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Automation Improves Overall Business Value

Automation brings new capabilities, enhances productivity, and improves business; innovation happens as new ideas emerge and better business models evolve, says the former Microsoft and Amazon veteran, Joseph Sirosh, Chief Technology Officer, Compass Inc, in this conversation with BW Businessworld. Excerpts:

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Joseph, before your current role you were at Microsoft as the Chief Technology Officer for AI and prior to that, you built the machine learning and transaction risk management teams in your role in the global inventory management at Amazon’s Consumer Business. How have you been seeing the overall artificial intelligence (AI) growth and its future in India?

I have indeed been in the field of AI for 30 years and there has never been a time as exciting as now. Initially, its applications were purely around machine learning on structured numerical data. Some of the applications in the 1990s were using neural networks to learn from a given pool of data and predict things. Use cases like real-time credit card fraud detection gained popularity during that time. In the 2000s AI gained a lot of popularity in digital ads, eCommerce fraud detection and spam filtering. During the early 2010s, deep learning was invented and it revolutionised our ability to use AI on unstructured data.

AI underwent a massive transformation and widened its reach to more common applications like camera, imaging, videos, text and social network analysis, and natural language processing. The growth of data through the increasing digitisation of industry, plus cloud and mobile AI technologies contributed to the massive adoption of these applications. Applications such as Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa also gained large-scale popularity during this period. A step further, AI has now invaded almost the entire digital realm, accelerating automation across industries, creating meaningful user interactions, and leveraging valuable insights from transactions.

Beyond this, AI is enabling further complex applications like autonomous vehicles, industrial automation robots, cybersecurity, AR/VR, and predictive analytics in a wide range of industrial use cases.

Automation does seem to be an important outcome with AI. How do you see it impact the job market in India?

Technology itself is one of the foremost drivers of change and this is not a new trend. Though initially there are apprehensions on various fronts, I think the past trends continue in that we always build on top of the new technologies that emerge. Technology advances create new markets and often more opportunities than in the past, and the production-possibility frontier expands. Automation brings new capabilities, enhances productivity, and improves overall business value. Innovation happens as new ideas emerge and better business models evolve.

In India, automation in the IT sector will also create a lot of jobs for people who can create such automation - for example, right now there is a lot of growth in the field of Robotic Process Automation. Over time, as every industry transforms with digital platforms, the demand for software developers of all types will continue to explode and India can benefit significantly from that. In this rapidly changing digital landscape, there is an increasing demand for top engineering talent adept in new-age tech, agile skills, and new capabilities.

How critical do you think the role of the Government has been in moulding India into a preferred GDC hub for MNCs across the globe?

I believe it is critical. The Software Export Zones (SEZ) that India has created has been vital to multinational companies establishing development centres in India. They are incredibly leveraged for India - when such companies set up offices in India encouraged by the SEZ incentives, they hire and train the Indian workforce in the state-of-the-art technology platforms in the world, creating opportunities for the talent in India to play on the global stage without leaving India, and at the same time significantly increase salaries and compensation for technology workers.

An ecosystem and local economy emerge around these zones as well. Also, technology workers leaving these companies sometimes start local companies which can compete in the global market. I believe it is important that the government maintains an investment-friendly and welcoming approach and update relevant policies from time to time to secure investments and growth of global development centres. Another area is skill development. We need skill development centres across India, and they should be able to impart the skills relevant to the current market trends, for example, cloud-based software development. The academics, curriculum, and research in professional institutions need an overhaul and update to be far more practical than it is today.

Academic institutions must also encourage internships and practical experience in companies that help their graduates hit the ground running when they start a job. There must be a system to keep the educators, students and academic resources updated on the latest technologies and also facilitate research on the upcoming technologies.

What features characterise the growth in tech in the last year?

Covid-19 dramatically accelerated our dependence on technology and this, in turn, has driven a revolution in everything from video communication to smartphones and remote work. Existing technology trends were amplified and along with it, the demand for technical professionals such as software engineers have skyrocketed in every industry. Communications and social networking platforms have benefited hugely, along with platforms such as Shopify and Compass. It is now a given that most software applications will be built on the cloud as SaaS services, and the cloud has become the defacto standard for application development.

At the same time, advanced computing technologies delivered through the cloud such as AI, ML, IoT, AR/VR, edge computing, analytics, and GPU computing also gained prominence with a common factor driving it all being the digital transformation of every process. For example, the Compass platform is built on Amazon Web Services and digitises the workflows associated with real estate transactions. The platform is ‘Cloud First, Mobile First, Data First, AI First and Media First’ in the sense that all these technologies are integrated into creating services that make the entire real estate ecosystem more efficient. For example, there is AR/VR to make virtual tours more engaging and entirely online. And we even use 3D tours enhanced by AI and deliver them via a mobile app so you can have a virtual walkthrough of a home on your smartphone.

Since you brought up Compass that focuses on the real estate industry, what prompted Compass to set up its first Global Development Centre (GDC) outside the US in India?

The primary reason is the talent itself. India has a rich talent pool of young software developers eager to work on advanced technologies like AI and ML. At my previous companies - Amazon and Microsoft - I had set up development teams in India, starting with a machine learning team in Bangalore in 2005, and over the years I have had a great experience with the quality of Indian talent. Compass GDC's India focus is to pair top talent and technology to work on intelligent solutions, redefining the real estate space. Talent in India is capable of surpassing its counterparts globally. Their contribution in this IDC will be significant in the development of Compass’ real-estate platform and will accelerate the company’s growth to the next level.

We plan to establish Compass GDC as one of our largest engineering centres in the world. We launched in November 2019, and since then we have hired over 200 staff in product and engineering, most of them from tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. Over the past year, this team achieved significant advancements in areas like AI, mobile apps, data intelligence, and data analytics. Now, we are in the process of hiring another 200 or more software professionals in the upcoming 12 months and continuing to grow rapidly.

How are new-age technologies impacting the growth in the real estate sector?

AI is empowering Agent Intelligence so that real estate agents can better serve sellers and buyers. With the help of AI, agents can market homes better, e.g. by creating compelling video ads automatically to showcase a home that’s being sold to a broad audience. Digital ads are more effective when targeted with AI. Agents can price the home better using comparative market analysis assisted by AI. The experience of home search online is also being continuously improved with the help of AI. Agents can also use AI to help predict which homes are likely to come on the market in the future, which allows them to reach out to homeowners in a finely targeted way and offer them their services. Document processing automation is another example where AI can help simplify paperwork and reduce the time it takes to complete a transaction. In short, AI helps make the transaction simpler and more pleasant for everyone.

Finally, what according to you are some of the must-have skills today?

I think it’s very valuable to know how to develop Software as a Service (SaaS) applications on the cloud with mobile app front ends. And increasingly AI will become a standard part of the software stack. Technology innovations today are mostly about software applications being smart and intelligent and personalised. Look around, you will see smartphones, smart grids, smart homes, smart cities, and smart vehicles.

As time passes, each one is growing smarter thanks to the growth around AI, ML and data analytics. Thus, the mantra to success is to be smarter, in terms of technical skills and human skills. The most challenging part of developing SaaS applications is the development of highly reliable live services that work 24/7 without outages, latencies and failures and provide a great customer experience. Building these types of applications demand special expertise and deep commitment, and requires a very different, service-oriented design. Last but not the least, the passion to learn new things rapidly is the key to success in a fast-moving technology environment. Adopt a growth mindset, be curious and be a constant learner.