An interview with podcast host David Carmona, General Manager for AI and Innovation at Microsoft
Leah: A couple of years ago, Microsoft launched the AI Business School to help business leaders understand how to successfully integrate AI into their strategy and culture to take advantage of technological advances to improve operations. There are learning paths for government, education and other industries, with case studies and videos so people can learn when it’s convenient for them. This project has been a success, with more than 2.5 million people participating to date. Now, you’ve launched the AI Business School podcast as an additional resource. Can you tell me why your organization chose to create a podcast?
David: We’ve learned from our customers that they need this kind of content focused on the business of AI, but that they’re looking for more ways to access it. Some people have the desire to dig in to the AI Business School, which is super detailed and in depth. But other people would rather just listen to customers or hear about key topics. So that’s a big reason why we created the podcast.
No matter your preference, both the full AI Business School and the podcast can help you embrace AI in your company as a leader. Often when I talk with customers, I tell a story about my father. I also share this story on the podcast. Many years ago, he was a carpenter. He built furniture in a shipyard. He was great at it, and he loved it, so he ended up creating his own company, and eventually he didn’t build furniture himself anymore. But he was leading the company with his passion and his expertise in the domain. That made his company unique.
The same is true of any business leader today, with one difference. Companies are not just about furniture, or retail, or finance. Every company has become a software company, and will be soon becoming an AI company. It doesn’t mean you need to start creating AI algorithms, but just to know and embrace the possibilities that technology can have in your business as you lead that business. My father would have needed a deep passion not only for the furniture but for the technology to be successful today.
Leah: The podcast has five episodes, each addressing a specific topic. Those topics are strategy, culture, responsibility, innovation and empowerment. Can you tell me why you chose these topics, and then briefly what you hope listeners take away from each episode?
David: In our view, these are the key factors for companies to be successful in embracing an AI transformation, all specific to the business side and not the technology challenges.
Strategy, this is the most obvious one. Strategy is your North Star. If a company is embracing AI without a clear North Star, or going project by project, you are not connecting those projects to a larger vision. It took 17 missions to put a man on the moon, but each of those missions was part of a long-term vision. The same is true for a business: You should have a long-term vision – the equivalent of putting a man on the moon – but you should find a way to deliver that vision in smaller steps, each of them with value to the business today.
When it comes to culture, for something to be successful it needs to be sustainable. If you don’t address a cultural change in your company, you may do one or two successful projects but they won’t be natural. They’ll be against the natural flow of the company. So you need to address cultural aspects, the predisposition of the company.
As for responsibility, any big technological breakthrough or transformation will bring with it challenges and risks. You need to have positioning on those risks and you need to define how your company is going to address those risks or challenges. And you need to make sure everything you do aligns with those principles, which requires governance across your entire organization.
The episode on innovation talks a lot about how to manage innovation, because it can be difficult for a company to balance what the business is doing currently with innovation and future goals. So my guests on that episode talk about their experiences in that and what they’ve learned.
And lastly is empowerment, and what we’ve found is that you need to involve every employee in an AI transformation. This is not something that just happens with the technical unit or in top leaders. It must involve every single person and show them how they can augment their capabilities with AI no matter what they do.
Leah: Which was your favorite episode to record and why?
David: This is an easy one. The episode about Responsible AI was by far my favorite because I got to interview my son, Guillermo.
Several years ago, Guillermo came to me and said he wanted to learn computer programming. This made me the happiest father on Earth, as I had long wanted my children to show interest in programming. But Guillermo said something surprising to me then. He told me he wanted me with him every step of the way, so that he didn’t inadvertently create an AI that could turn against him.
He was partly joking, but at the end of my conversation with Guillermo, he encourages everyone to be responsible with developing AI, which I then cover in detail with several experts during the episode.
Leah: How should leaders look at undergoing an AI transformation during times of disruption like we are seeing today with COVID-19? Are there any tidbits from the podcast that you can share?
David: The overall message that we’re getting from our customers is that the health and economic crisis is not decreasing the focus on their AI transformation, but that it is changing the focus. We are seeing an acceleration of the AI transformation, especially to make it more connected to the business. In the past, there was more of a focus on long-term projects, and now leaders are looking for short-term projects that can provide an impact in the business today – not only to address the current challenges being caused by the health and economic crisis but also to position them in a better place to recover from this crisis in the future and even redefine their companies in the new normal.
This comes up in several of the episodes, starting early in Episode 1 when we talked about an increase in the appetite to accelerate AI transformation in the current climate.
Leah: Lastly, how can readers and listeners learn more? And is there any advice that you’d like to share with the leaders listening in?
David: I want people to realize that they’re not alone in this. Every company is in the middle of this huge transformation and you can learn from their experiences, not only from the things they did right but from the things that they did wrong and how they approached this big transformation.
And another important thing is this is not just a one-way street. I encourage you to network and share your experiences as well, to connect with others who can teach you something or learn from you. There is so much knowledge out there and we are only beginning to figure out this journey. Let’s keep this conversation going.
Lastly, I want to remind business leaders that they will need to embrace this transformation personally. It’s not something they can just assume will happen naturally, or something that the technical units will take care of by themselves. Coming back to my father’s story, they won’t need to build the furniture themselves, but they need to have the same passion and knowledge they have about their domain for technology – even if they don’t need to build AI personally. That’s our goal with AI Business School and with this podcast, to provide a resource for them to lead this transformation.