First things first

I spent a day last week at an internal engineering conference for Capital One, where I was hosting a discussion on applying ethics to artificial intelligence. (See disclaimers below.) I think the AI discussion—with Tim Hwang of the Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative—was really interesting, and you can listen to it in podcast form here. But some other things also stood out to me that seem worth sharing.

Mostly, I was impressed with how Capital One walks the every-company-is-now-a-software-company walk. It’s a cliche for sure, but the reality is that companies of a certain size and ambition level actually are competing against technology companies for talent and, increasingly, business. At that point, your mindset around technology is something you do need to take seriously.

Here are a couple examples of what I’m talking about:

  • Culture: The conference exhibition area actually looked like that of any other tech conference, with dozens of booths sporting unique product names and logos—and giving away tee shirts. But rather than sponsors' marketing teams, the booths were manned by internal teams showing off the projects and technologies they’re working on (ranging from identity management to artificial intelligence). This is similar to how other engineering-savvy companies (Netflix, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) operate and, I assume, gives engineers and sense of ownership and purpose that keeps them wanting to come to work each day. However, it’s not something, until rather recently, I would have expected to see from a large financial services firm.
  • Open source: Related to the above point, Capital One also has a relatively forward-thinking approach to open source. For example, it already has open sourced some of the projects it has developed internally (some, like Cloud Custodian, appear popular enough), and actively contributes to other projects (e.g., Kubernetes) that it deems strategically important. Open source head Jagadesh Gadiyaram also explained to me how the company assesses open source vendors in order to figure out how to best engage with them in terms of buying software, partnering, investing, etc. It seems beyond obvious at this point that companies that don’t understand and engage with open source are hamstringing themselves when it comes to attracting talent and adopting the best technologies.

There’s probably a lot I’m missing (I was only there for a few hours), and much of what I’m talking about is not unique to Capital One. Walmart, Ford, and any number of other traditional enterprises have also been early in expanding their software expertise, engaging with open source, and/or shifting business models in response to both technological threats and opportunities. Some of my favorite examples come from agriculture and manufacturing, where companies like John Deere and Caterpillar have been proactive in embracing data science, machine learning, and IoT to adapt their legacy businesses and product lines to the 21st century.

But the broader point remains: Of all the things from 2003 that seem like ancient history, one of the biggest might be the argument that IT doesn’t matter. Not every company is ever going to operate like Google, Netflix or even Capital One—many probably shouldn’t even try to—but every company had better figure out what’s what for their businesses. There are few easy answers when it comes to things like cybersecurity, open source, cloud computing and AI, but it’s easy enough to predict that the next several years will be rough for companies that ignore them.

(Disclaimer 1: Capital One paid for my trip. Disclaimer 2: Capital One is sponsoring two ARCHITECHT Show podcasts, one of which  is the aforementioned discussion with Tim Hwang.)

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