Leading Tech in Changing Times in 2020

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“People are asking, when will we get back to normal? I say, let’s not get back to normal, let’s get back to remarkable, because there were parts of ‘normal’ that were not great to begin with. Let’s take this opportunity to build businesses that are more resilient, more equitable, a world that is better, where access to technology is available to everybody.”

On June 16 and 17, 2020, DataRobot hosted AI Experience Worldwide, our first-ever virtual conference, which brought together customers, partners, and AI visionaries from across a diverse landscape to discuss how AI-driven organizations can accelerate the time-to-impact of AI solutions across the enterprise. Recognizing the obstacles presented by the uncertain times we live in today, the DataRobot team designed the conference agenda to address pragmatic solutions to the most pressing challenges data scientists, developers, business analysts, and executives are facing right now.

One of these sessions was our leadership panel, Leading Tech in Changing Times in 2020, which focused on how to help businesses be more strategic, more targeted, and more thoughtful in their decision-making. Moderated by Natalie Hogan, DataRobot’s Chief Administrative Officer, this dynamic session featured a panel discussion with world-class leaders in the AI industry, discussing perspectives on the future and how leaders can navigate through crises.

AI Experience Worldwide

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What have you learned in your career about getting through past crises and getting through the economic slowdown?

There are incredible opportunities for innovation right now. Companies can leverage data to make things more personalized, and the medical field is a perfect example. We’re seeing research and collaboration that we haven’t seen before with so many organizations focused on a singular goal of addressing the challenges that have come from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Furthermore, enterprises are now completely data-driven. People are looking for where demand is recovering, and data plays a key role in that. We can address the data needs, and that brings in a world of exciting possibilities. Data has a key role to play in restoring visibility over businesses and how they operate in this new economic reality. 

This is also a time to go back to your company mission in a back-to-basics manner. Ask yourself, how do we deliver on the mission, even with the constraints we’re facing today? How do we innovate on the mission? Try to put the building blocks in place so that no one would ever want to go back to the old way of doing things. 

“The advantage of being in the industry a long time is that you realize that these things do happen, and they are very devastating when they happen, but calm minds prevail. From a business perspective, there is a path forward. It’s not a time to despair, it’s actually a time to prevail and focus on what you can do and how you can innovate.”

How can AI help people get through a rapidly changing world?

This is one of those times where past data doesn’t help. We can’t go back to the 1918 Influenza pandemic for answers, because the world has changed so much. Humanity wasn’t on the move as much as they are today. The world is changing minute by minute right now, and the only way you can find patterns as quickly as the world changes and adapt as quickly is by using the tools that we have. 

We need to find a way to use unique and creative technologies to understand how new data is changing daily and how we could use it to predict what could happen in the next two to ten years. It is very hard to do something like that with something other than machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

“This is a special time where we can create an ingrained sense of trust in machine learning and AI, or erode that trust if it’s not done correctly. It’s an important time to keep watching and monitoring how those technologies are predicting outcomes. This is a time to find the real power by blending humans and machines to make a better world going forward.”

What keeps you up at night? 

In the past three months, all of us have had to make pretty big business and personal decisions about how to move forward. A big worry is people being paralyzed and not moving forward. This is a particularly hard time for leaders to make the right decisions amidst the confusion. 

Another big worry is employees’ health and well-being. While many companies have managed pretty well so far, the danger is not over. The two groups of people who will get you through this crisis, are your customers and employees. Every decision you make has to be made in their best interest. 

A big fear is that we don’t pause and take a moment to learn the lessons. We need to face, what happens if this happens again? What lessons can we take forward? People have a natural inclination to want to bury hard times and move forward. We need to continuously remind each other what this was and how we move forward.

“I coach people to build a worst case plan and recognize that that’s probably as bad as it’s going to get. And then build an opportunity plan. Going through that simple exercise helps people unpack their fears and move forward.”

What advice do you have for leaders in this time of crisis?

A crisis like this is unlike any other crisis we have faced before, which means that the opportunity is even larger. But we have historically bounced back from crises in the past. Also, we have to remember that not every bad thing that could happen will actually happen. Some things have changed forever, but not everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. 

There is also tremendous value in focusing on your work and maintaining a sense of normalcy. Turn off the news, because things can become way bigger in our minds than they need to be. Leaders also have to work at setting the right tone. Bring everybody back to the work at hand and reassure them that, with that focus, things will work out. 

Like family traditions, companies benefit from falling back on the rituals of their corporate culture. Weekly town halls and one-on-one meetings make a big difference. At DataRobot, everyone at the company did a May Mission for the month ahead to think intentionally about their work. This is the type of engagement and structure that we need so that people do not fall back on emotion, but rather can focus on moving ahead. This is actually a time where new leaders emerge. 

“You cannot let a crisis go to waste. There are many bad aspects of a crisis, of course, but one important aspect is that you’ve got everybody’s attention. All leaders are worried about the same things — health and business resiliency. How do you become much stronger from this?” 

How do you think about people leadership and leading organizations through dynamic growth?

It’s incredibly important to align a company when you’re going through high growth. There are three parts to this. One is to emphasize, what are the most important things we’re focused on? Second is to set up measurements so that people know how they are doing. Finally, it’s important to reinforce for folks at all levels that you want them on the team. If you do that right, people will give you incredible effort. They’ll engage and they’ll take risks, and they get out there. If you’re not aligned, it’s like a paddle boat with not all oars rowing in the same direction and creating friction. 

People often say they don’t have time to accomplish what they want to accomplish. There are three resources — capital, talent, and time. Everybody has the same amount of time in a day. A leader cannot create time, but they can do something about more capital and more talent. 

Sometimes, as leaders, we want to make sure everybody feels good. But actually, it’s important to just sit down and listen. You may be having town halls about the wrong thing. Maybe people aren’t worried about the resiliency of the company, and it’s something else. Have a meeting that’s just Q & A. Let everyone tell you what’s top of mind.

“I operate on three vectors at the same time. 

  1. Massively increase the tempo and pace of the organization. Most organizations naturally become glacial unless someone is driving them really hard. When you compress people’s perceptions of time, then the energy comes into the organization and then it runs under its own power. 
  2. Raise standards. When people present things to me, I ask, ‘Do you like it? Are you excited about this?’ Most people live in the middle ground. Don’t do that. Until we are hyper-excited about what we’re doing, it’s not worth doing. 
  3. Increase focus. What that means is that I take things off of people’s plates, rather than adding to it. Most organizations swim in glue. They are a mile wide and an inch deep and they progress slowly, and people are very frustrated. You can change the pace of the organization by increasing focus. Organizations completely change as a result.”
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