On the lighter side of things, Alok Kulkarni, CEO, Cyara, talks to us about life inside and outside of the office.
What would you describe as your most memorable achievement?
There have been many moments in my personal life and career that stand out for different reasons but 2022 was the year Cyara secured one of the largest ever venture capital funding rounds in Australia. After 15 years in business, we landed an AU$485 million investment, which was a critical step for Cyara to build upon its global leadership in the CX assurance market.
This investment is enabling us to accelerate product innovation, expand CX assurance into new emerging digital channels, fund strategic acquisitions of complementary technologies and fuel geographic expansion. It’s been a game-changer for the business and the market as a whole.
More broadly, the most memorable achievement is creating a world-first SaaS-based customer experience assurance platform that is a category creator and leader.
What first made you think of a career in technology?
Ever since I was a kid, I have loved building things. You can leverage technology to do so much – it has the ability to impact humanity at scale. That has always appealed to me and it’s a big passion of mine. I felt that following up my passion for technology would be exciting.
My family emigrated to Melbourne from India when I was 17. My parents came to Australia with very little in search of a better life that offered their children the best education they could afford.
When we first arrived, our family squashed into a two-bedroom apartment with furniture donated by The Smith Family. At that age you’re always worried if you’re going to be made fun of because your English isn’t good enough, or because of the clothes you’re wearing. Thankfully people around us were kind and welcoming. It really inspired me to put my head down and I finished dux of my year, enabling me to get into my first-choice university course: computer systems engineering at Monash. A dream come true.
After graduating, I wrote down my goal of becoming a technology entrepreneur on a slip of paper that I kept under my pillow, re-reading it every day to keep focused.
I held various roles at National Australia Bank, NEC, Boral Building Technologies and Genesys. It was these roles that enabled me to develop an engineer’s heart and an entrepreneur’s mind.
In 1996 I landed a job with a Japanese software development company and met Luan Tran. We were both passionate about engineering and formed a partnership in our spare time. It wasn’t until 2006 that we struck on the idea for a ‘digital mystery shopper’ that tests customer communication platforms, such as call centers and AI chat systems, using software and tailored algorithms. Cyara was born.
What style of management philosophy do you employ with your current position?
My management philosophy is human first, empathy, fairness, humility, equality, meritocracy and integrity in doing what’s right.
Cyara’s success and values as a business are closely tied to my personal values of humility, customer obsession, innovation and quality. Our culture is frequently cited as one of its greatest attributes as a place to work, and those values have really helped shape who we are and what kind of people we attract.
When it comes to our employees, I’m a firm believer that listening to those around you and showing understanding helps unite the team. It provides a sense of belonging in the organization and, in the long run, can greatly contribute to the success of the company.
My approach is hands-on. I want to be accessible to my employees and make sure my door is always open to the team. Taking feedback onboard from those around me is how the company will get better and stronger.
Over the years, my experiences have taught me the importance of having a team that I can lean on and entrust decision making to, allowing me time to focus on the bigger picture. However, this must go both ways for a company to truly thrive so I work hard to earn the trust of my team.
What do you think is the current hot technology talking point?
ChatGPT is dominating the narrative right now. There’s been hundreds of stories about it since it launched, both positive and negative, but what we’re really talking about is the evolution of Conversational AI into the mainstream.
In just a few years it’s going to enhance interactions between humans and computers. By helping computers understand human language and its many nuances they will be able to respond in a more ‘human’ way. While some people are worried that bots will eventually take their jobs, I believe well-performing Conversational AI will benefit humans in many sectors by taking the transactional tasks out of their day-to-day work.
Contact centers in particular are already using Conversational AI to drive their support lines. As speech synthesis, emotion detection and natural language understanding continue to improve, companies will seek to place their human agents in roles that focus on complex, unstructured and challenging customer queries. Using bots to support human agents will empower them to more effectively resolve customer interactions and improve CX.
How do you deal with stress and unwind outside the office?
Meditation helps me to focus, improving my memory and attention. It also improves my ability to cope with stress and enhances my quality of sleep. There’s always so much to do, but there are only 24 hours in a day and I’ve learnt how vital sleep is to rest, grow and rejuvenate.
Days are busy and sometimes meetings are back-to-back. I try to compress everything in a period of time so I can pick my son up from the train station on his way back from school most days. Slowing down the pace of work late afternoon is key to balancing out a busy start to the day and transitioning into family-time.
Family is extremely important to me so I make sure we spend quality time together every evening, whether it’s eating dinner, watching TV or playing a board game.
Regular exercise helps me stay fit both mentally and physically so I head to the gym around 8.30pm before getting my rest in from 10.30pm.
If you could go back and change one career decision what would it be?
My drive to succeed often saw me wear multitasking as a ‘badge of honor’, but in reality I wasn’t being present around my family. Building a business comes at a cost but you can’t let that cost be valuable time with your family. Something else has got to give. So while I love sport, reading fiction and playing games, these activities have taken a backseat.
Looking back, I would have incorporated mindfulness practice sooner so that I could do my work more productively and also be present with my family at the same time.
Now I ‘bucket’ five things I want to do each day, decide how much time I want to spend on them and then say no to the rest. This way, I know what I’m doing, I’ll do well.
What do you currently identify as the major areas of investment in your industry?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play a pivotal role in transforming the CX Assurance industry from being reactive, to proactive and pre-emptive.
Last year, we placed more than 12 billion interaction seconds. By applying Machine Learning to data of this magnitude we will be able to predict what is going to happen. And if we know some of the leading indicators causing customer issues we can prevent issues from even happening in the first place.
Another fast-growing area we’re focused on is chatbots. While the concept has been around for many years, the evolution of chatbots is happening rapidly. Right now, it’s a fragmented market, which looks set to consolidate. The key is ensuring bots are part of a seamless experience where context is passed along the customer’s journey – and that the data is used to train and improve the bot.
What are the region-specific challenges when implementing new technologies in APAC?
Asia Pacific is an incredibly diverse region comprising many cultures and languages. Countries are often at different stages with technology implementation and usage.
For many boardrooms across the region, however, testing CX is an alien concept, making it a relatively untapped market. Our role is not only to implement new technologies, but to educate businesses on how critical CX is to remaining competitive and retaining customers.
Engaging a robust and knowledgeable team of channel partners that understand the nuances of the local landscape and economic conditions, has been instrumental in enabling us to break into new markets across APAC. Currently, more than 75% of our new business there is driven and transacted through partners. We’re now focused on accelerating our growth and strengthening our position in the region by doubling our channel partners this financial year.
What changes to your job role have you seen in the last year and how do you see these developing in the next 12 months?
As we head into 2023, Cyara’s appetite for growth is high. As such M&A has increasingly become part of my role.
Following an investment round at the start of 2022, we had to decide whether building or buying offered us the best route towards our overall vision for the company.
We already have the people, the enterprise-level customers, and the infrastructure in place to grow, so our appetite for M&As is high. Buying enables us to accelerate our growth, innovation and reach right now, in a way that building wouldn’t allow. Finding companies that offer solid alignment to our roadmap has become an extremely important part of my role.
What advice would you offer somebody aspiring to obtain a C-level position in your industry?
More often than not, the actions of a company’s leader directly impact its reputation among customers, employees, partners and shareholders. Leaders who prioritize and invest in positive experiences for the people around them – whether that’s rolling their sleeves up, acting on feedback or ensuring their door is always open – will be the ones to reap the rewards. It’s also important to have a stakeholder focus, by which I mean you should look after your people and community, and the stakeholders that will help move the company forward, as you build an organization.Click below to share this article