The Future of Work After the Age of Coronavirus: A Conversation with Vishal Sikka


Vishal — 15 April 2020

Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for TTI/Vanguard.

Few people can understand the world through both ends of the telescope, looking at entire enterprises from 30,000 feet up while still seeing individual people and their work up close—as close to a handshake, not that we're doing that at the age of the Coronavirus. Vishal Sekka is one of those people.

Born in India, he started college there but finished his bachelor's degree at Syracuse University. He has a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford, which Marvin Minsky helped him get into and where he studied with John McCarthy. Vishal had a stint at Xerox PARC before two startups of his own and eventually ended up at the global software engineering company SAP, where, among other roles, he was the company's first CTO and redesigned its fundamental database architecture. He then became CEO of Infosys as an agent of change, pushing the company up the IT and programing food chains. Last September, he launched a new enterprise, an AI startup whose advisers include Sebastian Thrun and Alan Kay. He recently joined the board of Oracle and is also a supervisory board member of BMW.

Vishal, welcome to the podcast,

Vishal Sikka Thanks so much, Steven. That was quite an introduction (laughs).

Steven Cherry And now you have to live up to it (laughs).

Vishal, I know you go back and forth between India and the US, although probably not in the last few weeks, but you always have one eye on each country at every moment. From your point of view, what is the epidemic like in each country and how do they differ? And are there any similarities?

Vishal Sikka You know, when I was looking at this ..., I was in Germany in early February and I was shocked to see that San Francisco Airport was pretty close to empty, as I was leaving, and again when I came back three or four days later. And so that in a very visceral way told me that something was very seriously wrong. And this was too long before there was any kind of awareness of this in the U.S. or even in Europe, for that matter.

And however, you could see, as I experienced that sort of personally, and I started to look into it in detail, you could see that it was inevitable that this was going to turn into a pandemic and it was on its way to other places in the world. And it was quite shocking to see how late we were in the U.S. In responding to this. California started somewhat early with what we call here, the shelter in place of similar to a lockdown. But the other parts of the country were extremely late. And perhaps it is because we are in technology that we understand exponential curves better than—the human brain doesn't get dark until it goes naturally. If you tell someone that something is doubling every three days, and that means that in a month it becomes a thousand times bigger, because you have 10 doublings. People don't comprehend that, that if there is 600 deaths today, it will be six hundred thousand in a month if this doubling continues every three days. People don't sort of grasp that idea. And yet this is exactly what has happened. If we look at the U.S., it has been quite in that sense disappointing to see the lack of ... the early reaction, when we all saw—when we had a lot of forewarning of this.

By comparison, in India, in fact, I am quite happy with the way the government of India has responded. The lockdown in India is quite strong. It is quite severe. You know, the trains in India. My dad spent his entire career in the railways and trains are India's lifeblood. They are like in some sense, the bloodflow in the Indian economy. And the trains are not moving right now. Among other things, and it is quite shocking to see that, you know, for more than 100 years that has never happened, that the train stopped moving. So but if you look at, for example, basic things like the masks, you know, masks are hugely effective in this pandemic. Study after study has demonstrated that. And we see that in India, that is there is a great embrace being made of masks, all the other countries where masks have been either mandated or there is a public movement to adopt that you see that ... the Czech Republic, I was reading today, there are zero. The rate of spread of this virus has gone down below 1.0 In the Czech Republic. And so so, you know, anyway, long story short, the U.S. reaction has left a lot to be desired. You don't expect to see grocery stores empty of important, essential items. You don't expect to see hospitals running out of basic equipment. Nurses and doctors are working without necessary equipment in the United States. Yet, we have seen that. And it is quite shocking.

Steven Cherry There's actually a sound that sounds a little bit like a bird chirping.

Vishal Sikka So my younger son is sitting in my office as we speak because my older son is doing his classes in the shared office that the kids have. So I'm actually sitting outside in the peace and I walked over to pick up my sweater. That's why you heard the water fountain in the background. Yeah, but now I'm back in my peaceful spot. You will occasionally hear a bird chirping. But that's pretty much it.

Steven Cherry The bird chirping is delightful. And I didn't guess a waterfall, I actually thought maybe you were like pouring a soda.

Vishal Sikka No, no, there is a little waterfall in our swimming pool which my wife has set up so that it turns on in the morning at this time.

Vishal Sikka I love the idea that you're outside.

There are deep IT connections between the two countries, the U.S. and India, none stronger than those forged by the company. You were CEO of, Infosys. Outsourced IT is essentially a remote enterprise anyway. How has that been changed by the Coronavirus, if at all? And in what other ways is the virus changing those ties that bind businesses in the U.S. to businesses in India?

Vishal Sikka So I think that the immediacy of the travel bans and the closedown of the border has impacted every industry, including IT, in quite a severe way. And then beyond that, as the economic sort of repercussions or economic waves that have followed the lockdowns and followed the pandemic itself have taken hold, there has been a drastic number of projects that have been canceled across industries. And so, of course, that affects the IT industry quite dramatically.

But beyond that, there are two other aspects of it which are quite interesting. One is, of course, that as we broadly embrace, you know, doing things remotely, doing things online, that obviously impacts IT work and, you know, outsourcing work quite significantly. It makes it less relevant where people are. It makes it as we go through this distance-everything, remote deal-closing remote meeting, remote work, remote education, it matters less where we do things and the focus on what we do and how we do it, the economics of it—all these things become more important. So I think in that sense, this will end up being a net positive. I believe that this change of behavior will be more lasting in the way that we work. But also, I think that it will create a great set of opportunities in new innovations that we come up with new ways of working that we come up with. And I think that will be altogether a good thing.

Steven Cherry Vishal, you've been a lifelong optimist about AI; do you see the coronavirus hastening automation or slowing it down?

No, definitely hastening, definitely hastening—and I hope in a good way. But, you know, that remains to be seen. But I think that for several reasons. One is, of course, the fact that you can go somewhere or it has become increasingly difficult to go somewhere—to do something, to fix something, to repair something—will mean that lots of work will have to be able to be handled at a distance.

And even things that today we assume, you know, there is somebody to go somewhere and do something for. I think that will all be automated. So a lot of ... there will be an acceleration in automating activities that we will see as a result of that. The other thing that you are starting to see is the dramatic impact on people, you know, in many lines of work, for example, factory floors or farms or back-office work in stores and warehouses, where do you expect people to be there, and in fact, there is a lot of migrant work that happens in California, for example, when you think about it. People from Latin America who come here. There are lots of migrant workers. There is, you know, similarly, that is labor stratification. If you look at India, I mean, there were these really stunning pictures and videos of migrant workers going back to their villages from cities when the Indian lockdown happened. But that impacts factories. I was reading about Korean companies dispatching large planes full of workers from Korea to these remote factories in other countries. So in some sense, this pandemic is a pandemic of labor. It's a pandemic of people and one of the ... So all of a sudden, lots of people who you assumed were available to do certain things are not available. And so I think one of the consequences of that is going to be that we've been look for a dramatic acceleration in things that we can automate, you know, just because it is no longer at least for the next whatever, 12 months, 18 months while we get a vaccine where people are simply not available to do things. I think that's something that's going to happen.

Steven Cherry You know, it occurs to me that I hadn't thought of it before, but IT work and programming are sort of migrant work in an odd way.

Vishal Sikka Right.

Steven Cherry I mean, if Infosys gets a big project, suddenly, you know, thousands of programmers migrate to Infosys then Accenture gets a project and people migrate there.

Vishal Sikka That's a good way to look at it. Yeah, yeah. they follow these opportunities.

Steven Cherry At both SAP and Infosys, you led efforts to automate, as much of programming and IT as possible Is that's hastening or slowing down now, do you think?

Vishal Sikka I think it will hasten. And I hope that it hastens in a good way, hastens for the good. So we covered automation of existing activities as one aspect of this. But obviously another aspect of this is the ways that AI can help improve what we do, help improve our judgment, help improve our ability to make decisions, to see around the corner to understand consequences. I think the tremendous shortages that we see in the supply and the disruptions that we see in the supply chain, the AI technology, especially the AI technology that I grew up with, was naturally designed to be able to do those kinds of things, to be able to understand consequences, to be able to understand and foresee things that will happen.

There are auto factories that are being repurposed to make ventilators. And it turns out that a lot of this equipment, maybe ventilators, are too complex to make, to print, if you will, 3-D print, But there are many things, face shields, masks, respirators. These things can be printed. A lot of the things that we need could be printed. So one of the things I hope that this time does is that it revolutionizes manufacturing in ways that we already know that we can, that we make these thousands, tens of thousands of these manufacturing facilities of various parts, these omni-factories, if you will, which can take a few raw materials and transform those into things that we need: small ICU units, low-pressure rooms, masks, face shields, stuff that we need, you know, and we already know from having small 3-D printers at home and so forth. And I think that I believe that we will see an acceleration of this. And I certainly hope that we see an acceleration of our ability to make anything very, very quickly.

Steven Cherry:You know, in World War II, the auto manufacturers we're suddenly finding themselves making airplanes. And it didn't take really very long before they were producing an airplane basically, every hour,

Vishal Sikka:Every hour, yeah.

Steven Cherry:Airplanes have, I don't know, three orders of magnitude more parts just in terms of number of parts as a ventilator. Did you think we've lost the will to do that sort of thing?

Vishal Sikka:Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, back in February, when I was thinking about—in fact, you mentioned Alan Kay earlier, I was talking about Alan, about what time ahead would be like. And we contemplated this and we were able to build this in the course of the Second World War, the U.S. built more than 100 hospitals in the fields with the ability to do surgery, you know, including in places as far away as Burma and the Pacific Rim—in South Pacific islands there were hospitals with the ability to do surgery. And this was 80 years ago. This is incredible that in 2020 we are in this situation. And, you know, beyond being able to build ventilators and ICU units and so forth. I think that one of the things that happened after Pearl Harbor, you know, people have been talking about Pearl Harbor, recently and using that analogy; in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, there was a program to provision nurses. We created more than 100,000 nurses. There was a 4-week nurses training program that, you know, you get out the other end and you were able to be deployed to the field as a nurse and then later on there was also a 12-week and a 16-week program. And I think over the course of that war, I don't remember the number, but I think more than a hundred and fifty thousand nurses got created essentially through this process. And I asked myself do we still—and fortunately, so far we have not heard the need to create, you know, rapidly these trained operators for ventilators and so forth. So far, we have been able to, because of the shutdown, keep this level low enough. But I wonder if we have that ability anymore. I doubt it.

We've optimized ourselves so much and leveraged ourselves so much that, you know, inventory, just-in-timing, it's the lack of buffers in the system, the lack of sort of these [...] or room in the system have really caused this situation where we have run out of, we don't have enough of essential things. And people are doing diving saves of shipping airplanes full of masks and personal protective equipment and things like this.

And this should not be happening. We should be able to build better systems that are able to foresee these kinds of impacts and understand what for what kinds of scenarios, what kinds of buffers need to be in place and things like that.

Steven Cherry Yeah. I mean, the dramatic and tragic example of that is having a commercialized medical system in the United States means that no hospital has more ventilators than they need. There's no slack there whatsoever. We found that out in a very bad way.

Vishal Sikka Exactly. In Germany, they ordered the construction of ten thousand ventilators already, I think in February because they saw that this was happening. ###

And in Germany itself has, in fact, one of the things that Germany has been criticized for is that they have more hospital capacity than other countries or other large economies. And it is in part that is something that has really helped them. And Germany has reacted far better, not ideally in part, they're by no means perfect, but far better than the other Western economies, large Western economies.

And, you know, you mentioned IP. And one of the things that is right in front of our eyes and that we don't see talking about before and IP and so forth is the Internet. This marvelous creation, you know, has withstood this incredible spike in users that has happened. And we don't even talk about it. We are. The Internet has handled a dramatic spike—Internet isn't like, you know, like toilet paper or personal equipment and all of these things that have run out. They didn't have to knock on our capacity. The Internet did not break things and then did not choke or complain. It just worked. It is incredible how this timeless, decentralized design of the Internet has withstood this tremendous assault and has been really how the world has been functioning the last five weeks so well that we don't even notice it.

Steven Cherry It's hard to imagine what the old telephone switch would be like under the current.

Leaving aside, you know, sort of logistics and supply chain questions, do you see a direct role for AI in preventing future epidemics or at least lessening their severity?

Vishal Sikka I think that being able to connect dots early is something that AI can definitely help with and being able to plot out and understand consequences, dependencies between hospital systems. And one of the visualizations that my team was to see how hospital capacity across the state could be more unified. You know, because there are different capacities in different states and hospitals in different states.

And is that demand across them was different. So if you somehow could unify them all into one countrywide system, it turned out that the simulation that we were looking at two weeks ago, that if we did not do that, if we did not have a way to bring together the acute care patients to the places where there was availability, then there would be a huge amount of fragmentation of this demand. And then on the other hand, if we had a way to unify that, we would be able to stay below the natural law. They're going to go to get capacity available. So these kinds of things AI can help with in a very significant way to be able to spot these things coming ahead of time. There were indications that there were AI systems that had seen the presence of this virus in China in the early days and alerted the rest of the world that this was happening. But then, you know, I don't I don't remember which pioneer yet it was, but there was a pioneer, I think it was might have been Joel Weizenbaum, at MIT, back in the 70s had that artificial intelligence is not a cure for natural stupidity.

Steven Cherry Back in September, which seems a lifetime ago, you launched a startup devoted to AI in the enterprise. I'm wondering if that Coronavirus has changed its direction or focus in any way.

Vishal Sikka No. We are fortunate that, of course, because of the kind of work that we do, we were distributed anyway. And less than half of my team is based in Palo Alto. Our but our offices are and more than half is in different parts of the country and the world. So from Southern California to Seattle to Utah, on the East Coast, and Israel. So we were already working as a distributed team. And so it doesn't impact the dot how we do our work. In terms of what we do, I think that there is a, you know, we have a lot of large enterprises, very, very large companies that we work with and there is a tremendous need to understand the consequences of this dynamic, both in the sort of the immediacy of it, the time that we are in the middle of now, as well as the time that we expect over the next 12--18 months. And then what happens after that as well. So we are doing ... We have started several of these strategic executive engagements who help our customers think through the consequences of this are. And so that happened quite suddenly in the aftermath of this pandemic.

And then beyond that, we have started helping some of the life sciences companies, three of them. We are working with three of them in trying to figure out ... because you know, the acceleration of the anti-viral ... the process of the approval or the acceleration of the vaccine-making process. These are all things that are inherently informational. You'll need to interrogate data in thousands of different ways, thousands of times, and so AI techniques can really help with that acceleration. Also, you mentioned, I'm on the board of Oracle and Oracle in an incredibly rapid way built an application called the TLS, Theraputic Learning System, as a way to coordinate the off-label use of various kinds of drugs in real hospitals and real situations. And that system, Larry himself worked on the implementation of that. And they were able to build that within 10 days and deploy that.

So that, you know, it's quite remarkable how quickly some of these systems have got built. So the TLS is now deployed, the Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar talked about it last week. And similarly, in India, they were able to build this contact dating app within six days. It was incredible. And deploy that to, now, I think 50 million people are using this app across the country. So I'm quite heartened by some of these changes that we are seeing.

Steven Cherry I'm curious what you think of the announced Apple--Google collaboration for using mobile phones for contact tracing. We don't know all the details yet, I think. But the preliminary thoughts?

Vishal Sikka I think that it's, first of all, it is wonderful that Apple and Google work together to get that done. And I think this is the time of cooperation. This is a time for technology companies to lead by example. And I was really happy to see that.

At the same time, I think that the privacy concerns that people have raised are very, very serious. Oftentimes in times of crisis, we end up making decisions—for good reasons—that end up staying with us long after the crisis has gone away and end up compromising things. So I one of the things that I've been talking to several people about is what are some ways in which the objective of contact tracing can, you know, which is just quite essential for the time ahead, that that objective of contact, I think can be achieved without compromising people's privacy. And there are several emerging techniques now that help get that done.

So I think that is ... for example there are ways to use distributed randomized identifiers that can be shared between phones that all the private information stays on that person's phone. And yet that can be a way to very conveniently connect you with everybody that you came in contact with and anonymize that data and so forth. So I think there are ways to achieve the goal of contact tracing without compromising people's privacy. And I hope that that is the way in which we get this done.

Steven Cherry The U.S. is reporting record unemployment, literally off the charts numbers that are an order of magnitude greater than pre-epidemic losses of work. Do you have any thoughts about what the job market is going to look like in the near and medium terms?

Vishal Sikka I think that one of the consequences of this pandemic is that it has suddenly made it clear to us as a society who the essential workers are. You know, there's an analogy to war that is used here. And the reality is that the frontline workers, the hospital and the doctor, the hospital staff, the nurses, the people taking care of all of the patients when in a highly infectious of a highly infectious contagion. I think these are the essential workers. And similarly, the people doing the deliveries, the stocking of people working in stores. And yet we see that the effect of this dynamic is this disproportionately on the lower-end jobs. And so there is a tremendous sort of inequality that is becoming quite visible. And my fear is that a lot of this will be with us for a while. It will be with us for a long time. I mean, I see a lot more people starting to talk about universal basic income now, making access to jobs, access to income available to a larger number of people and so forth.

So I think that some of this triple hit by the pandemic and the pandemics consequences on the one side, the adoption of remote technologies on the other side. And then the fragmentation of the workforce because of closing down of borders across countries that even across regions, I think all of this is going to significantly worsen the job situation, especially for the lower-end jobs.

That is something that is quite serious. At the same time, one of the good things that you see, the adoption of education and a lot more people spending a lot more time learning a lot more time, you know, taking classes. Stanford, my alma mater, offered ... there's a very popular class of Stanford CS106A [Programming Methodologies—ed.]. Mehran Sahami teaches that. They offered this, they opened it up to anybody in the world. And I think something like a hundred thousand people applied for this, which is just wonderful, you know. And of course, it's kind of an intense, engaging class. So it's not clear how they will get this done with a hundred thousand students. But, we'll see, you know. I see signs that education is something that is growing in the aftermath of this. As a consequence of this. And I really hope that that continues to be the case, that quality education is something that is widely available so people can learn new things and embrace sort of the future in new kinds of ways.

Steven Cherry My own view is that the pandemic is accelerating any changes that were already in the works, anything that was going to happen anyway, but might take five or 10 or 20 years will happen in maybe one, two or five years instead. Education does seem to be one such area. Do you see any other big areas that will change permanently and quickly?

I think that remote meeting technology—I think we will all become accustomed to using tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams and Adobe Connect and so forth. So I think that that remote collaboration, that remote-presence technologies ... you know Nicholas Negroponte used to work on that back in the 70s and 80s. He wrote this beautiful book called Being Digital back in the early 90s. I think we are seeing and we will see a great acceleration of this idea of transmission of presence. You know, as we stand home—from my home, I can go and I can look at Mount Tam. And Mount Tam is in Marin County, my home in the Palo Alto area, and which, is, as the crow flies, that's close to 60 miles away. And it is incredibly clear the air is incredibly clear.

You can clearly see that we are using far less energy now than we were just two months ago. And then that begs the question of what do we use the energy for? And I think that as we do that a lot of this idea of what does it mean to be present somewhere is going to be thought about very deeply. Andy Clark wrote this book called Being There back in the early 90s about virtual reality and presence. What does it really need to be there, somewhere. And how do we bring more and more of that into our work?

And I think that I'm pretty convinced that the brand, the aftermath of this pandemic will see a great acceleration of presence technologies. Every few years, something happened a few years ago. We saw this Oculus and HoloLens and all of these things. And I think that we will finally see development of really good, compelling VR and AR technology in the aftermath of this.

Steven Cherry I'm reminded that at Infosys you had offices in both the Bay Area and India and they were connected by, as I remember this, webcams that ran 24/7. And when you were in India, somebody could just walk into your U.S. office, the office of the CEO, and use it just to say hi to you remotely and vise versa when you were in the U.S. 

Vishal Sikka Yes, exactly. Yeah, we used to have these sort of telepresence windows all around the world and you could randomly drop in on people, you know. Things like that, we will see more and more of things like that.

Steven Cherry And yet I'm also reminded that when you were at Infosys, you had two desks in the United States, one a kind of executive office, but the other you had a desk with a design and innovation group. And I understand—my impression at the time was that you felt it was very important to have that kind of up-close and in-person connection to those groups. That's still important, isn't it?

Vishal Sikka Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And the way it was, oh, my office in Palo Alto was set up, in a way that there was a room that was dedicated for confidential calls or meetings, but my workspace was in a shared area with several other colleagues. So there was a cluster of six of us who used to sit together. And then there were another 30 or so colleagues from various teams, especially the design team and the strategic projects team that were all around. So we could just drop in on everyone who was working. And then, of course, because of, you know, the telepresence, and TVs and so forth, you could drop in on other locations. And in the evenings and mornings you could talk to India without formally scheduling meetings and this type of thing. I think. I think a setup like that is extremely important.

But if you step back and think about why that is, I think that presence, being in physical proximity, being able to have low fidelity, meaning low-volume, while doing a high fidelity conversation with a colleague. Being able to listen to them, understand the nuances. High bandwidth means that you are able to see facial expressions. You're unable to make eye contact. You are able to understand body language. You are able to see the background and the context in which people are doing things. And you got this rich experience at a very high fidelity. And I think that is extremely important. And so then the question becomes, how do you make that possible digitally? How do you make presence something that is compelling and engaging and immersive? So right now that we are still not there. But I think that this pandemic will really accelerate the adoption of that. And I mean, for example, if you look at education in education, the teacher's ability to understand how well the students are doing, you can easily see that in their physical classroom you're going to withdraw into struggling and which one is not, which one is paying attention and which one is not who you have lost, who is engaged. I think being able to do that in an AI-assisted way in an online classroom is going to be very important. This is something that we are working on with one of our clients. So I think these kinds of technologies that help bring more and more of a physical presence into our digital world are going to be quite critical.

Steven Cherry It's clear that the most precious limited commodity in the universe is time. Vishal, you're an incredibly busy person. I'm always amazed at the way you always find time for your family and your friends. On behalf of myself and TTI/Vanguard, I thank you for your time and your friendship.

Vishal Sikka Absolutely, Steve. And you know, this time is ... time with family ... It is often it gets frustrating. These are anxious times, these are sometimes depressing times. But, you know, the reality of it is, it has made it very clear what we value. It has made it very clear ... you know, I was asking myself this last week, I was asking myself, am I happy with all the lack of travel, lack of being able to go out and so forth? Are you happy? And then if you are, what is it about their current situation that makes you happy? And if you're not? What is it that you are missing that is making you not happy? I was shocked by my own answer. I found myself happy. I found that, you know, things that you really value are still there. And I think—I hope that this moment, this time gives us this ability to reflect on what really matters to us. And I asked this question from my team and about 50 or so people, and I was shocked by everybody's reaction. It was more or less along these lines that the things that we cared about, the things that we truly value in life have become closer to us. And I think I hope everyone takes that away from this time.

I think that's true for myself as well. And this has also created this opportunity for us to speak, which I am grateful for.

Vishal Sikka Thanks very much, Steven.

Steven Cherry We've been speaking with innovator, entrepreneur and visionary CEO Vishal Sikka about the future of work, technology, business, and society, in the age of the Coronavirus and beyond it.

For TTI/Vanguard, I'm Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 14 April 2020.

Music by Chad Crouch

Audio engineering by Gotham Podcast Studio, New York, N.Y.

We welcome your comments @ttivanguard and @techwiseconv

Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of TTI/Vanguard’s audio programming is the audio version.