CIO50 2020 #26-50: Shehan Bala, UneeQ
Shehan Bala says he constantly challenges other leaders within UneeQ to critically assess whether or not everything they are doing right now is directly moving them towards their vision for the company.
“This is an important health check to ensure that we are using data and evidence to confirm that we are delivering value to our customers, and not getting led astray by confirmation bias,” says Bala, chief product officer at UneeQ, the Kiwi firm that provides AI-powered digital humans to organisations across the globe.
Bala, who joined the company which used to be FaceMe over a year ago, works directly with the product engineering team.
“Within this ambit, the most important thing is to ensure people feel like they are a part of something important which they care about,” he says.
“When they look at the strategy, they need to feel like what they are working on is an incredible and important component of that.
“A purpose driven team is an engaged team,” he points out.
“The strategy should answer all of these questions: what is the mission; do I care about it; do I feel like I contribute to it? Every person has individual needs and goals and these are only nurtured when they feel like what they are doing matters.”
This approach has led him and the team to work on a range of projects leveraging the latest technologies.
One of these is deploying GPUs (graphical processing units) at scale.
Operationally, the past year saw them focus on managing exceptionally high GPU costs at scale.
“This was a critical problem to solve and has allowed us to increasingly move from pilot programmes for our early adopter clients, to fully licenced deals where our platform is required to work in production for large audiences,” says Bala.
“Previously, solving for GPU utilisation wasn’t critical, but it quickly became a bedrock of our ability to scale and enter global markets. “
He explains that the cost of running large volumes of GPUs in a cloud infrastructure is very high.
Infrastructure platforms have driven down the costs of computational processing, but scalable graphical processing at the enterprise level is still fairly niche (primarily found in the gaming industry).
UneeQ has innovated in this area by figuring out how to deploy and run digital human sessions concurrently across GPU hosts in the cloud.
He explains: “Historically, our company’s journey saw us do a lot of things which we knew would not scale.
“In infancy, we were a small company and we did not know what our future held. Decisions were made quickly and shortcuts to production were key to our survival. As we grew, serving increasingly larger customers in the same manner was not sustainable. We have reinvented our processes in order to achieve sustainable customer and user growth.”
The team has also been moving toward a cloud-based experience.
We have transitioned to a SaaS solution model, whereas previously there was dependency on local hardware and software installations to run our solution, says Bala.
Their previous approach would not scale, as enterprise customers are typically cautious about having to invest in dedicated hardware to run a new software solution, and having to install third party hardware within their infrastructure, he says.
“We made the decision to deprecate our legacy software and build something entirely cloud-based. Our platform now leverages cloud-based GPUs for rendering, and a WebRTC-based streaming implementation for content delivery.”
This, he says, allows their customers to build a digital human experience into any website, mobile application or kiosk, without the need for specialised hardware or software installations.
“Our move towards becoming a SaaS company technologically has enabled us to broaden our reach while maintaining a reasonable cost to serve.”
The team is immersed in improving the overall quality and realism of digital humans.
Bala points out the quality of a digital human experience is heavily dependent on behavioural authenticity and realism.
“We primarily achieve this through animation, which we use to ensure that people interacting with digital humans see and appreciate the finer details of what the digital human is doing,” he states.
“If this animation is unnatural or not believable, it makes for a poor experience and a digital character which fails to establish a connection with the real human.”
He says a core enabler for implementing these and other projects has been a team made up of smaller teams with very specific focuses.
He says UneeQ used to be one big team but they now realise the value of smaller, focused teams.
There is built-in flexibility around those who work on these teams. This structure allows teams to be autonomous and as independent as possible, he says.
“They can make decisions, prioritise and get changes out quickly.”
“The most important lesson to me as a product leader has been that personal convictions are crucial,” says Bala, who has held similar posts in technology firms before joining UneeQ.
“You should never build something that you don’t believe in, no matter how much pressure you find yourself under,” he stresses.
“The effects will not be positive, and the people you lead will notice, and feel uninspired.”
He says having strong convictions involves being vocal and optimistic about what you believe, while constantly trying to validate whether or not those beliefs are true.
“If you are certain, the people around you will recognise that confidence and be more positive about their work. This involves challenging ideas,” he states.
“If your company has a strategy and is heading in a particular direction, you need to be convinced it’s the right thing to do. This involves asking hard questions and having uncomfortable conversations, all in the service of creating organisation alignment.”
Bala follows the same approach in his personal life.
“I find it harder and harder to find good sources of information that are reliable. I try to seek these out, even if this is difficult and takes time. I always consult lots of sources and try to form a well-rounded perspective.”