Could Changing Immigration Rules Hinder Innovation?

Raj Mamodia

The prospect of changes in U.S. immigration laws that could impact highly skilled technology workers who are in the country on temporary visas has created uncertainty for both the visa-holders and the companies that employ them. Raj Mamodia, CEO of Brillio, a global technology consulting and business solutions company in Santa Clara, Calif., notes that in his view the issue is not about hiring cheap labor.

When the required skills are not available within the U.S. workforce to the extent that companies require, employers are compelled to look outside to fill the gap. If companies have to remain innovative, they need the right talent — from wherever it is available. At the same time, he notes, firms also need to build talent within the country and re-skill displaced workers. Mamodia believes that public-private collaboration is required to deal with this problem. A bigger threat to existing jobs, he cautions, stems not from immigrants but from ongoing automation.

In a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton in his office in Santa Clara, Mamodia discussed these challenges and the opportunities they provide. “If we fear [new technologies because it will displace workers], and we try to stop it, we will be less prepared to take advantage of it.”

An edited version of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: These days, immigration rules in the U.S. seem to be changing, not just for illegal immigrants, but also for legal immigrants. There are some indications that even high-skilled workers who are here on temporary visas may be facing limitations on the kind of work that they can do in the U.S. How do you see this impacting the high-tech sector in general and Silicon Valley in particular, especially since Santa Clara seems to be right in the heart of Silicon Valley?

Raj Mamodia: There are two aspects to it. The first is this: Why is there so much rhetoric around high-skilled immigration, and the anti-high-skilled immigration? The second aspect is that this program is obviously not for companies to hire cheap labor. This is to address a shortage of talent that we have in this country.

We, as a country, have enjoyed a significant amount of innovation dominance over many decades because of our talent. For us to be able to do that, we need talent. And if we don’t start looking for people who can meet the demands of machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and digital transformation, you very quickly realize that we, as a country, are not producing or training or enabling as many people as we should.

This high-skilled immigrant program has been a good aid. That’s the first thing we need to understand: that this is not about looking for cheap labor. This is about looking for mathematical skills, skilled programmers, people who can help us achieve what we need to achieve as a country.

But there is a real problem around enablement of people. Over the past few decades, corporations, as well as offshoring and outsourcing companies, have built a very handsome business. But the fact is, because of that business, and because of how we have offshored and outsourced, we have not looked at the other aspect, which is the situation of displaced workers. What do we do as a nation to enable those people and get them ready for the future? We practically do nothing.

So, you can keep increasing the immigration visa fee. But, are you putting that money back to work? When a company is offshoring 100 programming jobs or quality engineering jobs, do we take those 100 displaced workers and say, “Hey, you know what? Let’s prepare you for the future. Let’s get you back into the workforce, where you can do more value-adding work?” That will drive them to earn more. I think that process is not there in corporations and it is not coming from Washington as well. So, there is a real need for the public and the private sector to collaborate on this particular issue.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there anyone that you know following the approach you just described, of thinking about people who might actually or potentially lose their jobs because of outsourcing or high-skilled immigrants, and then retraining them?

Mamodia: I thought about this a lot. So, I see that in small quantities, in small numbers, people actually do that all the time. If you look at all the tech companies, this happens all the time. But the real problem is when they’re displaced in large numbers, nobody focuses on them. So, I personally don’t know of a Fortune 1000 company that has actually made it a mandate that, “hey, you know, if we’re going to move 1,000 jobs somewhere else, let’s take these 1,000 [displaced] people. Let me work with the local administration, local schools, and make sure that these 1,000 people can be retrained, if not for this company, but for what we need as a country going forward.” I personally don’t know of someone doing it in large numbers.

“This [work visa] program is obviously not for companies to hire cheap labor. This is to address a shortage of talent that we have in this country.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk more specifically now about Brillio. You have 2,500 employees overall, of which I have read 200 or so are high-skilled immigrants. So, it’s just under 10% of your workforce. If these immigration restrictions were to come about, what would be the impact on Brillio? And to the degree that Brillio might have also been part of this process, where some people get displaced, have you either brought up this idea, or do you plan to bring up this idea of doing something for displaced workers?

Mamodia: Let me answer the second question first. We take a lot of pride in enabling our workforce. I have taken people from different walks of technology life and pointed them towards a more digital future. We have done that very well, and I’m committed to that. When we think about digital transformation going forward, I really feel that’s something we do; we don’t just talk about it.

So, every person that we have, every single practice that we have in the company, is enabled that way. I think of enablement as a variety of different things. You are giving them dollars; you are giving them the ability to go learn. You’re giving them the ability to go do real projects, real problem-solving. We are doing it for all our employees. That is one.

Now, going back to your first question, about what happens if this restriction comes to life. Look, we are in the business of helping our customers compete better using digital transformation. That’s our business. And our ability to help the Fortune 1000 companies in our country comes from our ability to have the right talent. And some of that, obviously, comes from the H-1B program. So my belief is that if this were to become restricted, our ability to innovate with our customers would get impacted.

That’s the part I’m most worried about. Can we go over this hump in the next few years? I’m prepared to, like anybody else, like any healthy business should be. But I think that’s getting impacted. I’m very concerned about the larger workforce. And how do we enable our own workforce in this country, to take on the challenge of the future? Because immigration is only a small part of the threat that we have in the future.

If you think about AI or automation, they are much bigger threats. Unless we take care of enabling our people in the right way, I think they are bigger problems. So, overall, I do believe that we have to look at this problem more holistically so we are prepared to deal with the changes.

Knowledge@Wharton: I’d like to come back to what you just said, about AI and machine learning, and deep learning, and the threats. But before that, I just have a follow-up question on what you said before about the impact of the restrictions on high-skilled immigrants coming to the U.S. Have you heard from any of the other CEOs of technology companies, not just in Silicon Valley, but the Bay Area broadly, about what impact they see coming? And what is their defense if this rhetoric were to turn into regulations, and be imposed as laws? What will be the impact and how will they defend themselves?

“My belief is that if [the work visa program was] restricted, our ability to innovate with our customers would get impacted.

Mamodia: I have been in touch with advisors, CEOs of large companies and small companies. There are a few groups that I see. One is the very powerful tech community. The Googles and Microsofts of the world. You see them very openly, very publicly dealing with this issue, driving this as aggressively as possible. My belief is I would be part of that camp where you’re driving technology innovation. It’s an important aspect of how you source talent. So, I think they are putting their money where their mouth is. You know, they are dealing with it. They are trying to collaborate, and also coax Washington into doing the right thing.

Then comes the next group of people — outsourcing companies. Those companies are largely H-1B dependent companies. Not all of them, but I think some of them have abused the program in a way that I think is not right for our country. With some of them, it seems like there is an approach of using Washington lobbyists. I think there was a meeting as well about this. They’re also prepared, because the cost involved of the impact is in the billions of dollars. It’s not a shock that they can take very easily. I would say that that’s probably the most impacted community.

And then you see companies like Brillio, mid-sized companies. We are really focused on driving innovation and stuff like that. Peers that I talk to share this concern from a long-term perspective. We have to keep enabling our workforce. But we can’t slow down the need for innovation for our corporations. And we need this program. So, what are we doing? I think we are obviously talking about it. We are adding our voice to this issue. And, of course, we are prepared. Even if this happens, I’ll be prepared to continue doing a good job, although in a somewhat impacted way, for my customers. That’s how other groups of people are reacting to it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let me come back to what you said earlier, about the disruptive impact of automation and AI. How do you see that playing out? What are the opportunities and the threats?

Mamodia: I’ll tell you the simple observations of how I see life and I’ll give you a few examples of that. AI-driven, or machine-learning-driven automation, is real. And I personally feel it’s not a threat; it’s a big opportunity. Let me explain.

Take jobs. I had a secretary a few months ago. She left. Actually, I encouraged her to leave. Because I am using x.ai — an AI scheduler available 24×7 — I don’t have to wait for anything. It’s not perfect, but the technology’s getting there. It’s amazing.

Think about the millions of people who are in the business of scheduling. This thing can do a better job. So, I will adopt it not because I’m against having human beings as secretaries, but because it’s better. It’s available 24×7. I can interact with it 24×7. I am traveling all the time. I am on the road. I need help. I need help everywhere. I don’t have to worry about the time zones and which country I’m in. It knows everything.

Take an example of banks. Banks have thousands of people responding to call centers. Banks have money. But they have a bunch of databases. I think [banks] don’t have the attitude or the knowledge of dealing with the customer [looking for data] in a very intelligent way. So, we are working on a chat-bot interface. It actually knows everything about you.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is this for a financial institution?

Mamodia: Yes. You can also actually program it to have the right temperament. To have the conversation about the football game that you probably watched yesterday — everything. What does it do? It basically changes the experience to me as a consumer. I would rather deal with that than with some grumpy person who is less knowledgeable about who I am. These are the impacts.

We used to look at this and say: “Oh, you know what? We will lose millions of jobs.” Absolutely. About 1984 or 1985, in India, they voted on computerization. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced computers. Everybody was worried. But look at what has happened to the productivity of the country? It has gone through the roof, and it has a long way to go.

That’s the same thing I see here as well. If we fear this and we try to stop it, we will be less prepared to take advantage of it. It should make us more productive. Yes, it does displace millions of people. Automated truck driving will displace thousands of drivers. But it may [turn out to] be better, because you will have fewer accidents. It will create new jobs, where you need a truck operations center, like you have air traffic control. Now, do you want that person to be sitting in Bangalore or do you want that person to be sitting in Wisconsin somewhere, or in Iowa somewhere?

You can think ahead. We can start training our people. When you think about the opportunity this technology offers to us as a country, to take the lead, it is enormous. Yes, it does require us to think about the impact of this, and be prepared for it. It does require us to be more responsive.

You don’t have 20 years to respond to this change. Uber was not there a few years ago. Uber is prime today. And Uber will not be there tomorrow. Google just announced on their Waze application that you can now do rides; you can pool. When that happens, it’s going to have an impact. Washington, corporations, cities and people don’t have much time. I think that our responsiveness is a bigger threat than the technology itself. I think the technology itself offers a significant amount of opportunity for us to be more productive, for us to drive the change.

Knowledge@Wharton: To what degree will truck drivers, or people like your assistant, be displaced by these technologies? What is your view about how, at a social level, should this issue be dealt with? That’s question No. 1.

Question No. 2, which bothers me and I wonder if it bothers you is, what are the limits of what AI can and cannot do? For example, if you have a chat-bot interacting with a bank customer, do you think a chat-bot is capable of empathy?

Mamodia: Let me answer, again, the second question first. Look, I don’t believe that the future — this is my personal view — is all machines. Therefore, I don’t believe that AI today, or even several years from now, is going to be at the stage where it will actually mimic human behavior. What I believe is we have a future awaiting us that is going to be a great combination of humans and machines collaborating very well. So if I’m a bank assistant, needing 15,000 operators, I may need only 5,000. The other 10,000 will come from AI.

I don’t see a world where everything will go away. Take for example assistants. I think there are complexities that can’t be resolved at this point in time. For example, the AI assistant doesn’t understand my tastes. She doesn’t understand I had a fight with my wife this morning and I’m grumpy — I need something different to eat. All that kind of stuff. So that part, I believe, is going to be a good combination of man and machine, of human beings and the machine coming together. So, what is the limit? Where does this stop? My personal belief is that adoption is all about what it does. How does it make our lives easier? AI is only present when they don’t know it’s present. If you know it’s present, then that’s not AI. It’s a pain.

As long as this technology keeps developing into a good combination of human and machine, we’ll continue to use it. I don’t think artificial constraints to it will actually stop it. The same thing happened, for example, with the cloud. Ten years ago, I used to sit with thought leaders in technology. They would say: “This is going to be slow. This will take time, this won’t happen.” (But) because it’s more convenient, because I can spin up a virtual machine in 10 seconds, because I can do that with the swiping of a card, because I can do all that stuff, it went through the roof. And look what has happened: We have created a $100 billion industry in less than a decade.

The same thing applies to AI and everything else as well. My belief is that as long as we develop technology in a way that it solves a problem, and really makes our lives easier, that option will continue.

Going back to your first question: What is the social response [to displaced persons]? I think that’s a tough one. Take the problem at a smaller level. In the Bay Area, I have 10 people displaced because they were working on some legacy technology. I’m not even talking about people who are non-technical. I’m talking about people who are technical. And the future is just not there for this technology, particularly in our country.

They need at least a certain level of training, exposure, to be able to go and do this. Because if you just train them in a classroom, nobody’s going to hire them. Now, first and foremost, I think people need to be trained on what the future is, so that they don’t keep kicking the can down the road all the time. The issue also is how many times do I go and talk to people without scaring them, and say, “Hey, look. This is where the future is heading. If you were to change, you’d make $10 an hour more. Or you’re going to be more relevant as you go forward. Life is better.”

“If we fear [new technologies] and we try to stop it, we will be less prepared to take advantage of it.

We need to start by inspiring people. I think we lack that. Corporations lack that, our politicians lack that. That is the first problem. The second problem is we need to have, from a social perspective, a more cohesive effort in training our people. I mean the schools and everybody focused on training people who raise their hand and who actually have dollars in their pocket.

It’s a big problem. If we are not training our youth enough, if they don’t … finish college and we have displaced workers, we have a very big problem on our hands. Going back to the social aspect, we have to figure out how do we make this training more relevant and affordable. If it means more taxes on certain things and if we divert certain tax dollars to train our people, we must. Then comes a corporate responsibility as well, where we are driving induction of these people again into the workforce.

Knowledge@Wharton: You referred to the drive towards innovation. Can you give me some examples from Brillio’s own experience of some of the projects that you have been doing to help companies become more innovative? One of the questions I hear many companies talking about is, “We are collecting all this data. Are there ways to monetize it?” Do you have any examples?

Mamodia: Oh, many examples. That’s exactly what we do. There’s a large credit card processing company. These days it’s the era of online payment and digital wallets and stuff like that. You launch, because you have Google Pay and Apple Pay. Everybody wants to launch a payment system of their own. You launch it worldwide. Adoption is not great. And you worry about what’s happening in Australia. Why people are swiping that thing in Sydney in Starbucks. Why people are not using it in stores in India. How do you do that? How do you understand this global-scale issue? Is there a problem in your training? Is there a problem in your product itself? So, how do you innovate the product? Or educate your customers with your marketing?

The traditional approach is you institute a survey. Go talk to people. And, voila. Someone is going to say, “Go do A, B, C.” And you go do A, B, C. But life has changed. You want real-time feedback from your customer — the voice of customer. Now the voice of the customer is on Twitter, Facebook and some customer database somewhere. You lay your hands on whatever you can. It is possible, using deep learning, to go beyond the sentiment of what is written in the text.

We go beyond that and say, “Hey, you know what? I can actually tell you that you have this issue, broadly speaking, in this country, in this geo.” We use publicly available data to help our customers innovate their product. Make A, B, C changes because people are having difficulty with this. Make it easier. Also, train people differently. We are doing that. That’s one example.

I’ll give you a second example. There is a beverage company that is hosting multiple refrigerators; their supply chain takes the beverage and makes sure that all the racks are always full. Because if they are there, customers will pick it up. Now, how do you take that inventory? We use image analytics software. You can install cameras that will take pictures. Based on the pictures, I can tell you how much stock you have left. I can tell you what you should prioritize and which locations should you prioritize.

Knowledge@Wharton: This is autovision. Is that what it’s called?

Mamodia: Yes. How do you reroute some of your trucks? Go solve the A, B, C problem first. You know that the zip code is fine. You actually can give inputs like this into the supply chain and logistics. It doesn’t require you to invest a billion dollars in your supply chain or require you to invest in innovation. That’s a second example.

The third example would be of an industrial company. An industrial company wants to drive agility. They have 20,000 people in 60 different locations in 20 countries. Manufacturing is happening in [different] places, and [products are] being sold worldwide. You have your technology infrastructure spread out, because you want localization in such a way that you are not able to bring it all together, and move things in a much more agile way. What do we do? We work with Microsoft, and move them to the cloud. And that’s just the starting point for agility. This company now is sort of thinking about revamping their supply chain, digitizing their supply chain. All that sort of thing happens because we have made them much more agile.

“If we fear [new technologies] and we try to stop it, we will be less prepared to take advantage of it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Those are great examples. And one of the questions that comes up is, it’s clear that everything you described is having an impact. Is there a way to measure how much impact you’re having?

Mamodia: I’ll give you a more measurable example. There is a mining company that has been around for over 100 years with set processes about how you extract lead and zinc from the ores. You have a bunch of data. Now, we come in and we look at the data and what is in the minds of people. You can digitize all that. Based on that, you can make certain recommendations and say, “Well, your yield is 90% right now. If you did X, Y, and Z, you can improve it by 4%, 2%, 3%.” Very easy to measure.

Similarly on marketing cases. We helped a pharma company revamp their sales process. We reduced the cost of running the programs with the providers. But we also improved compliance. We look at the compliance and the errors. There are ways to measure it. It’s not always [the case], I’ll admit that. But as you keep going closer to the business side, it’s easier to measure.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why don’t we end with a couple of questions on your leadership style? You have been the CEO of Brillio. You have had other leadership positions before that. If you were to reflect back on your life, what is the biggest leadership challenge you have ever faced? How did you deal with it, and what did you learn from it?

Mamodia: The biggest leadership challenge that I faced, or that I continue to face, is how do you keep one foot in the future and one in today’s reality? And strike the balance every single day? To me as the CEO, that’s the biggest challenge. It’s very easy for you to be completely blue sky and not look at what happens today, who pays the bills. It’s very easy for you to get disconnected from reality. It’s also very easy for you to just completely get lost in today, and not think about the future. That’s the conflict you have to manage very well.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you manage it?

Mamodia: You have to allocate your resources and capital, and your own bandwidth, into both areas. You have to think about this constantly. I not only think about it, but I also focus a lot on the buy-in of stakeholders, shareholders and the management team. It’s very important to create that buy-in. Once you have the buy-in, the change becomes easier. You also have to find the business value in this. You have to inspire people — bring the stakeholders to an agreement. And that’s why it’s harder. That is the biggest challenge.

The second-biggest challenge in my industry is all about talent. Talent is not just functional talent. The cultural aspect of it is extremely important. Because you need a very inspired set of people.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you take a group of people who are technically very proficient at what they do and how do you inspire them?

Mamodia: I wish there was an answer to that question. But I’ll tell you that it’s not just technically inspired. I have a broad range of skills on the leadership team. People who have nothing to do with technology but they can see the impact of technology; people who are all about technology — they can actually inspire you with technology. So first of all, you’ve got to build a very diverse team.

Inspiring, to me, is multiple things. It comes from communicating: How do you see the future? And not only talk about why it is better for the company, but also why it is better for people. Inspiring also includes that I and each of my team members have the responsibility for 2,500 people. How do we make their [lives] better for everyone? And then it expands into societies of your own, and stuff like that.

Do you see the world differently? If you do, communicate that to your team. Bring the champions in. That requires communicating. The bigger issue is that you will stumble. When you aspire to do something so big, you stumble. You stumble very often. You’ve got to get up and keep going. Because if you stop, nobody gets inspired. People get inspired because you keep going. You see that there is a bigger opportunity, and they start seeing it as well.

My team, when I first coined the idea of Brillio, 80% of them said, “This is a bad idea. This is way too aggressive, ambitious. Not going to happen.” Of those 80%, many have left. But the people who have remained are its biggest champions right now. They have seen what we have become.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let me ask one last question. How do you define success?

Mamodia: Let me answer that from Brillio’s perspective. I think success will be when Brillio is recognized as an undisputed leader to help our customers innovate at all scales of problems. To me, that’s the pride. In 2020, if we can look back and say, you know what? Our customers now look at us as a player of scale that can actually solve these problems at any scale for their industries.

Knowledge@Wharton: What does it mean for you, personally?

Mamodia: Personally, this industry should look at this team, and they should feel like, “This is the best team. The entire Brillio team has done something so big.” That should offer opportunities to people much earlier in their lives. I’ll be very happy personally if the youngsters — the millennials we have been hiring — can look back and say, “The opportunity that I got here to punch way over my weight so early in my life, I couldn’t have got it anywhere else.”

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