I will be resigning from one of the best product teams in Watson Health in a month. It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve made in my career thus far. We have an incredibly talented and passionate team in Watson and Watson Health; I am confident that our teams will continue to make strides in the realm of cognitive computing and make significant contributions to stakeholders within healthcare and life sciences. I am excited to join Pager to continue to work on the matters I care deeply about — improving access and the quality of care for those who need it at a fraction of the cost for all those involved.
As I look forward to the many years to come with my new team @ Pager, I can’t help but reflect upon the time I spent at IBM. Consider it my tribute to the incredible 5 years I spent at IBM.
Ex-Glorified Security Guard @ IBM
I joined IBM back in 2012 as a strategy consultant in their consulting business (GBS). I was young and ambitious. With a Duke degree under my belt, I thought I could quickly prove my “worth” to the Partners on the massive implementation project which I was staffed on. Oh boy was I wrong. Before it hit me, I had spent the first two months of my consulting career checking folks in and out of the front gate at the client site. That’s right. I was getting paid a consultant’s salary as a glorified security guard (with two Thinkpads). This is an experience I’d never forget — not because how much it “sucked”, but what I learned from it.
IBM has been an unforgiving, stern teacher for me. I had grown up accustomed to opportunities that would land in my hands simply given my background and “pedigree”. I had grown up with the assumption that because I am “smart”, people would naturally place their trust in me and allow me to take on responsibilities worthy of my “brilliant” mind. Boy oh boy was I wrong again.
The two months I spent checking people in and out of the front gate gave me a lot of free time. I’ve gone through the concept of my next 5 startups during that time, but it all changed when I decided to cross the “unspoken boundary” and reached out to one of the exec leads, Olga Hernandez, on the project for advice. It’s a piece of advice which will follow me for an entire lifetime.
Olga is a tough exec and professes that tough love makes great professionals. She didn’t give much thought to my full-ride to Duke and my startup background; instead, she simply asked me to “show” her how I can contribute to the team. Instead of waiting for great opportunities to land in my lap (because I had assumed that my resume is more than enough to command attention), she challenged me to make a case for why I deserve to be trusted. My career had never been the same since that fateful day in that dingy conference room at the client site with Olga. In the year and half I spent with the project team, I had worked my way from the said glorified security guard to a tester on the solution testing team (think Mechanical Turk tasks), onto business analyst team, and eventually to owning the financial and resourcing plan for the $200M project, working alongside our project Partners.
During this time, I’ve learned to appreciate IBM — this century old organization — in a new light. This is a tough company with a tough-love culture. With more than 400,000 employees, this is the kind of company where young professionals would easily get lost in. This is the kind of company that doesn’t spend a lot of time baby-sitting new professionals along the way. This is the kind of company that will question you every step of the way — “So what are you going to do about it?” And I am grateful to have been a part of this beginning, and through it, I’ve learned to earn the trust and support of my colleagues. I’ve come to believe that this trust should be earned. I couldn’t have done it without the support of those on the team who believed me, invested in me, and took me under their wings — Olga Hernandez, Bing Zhang, David Carrico, John Toms, Bill Athey, and many others.
I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to join Watson when it was still in its infancy in 2014. Many of you might remember the Jeopardy moment when Watson defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Here is Ken Jennings’ take on that experience. It was a signature moment in IBM’s long history — the kindling to what we have today. Despite plenty of excitement around the power of “Cognitive Computing”, Watson was nevertheless a nascent business built on top of relatively unproven and poorly understood technology stack. We had an incredible challenge in our hands, and we were missioned to take it head on.
Watson was the best two years of my professional career (so far). We set up the shop with literally nothing but a promise that Watson will fundamentally change how people interact with information. Without a second thought, I had taken up the healthcare vertical given my passion for the problems in this industry. Thanks to the IBM marketing machine and the $100M carrot in venture funding, we received more than 5000 “applications” to partner with Watson within the first few months. Nearly 1/4 of these interests were healthcare and life sciences focused. Many of you who have been keenly following the digital health space for the past few years would recall the rise to prominence of Rock Health and dozens of incubators/accelerators focused on digital health during this time. It was truly the best of times, and the worst, considering the amount of due diligence that is required to make sound investment/partnership decisions. Ask any investor in the space during this period. You’ll certainly get an earful on the “caveat emptor” around how “unique” the healthcare business really is.
So we went to work, and heck did we work. I remember spending months in back-to-back conference calls with hundreds of companies big and small in the healthcare space, with discussions spanning from the problems identified by our prospective business partners to the details of working with our Watson stack. It was a fascinating world for me, where I get to spend about part of my time doing “business development”, part acting as a quasi-solution architect, another as a member of the VC team, but all focused on the problems we’re looking to solve with the business partner. We worked with countless companies which culminated into many fruitful partnerships — wellness optimization with Welltok, cognitive veterinary care with Lifelearn, deciphering rare diseases with ThinkGenetic, and understanding effect of PTSD in returning veterans with Tiatros, just to name a few.
With the help of our partners and clients, we proved the business case for Watson. We proved that “cognitive” can be, and should be, a force to be reckoned in everything we touch in the years to come. The work around healthcare became so successful and visible that the mothership invested in standing up an entire business called Watson Health nearly a year later. To make the story much more interesting, many others (Microsoft, Deepmind, etc.) followed us in hot pursuit.
I am grateful to have been trusted with the opportunity to work with some of the most incredible people on both sides of the avenue — inside IBM and out. I’ll always be thankful for the call from Will Sennett which led me to the amazing two years at Watson. I’ll always remember the many hours my mentors — Lauri Saft and Jodie Sasse — spent training me on the best of the best practices for IBM Sales methodology and business development practices. And Steve Gold — our fearless leader who led the charge for us all — I’ll hold the wisdom and advice you’ve imparted on me dear and close to my heart. We’ve opened up a whole new chapter for Watson, and there’s so much more to come.
Scaling Watson x Health
We have a problem. We have an unparalleled narrative. We have a mission which we firmly strive towards. We’ve arguably got some of the best technologists who we rely on and a stack that has been proven out by our collaboration with our partners and our clients. Yet, we still needed to scale. This was the problem we set out to tackle when I assumed my role in product management when Watson Health was just starting out. With competitors hot at our heel, we had to ask ourselves the following questions:
1. In a world where “cognitive” technology — AI, machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP )— is becoming increasingly commoditized, how will we differentiate ourselves in the crowd?
2. Furthermore, in a culture where we historically hold technology near and dear to all that we do, how do we make a convincing case for the need to build a business based on openness, trust, and value delivered beyond the technical stack?
3. What does, or should, “Cognitive” actually mean to those who experience it?
We struggled with our answers to these questions. At best, we had a set of hypotheses we wanted to experiment and test on. We put our stake in the ground and got to work.
The fundamental premise behind our work in what we now call “Watson Health Cognitive Services” is pretty straightforward:
- We have several Watson solutions focused in healthcare and life sciences;
- These solutions are sold to clients via IBM’s massive sales network;
- These solutions tend to address specific client pain points;
- Clients tend to ask for “underlying technology” which can be used to address other pain points;
- We have lots of “underlying technology” that make up those solutions.
- What if we take these “underlying technology” and made them consumable as components which can be readily deployed and plugged in to existing and/or new solutions?
- What if we can power up an entire generation of innovation with what we have to offer? Could that be a way for us to build our business based on the sense of openness and trust I described earlier?
We’ve made significant strides in the two years I spent with the team on this mission, and we’re just getting started. I cannot wait to witness when Watson Health Cognitive Services will be open for business, and I eagerly await with the Pager team on the other side of the aisle.
As with the other chapters of my IBM career, I cannot thank my team enough for their support and encouragement every step of the way — Tim Bouhour, my partner-in-crime, for the many long nights spent on our portfolio; Ryan Musch and Rebecca Buisan, our IBM “investors”, for the trust you placed in our team since the beginning of our journey.
Farewell, For Now
Farewells should be brief. We cannot dwell too much in the past, despite how good it has been. I’ll end with a quote in Richard Branson’s letter to Virgin America:
George Harrison once said, “All Things Must Pass.” This was the ride and love of a lifetime. I feel very lucky to have been on it with all of you.