearly yes. The number of jobs is growing, the number of people is growing and we’re really thrilled with the talent that we’ve been able to hire here.

No. 2: the way I measure success, is this now creating a vibe across our campus in Redmond? Are other engineering leaders sort of asking themselves, ‘Oh, what’s going on in Vancouver? Is this a place where I should be thinking more about?’ And the answer to that is yes.