Michael Saylor: Free education is the solution to automation joblessness
Business Management

Michael Saylor: Free education is the solution to automation joblessness

From the globetrotting on his yacht and corporate jet, to the infamous parties, most of the stories you hear about Michael Saylor, CEO of MicroStrategy, revolve around his copious amounts of money and its resulting glamour. He is personally worth $500M. In 2015 he cut his $592,442 salary and bonus and was only paid in (ludicrously high end) perks which included personal use of the company aircraft (worth over a $100K) and tax benefits (to the tune of $76K).

This image, of course, precedes him and he therefore comes as something of surprise when I meet him in person at the Church House Conference Centre near Westminster Cathedral in central London. First off, the venue it a strange one. Part old fashioned public school, part government building, the seemingly endless series of function rooms are connected by a confusing labyrinth of snaking corridors and wooden staircases. Secondly, he is more excited about the idea of free education than anything else we talk about.

On the subject of MicroStrategy’s niche and future growth plans, he rattles off answers with composite ease, riffing on the competition and what differentiates his company from others in the marketplace (more on this shortly). But it is on the subject of a post-automation world – a pertinent topic by anyone’s reckoning – that he gets really animated. Saylor believes the answer isn’t Universal Basic Income or any of the other solutions proposed, but no cost learning for the unemployed.

“The worst case is you give people money to do nothing [UBI],” he explains. The other option is you give people money to do something that is “not needed” – in other words the kind of job creation schemes that governments often run in times of crisis. However, he believes if you spend the money on free education instead it could “help cure cancer” or any of the other massive social problems that won’t be solved by people with “undergraduate degrees alone”.

There are seven to eight billion people on the planet and only ten million PHDs, he says. “The world needs a billion PHDs.” Yet in the US these costs around $1M and that kind of money is simply not available for most people.

In 2008, Saylor launched the Saylor Academy, which aims to provide free tertiary education to anyone who wants it. This runs a range of courses, a growing number of which are accredited by US universities. “We’re chipping away at it,” says Saylor ruefully, adding state universities are more amenable to getting involved than the more prestigious one “which want to remain elite”. The numbers of students is also increasing, he says, with 225,000 – spread over a range of countries – but it is still “hard to give stuff away”.

“Governments should pay [unemployed] people to go back to school,” he says. “All you have to do is go back and try. You can study anything you like but especially STEM.” Not everyone will succeed, of course, but he believes it will be a good use of charitable funds and the process could be better streamlined with technology. It is well understood that many people are hindered by economic opportunity but he also believes “educational capacity is throttled by technique. Why can’t 10 people set up a university to train 10,000 people with software to help them?”

Of course, various experiments in this field have been tried before. In the 1970s the British government was very keen to hand out money to the unemployed for education. New York is just beginning to roll out initiatives offering free tuition for residents. But still, in the west at least, the idea of education for its own sake appears to have been gradually superseded by a more transactional view of learning. Non-vocational degrees are viewed with increasing levels of suspicion while developments in technology have also resulted in more global forms of cheating. (This excellent program on BBC Radio 4 looks at the rise of plagiarism and essay fraud.)

There is far too much in this subject to cover in a short chat but Saylor is adamant that it is perfectly possible to properly authenticate qualifications with a blend of physical and technological interventions. “A good use of manual labour for 200 people to sit in the room to stop [individuals] cheating. A bad use of manual labour to teach the same stuff over and over again when video [and other forms digital communications] can help.”

Saylor adds that his own degree was in Science, Technology, and Society from MIT  – which was “basically the history of science” – and this seismic change is “not unique in history”. The difference is we just have more paradigm shifts today and most ordinary people will live through two or three, he says. In fact, this formed the backbone of his 2012 bestselling book ‘The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything’.

“I wrote another book on geopolitics,” says Saylor when I ask if he has plans to write more. “But it wasn’t good for business to have an opinion on geopolitics. I may do something on the impact of software and the good it can do,” he says, adding that the prevailing tech trends are still mobile, cloud and proliferation of data and the general argument in the ‘The Mobile Wave’ still stands. “I decided I was happy to sell software,” he adds.

So what about MicroStrategy? Well, firstly the company has been going for a long time – it was founded by Saylor and Sanju Bansal in 1989. Secondly, analytics and BI have only really begun to come into its own recently with the sudden proliferation of data.

The company began a comprehensive restructuring plan in 2014 which included a series of layoffs and resulted in Saylor taking tighter control of the business. “We are very happy with the restructuring,” he says. “We have a balance of $650M in cash and no debt. It is the strongest we’ve been in the history of the company.”

He is also pretty disparaging about competitors Tableau and Qlik who have had bumpy ride over the last 12 months. In June Qlik was bought by private equity firm Thoma Bravo for around $3 billion while Tableau appointed a new CEO last September. “I’ve still got my job,” he says. “Now we’re in place where we can grow stably and consistently” and are committed to the long term.

Saylor sees the core benefits of MicroStrategy over competitors as very clear. “The competition is in a much narrower space,” he says. As MicroStrategy has been in the industry for over 20 years it has an unrivalled suite of enterprise products and “embraced mobile early”. Competitors don’t have anything comparable he adds – they can’t do transactions, communications or generate data and are not so tailored to AWS or IoT. This makes them primarily data visualisation tools, he suggests.

“2017 is the most exiting year to be in the industry,” he says. Everyone is talking about Big Data and mobile technology and he believes the company is in the right place at the right time.

So, what next for the industry as a whole? “The next stage of the mobile wave is the era of mobile commerce,” says Saylor. WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram were all about communications, he explains, but commercial applications will have a lot more value. “The best example is Uber,” he says, this worked because it was commercial but it is only taxis. “Imagine consumerising money transfer, banking, logistics and insurance…”

In the end, one things is certain: it is impossible to ignore the march of technological change. But what is likely to define society in the coming decades is how we respond to it. The answer might be free education, it might be free money or it might be something else in entirely. But something will definitely need to be done.   


Also read:
Free money: The answer to a post-automation world?


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