Finding Solutions to Australia’s Biggest Problems: Steve Worrall and Dr Larry Marshall

Steve Worrall and Dr Larry Marshall

Steve Worrall, Managing Director, Microsoft Australia (left), with Dr Larry Marshall, Chief Executive, CSIRO (right).

Steve Worrall, Managing Director with Microsoft Australia, and Dr Larry Marshall, the Chief Executive with CSIRO, were recently interviewed for the WORK WITH PURPOSE podcast.

Asked what his experience had been of the COVID-19 pandemic, Steve Worrall said, ‘lots of experiences … have been jammed into the last six months’. The first and most important of these for him was the speed of change that had resulted from the pandemic: ‘Quite obviously every person in the country, every person on the planet has had their life turned upside down’.

As the CEO of a company based in Silicon Valley during 9/11, Dr Larry Marshall had felt he was well prepared for a crisis of a similar magnitude. During 9/11 his staff went through a response cycle of ‘Am I safe? Is my job safe? And is there a plan?’. In contrast, what really impressed him were the questions that people asked at CSIRO when the pandemic hit: ‘Are we all safe?’, ‘How can I help (meaning how can I help the country)?’, and ‘What can we do to help Australia recover?’.

Steve said that the first question we all ask ourselves in a crisis is ‘Am I okay and are my loved ones okay?’, followed rapidly by ‘How do I help others?’ and ‘How do we come together?’.

‘I think … one of the strongest characterisations of the last six months has been the fact that business and government has come together in a way we’ve not seen, that I’ve not seen in my working career.

I think it gives us great confidence … notwithstanding the challenges that we’re experiencing today, and all the challenges that are still ahead, that we’re all in this together but together we’re going to find a way through.’

Larry reflected that CSIRO was a very purpose-driven organisation and this ‘really carried us through in a very powerful way’, commenting later that:

‘There’s nothing like a crisis to give people common purpose and that common purpose drives alignment. Of course, when we’re aligned, we’re far more efficient and far more effective than when we’re misaligned or even competing in some cases.’

He went on to discuss how CSIRO is seeking to broaden that alignment to focus on really clear national challenges that Australia is facing as it looks to recover from COVID-19 through its new missions program — missions that will be co-created by the brightest minds across the research sector and industry.

‘The whole idea of missions is they’re collaborative.

We have been co-creating these missions by deep engagement with companies like Microsoft, and more broadly in Australian industry, and equally big engagement across the whole university sector and other publicly funded research institutions, because you’ve got to have a “Teams Australia” approach … you can’t just pick a mission on your own and say “We’re going to go do it”.’

One example where CSIRO and Microsoft have worked together in partnership with traditional owners is in managing a noxious weed in Kakadu National Park that is impacting on the population of magpie geese and other wildlife.

Steve said this work fired up many people in his team who then thought:

‘Wow, that’s what we’ve achieved together. Where else can we take these assets that we have?

And how can we work with our partners, CSIRO, to operate at the intersection of science and technology? Because we know that that’s were a lot of the solutions to our country’s biggest problems are going to be found.’

Larry explained that one of the reasons CSIRO had been deepening its relationship with Microsoft was because both organisations have a very strong interest in getting better management of data.

‘CSIRO for decades has been one of the world’s foremost authorities on marine plastic: “how does plastic get into the ecosystem and how do we stop it?”.

But it wasn’t till we partnered with Microsoft, that we’re able to put together all of our domain experience and Microsoft’s amazing AI experience, you put them together and pretty quickly, we were able to analyse videos from rivers around the world to actually track plastics back to their source and help countries better understand and better control the plastics getting into the ocean.

And that of course then led to our plastics mission, which is to eliminate 90% of the plastic getting into Australia’s ecosystem by 2025. It’s a very ambitious goal, and you couldn’t do it without data and deep science, but it’s a great example of how powerful that is.’

During the interview Steve Worrall and Dr Larry Marshall also discussed the challenges of cybersecurity, the need to raise the levels of digital literacy and capability across government, the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, and the role of digital platforms in our future economy.

WORK WITH PURPOSE is produced in partnership between contentgroup and IPAA ACT, with the support of the Australian Public Service Commission.

The podcast can be accessed from the link below and is also available on Spotify, SoundCloud and iTunes.

Work with Purpose

Episode #20: Let's stick together - with Microsoft Australia's Steven Worrall and CSIRO's Dr Larry Marshall