Alumni Interview: Thomas M. Siebel
The information technology business has grown from virtual nonexistence in 1950 to a $50 billion industry in 1980 to a $3.5 trillion market today. In five to six years, that market will be $9 trillion. We are seeing an acceleration in the adoption of technology on a global scale.
Digital transformation is a concept that I began to hear about from CEOs, board members and corporations around 2010. I heard it in board rooms in Shanghai, Rome, London, New York City, San Francisco and Chicago. Honestly, I found the concept a little confusing. I wondered if they had any idea what they were saying—digital transformation as opposed to what, analog transformation? It wasn’t an idea that was really well-formed.
After talking to government, civic and corporate leaders for about eight years, I began to develop a clear idea of what they meant. My book, Digital Transformation: Survive and Thrive in an Era of Mass Extinction (RosettaBooks, 2019), is an attempt to distill the concept into a clear and concise explanation of what digital transformation means, why it is important and how to attain it. In a nutshell: If you look at the IT industry’s evolution, we have moved from main-frame computing to PCs to the cloud. Companies had no intention of using these technologies, yet have adapted them en masse. It’s inconceivable to operate a large organization today without all of these systems. So digital transformation is the next step in IT evolution—elastic cloud, big data, the Internet of Things and more. Unless leaders learn to use these to their advantage, they will cease to be competitive.
Many people are worried about the effects of new technologies—be they artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, what have you—on the workforce. We clearly are going to see significant changes in the nature of work. At my company, C3.ai, we are a relatively small business, and our employees are relatively highly educated; 83 percent have advanced degrees from some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Many people are worried about the effects of new technologies—be they artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, what have you—on the workforce. We clearly are going to see significant changes in the nature of work.
We have a culture at C3.ai where we encourage people to be continuously learning. We have curated an online Coursera curricula related to our fields, including AI, deep learning, supervised learning and elastic computing. We incentivize and recognize employees who get certification in those fields, and we pay bonuses. We’ve spent $1 million so far, and it’s some of the best money we’ve ever spent. We offer the online master’s degree in data science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to employees as well. The company will pay all fees for anyone who applies and is admitted and doesn’t already have an advanced degree. When they get their degree, we pay them a $25,000 bonus, a 15 percent increase in cash compensation, plus additional equity in the company. It’s been well-received by our employees. Four have been admitted to date. They will be better prepared to do their jobs.
My hope is that the Siebel Center for Design at Illinois will be the flagship institution for design education and thinking. (The Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation provided a $25 million lead gift for the building, expected to open in 2020.) The facility will provide a framework in which the University might realize that mission.
I have been enormously fortunate in my professional career. Places such as the University of Illinois have had a significant impact on my career and my ability to perform professionally. It’s a privilege to be able to make some small contribution, with the hope that it will have some positive effect.
I encourage students to look around and explore the resources available to them—the gyms, the basketball courts, the clubs, the artistic resources—and really take advantage of that almost unbelievable aggregation of resources to learn more skills, become familiar with new cultures, explore new art forms and meet different types of people. That’s unquestionably the greatest resource at the University. When I was there, I did a pretty good job of taking advantage of those resources, and that was the high point of my Illinois experience.
Expected to open in 2020, the Siebel Center for Design will be the hub of a cross-campus, multidisciplinary effort to harness design thinking in teaching, research, and public engagement.