How Big Data and AI are Driving the Future with Sanjay Poonen


In the final episode of this series of Leading with Data, we discuss the technological advancements of big data for AI applications with COO of VMware, Sanjay Poonen.

Sanjay has spent most of his career in product and engineering roles and was President of SAP before moving to his current position at the world’s sixth largest software company, VMware. He came to the US on a scholarship to study computer science at Dartmouth College at 18 years old. Once he graduated, he moved to Silicon Valley, where he’s been ever since.

With his broad experience across the technology and data industry, Sanjay has had a front-row seat to its developments over the last thirty years. He joined the host of Leading with Data, Jason Dorsey, to share his thoughts on the greatest data breakthroughs so far, and the ones that are yet to come.

Hit play to listen to the podcast episode or read on to find out more.

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The Biggest AI Breakthroughs – That are Now Commonplace

Sanjay became interested in artificial intelligence in the 80s and early 90s when the first ideas of automated self-driving cars emerged. But back then, it didn’t look possible.

Now the technology is in so many cars, it’s almost mainstream.

Today, the AI algorithms used to create this technology are so commonplace that Sanjay credits them as the biggest data-driven breakthroughs of his generation – and they’re not only used in cars.

Something that also began to develop in the 90s was the “applicability of AI and big data and analytics to retail-type problems”. Sanjay considers Netflix and Amazon pioneers of the “recommendation”, using basic algorithms to direct users’ thoughts and actions, from guiding them to the next suggested book to the next one-click-purchase.

These AI recommendations appear everywhere online now, from your Google search suggestions to retail guidance. They almost unnoticeably drive your everyday productivity.

Sanjay marvelled at Google’s steps to improve its Google Maps experience, integrating AI information and crowd-sourced data to continually optimize and improve the product.

Sanjay notes that if you can apply these AI algorithms to enhance something like driving, what implications could they have for other industries?


Where AI Will Continue to Influence Our Day-to-Day 

Sanjay’s “comfortable prediction” is the continuing development of self-driving cars and how this will happen through greater user trust.

He admits that while he’s reluctant to trust a self-driven vehicle doing 80 miles an hour on a freeway, he predicts that “self-driving cars will become a phenomenon that everybody trusts for their stop-and-go traffic.”

Could self-driving revolutionize how we sit in traffic? Sanjay certainly hopes so, stating that it’s the perfect place to use these capabilities. He expects this AI application to be a mainstream part of everybody’s life in the near future, once we begin to trust it.

Something that we don’t need any more encouragement to trust, and that has seen huge growth in the last year alone, is the AI shopping experience.

The influence of AI in eCommerce will continue to enhance the way we shop, according to Sanjay. Once you’ve engaged with an online store, their AI can create an optimized one-to-one marketing experience. Sanjay has “no problem predicting” that stores will further personalize this shopping experience using big data.


How Data Could Change Healthcare

The two previous decades have seen leaps and bounds in technological advancements for products we now use every day.

The years 2000-2010 are defined by the launch of the smartphone, while 2010-2020 will most likely be remembered as the early years of cloud computing and perhaps even the introduction of self-driving cars. But what about the next ten years?

The year 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered by this generation as the year of the global pandemic. Sanjay hopes that this event will be the biggest driver for the future of data application.

Alzheimer’s and some forms of cancer are just some of the kinds of health conditions which Sanjay hopes can be tackled by evolving technology, “I fundamentally believe at the core of it, they are software, AI and big data and analytics problems.”

“I hope in the next 10 years, that the application of data will solve some of these diseases […] I hope that the big data and analytics applied to DNA sequencing, genome, all of these things, can make life better.”

This hopeful view of the future of data is even more powerful when Sanjay expresses his passion for its potential:

These techniques have been used for many other things, buying a better product, recommendations, those are all good – but I hope it’s now applied to save lives.”


Why the Next Generation Needs Data Education

Due to the most recent advances in global technology, Generation Z is the most uniform generation to date. Still, Sanjay emphasizes that the next US generation must make sure that it doesn’t fall behind when it comes to data education.

Sanjay stresses the key to achieving this is to “encourage the next generation to learn STEM, or we’ll lose out to other countries that are emphasizing it.” He hopes that increased exposure to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics will help the next generation learn about big data, as it will absolutely impact their lives as they grow up.

Like most parents, Sanjay still worries about the amount of time his children spend on their devices, but he’s passionate about introducing them to technologies that can hopefully influence their lives for the better.


What Being a Leader Means to Sanjay 

There is an abundance of other insights we could share from Sanjay, but possibly some of his most universal thoughts were about what he believes to be successful leadership qualities.

Paraphrasing one of his leading idols, Nelson Mandela, Sanjay said that he strives to “lead from the back and let others feel like they’re leading from the front.”

Sanjay firmly believes that his job, even at the COO level, is to make sure everyone is successful at every level of his organization,. He is a firm believer that by helping others succeed, it can enrich his own life too.


To enrich your life with more of Sanjay’s optimism about the future of data, listen to his interview, in full, on Leading with Data.