Saturday, June 30, 2018

Daniel Schneiss, R.I.P.

June 29, 2018

My friend Daniel Schneiss passed away earlier today, peacefully in his sleep at his home in Germany.  The world lost an extraordinary young man, a loving husband, an amazing father, an incredibly accomplished professional and a wonderful human being.  His last couple of years were anything but peaceful, full of pain, suffering and adversity that a devastating multiprong cancer can bring.  And yet Daniel was peaceful, calm, serene, and full of determination, grit, an unyielding will to never give up, a passion for life and for doing the right thing.  In his actions during this fight to death, he showed what it means to live, to not give up, to be giving in our suffering, to be caring in our pain.  I found myself in Germany a few weeks ago, and went to see him, his soulmate Judith and their son, for a moving, and exhilarating couple of hours.  

This picture is in front of his beloved cherry tree, just past the peak blossom, entering a stage he told me, true to his part-Japanese heritage, is called Hazakura, when the Sakura transition to young leaves on the trees.  He was full of life that day, and Judith was happy too, there was much laughter, some tears, great joy.  On the drive back, however, I found myself devastated as I reflected on an amazing man’s incredible young life.

I first met Daniel about 16 years ago.  Building on Jim Gray’s research in mapping strings to integers to reduce storage for data cubes, and some subsequent research, Franz Farber, Daniel, Roland Kurz, and some of their colleagues had started to work on bringing text search techniques to analyzing structured data in-memory in their text search engine, Trex.  I was thinking about next-generation database technology in those days, and so we met and a long, deep friendship was formed.  A friendship that would lead to many wonderful endeavors, including Hana, but also many deep lessons in transformations, in what it takes to make transformations happen, and the culture and values that we inhabit, that we exhibit, and that we learn along the way.  In the Trex days, Franz was the architect, the quintessential “What” leader, the inspiring builder, Roland dealt with people and administration, and Daniel was the executioner, the doer, an extraordinary combination of a deeply accurate sense of where things are no matter how grim, and yet an unyielding, unflinching resolve to achieve impossible goals.  He would simultaneously hold in his head the worry, the detail, of the ground reality, as well as the undeterred confidence and clarity that we would achieve the objectives.  He and Judith, recently married, had just become parents then, and yet Daniel was able to carry out the extraordinary tasks of being a manager in new, alien, endeavors inside a large company.  The lights in the Trex and later Hana offices used to routinely be on, late into evenings, when everything around was long dark.  The hallways used to often have the crackle of children playing around while their parents worked, there was much laughter, yelling, a deeply entrepreneurial spirit.  In the years that followed, Daniel went on to lead the entire Hana development team, to many incredible successes. 

The picture above is from one of my last technical meetings while I was at SAP, in the lab in Korea in 2014, with Daniel speaking passionately about something and me and the other colleagues, listening intently.  Again a combination of passion and dreams integrated with objective ground reality.  It was this duality, what some call “The Stockdale Paradox”, that defined him.  And it was especially this duality that defined him in his fight against cancer.  He clearly knew very clearly, and grimly, the toll that his body was taking, and yet he fought and had a sublime smile on him, a grace that was exemplary, and gave energy to those around him, at a time when he needed it the most.

The great Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita, as a mentor of mine recently eloquently reminded me, says that we have the rights, the opportunities to do our work, our karma, but not to the fruits thereof.  While none of the remarkable achievements of that unforgettable team would have been remotely possible without Daniel’s dedication, hard work and leadership, he deeply understood, and exemplified this belief that we just do our thing, it is upto us to do it as well and as passionately as we can, and then circumstances come together to make great outcomes happen.

Transitions, in death and during life, are defining moments, for organisms like us, but also for organizations.  We experience this one big journey of our lives, and many journeys during it.  And indeed when we think about it, our journeys are all there is.  We all are, and are parts of, diverse and multifold journeys, as Feynman said, specks in the universe, universes within us.  And if we are fortunate, we get to be parts of great, purposeful journeys, ones that move us, and move us all forward.  Finding great problems, great missions to work on, inspiring teams to give their best to these, keeping grand dreams, big ambitions in our minds, and yet our feet firmly on the ground as we move forward, I’ve learnt is what all great journeys, and great humans, are made of.

Death comes to all of us.  It is, as Steve Jobs once said, a destination that we all share.  And yet it is in how we act when facing certain death, that we reveal who we are, who we can be.  And Daniel did so, vividly, to the benefit of his son, his wife and us all.  I feel sad, but deeply proud of my friend Daniel, or Schneiss, or Schneissi.  Your body is gone, but you live on, inside us, in our memories and in our hearts, as do your creations, your life’s work and your life’s ways...

-- Vishal

Monday, August 21, 2017

University of Queensland Speech

Last December I was honored to deliver a commencement address at the University of Queensland.  I spoke about AI, jobs, our futures and education.  Here is a video and a transcript.  I covered a bunch of key points in this brief address, and I hope to elaborate on these points in a longer post soon.

-- Vishal

Honorable Chancellor, honorable Vice Chancellor, distinguished leaders of this great university, the graduates and the guests, it’s a great honor for me to be here today and thank you so much for this amazing recognition, for which I’m deeply grateful.
It is a big day for all of you, for the graduates a culmination of a long journey of education that many of you have been on.  But is it a culmination?
As I think about our future, and your future, and the times ahead I would like to make three points -about AI, about jobs and your learning abilities and I hope you will find these useful.

My first point is that we are living in, we certainly are entering, the times of AI and the jobs that you will go through over the course of your lifetime, will go through a radical change. Earlier today, today’s New York times, it’s still the 14th in the US, had an article about the great AI awakening and also today in the New Yorker magazine there was an article about our automated future and it is just today just two of their publications. There is no doubt when we look around that the AI technologies will have a profound impact on the jobs that we see around us today. Increasingly we have to assume that the jobs that can be precisely articulated and specified, are going to be automated. Much has been written about this. I will not belabor this point but we all have heard about jobs from truck drivers, to retail store owners, medical diagnosis to legal research and in my own world of IT services, various forms of system administration, business process operation and even operation and maintenance of complex systems are going to be automated. And yet we have to live and we have to thrive in these times.  So the question is, can we?

My second point is that, yes we can. Of course we must, but also that we can. We are still in the early stages of these technologies and the pervasive role that they will ultimately play in our lives. Recently we have seen, no doubt, some remarkable successes, some remarkable applications and some amazing achievements of these AI technologies and AI systems. But when I think about this and when I look at the state of the art, I realize that we are still quite far from the Society of Mind that Marvin Minsky wrote about in mid 1980s. We are still quite far from thinking about enabling a great symbiosis between intelligent systems and people. We are still quite far from being able to imbibe and impart our contexts into the contexts of our systems and vice versa. Being able to achieve shared perspective with ourselves and using technology to enable that, and being able to achieve shared perspectives with machines, is still quite a way into our future.
Also when we think about the role of technology in creating jobs we have to realize that as technology takes away jobs, the creation and the enabling and scaling of that technology ends up creating more new kinds of jobs. People say that it is different this time around with AI because this is about our minds and not just about our bodies. But nonetheless, the reality is that every technology that will displace the jobs of today, is going to be followed by the enabling and the construction of those kinds of technologies. So, despite being early in these times the second key question becomes how do we thrive in these times, what are we and especially what are you as young graduates to make of this?

My third and final point is that I see only one way for us to thrive in these times and that way is learning, “EDUCATION”. We have to learn to build these systems. We have to understand and learn to construct these systems of our future. Even if a system can drive a truck, a human still has to buy that software and build that system and that system is written by us. We need to understand computing and artificial intelligence as fundamental enabling technologies and scale the education of these. Given that every walk of life around us is going to be transformed by computing, we are still quite in the early days of this and we have to think about enabling and equipping ourselves with these technologies.
My wife Vandana runs our Infosys foundation in United States, and she recently made this great observation that in the dark ages 6% of the world’s population could read and write and if you are to think about the computing and AI as the new forms of literacy, today less than half a percent of the world’s population can understand and program what you do implying therefore that we are still in the dark ages when it comes to computing and the ability to build the systems. And even when we look at the further out future, at a time when we are able to build systems that can take precise specifications and do those jobs, no matter what those jobs might be, in other words, systems that become perfect and problem solving, those problems that can be precisely defined, we still have the human frontier of problem finding. Of being able to look into great unknown and identifying and articulating problems that are yet to be solved. That problem finding, that act of creativity, that act of innovation is still in our frontier is, still ahead of us.
Techniques like design thinking which the University of Queensland has been working on are quite fundamental to that future. We still live in times where innovation is seen as something mystical, something that is done by a chosen few who somehow are born with the ability to innovate but when we look around us we realize that innovation is no more than the act of seeing something that is not there. Seeing something that is yet to be invented, that if it were to be invented, that would lead to the world that is more desirable, that is more feasible, that is more viable, a world that would be better.
So when I think about these times of AI, it seems that our destiny is quite straight forward. We all have to become ignorant, and why not. Nonetheless, whether it is to build these systems to be relevant in the times of these systems or to be able to become innovators, the key is ‘learning’. We can no longer believe that going to school that all of you have done for the first 17 or 20 or 25 years of our lives and then stopping going to school, is the way of life. We have to think about learning for life, for our entire lives. We have to learn all of this, but most importantly, we have to learn to learn itself. We have to ask ourselves what is the world that we are living in, what is it that makes it what it is and how might I create the future of this world, a great future of this world.
Alan Kay, a great teacher of my life, famously said that, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. I believe that the invention of our future is what is in our future. In the age of AI, we have to switch our context from making a living to making a life, a life that may be artificial OR more importantly a life that may be ours. That in building the AI’s of our future we end up amplifying ourselves, we end up improving our own humanity.
I wish you all the very best in these times ahead, for you and for all of us. Thank you!


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Moving On...

Earlier today I resigned my position as MD & CEO of Infosys.  Here is the mail I sent to our employees.

Dear Friends,

After a lot of reflection, I have resigned from my position as your MD & CEO effective today.  A succession process has been initiated, with Pravin serving as interim MD & CEO, and I will work closely with the Board and management team over the next few months to ensure a smooth transition. In addition, I have agreed to serve as Executive Vice Chairman on the Board to further ensure continuity until the new management is in place.

For days, indeed weeks, this decision has weighed on me. I have wrestled the pros and cons, the issues and the counterbalancing arguments. But now, after much thought, and considering the environment of the last few quarters, I am clear in my decision. It is clear to me that despite our successes over the last three years, and the powerful seeds of innovation that we have sown, I cannot carry out my job as CEO and continue to create value, while also constantly defending against unrelenting, baseless/malicious and increasingly personal attacks.

In 2014, we started with a very challenging set of conditions, and in the last three years, we have decisively turned things around.

Three years ago, I started this journey with a calling, to help reshape the company around innovation and entrepreneurship, to deliver breakthrough value for clients, and to help elevate our work, our standing, our selves, on the basis of a dual strategy, bringing together dualities of renew and new, automation and innovation, people and software, to show a new path forward in a time of unprecedented disruption within the industry and beyond. That time, around and before June 2014, was a difficult time. Our growth rates were low and attrition was high. There was a sense of apprehension all around and I came here to help enable a great transformation as our core business faced intense pricing pressure, and clients looked increasingly to innovative partners to help shape their digital futures. Now, a bit more than three years later, I am happy to see the company doing better in every dimension I can think of.

We have grown our revenues, from $2.13B in Q1FY15 to $2.65B this past Q1. We did so while keeping a strong focus on margins, closing this past quarter at 24.1% operating margin, beating some competitors for the first time in many years, and improving against most in our industry.  Perhaps more importantly, our revenue per employee has grown for six quarters in a row. Our attrition has fallen, from 23.4% in Q1FY15 to 16.9% this past Q1, and high performer attrition is hovering at or below the single-digit threshold for a while now.  We grew our $100M+ clients from 12 when I started, to 19, and increased our large deal wins from ~$1.9B in FY15 to ~$3.5B this past year. We’ve done all this while improving our overall utilization, to a 10-yr high this past quarter, and an all time high including trainees, while improving our cash reserves, rewarding employees with a new equity plan, and returning cash to our stakeholders. And we have done all this while improving our standing with clients to the highest ever in the 12 years since we’ve done our client satisfaction survey, and a jump of 22 points in CxO satisfaction.

A few days ago, Nitesh, Radha, and I met a client in our office in Palo Alto. It is one of the largest companies in the world - and the CIO was excited and proud about seeing automation come to life in their landscape.  Her reaction to seeing many of our innovation projects, as well as our workspace itself, was thoroughly rewarding, and a testament to all we have achieved. She requested us to bring our innovative work and processes to everything we do with her team in a similar space, and even that we help them establish a similar presence for their company in the valley!  This is a sentiment I’ve often heard from clients who’ve visited our 12,000 sqft space here, that has seen 2200 visits over its ~27 months; clients where we saw much faster than average revenue growth following their visits. So, as I look back on the three years as CEO, what brings me the most joy is the new roads that all of you have traveled, the new frontiers that all of you have enabled.  From embracing the new ideas in education, teaching ourselves Design Thinking like no one else ever has, learning AI, new development processes, and more, to applying these learnings via Zero Distance, a one-of-a-kind program of massive grassroots innovation, powered by education, by the amazing Zero Bench, and by your creative confidence.  With 16500+ ideas generated, 2200+ of which have already been implemented, ZD is proof that innovation need not be the domain of a chosen few in some elite department, but is the prerogative of us all; proof that the extraordinary within each one of us can indeed be unleashed. To complement this grassroots innovation, we’ve launched 25+ new services that contributed 8.3% of our revenue last quarter, up from zero in April 2015.  And our own new software business is now at 1.6% of revenue.  Our AI platform, Nia, now with 160+ scenarios deployed at more than 70 clients, is helping drive both automation within the company, and breakthrough new business scenarios outside.  Beyond new services and new software, we’ve ventured into new horizons, from our startup fund’s investments in promising new businesses, to the work we’ve done in the last 3 years in local hiring around the world, especially in the US, to the exemplary and inspiring work our US foundation has done in bringing computer science education and a culture of making, to the masses.

And I am proud of how we have upheld our values, our culture, our integrity, whilst we have gone about this massive transformation.  I am proud of how our Board has worked, tirelessly, selflessly, these past quarters, despite intense, unfair, and often malicious and personal, criticism, in not only upholding our standards of governance and integrity, but also indeed raising these.  None of our successes would be worthwhile for a moment, if this was not the case.

I was, and remain, passionate about the massive transformation opportunity for this company and industry, but we all need to allow the company to move beyond the noise and distractions.

Back in May 2014, when I first met many board colleagues, I thought of the road ahead as a road for the next 33 years of this iconic company. For Infosys is more than a company: it is an idea, a dream, a pioneering possibility.  Back then I thought, just as I do today, that the time ahead called for a company that could show the way to a digital future, a future where our humanity, amplified by automation and software, would unleash our creativity, our imagination, to construct great worlds of our futures, and would do so powered by education, by our timeless value of learnability.  Such an Infosys, whilst staying true to its core, to her values and timeless principles, would shine the light in an altogether different context, a different reality. Such an Infosys would be one where an individual’s entrepreneurship, ability to imagine and create, ability to learn, and to amplify themselves with software, with AI, would create a greater whole. Rather than an overarching system enabling the people, the people’s agility and imagination would create a greater system. Three years later, we can clearly see that the seeds of this idea have taken root and are growing, into beautiful new flowers and plants, and I see no reason why these cannot continue, and help shape our company’s future.

For sure this journey has been a difficult one.  No one, especially me, thought it would be easy.  Transformations are hard to begin with.  A massive transformation, of such an iconic institution, with such groundbreaking achievements behind her, would be even tougher, and the exponential rates of change all around us, further amplified by geopolitical matters, would add that much more headwind.  But all this was known, and clear, and in many ways added to the calling that I felt.  For as the legendary architect Daniel Burnham said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir man’s blood.”

But after much contemplation I have decided to leave because the distractions, the very public noise around us, have created an untenable atmosphere. I deeply believe in creating value in an atmosphere of freedom, trust and empowerment. Life is too short to engage in battles of opinions in the public, these add no value, take critical time and focus away from the business, and indeed add more to the noise, to the eardrum buzz, as I wrote to you a few months ago. The founding principle of the strategy I laid out for our renewal was personal empowerment, working in an entrepreneurial environment.  I need this for my own work as well.  Steve Jobs, in his famous commencement speech at my alma mater, said:

“Your time is limited, don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living the result of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other opinions drown your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition, they somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

I now need to move forward, and return to an environment of respect, trust and empowerment, where I can take on new lofty challenges, as can each of you.

As Steve Jobs said, I must follow my heart and my intuition, build my buildings, give my givings, and do something else.  Over the next weeks and months, I look forward to working with the Board and management to create a smooth transition, and simultaneously staring into the great unknown, and to doing something great, something purposeful, for the times ahead.    And also to spend some time with my loved ones.  I’ve been away from home far too often and far too long.

As I completed my three years recently, many people asked me if I have any regrets.  This question is more apt today and the answer is a clear NO. Not for a second.  However difficult the noise of the last several months has been, I wouldn’t trade our time together for anything. I would not give up the experience of seeing the gleam in your eyes as you described a new idea, invention, or contribution. You worked on these confidently, without reward, without arrogance, showing exactly the kind of creative confidence that David Kelley talked about in Design Thinking – a wonderful thing to witness.

I am deeply grateful for the immense support and love I’ve received from all of you, from our worthy clients for whom we do our life’s work, and by our shareholders across the globe.  I am grateful for your trust, confidence and friendship, and am thankful to our team of amazing leaders, who will help lead our company to greatness.  To my first Infoscion colleague and trusted friend Ranga, who enabled us to achieve the things we achieved, to the amazing Ravi, a pocket of passion and energy and execution excellence, to the calm and steadfast Mohit, who introduced me to the band of brothers and lived it, day after day, to the larger than life Rajesh, with his great heart and big laugh, to Binod, a veritable bulldozer brother with his broad shoulders and broader smile, to the one of a kind Ramadas, the architect and protector of our magnificent campuses with his indomitable spirit and world-class excellence, to the always smiling Deepak who helped live the strategy, to Krish and the best HR team in the world, especially the extraordinary Richard, Nanju, Shruthi and their amazing team for helping to carry out some of the craziest and most amazing people initiatives, to Inderpreet, a new voice to the team, a voice of calm, strength, integrity and a stability that far belies the little time she’s been with us, to Jayesh and our entire finance team for their dedication, their impeccable meticulous integrity and world-class excellence, and especially to my partner, friend, and pillar of strength, Pravin, who carried all the load in the world, with a smile, impeccable integrity and the most amazing grace, and will now lead you to the next phase of our company's growth.  To Zaiba, Bala sir, Nagaraju, Hari and many others for making it possible for me to be me and to do my work, to my Palo Alto family: Sanjay, Abdul, Navin, Ritika, Barbara, Tao, Vinod, Shabana, April, Sudhir and others who have stood by me and have given up so much to be a part of this journey and contributed so much to it, and indeed to thousands of Infoscions who’ve made it all matter.  I am thankful to Sesh and our entire board for their unfailing support and confidence in me throughout this journey.

Together we have achieved a lot.  Even in the midst of all of the distractions, even as the tendency was to return to the familiar, we still managed to persevere and make wonderful progress. We have laid the foundation for the next 30 years of Infosys, and I feel deeply proud to have worked alongside all of you in sowing the seeds that will return this company to the bellwether it once was.  As you’ve all often reminded us, Infosys is no bigger and no smaller than any of us, the people, the Infoscions.  You are the ones that will take Infosys to the next 30 years and beyond.  As I think about the time ahead, for all of us, I can only see us powered by a freedom from the known, of renewing ourselves to thrive in the time ahead. Each one of you has vindicated my deeply held belief that people are capable of doing more, achieving more, being more, than they ever imagined possible. So, keep pushing yourself to do better at whatever you are good at, but also learning to do things you have never done before, indeed, nobody has ever done before. I know I will be doing the same.

The Board, Pravin, and I will communicate additional details as we move forward in this transition, and meanwhile, we continue our work as is. I wish all of you the very best in your journeys ahead.