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Moving past the hype of Artificial Intelligence to deliver business value

Moving past the hype of Artificial Intelligence to deliver business value

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Responsible for leading SAP Ariba’s Product and Innovation team, Darren Koch, Chief Product Officer – SAP Ariba and SAP Business Network, is one of the company’s key global players. Intelligent CIO spoke to him at SAP Ariba Live in Barcelona about his career highlights and the current state of the industry, as well as the future of AI.  

What would you describe as your most memorable achievements?

It feels like every day that answer changes in the set of business circumstances that I’ve been put in over my career, especially in the last 10 years, I have a series of taking on challenging roles for increasingly larger and more global and higher profile companies.

And so, it feels like every day today is my big achievement. The scale and speed of our business has never been bigger or faster.

What Val Blatt said on stage at SAP Ariba Live in Barcelona, that ‘today is the slowest day your business will ever see’ is how it feels every day for me and for my team.

What made you first think of a career in technology?

I grew up in the age of personal computers making their way into homes. I was in third or fourth grade and we had a TRS-80 show up and the book of command line things to get the computer to do something.

It kind of started with that and then transitioned through to video games and then the advent of the Internet and when I was finishing school, boom was going on in California.

It was the dream of working for one of the mega technology companies.

What sort of management philosophy do you bring to your current position?

I firmly believe that the decisions should be made as deep in the organisation as possible because here you have the most informed, highest fidelity people.

We have good smart people, we empower them to make good decisions. That allows them to get more faith and go faster, while helping us build something that scales and delivers consistent results over time.

What do you think is the current hot topic in terms of IT?

When are we going to move past the hype of AI and deliver some real business value, which is super interesting because 10 years ago we didn’t call it Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, but I was deploying predictive models in the consumer world at Internet scale running in production millions of times a day doing real time optimisation based on predictions.

And it seems like that’s been very slow to materially make its way from a set of technical capabilities to something that actually drives business results. I think we’re ready for the promise to be fulfilled.

How do you deal with stress in and outside the office?

I have two small kids which both creates and alleviates stress. On the other side I’m an avid yoga practitioner, so I think that definitely helps on keeping physically fit and the mental side.

If you could go back and change your career decision, what would it be?

I would probably amp up my understanding of network, a bit more.

I think I was fortunate to work with a group of amazing people. Amazing start-up founders, amazing entrepreneurs, amazing colleagues and leaders, and made an impression by doing good work. But wasn’t really aware of the value of that until later.

What do you currently identify as the major areas of investment in your industry?

Working for SAP Ariba the huge investment area is: How do we bring these mega brands together?

We’ve had some pretty big acquisitions so it’s about bringing these, these big established brands into the company. And then it’s about how you blend technology, how you blend culture, how you align a set of development priorities, and then actually drive that through to customer value.

What are the region-specific challenges when implementing new technologies in the Middle East?

The emerging legislation around data centre locations and housing, are a pretty significant challenge so the UAE recently passed laws that are similar to China, and others where data residency is important. Getting that legal requirement pulled through is one of the challenges.

The second is the Arabic language. There aren’t a whole lot of Arabic speakers in the technology world so getting true empathy for the culture and the end-user experience in those things that the rest of the world takes as a given is a challenge.

What changes have you seen to your job in the last 12 months?

I took over this role about 12 months ago. We’ve seen success from some of the seeds and investments that we planted a year ago.

All of these things are kind of hitting the point where they’ve been real long enough that we’re starting to see tangible results come to mind.

What advice would you offer to somebody aspiring to obtain a C-level position?

‘Keep the main thing the main thing’ is what we say a lot and it starts by putting substance over style.

You should look at how you bring value to the organisation. What skills bring that value, and as the great executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says: ‘recognising what got you here, won’t get you there.’ So there’s a case for constant self-evaluation and self-improvement on one hand and on the other hand figuring out how your role provides business value.

As long as you keep providing more and more business value and taking advantage of the opportunities that inevitably present themselves in this line of work, you have a good shot at doing great things.

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