Nicholas McQuire, Executive Director of Product Management, Strategic Incubations at Microsoft: Shaping the Future of Tech with AI and Quantum Computing

In the rapidly evolving world of technology, leaders who can anticipate trends and drive innovation are essential. We sat down with Nicholas McQuire, a key figure in Microsoft‘s Strategic Incubations division, whose extensive background as a technology analyst has uniquely positioned him to spearhead product management initiatives. In this interview, he shares how his analytical insights have shaped strategic decisions at Microsoft, discusses the transformative potential of generative AI and quantum computing, and offers a glimpse into the methodologies behind identifying and accelerating new technologies. He also provides valuable advice for business leaders hesitant to embrace AI and automation, emphasizing the importance of a growth mindset and the courage to navigate the unknown.

How has your extensive experience as a technology analyst influenced your approach to leading product management at Microsoft’s Strategic Incubations division?

It’s been a huge influence. Since the beginning of my career, I’ve always loved researching cutting edge/emerging technologies and figuring out the most valuable ways for customers to apply them to their businesses. That’s what I bring to my role here—it’s really, at the core, about continuous learning and future technology innovation which has been at the heart of my career both as an analyst and at Microsoft.

Can you share a specific instance where your insights as a technology analyst directly impacted a strategic decision at Microsoft?

Back in 2017, I zeroed in as an analyst on large-scale AI and responsible AI as core areas of my research and advisory work with CIOs. Generative AI wasn’t big news yet, but I urged Microsoft leadership at that time to focus on a core strength: building trust in AI. It’s awesome to see that they did, and now Microsoft is leading the way.

With the rapid evolution of AI and quantum computing, what emerging technology do you believe will have the most significant impact on businesses in the next five years?

I’m super excited about how generative AI will revolutionize scientific discovery. Imagine designing molecules with AI—that’s what’s happening! AI is essentially evolving from understanding the language of humans to understanding the language of nature, and that’s going to be a game-changer for R&D, scientific discovery and sustainability over the next five years. Gartner for example estimates that by the end of 2025 more than 30% of new drugs and materials will be systematically discovered using generative AI techniques. I think over the next number of years, the combination of high performance computing (HPC) in the cloud, AI models running alongside copilots trained on specific scientific disciplines will be a paradigm shift that will bring real societal impact.

How does Microsoft’s Strategic Incubations division identify and prioritize which new technologies to incubate and accelerate?

We have a number of tools and processes our leadership leverages to prioritize and formulate strategies for new business creation. It’s a mix of category creation, strategic planning, investment in product development and getting our customers involved early on from a co-innovation perspective. We even run workshops to share our insights with customers based on our experience using frameworks like McKinsey’s Horizon and Blue Ocean Strategies. Where we are experiencing is that “the how” of innovation, such as how do you scale emerging technologies from idea-to-product? How do you create a platform and culture for innovation in a company? These are just as important as “the what”, meaning the technology itself, especially today in the wake of generative AI’s arrival in business.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face when incubating new technologies, and how do you overcome them?

There are many, but navigating change and dealing with failure are two big ones! And you’ve got to embrace them both. It’s all about having a ‘learn it all’ and growth mindset. You also have to be comfortable with VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). Being comfortable with VUCA is about staying positive in the fast moving and volatile worlds of emerging tech and new business creation. Our leader in SMT President and COO Mitra Azizirad has a mantra which she often shares with the team on this: “get energized by the word “No.” She argues that the word is “not a closed door – it’s an opportunity to learn, grow and come back stronger – critical to the innovation process. Failure and success have a lot in common. You must embrace one to capture the other.

How do you see the relationship between AI and quantum computing evolving, and what potential synergies do you foresee?

Quantum is the next critical computing paradigm, and it is going to work hand-in-hand with AI. In fact, we see quantum as a hybrid technology spanning HPC, AI and scaled quantum computing and it will be this combination that will help us solve some of our biggest challenges as a planet. We’re talking about tackling huge issues like climate change or food insecurity by using the power of quantum computers to better understand nature at a quantum level by simulating — at scale — atomic and molecular interactions which behave according to quantum physics. Because quantum speaks the language of nature, in essence it is better suited to bring a level of accuracy to molecular computation and predictive chemical design that is not possible with classical computing and AI today. Quantum computing will also be critical for the progress of AI as well in future because it will help to train more powerful and accurate models. It’s a multi-year journey to bring scaled quantum computing to these challenges and it’s super exciting!

What advice would you give to business leaders who are hesitant to adopt AI and automation technologies?

If you’re hesitant about AI, my advice is to dive in. It’s a hands-on kind of technology—you’ve got to use it to get it. And with AI moving so fast, sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option. At Microsoft, we’ve got tons of resources to help you get started and do it responsibly. We would love to help!

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