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Episode 23: John Kahan (Microsoft) + Key Takeaways

In this episode, we speak with John Kahan of the technology giant, Microsoft. Of course, data and analytics are at the center of Microsoft’s business, but John acts as Chief Data Analytics Officer, and the global lead of “AI for Health” for the company. In this episode, John shares his (and Microsoft’s) world view of the possibilities for AI, ML and data science to help meet the global challenges such as sustainability, health and human rights, and disaster response. For one, I came away from the episode with renewed hope for how technology and analytics can help change the world.

Key Takeaways

Describe your title and role.

As VP and Chief Data Analytics officer, I helped lead the global AI-for-health philanthropic program, which is a $60 million offering to help improve the health of people and communities worldwide as part of our broader AI-for-good initiative. My role is unique. As a full-time mission within Microsoft, it rounds out our overall goals of empowering and enabling everyone across the planet. It is one that really is based on data. More than 50% of the AI resources in the world exist in high tech, and less than 5% exist in nonprofit and health care. This is one of the core data elements that led us to launch AI for health and the AI-for-good initiatives, where we give back our talent, our skills, and our high-performance computing capabilities in Azure in the cloud to help the world be a better place in the future.

Where does the analytics function sit in the organization and who does it report into?

I report directly to Brad Smith, who is the president of Microsoft.

Is that the right place for the analytics function to report?

Yes. I partner with Kevin Scott, our CTO, to help organize what we call the "data science pipe." We leverage each other's talents to address both my mission and Microsoft's commercial missions.

Describe the organizing model you have adopted for analytics.

I have about 35 data scientists, but we link into all the data scientists across the company, both from an education perspective and a community perspective. We've created processes for them to engage with us, so there are thousands of data scientists all over the company who engage on AI-for-good types of initiatives. They connect to my team to make that happen. We also connect into the Balmer GIS Institute, which is an institute in Washington State that allows us to leverage Master's students who are participating in the process.

What are four or five important qualities and behaviors of analytics leaders?

  1. Humility. Technology is moving very fast, and the things that we can do are improving every day. So, first and foremost, you need to be humble.
  2. Curiosity and awareness that diverse perspectives are critical to success. By creating diverse teams with diverse perspectives and processes, you can have more impact in the world.
  3. Ability to build processes and teams that mirror the markets you serve. As technology has continued to get easier in a lot of ways, it's gotten more and more connected. You need to eliminate unconscious bias.
  4. Understand your role. We have world-class data scientists, but we are not medical experts. We partner with experts and lean on their expertise and experience. Magic comes from marrying data science with expertise.

How do you measure performance and success when it comes to analytics?

First and foremost, the best thing I can do as a leader is attract the best talent and retain that talent. This is a key performance indicator that I use for my overall success. The second piece of the equation is, since I work closely with nonprofits, academia, and policymakers, I look to help those who are on the frontlines, whether it be the Department of Health that's trying to fight a disease such as COVID-19 or policymakers around the world who are trying to be informed through data so they can positively impact the world. I measure my success through their successes. A couple of years ago, there was a big transition to focusing on customer success, and using analytics to ensure that all of our leaders, not just in analytics, but across engineering, finance, sales, etc., had goals that were tied directly to the overall customers that we support around the world.

I'm incredibly proud of the team and the work that they've accomplished in 2020-2021. COVID hit us head-on. Our methodical, well-written five-year strategy needed to be accelerated at high speed. We expanded AI for health with $20 million, focused on COVID, and partnered with the White House, Governor Inslee in Washington State, and policymakers around the world to address the pandemic. It has been an incredible journey.

Accessing data is a huge global challenge. We rely heavily on volunteers around the world to get us data. We're hopeful governments and policymakers are more prepared for the next pandemic and learn from the challenges we've had during this pandemic.

For more insights from John, listen to the full podcast.