SSON Podcast Ep.58: Sreeharsha Upadhyayula

It’s not about the end anymore here, it’s about how do we make the journey worthwhile.

seth adler headshot
Posted: 05/22/2018

Recorded at Intelligent Automation with clicking and clacking behind us, Sreeharsha Upadhyayula begins by quoting William Gibson, the science fiction writer, with “the future is here, it’s just that it’s not evenly distributed."

As the world wide web and new media went from being bright shiny objects to simply part of the way we do business, Sree notes that, that’s precisely where we are with intelligent automation. Rather than a bright shiny object, businesses are now asking how does this make me smarter about my business, how does this get me closer to the customer, how does this truly help me solve a customers problem? These next few years as Sree sees it are about test and learn...

Listen to the podcast here – or read the transcript below.

Sreeharsha Upadhyayula

"It’s not about the end anymore here, it’s about how do we make the journey worthwhile."
Sreeharsha Upadhyayula, VP and General Manager, Sears Marketplaces, Sears Corporation

Seth Adler:

Sree Upadhyayula joins us. Welcome to SSON on BWIQ; I’m your host Seth Adler. Download episodes on ssonetwork.com or through our app in iTunes, within the iTunes podcast app in Google Play or wherever you currently get your podcasts. First, some supporters to thank and then Sree Upadhyayula. 

 

This episode is supported by SSON with over 100,000 members, the Shared Services and Outsourcing Network is the largest and most established community of shared services and outsourcing professionals in the world. SSON is a one stop shop for shared services professionals offering industry leading events, reports, surveys, interviews, whitepapers, videos, editorial, info graphics and more. Engage at ssonetwork.com.

 

This episode is also supported by SSON Analytics, digestible, data driven insights for shared services and outsourcing. SSON Analytics is SSON’s global data analytics center. It provides shared services professionals with the global data insights you need through interactive maps, tools and charts. Get headline industry statistics set straight to your inbox. It’s that simple. Explore the first layer of industry data for free now. Start a conversation to find out more. Sign up at sson-analytics.com.

Sree Upadhyayula:

Just call me Sree.

 

Seth Adler:

Sree.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah.

 

Seth Adler:

That’s what I should do.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah.

 

Seth Adler:

But how would you say your first and last?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Sreeharsha Upadhyayula.

 

Seth Adler:

Just look at the last name, it’s all there.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Pretty much -

 

Seth Adler:

Don’t be afraid.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah. Don’t be afraid. You just have to have to have more than two pauses or three pauses-

 

Seth Adler:

I got you

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

… When you spell it out.

 

Seth Adler:

Get in there, don’t rush and this is the approach that we have to have to life.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Very good. That’s exactly right.

 

Seth Adler:

Take every day as it is, don’t go too quickly, right? Take the morning for what it is. Sree, thanks so much for giving us a few minutes here at Intelligent Automation Chicago.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Thank you very much for having me down here. I appreciate it.

 

Seth Adler:

Here we are. This whole thing’s happening, this intelligent automation thing.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Totally. It’s an intelligent thing to have an intelligent automation summit right?

 

Seth Adler:

And I will tell the producers, we appreciate your pat on the back there but it really is because we’re taking a step here aren't we? And by ‘we’ I mean corporate America, Fortune 500 from dumb AI is what I call RPA into maybe some more cognitive, into maybe some more machine learning. We’re on the precipice of that at least. Is that fair?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Very, very fair. Quoting William Gibson, the science fiction writer, his statement was, “Hey, the future is here. It’s just that it’s not evenly distributed.” We’ve seen that 20 years ago with the World Wide Web. The few business models which are very quickly adopted, ecommerce was one of them, new media was one of them. Then eventually, now nobody talks about World Wide Web anymore, it’s just a part of their DNA.

 

Seth Adler:

And no one says new media, everybody says media.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Media.

 

Seth Adler:

This is exactly the thing.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And the same thing, we are exactly at the point of cusp here with AI as well. There’s lot of technology being pushed into the market, the business folks are trying to catch up and say, “Hey how does this help me be smart about the way I do my business? How does this help me get more closer to the customer? How does this help me truly solve a customer’s problem without throwing boatloads of dollars at the problem?”

 

 

I think the next couple of years are just going to be about test and learn, what I call. People are going to try it out, they’re going to fail but they’re going to learn because we’re talking about learning systems. It’s all about learning. So it’s an interesting phase Seth.

 

Seth Adler:

And by definition, you want to put automation in the form of bots and you want to get it perfect but of course it’s not going to be perfect because you’re not going to have the perfect data going in. The bot’s going to basically teach you that you need to each it better.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah. You said it better. Think about it. We’re talking about creating systems, it’s humans. So they’re going to be as brilliant and as flawed as human beings. That’s what it is.

 

Seth Adler:

It’s basically it.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

I think about this as, it’s never going to be a complete journey for anybody. This is just a beginning of the story and people are going to keep reinventing, reinventing, repivoting and we’re going to constantly keep learning. And that it’s not about the end anymore here, it’s about how do we make the journey worthwhile? And I think that’s how these systems are going to kick in and make our life worthwhile.

 

Seth Adler:

It’s not about the end, it’s about how do we make the journey worthwhile. Take us a level deeper, I love that. That’s fantastic. What are you getting at there?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

If you think about, on one side we talk about smart systems … Elon Musk recently went on record saying, for the new Tesla Model 3, he’s talking about having an assembly line with no humans. He’s just talking about having one line supervisor and the machines building the entire car from scratch.

 

Seth Adler:

That will get rid of the union issues that he’s having. As all today’s … Because we’re hearing, check back in your Google news feed, that’s what happened.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

That’s one part of the story definitely but on the other side, you can see Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk himself as well as Bill Gates talking about, these systems are smart if not smarter than the humans. We’ve got to be thoughtful and let's get started on the journey to be how can we be thoughtful in making these systems worthwhile in the human cause? And I think any system is as good as the basic data that you’re feeding it.

 

 

I was reading a case study where I think in UK they were using AI for medical research. And one of the things was to essentially classify patients with pneumonia to figure out whether they need to be sent to the hospital for treatment. What’s the risk of death and how do we intervene? Guess what the system did? The system said persons with pneumonia and asthma are safe, low risk. And the reason the system was flagging them that way is the moment somebody has pneumonia and asthma, immediately what the hospital used to do was push them into ICU. The moment they went into ICU, they had better treatment and they survived.

 

Seth Adler:

Right.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So, somewhere somebody missed tagging this patient data saying, asthma plus pneumonia plus ICU is equal to good health.

 

Seth Adler:

It’s, that patient is only safe because of ICU, I didn’t put that in.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Correct.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And so that’s the reason why the system’s so smart but it’s scary if you don’t realize how you use them, if you don’t put a level of scrutiny over them. So, that’s the reason why I talk about, it’s all about the journey, there is never going to be perfection and it’s how we constantly reinvent ourselves.

 

Seth Adler:

Facebook having to shut down an AI activity based on the fact that there were two systems that were speaking with each other in what seemed like gibberish. And so everyone, meaning not Facebook data scientists and not Facebook AI executives that were working on this. Everybody in the ether went nuts. Oh my God, sentient beings are here. But really all it was, was that the Facebook folks forgot to tell the AI to communicate in English. Much like what you’re talking about.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Exactly.

 

Seth Adler:

They forgot the ICU point, they forgot the …

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Exactly. One of the other things we need to think about is, with all that systems getting smarter and smarter, every machine, every interaction you have is trying to say hey, this is Seth, this is Sree. I want to change my interaction to make it personal.

 

Seth Adler:

Right.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And there’s an article written by one Wharton School professor who talks about eco-chamber. What this means essentially is there’s too much of ultra personalization going on here and to what end? Personalized to personalized to personalized exponentially to the point where you’re sitting and saying, is something going to tell me what move I’m going to make next without me even thinking about it? Is that the point I’m reaching?

 

Seth Adler:

That’s minority report; pre-crime of course. We could get there but is that where we want to go type of thing?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

You’re right. We are in very, very interesting times. Our technology obviously disrupts the way we live and we are also at points in time where the human value of what we need to do, how we want our race to further itself using these technologies for progress. Not a Terminator 2 kind of a situation; is where I think we also need to sharpen our thoughts and work towards.

 

Seth Adler:

So, in these conversations, I’m increasingly talking about movies that have already been produced, some of which you mentioned Terminator and Terminator 2; these are 20-30 year old movies but here we are. Are there better parallels to draw for the average human being than these movies or is that what we have?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Look, movies per se by definition are all about extremes right?

 

Seth Adler:

Sure.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

They take us to one extreme or the other whereas life is all about continuum. We’re all about the middle ground. And historically if you see, right from the Stone Age all the way to today, human beings have come up with lot of technology upheavals, they said it’s going to change the way we live, we think. It has changed but still human beings are still in control of the world right?

 

Seth Adler:

Right.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So, I think there is going to be, as it happens with any technology or anything in the world, there’s going to be a pro, there’s going to be a con. I think the beauty about the human mind is the level of intervention which we apply whenever we see things at a precipice to pull it back and to control and ensure that it’s offering meaningful progress and meaningful value.

 

 

So, I have complete faith in the human race.

 

Seth Adler:

You do. That’s fantastic. I’m happy to hear that. You speak of interesting times as far as technology. We’re also in interesting times culturally which includes us being more autonomized ourselves. So, if the key to this future is that we have to be more as human as possible, what happens with me and my smartphone and fact that that runs my life? What do we do there?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Definitely. I think the fact that you can see that just from a generation to generation; Gen-X Gen-Y millenials Gen-Z. Historically, when I first crossed the Suez Canal and came to United States, I used to walk into a store, into a mall to discover products, touch, feel them but having nothing in my mind and understanding what I want, learning what I want in the physical store and then making a decision to purchase.

 

 

Now fast forward 15-20 years. We’re talking about Gen-Z and millenials. These kids are not walking into a store without doing all their preliminary research on a phone or a tablet or a computer. They only walk into a store when they are sure they’re going to walk into a store and make the purchase.

 

Seth Adler:

Or if they have to. If they can't do it digitally, right?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah. So, that’s a shift in the way people are thinking.

 

Seth Adler:

Totally.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And has it changed the way we use smartphones? Maybe; with each generation, there is a progress, there is the level of patience is coming down. But having said that, I think the ubiquity of the experiences, that’s the challenge of today’s world. How do you ensure that whether you are on a smartphone or a tablet or a browser or whatever you be when in a physical store, how do you maintain that ubiquity because we’re talking about the baby boomers, Gen-X, Gen-Y, Gen-Z, millennials; all of them coexisting in the same time frame.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So you have to make use of the existing assets relevant to each of these generations. Some may spend a lot more time on the phone, some may not spend a lot more time on the phone. But I think that’s why I think this is interesting times because we are reaching a point where technology is able to say that look, I will customize the experience for your mindset, for your generation. And that’s what I think is the beauty of the times we live in.

 

Seth Adler:

So, you’re saying my dad, baby boomer, he’s got a phone and he’s very proud of himself when he gets something right. I’m annoyed and frustrated by the whole situation, I’m Gen-X. I like to say there’s a half step between Gen-X and millenials and that’s Gen-Y who were born between ‘80 and ‘85 because they’ve got one step in each, one foot in each. But then of course we were talking about millenials and Gen-Z and that experience is that. And you’re saying it’s our job if we’re in the business of AI to build this for all of those disperse groups.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Exactly. You’re right. My dad finally, we managed to convince him to buy a smartphone but he still uses a smartphone like a feature phone. Just to dial the numbers, use the directory and call people.

 

Seth Adler:

It’s a phone.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah. It’s just a phone for him.

 

Seth Adler:

Exactly.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Now you think about my nephew, who is Gen-Z. I call him, he doesn’t pick up the phone and I say, “Why are not picking up the phone?” And he says, “Who uses a phone for calling people? Why don’t you just WhatsApp me or text me?” And I’m thinking, that’s the use of a phone. That’s right; how did I miss it? Where did I miss the bus here?

 

Seth Adler:

It’s based on the year that you were born and if it’s all about the journey, let's go back, where are you from?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

I’m from India.

 

Seth Adler:

Where?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

The southern part of India, a place called Hyderabad which we call as the semi silicon valley of India. It’s where you have all the Oracle, Microsoft; Apple is going to start its entire, the Apple maps and Apple program, a development of Hyderabad. So, there’s a lot of technology push back there.

 

Seth Adler:

Were all those companies present when you were a kid?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

No. When I was a kid, I remember it was a point in time when IBM, Coca Cola decided to exit the Indian market because –

 

Seth Adler:

Exit?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Exit in ‘70s. Saying that, “The pace at which we thought investment development would happen is not as per our aspirations. We’ll just back off, hold off and things change.” And then circa 1999-1998 we have a slow plethora of the entire western world pouring into the country because it’s part of the big five. Brazil, China, Russia, India humongous potential. 70% of the population is between the age group of 16 to 23 or 24; world’s largest Gen-Z millennial population. One of the world’s fastest mobile adoption.

 

 

So we’re talking about, for my dad, he looks at things and says, “Man, what is this? This is a deluge. I’m not able to keep pace with the changes that are happening in this country.”

 

Seth Adler:

He’s still back there.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And he’s still back there and he is like, “I don’t know.”

 

Seth Adler:

It’s crazy for him.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

It’s unbelievable. I still like to just call people on the phone. Dial phone -

 

 

Seth Adler:

Sure. This is audio, you’re making the circle with the rotary phone which some of us remember.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

He struggles to reconcile and so it’s been pretty interesting journey and I’m really fortunate to have been a part of the cusp of this huge step, function shift in the way technology has changed our lives.

 

Seth Adler:

All right. So let’s follow that, when did you move from India to … Where did you go to university for instance?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

I went to Michigan State, Mid West.

 

Seth Adler:

Spartans.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Very good. Go green!

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah. And you remember Mateen Cleaves.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Of course, he gave us the title. After Mateen Cleaves gave us the title, almost everybody including myself, we had a bumper sticker saying, ‘Tom Izzo for president.’

 

Seth Adler:

Who was the coach at the time. All right. So, what was your major at school there?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

I walked in because I have an engineering background and I have a Masters in operations research and industrial engineering, I didn’t want to study again so I thought I’ll go easy on myself. Michigan State had a very solid supply chain program so I just wanted to just go and then do an MBA in Supply Chain. But I took my first course in Finance and I completely, I did a baton switch and I just majored in finance by the time I graduated.

 

Seth Adler:

Did I hear you right? You had a tremendous amount of schooling in engineering before you got to Michigan State?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yes.

 

Seth Adler:

So, you’re arriving on the scene as a freshman and you basically are an engineer that we could plug and play with.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Essentially.

 

Seth Adler:

Why then the extra learning of the undergraduate degree in the US?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

It’s a great question. So, one of the things I realized, I worked at GE Capital General Electric before I chose to pursue my management degree. One of the things I realized is we were just coming out of the 99-2000, the dot com boom and bust. And we saw how people bet a lot on technology to change the world and great technologies failed either because they were not great or they were great but people just didn’t know, there were ideas which were ahead of their time.

 

 

So essentially I just felt that at that cusp point, the learning would be tremendous. If I take a step back, go back to school, learn the basics and enter into an age where the human interaction with technology is being redefined. And I just took that opportunity and said, “Look, I just want to go back to school, spend a little bit time reflecting, learning, going back to the basics and learning.”

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah, learning again.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And moving forward.

 

Seth Adler:

Let me make sure I have this right, did you do undergraduate at –

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Michigan State undergrad and Masters in India.

 

Seth Adler:

In India, got the Masters then we went back and we were going to do an MBA in Supply Chain, you said, no-no-no wait a second. What’s this finance thing? Had you worked at GE before going to Michigan State?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

That’s right.

 

Seth Adler:

Okay.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

I worked in the Asia-Pacific office. I used to be a part of the Six Sigma. Jack Welch was huge on that, part of the Six Sigma team.

 

Seth Adler:

Yes. You were a very young guy at the time. I’m looking at you now right?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah. Totally. And my role, it was an awesome role for me. It was a role where I was moving around all of the captive GE companies across the globe working on specific functions, processes and trying to improve them. Either cut cost, drive savings, improve the through put. So it was amazing. It was a high powered situation where you were clocking in 100 hour weeks but yet and three months you’re spending time somewhere in the middle of Hungary working with GE lighting and the other thing you are an MPC right in New York working on a project for them helping them figure out their marketing, scheduling and all that.

 

 

So, it was like learning on steroids.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah. Internal management consultant is what that was right?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

That’s right.

 

Seth Adler:

All right. But when the Six Sigma guy comes in, whether it’s in Hungary or NYC, how do we say Sree, I’m not so pleased that you’re here is basically what it is. Right or no?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Absolutely. As much as the leadership team in GE used to extol the virtues of adopting Six Sigma, just as we’re talking about adoption not being uniformly distributed across all companies. We saw that in GE as well. Some companies were ahead on the curl, some companies were way behind. And when you walked in saying, I’m going to come in, crossing the Suez Canal helping you figure out processes which you have been spending time on for the last 30 years.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Guess how that’s going to sit with folks? So, I think that the ideas … My learning, it has been a trial by fire for me. I think my learning has been that if you’re given four hours to fell a tree, take at least two to three hours sharpening the axe and that’s exactly the philosophy I applied. I never dove in. My natural tendency is just dive into things, try and get learning as much as possible. It failed miserably. So, you lick your wounds, take a step back, learn and then you say, “Okay, I’m not going to dive in. I’m just going to talk to people. It’s human. Let’s go from the click to the touch.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah. And sharpen the axe, sharpen the saw, Stephen Covey, thanks so much. And then as far as GE guys, do you know my friends Lee Coulter and Jon Theuerkauf from those halcyon days or not so much?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Not so much.

 

Seth Adler:

You’re a little bit of a different generation right?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yes.

 

Seth Adler:

You were a little bit more on the ground than those guys were at the time. Just had to say it. Those guys were already execs when you were running to Hungary.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah. That’s right.

 

Seth Adler:

So GE, you go back. Michigan State you get the MBA and then where did you go? Where did you want to go? What was the goal?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

It’s a great question. I took a step back. The reason I moved into finance, switch my major from supply chain was, I love numbers because of the fact that I had an engineering background. And I realized the power of finance because everything you do has to translate into dollar value. Some benefit of mankind.

 

Seth Adler:

This capitalism thing, it seems to be –

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Completely. There is no common denominator other than the mighty dollar with which you can measure success across any function, any field, any business, any model. And I felt finance was the nodal point where everything intersected. And I just loved the fact that I discovered a function where I could use my natural proclivities. Apply business acumen, my diversity of business experiences from GE and then be able to make some meaningful support to the organization. So I said I want to pursue a career in finance which meant I had to reset all my experience; my seven-eight years of experience with GE days and all that and had to start from ground zero and I was willing to do that. So, I interned at a company called Fisher Scientific which is like the Wal-Mart for the scientific community.

 

 

And if you walk into a lab, starting from the test tube all the way to the complex genes and everything, their machinery and research labs, it’s all Fisher Scientific.

 

Seth Adler:

Medical devices.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

There you go. So they had amazing finance leadership program; a three year rotation program that puts you through all their businesses, all functions. I just gobbled it up and dove right in and I spent two years there. Did some awesome work especially on the revenue management and subsequent to that serendipitously, somebody pinged me from the Pacific North West and turned out to be Amazon. And those were not yet the hay days in 2005.

 

Seth Adler:

So 2005, all right. Because ‘99-2000 is when they’re still putting everybody onto the front lines into the call center to make sure that they could actually deliver–

 

 

 

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Oh yeah. 2005-2006 was when I think the whole ram down happened with respect to the corporate folks and just the leadership team saying hey I don’t think we’ll have to ship everybody. We have managed to build good infrastructure systems in play. I think the folks in corporate are best served by taking a step back and using this time wisely for planning and thinking about midterm and long term.

 

Seth Adler:

This is perfect because you can then tell us about the change in mindset from Amazon. Explain what actually would happen. I just ran through it but for holiday, you’re a guy or a girl, doesn’t matter what …You’re a person that works at Amazon, doesn’t matter what you do frontlines. Explain.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

This is a company that obsesses and the word is obsess; obsesses about the customer. Jeff Bezos says, “Come what may, we made a promise to customer. We will do whatever it takes.” And I believe somewhere in 2008-2009 I forget the date, there was some systems crash happen in Amazon and Jeff Bezos seconded his own personal plane to ship packages. Holiday packages because his point was, tell that to the customer who is getting his holiday package after 25th of December.

 

Seth Adler:

That my plane was packed.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Right. So, that’s the level of obsession we’re talking about. And his point is you guys in the corporate office will never understand the customer connection unless you go through the grind in two segments; number one, the call center. We spend an entire day listening to calls, we get trained, we listen to the recordings of previous calls including Jeff Bezos and his leadership team.

 

Seth Adler:

Right.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And then we are put through the grind, we answer calls, we learn from what we’re communicating, what are the issues and everything. That’s amazing experience. Anybody above the level, during my days it was called level seven and above which is senior manager and above.

 

Seth Adler:

Okay.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

You had to go through the grind. There are no two things about it. The other thing we had customer connection to was essentially warehouse. You spent Fridays in the warehouse of your choice. Go around all the functions, spend a day in each function. Do that. That’s about just getting yourself back to connecting to the customer. But come holiday season, it’s all hands on the deck. They fly you to whatever, whether it’s Coffeeville whether it’s Seattle. You fly there, you stay for those four-five days and you gift wrap. Because those days, the volume of people adopting E-commerce versus the infrastructure, including fulfillment systems and warehouse sizes were just not aligned.

 

 

So we needed to have everybody there to ensure nobody missed their package. And Jeff Bezos used to get livid and that’s paying off. Today when you look at how Amazon uses artificial intelligence or anything, it’s all about machine-man or machine-human being interaction. The point is, look, we’re going to use machines, we’re going to use algorithms but guess what; everything we do is going to enhance your experience with us. For anybody who is willing to cut their teeth and go through the grind, Amazon is a great learning experience.

 

Seth Adler:

Interesting. All right. So you foreshadowed AI in Amazon but you left mid decade right? So, let's talk about your, actual AI journey and automation; where did that start for you?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

My journey with numbers started as I said through the finance background.

 

Seth Adler:

Sure. But as far as automation specifically, are we talking about keystrokes and macros all the way back then?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah. So, if you think about my stint at GE capital as a Six Sigma, the Six Sigma guy’s role is to look at a process and say how do I cut cost? How do I drive efficiency? How do I improve the overall effectiveness? And one of the best ways to do that is automation.

 

Seth Adler:

Sure.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So, that was the first time when we started thinking about, hey how can we rejig the entire process, automate a bunch of things, change the way people do things? And that’s how it started.

 

Seth Adler:

So, that is a wonderful thing to bring up in this conversation about intelligent automation at an event called Intelligent Automation, in that this is all just what we have been doing for, definitely since the beginning the Lean Six Sigma journey. Definitely this is continuous improvement. We have now sexier words. More, different bright shiny objects. So, as far as RPA which that term just started three years ago, talk about when the language changed and the offerings that we see now changed and your involvement.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So the last 10 years or 15 years, I think people have constantly been focusing on improving processes. Different ways, you talked about macros in Excel, you talked about keystrokes on screens being used in Visual Basic to consolidate keystrokes on screens in the call centers; all that. But somewhere post the revolution associated with just managing volumes of data which happened around five to six years ago which is what we call as big data.

 

Seth Adler:

Sure. Smartphone; 2006-2007.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

2006-2007; this is the watershed moment because this where I believe that the processor in a mobile phone started becoming at least as powerful if not more than the processor in a PC. Think about it, that’s a very powerful thing to happen.

 

Seth Adler:

It’s ridiculous.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And the moment it happened is when suddenly people said, wait a second. Now there’s a boatload of things I can do using any of these devices and not just my Xeon server or whatever.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah. There’s an app for that.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Right. And with technology catching up on the hardware side, I think people started saying look, we also need to make progress on the software side where using all this super power, computing power, we need to be able to manage zillions and petabytes of data in a very consumable manner. The moment that happened, next came the logical extension post 2006-2007 where people said look, now it no longer takes me four hours to run a query to extract data, it takes me four seconds. What do we do with the remaining time?

 

Seth Adler:

Those are a tremendous amount of extra FTEs is what we call them right?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So, that’s when people started saying, with me having so much amount of data, can I start doing what I’m doing historically much better and in a much richer manner for a better signal? That exploration of trying to say that can I do something much better is what led us to artificial intelligence, neural networks was there long ago. But its application was limited because the volume of data you could process was also constrained.

 

Seth Adler:

What was the application?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

One of the areas where neural networks were for example in medicine, in agriculture. The other area where neural networks was beginning to be deployed post 200 was in supply chain. All these carriers, small little parcel carriers, trucks going around the country. How do we save costs? How do we optimize so that they are travelling the lowest distance, spending the lowest amount on fuel? These were all being done … And FedEx; FedEx used to employ operations research PhDs 10 years ago. They were creating algorithms but they were all creating algorithms to manage network. The supply chain and logistics network.

 

 

Now think about what we are doing today. We are optimizing your experience on a website. It’s the same algorithm; it’s just a different context, different application.

 

Seth Adler:

Right. It’s a different thing getting from point A to point B.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

And instead of using 100 rows of data for optimizing your logistics delivery, they’re using 100 petabytes of data to optimize your experience on the website. So think of what has changed here; the computing power, the creativity of the human mind and the experiential learning of having applied this in different functions and different times.

 

Seth Adler:

And so you’ve got a little bit of a case study that you can talk through as far as we’re getting to the user and the website and optimizing that experience. So, take us through what you know.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So, think about how you shop for … You said you’re from New York right?

 

Seth Adler:

Sure. I live in New York; I’m based in a plane Sree which makes me cloud based.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

That’s classic. But there’s some similarity with you and me. Anyway, so think about winter and how shop for your jackets. You walk in and you say hey this jacket fits me well. It’s thick, it’s thin. I have a thick jacket at home. I need a thinner one on the plane, a thick one when I’m trekking, bla-bla-bla. Today when you go to the North Face website, North Face is using IBM’s Watson cognitive technology.

 

Seth Adler:

How?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

What it’s doing is it’s essentially interacting with you and say, hey Seth, who are you? Not just you are a male, age xyz from New York. No-no-no, that’s just fundamental basic stats. It’s saying, “What do you love? What do you do? Where are you going? Where are you travelling?” It asks you a set of questions which are seemingly  disparate; tries to figure out your various contextual settings. Takes that, applies that on the assortment that they have and throws recommendations which takes into consideration your context, your lifestyle, your personal preferences, your taste, your sense of fashion. Combines all of them and brings you choices where you say, “Oops! I’ll take this, this, this, this.” Just imagine.

 

 

Suddenly you feel like so happy to have discovered a product from North Face which you’re going to shell $200 buying or more than that but you feel extremely happy with the experience. So, that’s the power of AI.

 

Seth Adler:

And that gets back to our first point which was, we got to give it, AI whatever automation the right information. And what you’re saying is it is machine learning. It is cognitive because it’s getting the right information for itself from me the human.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Exactly. And guess what; one of the things we need to do as a part of AI and cognitive technologies, adopting cognitive technologies, is think about new interactions which capture data. Let us say the same Watson technology in North Face is powering a bunch of search, shows you a bunch of jackets. One of them is the color pink and you look at it and say, “It’s great for whatever reason Mr. Watson, your suggestion, you recommended a pink jacket. I don’t like it.”

 

Seth Adler:

Right.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Now if you’re able to tell the –

 

 

 

Seth Adler:

My niece would love it.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

There you go. If you’re able to give that exact specific information to Watson that I don’t like it but my niece loves it, then the machine takes that into account. It’s very similar to the example of pneumonia, asthma and ICU. They are providing the ICU component of the data here by saying, “I don’t like it but my niece would love it.” Then guess what; the system would go back and next time when it figures out that you’re trying to gift your niece something for her birthday, I guarantee it’s going to recommend you the pink jacket.

 

Seth Adler:

If it notices I’m starting to look in that area.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

That’s right; boom. So, I think it’s important for us to also create catchment areas, interaction points which accept data of the human interaction with the system.

 

Seth Adler:

Talk more about that. What do you mean?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So, historically when you think about our websites, E-commerce websites or any transactional websites. It’s very transactional.

 

Seth Adler:

Sure.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

You go in. You search for something, you like what you want and a bunch of things you don’t like. You don’t care about what you don’t like, you just go with what you want and you buy it and you get the hell out. Sometimes maybe in a week they come back, they ping you and say, “Could you give us a feedback rating on your experience?”

 

Seth Adler:

I don’t know.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

If you’re a diligent customer, maybe, if you’re not, you’re like, “All right. Whatever.”

 

Seth Adler:

Who even remembers?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Right.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So, think about that. Think about the valuable feedback that’s lost at the point of interaction on why you did not choose the other options which are being surfaced. The ability for having interphases which capture this kind of data, redesigning them so that there is minimal friction and we are still able to get your input without you ignoring us. On things which historically we haven’t been able to get input on is important.

 

Seth Adler:

How do you do minimal friction though? Because I’m hearing you, I got it as the marketer or the brand I’m with you. Let's do it. But that sounds clunky.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah of course. And that’s the reason why this is an evolution and people are trying with experiences where they are saying, hey look, we realize that the time you spend on a browser is 5X compared to the time you spend on a mobile phone. So it’s all about one click settings which Amazon is saying, one click and you can buy. And the reason you don’t get that on the browser, the reason they have it on the mobile is because they understand your interaction. They want to remove the clunkiness. So, it’s the same way, you got to apply basic principles of design and come back and say, “What is the minimal touch point? How do I inferentially figure out he doesn’t like something, he or she doesn’t like something?” And if I’m in doubt, only I’m going to ping them and ask them to ratify it.

 

Seth Adler:

If you what?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

If I’m only in doubt that they don’t like something or they may like, I’m just going to tap them on the shoulder and ask them for an interaction.

 

Seth Adler:

I got you.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

If I can infer very strongly at 95%-99% likelihood, I’m not going to touch them or I’m not going to ping them or disturb them.

 

Seth Adler:

But that’s all about the better questions that you have AI ask the human upfront. So that’s all about the research that you’re doing way before this whole thing starts.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah.

 

Seth Adler:

It shouldn’t have that many exceptions hopefully.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yes. As I said, the thing about, there’s nothing called a perfect design. [inaudible 00:36:58] Steve Jobs or something. Obviously we’re not. So, you are going to have systems that are learning constantly and humans are learning constantly along with the systems. And you are the pioneer. We are the pioneers in this age. So we are going to be the ones who are going to set the direction for this technology, for these interactions going forward. So I think we should have a lot of patience, we should be willing to try and learn. We should be willing to experiment and we should be willing to consume our frustrations without exposing it to the whole world whenever we see some clunky experience.

 

 

And I think that’s going to happen for the next four or five years till we reach the point where the rules are going to be framed, the templates are going to be set in stone and then people are going to follow them.

 

Seth Adler:

It’s all about the journey for absolutely the next four-five years is concerned as far as Sree?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Absolutely. It’s always about the journey.

 

Seth Adler:

It’s always about the journey. I’ll ask you three final questions. I’ll tell you what they are and then I’ll ask you them in order. What has most surprised you at work? What has most surprised you in life? And then on the soundtrack of your life, one track, one song that’s got to be on there. First things first though; what has most surprised you … And you had some couple of years at eBay as well which we didn’t cover and maybe we’ll do that next time.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yes.

 

Seth Adler:

But what has most surprised you at work?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

I think the biggest surprise for me is the ability for the human mind to really, really push themselves as much as possible and do things which amaze themselves and amaze everybody around them. Case in point; I ran into a co-worker at eBay. She was a English literature major and then as I was talking to her I thought she was from … For whatever reason, the moment she said her background is English literature major, the first thing you connect is, oh she is in editorial, she’s in copyright, she’s in marketing. She’s in the creative side; the left brain dominant part of the functions.

 

Seth Adler:

How couldn’t she be?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Right?

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

She turns around and she says, “Which team are you working in?” And then she turns around and says, “Search, Search science.” And my jaw dropped. I’m like, “Seriously?” She’s like, “Yes. Search science.” “What do you do in search science?” And she said, “I actually work on the algorithm which helps surface the best products that a consumer wants to buy on eBay.” And my jaw dropped and I was thinking to myself, how does that figure?

 

 

So she said she started her career at eBay in the content copyright editorial team, worked her way into the search science team completely through self learning. And she said, “Sree, 10 years ago, learning this would entail me enrolling in a university, walking to the library, picking up a boatload of books. Spending day and night figuring out what to learn, how to learn, is this the right path I’m taking? The curriculum. But guess what, thanks to technology, the whole knowledge is democratized. I can choose what I want to learn, when I want to learn and how fast I want to learn. And there are people with opinions guiding me on mistakes that they have committed that they don’t want me to commit.”

 

 

So, I was super fascinated. I looked at her and said, “Lady, take a bow. This is unbelievable. You truly inspire me. This clearly shows the potential of the human mind and once you set your mind on something, what you can accomplish.” So, I think human beings and what they can accomplish whether it’s work or in personal life continues to amaze me all the time even now.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah. And you did it yourself. Old engineer, was going to do supply chain, went into finance, now you know AI.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yes. In spite of all modesty, yes.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah. No, but that’s it. We just got to continue to get new skills.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Totally.

 

Seth Adler:

Right.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Yeah.

 

Seth Adler:

What’s most surprised you in life?

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

In life, that’s a very tough question. I think it’s again the human mind and I think I’ll take the example of my six year old son.

 

Seth Adler:

Okay.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Scrawny little kid. When you look at him, you feel like, “He finds it difficult to carry his own weight. And guess what; when you ask him and in the middle of Silicon Valley, you ask him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And he says, “I just want to play basketball in NBA.”

 

Seth Adler:

Okay.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

It’s all he wants to do.

 

Seth Adler:

All right.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

I look at him and say, “Did you look at Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan; you need to grow big, huge, strong.” He said, “No dad, I don’t have to do any of that.” I said, “How does that figure?” And he says, “Look at Stephen Curry.”

 

Seth Adler:

Just a little guy.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

“He doesn’t do anything. All he does is just sink in three pointers. That’s all I’m going to do” Now think about it, think about what the kid sees, how he gets inspired, how he looks at himself, evaluates himself and says, “I can do it.”

 

Seth Adler:

All I have to be able to do is launch the ball from all the way back there.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

That’s right.

 

Seth Adler:

I don’t have to get down in the middle there.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

I don’t have to do any of the things that the basketball pundits used to keep saying for the last 10 years. I can figure out what I want to do, how I want to do it.

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

So, I just think looking at kids especially their learning ability, their ability to say it, not get bogged on by information or failures on the other side and curve their own path out fresh off the boat right?

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

That’s something that really fascinates me.

 

Seth Adler:

And not to get bogged down by history. I actually watched the finals, the NBA Finals for the first time in a very long time. The game’s completely different.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Oh, it’s different. I think the best summarization of the game is what the Jamie Fox Stephen Curry Under Armor ad which was being aired last year, bigger and so big, smaller and so small. Historically, basketball was all about the big guys guarding the pain and dunking and everything.

 

Seth Adler:

Got to have it big.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

But that’s no longer an advantage.

 

Seth Adler:

That’s it.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Small seems to be a better advantage now.

 

Seth Adler:

Agile, there you go.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

That’s exactly. That mirrors exactly where we are in business and with technology. Things are changing everywhere.

 

Seth Adler:

Everywhere, everyday, it’s all about the journey Sree.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Completely.

 

Seth Adler:

On the soundtrack of your life, one track, one song that’s got to be on there.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

One track, one song. You’re going to laugh at this. It’s Wake me up before you go go by Wham.

 

Seth Adler:

Okay. Here’s why I’m not going to laugh, because I’m from the 70s man. So I remember that being on to begin with. That’s a happy song damn it. That’s just a happy song.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Wham was my first album. That was the first gift I got from my dad. For whatever reason, I was there, I’m still the fan, perennial Wham fan, George Michael fan. Though I feel slightly embarrassed to say that to my nephews and my cousins. “Oh, you’re a Wham fan hmmm.”

 

Seth Adler:

Yeah.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Right.

 

Seth Adler:

And they’re trying to infer meaning from them and them and then you should tell those bots that you shouldn’t infer any meaning, it’s music that makes me go. You focus on you.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Very good. Very good. So I’m like, “All right guys. I’m not even going to try to convince you.”

 

Seth Adler:

That’s it. No need to. Sree, I appreciate the conversation.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Seth, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

 

Seth Adler:

We’ll check in with you down the line.

 

Sree Upadhyayula:

Absolutely.

 

Seth Adler:

And there you have Sree Upadhyayula. Very much appreciate his time, very much appreciate yours. Stay tuned.

 

seth adler headshot
Posted: 05/22/2018

member

Join for Free

EVENTS OF INTEREST

Omni Orlando Resort , ChampionsGate, FL, United States
January 20 - 24, 2019
New York
January 28 - 30, 2019
London, UK
February 17 - 19, 2019