Digital and AI is about scaling and moving from experimentation to transformation: Sandip Patel, IBM

AI requires machine learning; machine learning requires analytics; and analytics requires the right data and information architecture

Pradeep Chakraborty
New Update

Sandip Patel was recently appointed as IBM MD India and South Asia (ISA). He is responsible for strategic and operational matters related to sales, marketing, services and delivery operations in the region, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. He will also oversee the centers of excellence and technical garages across India.


Excerpts from an interview with Sandip Patel.


DQ: Congratulations on your appointment. How are you planning to enhance India’s capabilities across IBM’s global centers of excellence?


Sandip Patel: Thank you!

IBM India is a microcosm of the IBM company. Our global centres of excellence have been providing state-of-the-art infrastructure, remote IT services for over 800 clients across 13 industries globally. This year, we will continue to build on our strengths both organically and by hiring the best from the industry.

We have 18 Technical Garages in India, which focus mainly on our accelerated practices and house some of the best technical and business minds. Our India Center also works with teams across the globe on cutting-edge technologies like Quantum Computing, where our teams experiment on various industry use cases. Applying IBM Quantum Computing in Route Optimization is one such example in Logistics.


Besides technologists and industry experts, our Client Innovation Center also has iX (interactive design) experts, who help bring concepts to life. It’s a group we are scaling as there are significant changes in the ways our clients reach out to their customers in the post-Covid-19 world.

We are also working closely with governments and commercial clients as we help them with solutions to build in resilience as they move from a crisis mode to the reset, recover phase, with the right strategy to getting their employees back to work safely, in a phased manner.

DQ: What are the key steps India now needs to take to power digital transformation across key industries?


Sandip Patel: We are witnessing a few fundamental shifts in the industry today:

Firstly, we are seeing the acceleration of digital ecosystems touching every aspect of our lives. Secondly, there are new business models emerging -driving cost efficiency, agility and built on a foundation of trust. Lastly, a truly defining shift - the emergence of a network economy that is defining a whole new way of working and interacting with people.

Up until 2019, the standard operating model for businesses, governments and other organizations was location-based: people would go to work, rather than work coming to them. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed all that. Now, work has to come to us, wherever we happen to be. A few organizations have handled this forced “digital transformation” smoothly, and the others, more fitfully.


Going forward, organizations will need to continue modernizing operations to realize the immense benefits of cloud-native capabilities: location independence, talent flexibility, scalability, resilience, interoperability, and seamless transition to a virtualized engagement and delivery model—what we call cloudified delivery.

Wherever an organization is on the digital transformation path, COOs can find several operational lessons from what we have learned, so far. First, where cloud was once a desired future end state, it is now an indispensable, immediate environment. Second, organizations can move faster than they realized and be nimbler than they believed possible.

Third, earlier rationalizations that prevented successful—and speedy—digital transformation will no longer work. Becoming an agile digital enterprise is essential, and it needs to happen now.


DQ: How is IBM working on the essential recovery and transformation post Covid-19?

Sandip Patel: As we emerge from the pandemic, the ultimate outcome is growth and we are absolutely committed to it. A key focus area for growth is to take the lead in the cloud- and AI-based digital transformation journeys of our clients. We already have three strong platforms -- mainframe, services and middleware -–which serve as the three pillars for success. The fourth is the hybrid cloud, and we have the fundamentals in place for a flexible and cost-effective approach to it.

Clients need deep industry expertise more than just platforms and hence building and managing the hybrid cloud platform that runs the services that clients rely on is a massive opportunity for IBM. IBM along with Red Hat have a unique source of competitive advantage that can be leveraged to win the architectural battle for cloud. In India, clients, including Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel, etc., have already embarked on this journey with us.


Another area that we have been focusing on has been to mobilize IBM and IBMers to help with the global battle against Covid-19. IBM has made super computing power accessible to the scientists to assist them in finding cures and vaccines. We have donated technologies so that governments can get access to free chatbots to help their customers with knowledge and information about Covid-19.

DQ: How is IBM now looking at their customers' journey to the cloud?

Sandip Patel: IBM sustains the digital operations of the world’s most critical organizations: our banks, telcos, retailers, healthcare providers and government agencies. These are the businesses enabling us to manage our banking digitally and place orders online, they're providing the network capacity to support our grocery delivery apps, and they're powering the services our first responders require to help address the needs of patients around the globe.

Even before the pandemic, the adoption of cloud has been a central feature in developing new, digitally driven business models. However, some organizations are struggling with harnessing the full capabilities of their cloud environments. Though 90% of companies globally were “on the cloud” by 2019, only about 20% of their workloads have moved to a cloud environment.

We believe that the value derived from a full hybrid cloud platform technology and operating model at scale is 2.5 times more than the value derived from a single platform, single cloud vendor approach. In fact, the platform approach accelerates value with scale. IT becomes interoperable and portable when deployed in hybrid cloud environments. It is estimated that 50% of enterprises will have moved to ‘write once, run anywhere’ hybrid cloud environments by 2023.

To prepare for transition at scale IBM is working with clients to help them plan their journey to cloud around a couple of areas:

Embrace a hybrid cloud design: Hybrid cloud design patterns and service brokerage models allow commodity workloads to be delivered by multiple providers. While organizations may enjoy preferred relationships, they should also have options to shift workloads across clouds and cloud providers without hampering performance.

Shift to “as-a-service” strategy to use cloud-based tools, applications and platforms. Many software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based solutions are delivered at scale across the globe, further reducing the risk of service disruption.

Further, the new work-from-home scenarios bring added considerations on security when it relates to application security, data and content security, device security, enhanced access and identity management, and the ability to manage cyber security threats by managing SOCs remotely. Managing secure access over VPN becomes key, and not only that, protecting our customers against cyber threats like Covid-19-based phishing emails requires us to work on new and unique use cases.

IBM's security solutions on the cloud provide these capabilities. For example, IBM Cloud clients can rely on security capabilities like Keep Your Own Keys (KYOK), where only they have access to your data. IBM Cloud is resilient with multi-zone regions for high availability, and ready for workloads that run on VMware, x86, IBM Power and z Systems platforms.

DQ: How are the IBM cloud services going right now?

Sandip Patel: IBM Cloud is providing clients the much-needed resiliency and security that comes from its breadth of deployment options across 60 globally dispersed data centers, including the one in India, and time-tested data protection capabilities.

The demand for cloud services is growing exponentially due to the shift to a digital ‘new normal’ and most logging in remotely / work-from-home. Initially, as the Covid-19 lockdown commenced, we started providing solutions to the large enterprises for setting up the infrastructure for their employees to WFH, and ensured secure connectivity with help of VDI (desktop on cloud) solutions. These enterprise grade technology-wide applications are secure and enable employees to get online immediately in a matter of hours.

We see growth in disaster recovery on cloud offerings, during these times since enterprises prefer the opex model of managing disaster recovery, instead of investing capex on infrastructure. Most of the applications like CRM, analytics, retail applications, etc., are moving to cloud for flexibility and wider reach to different geographies.

Whatever the "new normal" looks like when the world emerges from this difficult period, we anticipate that our clients will continue to demand cloud solutions to power their operations and drive their businesses forward. Perhaps, more than ever!

DQ: How are you using your strengths to battle the epidemic?

Sandip Patel: As we come together to weather the Covid-19 storm and reboot ourselves for a whole new world order, we must acknowledge the fact that technology has been the foundation to tide through these unprecedented times.

We are also leveraging technology to reskill our employees and all of us. Our employees are working towards skilling and upskilling themselves with newer digital engagement models to help work with their colleagues as well as clients seamlessly. We saw employees in India/South Asia clocking 2.8 million learning hours, earning close to 50k badges on key topics, including Cognitive Practitioner, Enterprise Design Thinking and Automation Essentials, on our Think Academy digital platform, IBM’s learning program.

IBM has also extended online education resources like IBM SkillsBuild, SkillsBuild Re-ignite, Open P-TECH and IBM AI Education series for teachers. These free programs and courses can give users the tools needed to explore new ideas, careers, and courses -- anytime, anywhere.

Most importantly, Good Tech is in the DNA of IBM globally, and IBM India is leading this on many fronts. The National Institute of Technology – Warangal (NIT-W) from India is tapping into our HPC capability to study the dependence of structure and dynamics of Novel SARS-COV-2 on temperature and humidity in the atmosphere. This study is expected to open a new dimension in the characterization of SARS-CoV-2 and future corona family class of viruses in prevention, categorization and drug designing aspects.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has implemented a Watson Assistant, built by IBM on its portal, to respond to specific queries of front-line staff and data entry operators from various testing facilities across the country.

Watson Assistant will be able to understand and respond to common queries in English and Hindi, at scale, around the clock, in a uniform and timely manner, as per the latest guidelines from ICMR. We remain committed to working with the government, clients and our ecosystem of partners to leverage technology – built in India, for India to solve real world issues.

DQ: Is the IBM research team developing Covid-19 solutions?

Sandip Patel: IBM is marshalling its resources and bringing together the right communities of experts to manage the Covid-19 outbreak with what we do best -- applying data, knowledge, computing power and insights and our initiatives fall under three key pillars -- accelerate discovery, trusted information, and resiliency and adaptation.

IBM Research is bringing in its expertise in AI technologies, and also playing the role of a catalyst to accelerate research for the doctors, scientists and organizations by providing them access to technologies and scientific knowledge which will help them battle against coronavirus. Outlined are a few examples of work that the IBM has been engaged in:

* IBM’s Summit, the most powerful supercomputer on the planet, has already enabled researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee to screen 8,000 compounds to find those that are most likely to bind to the main “spike” protein of the coronavirus, rendering it unable to infect host cells. They were able to recommend the 77 small-molecule drug compounds that could now be experimentally tested. This is the power of accelerating discovery through computation.

* In partnership with the US Department of Energy, IBM is leading the Covid-19 High Performance Computing (HPC) consortium to make a vast amount of supercomputing power (more than 480 petaflops) available to help researchers everywhere better understand Covid-19, its treatments, and potential cures. As of today, more than 50 projects have access to supercomputing resources -- that includes four from India as well.

* IBM has also pledged its entire global patent portfolio, which is comprised of more than 80,000 patents and patent applications, specifically, patent assets we feel are most relevant in the fight against Covid-19.

* IBM is also offering access to IBM Functional Genomics Platform, that allows fast and efficient extraction of information from genes to functional domains, to identify molecular targets and exponentially accelerate the discovery of drugs.

* IBM India research lab was instrumental in the IBM Watson Assistant chatbot development for helping ICMR respond and the AP Government. IBM Watson Openscale built in India, is an open platform that gives businesses an accurate view of their AI systems, monitor the performance of their AI lifecycle and enable them to make fast accurate decisions, free from bias. The India lab team worked closely with the global labs to develop this solution to emerge smarter from the pandemic.

DQ: What are the IBM response teams doing for business continuity?

Sandip Patel: Our executive business leadership team has been leading business continuity efforts and driving our actions and client communications from the very start. IBM has the experience of dealing with business continuity challenges around the globe and took the pandemic threat seriously early on.

Our business continuity plans around pandemic preparedness reviews (from the H1N1 experience) started way back in February, when our teams stress-tested various infrastructure parameters, including remote network scalability, not just for IBM, but for all client networks that we support. We pro-actively reached out to clients and conducted 100% remote working tests while ensuring no disruption to any client deliverables.

The teams even stress tested the entire workforce going remote on a weekend in early March. Our teams in India took a phased approach to move each city to 100% remote during the middle of March. As a result of this extensive preparedness, the teams seamlessly adapted to the complete lockdown in late March with over 99% of the workforce working remotely without any client disruption.

Over the course of the next 10 weeks, the teams have completed over 35 major client go-lives, over 20 client system enhancements, and have not missed any client Service Level Agreement. Furthermore, we have received a large number of client accolades from a variety of industries from around the globe, where we even supported record volumes using our remote delivery capability.

Our data centers, systems with critical client infrastructure, applications and business networks remain operational and fully functional through this difficult period as a result of the carefully executed continuity plans. Our employees are fully engaged and committed in the service of our clients -- with a management system that keeps us all connected, while leveraging our long-standing heritage of remote working and virtual capability.

DQ: How is IBM accelerating the journey towards AI?

Sandip Patel: After having experimented with AI and moved simple workloads to the cloud and committing to ‘random acts of digital’, we believe that businesses are now ready to move to Chapter 2. Chapter 2 of digital and AI is about scaling and moving from experimentation to transformation. This year, enterprise demands rose for real-time and near real-time analytics at scale.

Going forward, businesses are more eager to have AI making a positive impact on their bottom line. For example, HDFC ERGO and IBM are collaborating to co-create new AI-based solutions on IBM Cloud, that will redefine the customer experience. Leveraging IBM Garage, HDFC ERGO and IBM are working together to develop and test new solutions to help better address customer queries, ensure faster turnaround time and draw deeper customer insights for a better omni-channel experience.

For AI to flourish, organizations must adopt and embrace a pre-requisite set of conditions or building blocks. For example, AI requires machine learning; machine learning requires analytics; and analytics requires the right data and information architecture. In other words, there is no AI without IA (information architecture).

These capabilities form the solid rungs of what we call the AI Ladder – the increasing levels of analytic sophistication that lead to a thriving AI environment. A great instance of this is Bestseller, which uses IBM Watson AI capability to mine deeply into big data and predict the right merchandise for the consumer at the right time -- to the extent of determining the right assortment plan for each store, predict the next best product to incorporate into its mix, and improve the efficiency of its supply chain.

Further, as a long-time leader in Natural Language Processing, we integrated a new advanced sentiment analysis feature which was defined to identify and analyze idioms and colloquialisms for the first time.

We also brought technology for understanding business documents, such as PDFs and contracts, to also add to our Watson AI models. To help bridge that gap and further speed the adoption of AI, IBM developed AI that builds AI. Tools like AutoAI, automate some of the most mundane and time-consuming tasks associated with AI, like data preparation and model building.

We launched a broad range of new AI-powered capabilities and services to help CIOs automate various aspects of IT development, infrastructure and operations, including IBM Watson AIOps, which leverages AI to reliably operate enterprise applications and automate the detection, diagnosis and response to IT anomalies in real time, and Watson Works, a curated set of products that embeds Watson artificial intelligence (AI) models and applications to help companies navigate many aspects of the return-to-workplace challenge following lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of Covid-19.

DQ: How are you helping enterprises in their asset management?

Sandip Patel: Assets, be it hardware or software, represents a significant portion of any organizations IT cost and we help our customers in extracting the maximum benefit out of these assets. We manage the end to end lifecycle of the assets from procurement to safe disposal.

Our skilled team tracks the movement of assets and periodically perform the “physical inventory reconciliation” to identify any gaps in the asset database. This information is also used by the client’s chief financial officer to update the balance sheet to reflect the correct net worth of the assets available.

We perform “capacity management” of hardware and software assets and provide actionable inputs to the clients' chief information officers to improve the asset utilization, release unutilized / under-utilized hardware or software licenses, thereby, reducing the clients ongoing cost.

Complying to Manufacturer’s “Software License Agreement” is extremely important. We provide end-to-end “Software License Compliance” services using IBM’s developed tool-set and best practices to pro-actively inform the customer on any potential non-compliance or under-utilized licenses. This allows the clients' chief information officers to take corrective action and avoid any costly litigation from OEMs.

DQ: What are your thoughts regarding the future of work?

Sandip Patel: Covid-19 has definitely changed the way we work, learn and communicate. It has shown the entire ecosystem how technology will play a vital role and how our workplace culture will shift towards an environment where employees will be working remotely.

Listing emerging trends and how the implications will accelerate ‘future of work’:

Employee well-being: With work from home, companies are now focusing on employees' physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being through various initiatives. Currently, we are providing our employees 24/7 information regarding crisis-related updates and frequent training programmes via voice, video, and other collaboration technologies.

Modernize the workforce: Leverage a digital environment for remote work; provide tools that enable distributed teams to collaborate and contribute; standardize critical productivity platforms, such as communications tools and virtual collaboration spaces; provide cybersecurity training specifically for remote work; ensure up-to-date policies; and provide training regularly to account for changes in technology and ways of working.

Migration to Tier 1 cities could stop: During the last few months, the ecosystem has completely changed. Organizations have moved to virtual hiring, onboarding and induction programmes. This has potentially helped build opportunities for aspiring job seekers in Tier 2-3 cities to find a job remotely without migrating to Tier 1 cities. This shift might just create a new equilibrium of social migration, which could be reverse migration as well.

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