In early May, Northwest Arkansas Business Journal editor Paul Gatling moderated a roundtable discussion in the Firmin-Garner Performance Studio at Fayetteville radio station KUAF 91.3 FM.
The topic? Technology. Participants in the conversation were Michael Paladino, co-founder and chief technology officer of Bentonville software company RevUnit, Jarrod Ramsey, technology strategist for Microsoft, and Kristi Wieser, client director for IBM.
What follows is a partial transcript of their discussion, edited lightly for clarity.
Gatling: It is great to have you all here with us today to talk technology. What we want to accomplish is just to discuss what is happening now, what’s going to happen the next few months and years down the road. Of course, technology is a rather broad subject, so I want to ask those questions and others through the lens of each of your respective fields, your respective companies — what you deal with on a day-to-day basis, what topics or trends or even policy discussions get most of your attention each day.
Jarrod, let’s start with you. Give me your 30,000-foot view overall of some key questions you’re focusing on right now with work at Microsoft. What’s changing rapidly? What’s going to have the biggest impact on consumers in the next few months? What are some of the issues that you focus on right now day-to-day?
Ramsey: In Microsoft — and this applies to both industry and what I’m dealing with on a daily basis at Microsoft — it’s still around artificial intelligence, machine learning, all of that is a very huge, broad topic. It’s not just about data consumption and how it takes all the smart data and all this regular data and turns it into smart output. It’s also about giving a computer the ability to have senses to see, to hear, to understand voice and to be able to take action on it.
A lot of customers are asking about A.I. [artificial intelligence] and machine learning, and then we’ll have to activate each one of those little elements to determine which one they’re really talking about and then how we put motion to that.
That certainly circles back to how the story is told around artificial intelligence [and] machine learning, because you’re talking about lots of data that’s supposed to have a really simple answer.
It’s kind of hard to tell that story even if you’re really, really good at creating the end result that’s really smart. It’s hard to tell that story just by itself, because there might have been a lot of work that goes into calculating all this information and algorithms and formulas.
I think the other thing I’m seeing, industry-wise, is what you’re looking at in “automotion,” or automation and in the automotive industry. Could’ve merged those words together. It’s new. I’m going to patent it when I get my address.
Both in an automative and then in automation. Both of those are really turning around a lot of corners. Even in recent news, with what Tesla has been doing with their auto pilot program. I’d like to come back to that because I think that’s turning into a broader policy and how the industry is reacting to those kind of states and situations of how technology is activated. And I think that’s going to be the play for the next several years.
Gatling: Artificial intelligence. Machine learning. Virtual reality. All falling into that category of things that are guiding technology strategies.
Ramsey: Microsoft calls that mixed reality, in that there was an announcement just billed in Seattle about that specifically.
Gatling: OK, Kristi? How about you? What is the buzz in your profession? What’s the chatter? What’s the reality?
Wieser: There’s a lot of buzz about blockchain, and you hear about this everywhere. But certainly the work that Walmart, Tyson, IBM and other companies are doing in the blockchain space. There’s a lot of buzz. So I think blockchain is one of those technologies that’s probably going to transform how companies transact business just like the internet transformed how we communicate. You know, think of the days when everybody had a phone … and I call you, Paul, to talk, and maybe we had a conference call for us. But it was pretty limited in terms of how we could communicate until the internet came along.
So with blockchain, you’re company A and I’m company B. We may be sharing data. We’re sharing data, but it may not have the right standards, or the same standards, and it may take a lot of time and cost money. And there may be opportunities for fraud or counterfeiting in those communications.
With blockchain, it allows a network of ecosystem partners to share information very quickly, very easily. Now you have access to data and insights you didn’t have before. You know, a great example is Frank Yiannas, the vice president of food safety at Walmart. He put a package of sliced mangoes on the table at a business meeting and said, “I want you to trace this back to the farm where the mangoes came from,” and it took six days and 18 hours and 32 minutes or 26 minutes, something like that. Because of all of those stages you have to go through, and the documents you have to request, and all that.
Well, with blockchain, he proved last year at the shareholders meeting, he could trace a package of mangoes in 2.2 seconds. And it’s not just the speed, and think of the time savings and the cost savings, but the trust that you now have. So, it’s really trust and traceability, transparency. There’s a lot of buzz around blockchain and how you can apply that kind of technology in every industry. You know, financial, certainly health, pharmaceuticals, a lot of industries where maybe counterfeiting and fraud would be ripe for those kinds of technologies. That’s a lot of buzz.
Gatling: Michael, what about you? What changes or trends are having the biggest impact on RevUnit? I’m sure blockchain is one that’s on everybody’s radars, front and center. But what else?
Paladino: I just want to say “Me too.” We’re focused on a lot of those technologies, and again, a lot of what we do is focused on technology products that help people to work better.
So, whatever of these technologies that a lot of the bigger companies like Microsoft and IBM are creating, whatever of those we can leverage to help create better products, better solutions for our users, we’re going to lean in on those. So, machine learning and artificial intelligence is a huge push for us right now. Often times, we can automate really mundane tasks that don’t require that person to do that work anymore, and then they can focus on the more meaningful purposes of their job. I’m seeing a lot of opportunity there to remove some of the mundane work.
We’re focusing a lot on drawing out insights, too. As Jarrod talked about, a lot of times, that’s as much about how do you present the insights that you’re finding from these types of tools. A big focus for us is not only finding interesting information, but being able to get to some of the predictive models about how you actually visualize those, and communicate that to the business stakeholders so that they can take action on that.
We’re really excited about blockchain, too. From our standpoint, we see the need for companies and academics to come together and create protocols to share the information. That’s really what blockchain is about- — these distributed ledgers that more people get access and see the information. So it’s going to have to be protocol … there will have to be protocols created that allow people to agree on how this information is going to be shared.
We’re actually participating in the [Blockchain in Transportation Alliance] on their symposium down in Atlanta, hopefully to be a part of that process of establishing some of those standards and protocols specifically in the supply chain and transportation space.
Gatling: I’m sure all of you guys travel extensively for your job throughout the company. You see what other areas are doing, and you obviously see what Northwest Arkansas is doing by working here. And you probably know where I’m going with this, because you hear it a lot. Can Northwest Arkansas be another “fill in the blank” — Austin, Texas, Silicon Valley, that we hear these examples a lot that the tech leaders and other industry leaders strive for this area to shoot for? What is your reaction when you hear something like that: Northwest Arkansas is the next Austin, Texas?
Paladino: I’ve got a lot of passion for this, and I like not to talk about what Northwest Arkansas can be, but what it is right now. There’s already a significant amount of talent in this area, and I know that there’s a lot of conversation around retail, supply chain, logistics, food service. There’s some really significant momentum we have in those areas, and there’s a lot of expertise surrounding that. The technology expertise in the area is just continually growing and improving, and you see great events like Northwest Arkansas Tech Fest and the Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit — developers’ conferences that are great events and opportunities for technologists to come together.
Gatling: Does it help to have those events that have people come from around the U.S., and then they leave and say “Hey, there’s a lot going on in Northwest Arkansas,” and that may be helping to recruit and attract additional tech talent here?
Paladino: Absolutely. Especially the Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit. It is a huge yearly event that brings in a lot of outside attendees that draws attention to the area. Of course, we know, those of us that live in Northwest Arkansas know, about the amenities in the region, know how great of a region it is to live. To raise a family, to bike. Whatever those things are. So we find a lot of … when people come, they stay. So, I love to talk about what Northwest Arkansas is today. How great it is today. And certainly try to build on that momentum as we move forward.
Gatling: Alright. Kristi, you’ve lived here for 10 years. What’s your take on the technology workforce, the technology scene in Northwest Arkansas in 2018 as compared to 2008?
Wieser: Oh boy, it’s a very different place. You can see it certainly in the growth of the business, the neighborhoods, the schools, right? The growth that’s here. And I would echo everything that Michael said. I think that there’s so much opportunity here when you take a look at all the startups in particular that have come out. The tech council meetings that are held once a month. And there’s a lot of really interesting startups. The University of Arkansas has a blockchain center of competency, right? So they’re infusing these types of skills and curricula into the fabric of education.
I really think Arkansas has an opportunity to be sort of a mecca, or maybe developing more of an industry around blockchain and food. You know, think about all the agriculture that goes on in this state. So, we’re trying to foster conversations with a number of stakeholders or personas when you think about public sector. The government, the schools, education. Private sector in terms of companies. Nonprofits. You know, consumers. There’s a lot I think that we could do working together to really create that industry.
Gatling: Jarrod, from your perspective, what’s cause for celebration right now? What’s cause for concern in the tech field in Northwest Arkansas?
Ramsey: The key things that I’m seeing is that Arkansas has a bigger footprint in the rural environment, right? There’s no hiding that, which is actually a good thing. I would embrace that. But it does come with its own impacts. And those come with public transportation, with the ability to bring people in to an area where they can work, frequently. And then exposure of the talent. There is a lot of skilled talent. There are a lot of people that are skilled that don’t know they’re skilled. There are a lot of kids that are growing up not thinking they’re skilled, and they are skilled. And how do we start activating that?
J.B. Hunt, Walmart, Sam’s [Club], Tyson … they’ve got job requirements open now for talent that we’re describing and talking about. And they may have to be put into a position where they are having to look outside of the state of Arkansas to make those hires. So, we’re trying to … and this is … whenever I say “we,” I am looking at three of us in this room- — there’s more — that are trying to get more involvement, more education out to the communities, to have them be inspired and to seek a profession in the tech industry.
Gatling: We report on a lot at the Business Journal, unemployment numbers, and really no matter the sector — healthcare, transportation, construction — top employers are having difficulty finding skilled workers. So, Michael, what is your take on that? Just from a general perspective of what all you see. For tech companies in Northwest Arkansas, is it a great lack of skilled workers that you’re facing?
Paladino: I think nationwide, we’re seeing a lack of technology workers at the quantities that we need. The number of technology-enabled employees that companies are looking for is increasing. The supply has not kept up as quickly.
Gatling: What are the skills that are lacking, for example? Let’s say, what is something that you really need as you find yourself growing that simply is not there as much as you would like to see it?
Paladino: We’ve certainly looked for a lot of software developers. We look for design and user experience, or UX. Increasingly, companies are recognizing how important that role is — to design great products that their employees are going to use. And then, even just employees that understand what these tools like machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to mean for how work gets done in the future. I think more and more that’s becoming important. There are a lot of great initiatives going on in this area, too, and again, Jarrod and Kristi are involved in a lot of them. There are a lot of different things like the University of Arkansas Global Campus that is explicitly pushing to create more education in those areas. Bentonville has created their Ignite program, that I’m sure you’ve heard of, that is doing a great job of tying high schools into workforce development and creating that pipeline of talent very early on in the process. And I’m sure there are countless other examples of efforts happening in the region.
Gatling: This is somewhat of a tech question, but more of a work-life balance topic. How do you figure out that balance in this day and age of being plugged in, and smartphones and tablets, and being reachable, and FaceTimeing and what have you? Are there rules or boundaries that you set for yourself or try to stick to so that you can turn off? Or how and when do you hit that off button? Kristi?
Wieser: Absolutely. I think you have to take charge of your own life at some point, and if you don’t, right, it will take over. And in this day and age, as you say, you never put your cellphone down and you’re always reachable. I’ve found, I call it juggling, it’s not so much balance anymore. I think it’s more like juggling, and what ball might you let fall and try to catch it before it hits the ground. But you have to make choices. For me, weekends tend to be more sacred. It’s family time, it’s time to worship, and it’s time to sort of unplug. There may be a few dire situations that I have to jump into, but I try to keep weekends. And the other thing that’s sacred to me are vacations. You know, when you plan a week away, I think it is critical that you take that time. And, again, unless the sky is going to fall, you’ve got to make that time or else you come back almost as stressed as when you left.
Ramsey: I have come to the realization the past few, well, over a year now I’ve been dealing with the concept of just budgeting. So, it’s not just financial budgeting. That’s an easy one. You can be in the black or you can be in the red whenever you’re balancing your checkbook and coming up with your financial expenses. But we don’t think about it, budgeting with how we spend our time with our kids, how we spend our time with our family, or with our wives, our specific passions and interests, and how we budget our own time so that we can feed into the things that we enjoy.
And then what I don’t want is I don’t want to get to the end of my life and then find out that I’m in the red with things that I didn’t do with my kids, things that I didn’t do with my wife, things that I never took a risk on or just even had fun with or something. So, that’s how I look at it, and what that helps me do is that helps me deposit whenever I can. Take time with the kids. Go do fun stuff with them. Take time with the wife. Go take her out. Stay up late and work on something that I’ve always had an interest in. And that’s how I deposit. Put myself in the black.
Gatling: Michael, where’s your on or off switch as it relates to work?
Paladino: I’m sitting here, and I have my phone in front of me. And we turned it off before this, and that was a struggle for me. It’s tough, but for me it’s very much about making sure that I control the channels which I’m getting input. And so, like Kristi said, when I go on a vacation, I uninstall my email app, I uninstall Slack, which is our communication app. I take them off my phone so that I don’t accidentally see something. I have a personality type that if I happen to see a message come across, I’m going to have a hard time not diving into it and then realize I’m 15 minutes in and I’m missing time with my family or just missing time to relax. So, it really is about customizing the tools that I use to communicate, making sure that I’m not looking at this crazy phone when I shouldn’t be. My wife helps me, and my kids help me, for that matter. I get called out on it quite a bit, but it is about customizing that tool for me.
Gatling: Before we let you go, just a final thought on what you think, if we were to have a roundtable discussion a year from now, what do you think we would be talking about in the technology sector? Or maybe a slightly longer view, what’s a crazy prediction of yours for the next three to five years in the tech field, and what that might look like?
Ramsey: So, to talk about next year, let’s talk about recently when I talked about self-driving cars. I think what this year is, I think we’re in an age of Thomas Edison, meaning that we know the ideas, the platforms are being built, the scientists are doing their thing. But they’re finding 999 ways of how not to do it, and then we’ll eventually find that one way of how to do it. So, that’s what I’m calling the age of Thomas Edison. If you look at just recent news with Tesla, they had a car crash with their self-driving [vehicle] … And Uber had a car wreck a few months ago. Doesn’t mean that we should’ve stop progressing forward with that, and with that age of Thomas Edison, there are lot of companies that are starting to really embrace the aspect of being an apprentice to failure. And that lets us just continue to drive and seek the new, and hopefully people won’t be getting hurt in the process, as has been the case.
So, I think for a year from now, what we’ll see is, I think it’ll still be softer, I think the innovation. I think what’s going to happen is there’s going to be more root structure that’s going to be provided to these new technologies as it goes from data scientists to actual software engineers that are putting their hands on these tools. And that’s going to bleed us into regulatory. So, there are going to be more laws, there are going to be more things, there’s going to have to be work done, to get past, to allow technology to move faster, and to actually get into the hands of common day consumers, or everyday consumers just like us, that are actually going to be able to take advantage of these technologies.
Gatling: Right. I think of the driverless car and the Uber mishaps and those things, I think of the space race to the moon. I wasn’t born then, but of course everybody remembers, there were casualties and missteps before that eventually happened. It just took a long while to get there. Kristi, alright, your crystal ball, what do you see?
Wieser: You opened the door for robots, I’ve got to walk through it, right? So think about water, right? In two years — so you asked in a year or two what were we thinking about — in two years, right, 2020, over half of the world will be living in water-stressed areas. So, you know, as humans we can only live three days without water, right? Water, I think, is our most precious natural resource. And so, our research team is working on these AI-powered robotic microscopes. If you look at plankton in water, plankton is a great harbinger of what’s happening in the water, whether it’s oil spills, or whether it’s tide flows. By putting these little microscopes in the water and looking at how the plankton are behaving, you can start to predict what’s going to happen with the water. So, you can monitor, and maybe avoid some very negative effects for the world. I think in a couple years we’re going to be talking about AI-powered robotic microscopes.
Gatling: Michael. How about you? Last word.
Paladino: I’ll take it to a darker place to end things on. Fake news. I think legitimately, you asked about policy in some of your opening remarks, and if you’ve seen the Google Duplex demo from their most recent conference where Google is actually placing a phone call on your behalf, the computerized voice, the AI voice, was indistinguishable from a human voice. The person on the other end of the call didn’t even know it wasn’t human. So, even since they’ve released that demo, they had to make a change to where that’s going to identify itself as a robot, as a bot, before it actually communicated with a human. You’re seeing increased abilities to create videos of celebrities, videos of the president, reproduce audio that sounds like it’s coming from a person, so that technology is going to continue to improve, and it’s going to be harder and harder to distinguish reality from what you’re consuming, from automatically generated content. And so, I think that’s going to lead to a lot of policy. Discussions? I don’t know that policy is going to be able to solve any of that.
Gatling: That’s the hard part.
Paladino: I think it’s going to be interesting, and it’s going to lead to a lot of interesting conversations.
Gatling: Sounds like a Forrest Gump movie gone bad. You can’t determine what you’re watching or what’s real, or Memorex, from going back in the old days. Alright, Michael Paladino, Jarrod Ramsey, Kristi Wieser, we thank you very much for being here today. Appreciate your insights.