Trailblazers Special: Walter Isaacson Interviews Michael Dell

Navigating the most digital point in human history — Michael Dell joins a special episode about what things may look like as the world becomes more digital than ever before.
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When challenges arise, we often look to technology for answers. With that in mind, on this special episode of Trailblazers, Walter (virtually) sits down with Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Technologies, for a one-on-one conversation about optimism about what things look like on the other side of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

What You’ll Hear In This Episode:

● Catching up (0:00)

● How things have changed (2:30)

● The incredible speed of digital transformation (7:31)

Challenging times breed resourcefulness and innovation.
A few examples going on right now:

● Alienware is donating spare processing power to research using Folding@Home, and you can too

● Kinsa is using its digital thermometers to track fever hot spots

Robots are helping to clean hospitals

● Texas grocery chain HEB prepared and innovated ahead of the game

● A smartband keeps you from touching your face

Want to know more about Dell Technologies’ perspective on the current situation? Read the blog, or uncover more stories about recovering together.

“I think we might be experiencing a kind of human transformation with empathy, and generosity, and gratefulness, and selflessness, and humility.”

— Michael Dell

Guest List

  • Michael Dell is Chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies

Walter Isaacson: 00:00 Hello, Walter Isaacson here with a special episode of Trailblazers. We’re going through a unique and difficult time right now, we’re physically distancing when we leave the house, and many of us, including myself, are working from home. No one is sure when things will get back to normal, and it’s quite likely they’ll be a brand new normal when all of this is over. In this time of so many unknowns, the only thing we do know for certain is that innovation, in all of its many forms, is the only way out of this.

Walter Isaacson: 00:35 Today on the show, we’re talking to Michael Dell, the CEO and Founder of Dell Technologies. I’ve known Michael for 30 years. I’ve watched him form a company, then step aside so new leaders could take over, and then, return in order to save it when a new wave of innovation threatened to disrupt it. And I’ve admired as he and his wife Susan created a foundation focusing on education and health, that reflects the values instilled in him by his parents, Lorraine and Alex Dell. I reached Michael at his home in Texas.

Michael Dell: 01:15 Hey, Walter.

Walter Isaacson: 01:16 How are you doing, Michael?

Michael Dell: 01:17 I’m doing fine. How are you?

Walter Isaacson: 01:19 Pretty good, pretty good. How’s the family? How’s Susan?

Michael Dell: 01:21 Everybody’s good. How about your family?

Walter Isaacson: 01:23 We’re in New Orleans. We’re doing fine. We’re hunkered down a bit, but we’re sitting on the balcony usually, and watching the very depleted parade of people walk down Royal Street occasionally.

Michael Dell: 01:34 I understand. Yeah. Well, we’re, we’re hunkered down here in Austin.

Walter Isaacson: 01:40 Michael Dell, thank you for joining us.

Michael Dell: 01:43 Great to be with you, Walter.

Walter Isaacson: 01:44 So Michael, explain to me w- what you do each day? How are you doing it in this crisis?

Michael Dell: 01:49 Well, you know, I get up in the morning and (laughs) and, you know, obviously working at home, go, go throughout my normal meetings that I would have, they’re all online. They’re all video meetings, trying to get outside, and go for long walks, and reflect on, you know, what’s, what’s going on, uh, checking in with people more frequently, staying close to my family, and my loved ones, and making sure everyone knows that w- you know, we’re here for them, and, uh, that sort of thing.

Walter Isaacson: 02:21 Do you miss the interactions that used to come when you traveled so much?

Michael Dell: 02:26 Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I, I guess I don’t really miss the travel that much. I’m mean (laughs) I had not, I miss the, the interaction with, with people around the country, and around, around the world, but I have to say, I, I don’t really miss getting on the airplanes as much.

Walter Isaacson: 02:45 You know, this pandemic is like nothing we’ve ever experienced, you know, health as our biggest concern now, but I’m also worried about people are losing their jobs, and I’m worried about the toll on folks that comes from having to stay isolated. How have you and your colleagues been adapting?

Michael Dell: 03:01 Well, first of all, I think, you know, the full impact of this is uncertain, and it certainly has, uh, far reaching effects on almost every person, every family, every community, and like you said, there’s a concern that it’s left us isolated, and, uh, the emotional, uh, effects of that. I actually think I- in some ways we’re emotionally more united than we’ve ever been. There, there’s no denying the detrimental effects it’s having on the economy, but I think there is another story that is actually quite inspiring. I’m, I’m very impressed with the way our team has adapted to the new realities, uh, and I think we might be experiencing a kind of human transformation with empathy, and generosity, and gratefulness, and, uh, selflessness, and humility. Uh, our companies are becoming more human. We’ve got children, and dogs popping up in our conference calls, and even though we’re more remote, we’re more connected, uh, in ways than we ever been.

Michael Dell: 04:10 Yesterday was the traditional Take Your Kids To Work Day, and we did it online, and we had coding classes, and arts and crafts, and, uh, I was reading a story, a story time to the kids and answering questions, and so, you know, we’re, we’re over communicating, and trying to keep everybody connected, and also, reminding them of the important work that they’re doing to keep the world running.

Walter Isaacson: 04:36 You know, e- we love the physical presence of people, being around them, and I know we’re all missing that, but what are some of the upsides that you see of the way of doing business remotely, being able to do things quickly and efficiently?

Michael Dell: 04:53 As we’ve had, uh, interactions with customers I think what we found is that we probably didn’t need all the travel that we were doing, and online meetings can be super productive, and so, I think that’s a, a big upside. It does get old after a while sitting in a, in a room, and, and just having, you know, meeting after meeting by video (laughs).

Walter Isaacson: 05:19 (laughs).

Michael Dell: 05:19 You know as, as we think about the, the flexibility that we provide our, our teams, and, look, we started work from home at Dell over a decade ago, and we did that really to provide flexibility for our workforce, and it’s a good thing we did. You know, when we turned it on, this was now six weeks ago or so, uh, over a weekend and said 160,000 people work from home, it actually worked surprisingly well, so I think that’s going to create all kinds of, of, of new opportunities.

Walter Isaacson: 05:56 How’s the situation changed the way you act as a leader?

Michael Dell: 06:01 Well, I think over communication is, uh, super important, and, you know we are, uh, we’ve sort of gone from quarterly meetings to weekly meetings, and sharing the stories with our team of how our technology is helping to address the crisis on the front lines, and I think, you know, when you’re in a crisis you’ve really got to do three things. Fi- first, you got to make your team feel safe and protected, and ensure they have the resources to be productive, and as I said, I’m inspired by the way our teams are able to deal with this and have adapted, and they’re juggling the various responsibilities of their lives, uh, whether it’s, you know, taking care of kids, or, uh, elderly parents that are, that are vulnerable.

Michael Dell: 06:51 I think the second thing is customers will remember how you help them during a crisis, and they’ll remember that forever (laughs) and, and so, you know, we’re certainly over communicating with our customers, reaching out to them more often. I find that the conversations with customers are at one level very personal while at the same time we’re focused on how we can help them keep their businesses running, and keep society moving, and then finally, you know, you’ve got to make sure that your business is financially strong, you’re able to navigate the environment, stay focused on the future, and I think the companies that can do, you know, both of those things will come out of this stronger.

Michael Dell: 07:37 The, the effects are going to be very different, obviously, by industry, by company size, and even location, but you’ve got to get out in front of it, over communicate, do it with empathy, explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and the quicker, or the more often you communicate the better.

Walter Isaacson: 07:56 You know, our country was definitely not prepared for this. What cracks or inefficiencies has this situation exposed in our society?

Michael Dell: 08:05 I think it’s certainly exposed and exacerbated gaps in access to technology, infrastructure, education, health care and economic security. You know, if we do it right, it could be a chance to address many of those challenges, uh, as we look to come out on the other side of this. You know, there’s no playbook for anybody in this, and, uh, one of the common themes that we’ve seen is the incredible speed at which, uh, digital transformation (laughs) is now occurring. You know, what companies might have done in two or three years, they’re doing in, you know, two or three months, and just imagine for a second if this had happened 10 or 15 years ago, without all of the connectivity, and the technology that we have today, and so, while there’s certainly a story about the horrible economic effects of this, I think there’s another story about the incredible amount of economic activity that we’ve been able to continue.

Michael Dell: 09:10 And, you sort of ask the question, what happens if everybody works from home? Well, we’re finding out. O- organizations are able to adapt pretty well, and successfully transition most of their workforce to working from home. Uh, we’re seeing all kinds of organizations from small to large public sector, schools are, are being redefined, grocery stores are having to restructure their, their, their workflow, and it’s inspiring to see the resourcefulness and the innovation, and look, I think technology is going to continue to reinvent the way we work, and learn, and conduct business, and find solutions to the problems out there, and I think technology will accelerate the way we address those gaps in society. At least that’s my hope.

Walter Isaacson: 10:07 Dell Technologies as well as the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been very involved in education. How do you think this may change education?

Michael Dell: 10:17 Well, certainly I- in a remote learning, we, we (laughs) we’ve got a grand experiment right now with all of the students in a giant remote learning experiment. I think the ability to access the highest quality resources online, it, it certainly changes the whole dynamic of, of access to education, and look, there’s kind of a focus from doing it fast to, to doing it right I- in all these domains, and we have to put the right tools in place to be able to, you know, do it efficiently, make sure there’s engagement. I again, I’m optimistic. I think there will be incredible learnings that come out of this. You know, I think many of the institutions of higher education will adapt, and, and have to change as a result of this, you know, the idea of doing things over, over four years o- on a set schedule, sort of goes out the window when everything is online.

Walter Isaacson: 11:21 You know, can, chaotic moments in history often breed disruption, and they often breed innovation as well. What do you see as the biggest changes in society coming out of COVID-19?

Michael Dell: 11:33 Well, so, so many. I mean, I- to your point, if you look back in previous crises, uh, you know, it was a time of incredible innovation, and many new companies were created. I think somebody once said, “We went into, uh, World War Two on horseback and we came out, you know, splitting the atom.” Or something like that. The focus of, of, of the world has started to move to how do we recover? You know, it’s, it’s a delicate dance obviously. I think I’m inspired that, you know, medical science is hot on the trail here with 70 plus vaccines in development, all kinds of therapeutics being tested, and, you know, another interesting aspect of this, I think we’re finding environmental benefits. Certainly all the vehicles, and airplanes that were used to move people around, those were large sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Michael Dell: 12:34 Businesses are finding that they didn’t need all those things, and we can virtualize, more travel interaction, collaboration and become cleaner, greener, uh, society, and I think now’s the time to r- reflect on all the things that we’ve learned during the crisis. Uh, we’re finding we can be quite productive, and, you know, we’re a- a- actively planning to say, hey, how can we, how can we take a number of these lessons going forward? I, I know many companies are, are doing that, so we’ll see how much of this we carry forward, but I believe there will be lasting positive results from this, and I believe there will be many new innovative companies, innovations that come out of this.

Michael Dell: 13:24 I also think, you know, it will accelerate a lot of the technology trends that were going on digital transformation, 5G, the Internet of Things, and we’ll use this as an opportunity to embrace the things that, that, uh, were already happening, and look, I’m I’m an optimist. I think, uh, there will be great things that come out of this, and we’re learning as we go, and I believe if we put people first the world’s going to emerge stronger from this crisis.

Walter Isaacson: 13:59 Thank you, Michael, and, uh, stay healthy.

Michael Dell: 14:02 Same to you. Thank you very much.