On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders

2. Do the Right Thing - Mohamad Ali & Sophie Vandebroek

June 02, 2020 MassTLC & Matter Season 1 Episode 2
On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders
2. Do the Right Thing - Mohamad Ali & Sophie Vandebroek
Show Notes Transcript

A conversation with Mohamad Ali, CEO of IDG and Sophie Vandebroek, Visiting Scholar at MIT. On the Tech Trail takes you inside the minds of remarkable tech leaders in Boston and beyond. You'll get to know them, better understand their journeys, and to gain insights from their strategic decision-making to help you along your own journey. Brought to you by MassTLC & Matter.

How I think about my place in society (2:55)

All about Community (5:05)

Pivoting Business in light of COVID (8:28) 

Keeping a Global Workforce Motivated (10:22)

How Tech is Impacted (12:55)

Digital and Virtual are here to stay (15:40)

The importance of civic leadership (18:22)

Tom Hopcroft (00:00):

Hi, thanks for joining us. As we take a journey on the tech trail, I'm mass STLC CEO, Tom Hopcroft, and this podcast series takes you inside the minds of remarkable leaders to better understand their journeys and to gain insights from their strategic decision making to help us along our journeys. In today's episode, we're on the tech trail with Muhammad Ali and Sophie Vanderburg.

Sophie Vandebroek (00:28):

Hi everyone. And thank you for joining us. I am your host, Sophie Vandebroek. And today I have the great pleasure of chatting with Mohammed Ali, the CEO of international data group IDG, and also wonderful friends. We plan to first talk about how Muhammad's life experience is impacting his leadership style. And then we will dive deeper on the topic of the day living in coronavirus times. So hi, Mohammad, Tom, are you?

Mohamad Ali (00:55):

I'm doing great, Sophie. It's so nice to be here with you.

Sophie Vandebroek (00:58):

Great. Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us and I'm confident we will all learn as you share your leadership experience. Not only as a CEO, but also as a public company director and as a trustee of not for profit institutions to start off effort, it would be great to give our listeners some context by sharing how you got to where you are today. What's your story, Mohammed.

Mohamad Ali (01:24):

Well, thanks for asking Sophie, I'll start out by saying I wanted the lucky ones I was born in, in a country called Guyana, which is one of the smallest and poorest countries in South America. Many people don't know about Guyana and my mom and I came to the United States when I was 11. We didn't have much, we lived in very poor conditions in Queens, in New York, but my mom was really all about education. She saw that as the key to a better life, like a lot of immigrant families and a lot of families, period. Um, you know, I have to say that, um, you know, I did get lucky, there were at least two public school teachers that I could think of that took a particularly interest in me and really encouraged me and showed me paths that I didn't know existed. You know, it was, it was really from their encouragement and their help that I ended up going to Stanford. And we, you know, which led to working at IBM and HP and Carbonite. And now here it's been a, you know, it's been a hard journey, but like I said, I'm one of the lucky ones.

Sophie Vandebroek (02:27):

Yes. I mean, life has ups and downs and we're both immigrants. So we both learn a lot from coming from a different country to come work in, in the U S are there two or three lessons you learned that you want to share, and that really impacted your leadership style today?

Mohamad Ali (02:44):

Yeah. Um, good question. It's a hard question are so many lessons you're learning every day and, you know, I never thought we'd be learning more or less. Thans because of a pandemic, but here we go, you know, over the years, uh, there probably at least two things have become a really important part of how I think about my place in society. And, um, you know, the first is, uh, you know, it's the John Donne poem, uh, says, uh, no, person's an Island. You know, we're all interconnected. Uh, our community gives to us and it's really in some ways our duty to give back to our community. And, um, I can't really stress how important that is because, you know, I feel like I am here today because the community gave to me. And, um, and yeah, part of it is the duty to give back.

Mohamad Ali (03:33):

But one of the things that I've seen and I've learned is that there's this whole circle of life. And, and by being part of that, I'm a better person. And, uh, I saw this growing up and, um, and it's really, you know, become part of who I am today and how I approach business and community. And I'm so pleased to be part of an organization like mass TLC. And I think the second is, and this is going to sound overly simplistic, but it's do the right thing and think of the greater good for all your stakeholders, for you, your family, your company, and the world. And in some ways it's a much bigger problem to solve than just solving the problem of what's good for you as the individual, you know, you'll be better off. I feel like I'm better off when I think like that. And the people who depend on us are better off know, those are two very, very high level lessons. There are lots of very specific lessons for different situations, but those two have been important to me.

Sophie Vandebroek (04:33):

Yeah. Two, two very good lessons. The fact that indeed no person is an Island and we're all interconnected and to do the right thing. I mean, both of these lessons are even more important now in the time social distance thing and the coronavirus. So how has it impacted your family, your personal life today, uh, living in this very strange world?

Mohamad Ali (04:55):

Yeah, it is, it is a very strange world, right? I mean, here, at least in the United States, you know, it's all about the individual, not about somewhat less about, about the community. Um, and now all of a sudden it's, it's about the community. It's about the greater good, you know, we're all staying home for society at large to, to, to get better and to, and to fight the coronavirus world. We're wearing a mask, not to protect ourselves, but to protect the next, the other person from us. Right. Um, it really demonstrating how interconnected we are. We've got two college aged kids they're trying to learn online, which is kind of an interesting challenge. My wife, uh, who's a professor and chair of the department is trying to teach and do her administrative work online that has its own challenges. Um, I, you know, but, uh, um, on the good side, I am cooking more than I've ever cooked. Wow, good. Yeah. So, you know, it's not like my food is getting any better, but I'm doing it more. Uh, you, I think on the flip side though, they are stresses and, um, not just for us, but for everybody there's, there's cabin fever. There's the stress of having so many people in one place. People like in our case, we have a grandmother who has COVID-19 and there are many people out there, including our employees who are experiencing additional stress, but at the end of the day, we're doing fine.

Sophie Vandebroek (06:17):

We have jobs and we can do the jobs remotely. I don't know exactly. I think us alone, we're nearing 40 million people that are unemployed. So yes, many people are having an extremely hard time. And I'll let me with that. Let me switch to, uh, asking about your business IDC. Hi, I'm assuming that the impact on your business, uh, must've been significant with basically all the face to face events worldwide, either postponed or canceled and advertising and it spending down. So you guys must be in a difficult situation right now,

Mohamad Ali (06:55):

we were actually doing, doing okay. And I think a big part of it is because we have a portfolio of businesses. You could think of our business in four, four categories, almost as four businesses. The parent company is IDG inc. And under IDG, inc. We have the ADC brand. Uh, we have some of the media brands, et cetera, but the four different parts of the business is the research. And that is actually doing remarkably well. Um, because most of the tech vendors leverage our IDC research to gain insights into, uh, into what the build, what to sell, how to sell it, et cetera. And especially in the time of the pandemic, they are coming to us every day, um, looking for new information. And, uh, and there we've been very aggressive, um, in terms of launching new content, um, we have over 250 pieces of new research that we've established there.

Mohamad Ali (07:48):

Some of our, um, some of our pages have experienced tenfold increase insight view. So we also have a demand generation business and the demand generation business basically uses our data, our software and our algorithms to help enterprise tech vendors find customers. And that is actually doing quite well because they have to find alternate ways because in-person methods of finding customers as sort of ground to a halt. And so that business doing well. So, so those are the two doing well. And then we have two that are impacted heavily. So our events business is impacted heavily. I think this events category cuts across for profits, nonprofits, et cetera. We've pivoted very, very hard and fast to virtual events. And we're seeing really, really strong uptake in the virtual events that we're doing. And we're also hosting the virtual events for our tech vendor customers on their behalf.

Mohamad Ali (08:43):

We very quickly try to standardize in a set of platforms for various kinds of events, right? So there's small CIO type events where, you know, it's sort of a nine box on the screen with, uh, with the, with the host the middle. And, um, and there, there, there's a way, you know, ways to make that very round engaging all the way up to very, very large, you know, thousands of people, um, in a three D type of virtual event. And we have, we've now done, you know, all of these types. And, um, you know, we had an event with nearly 3000 people in a kind of a virtual world. We think this is an important investment for us and also for other organizations, because, you know, in person events are going to come back, but people are going to get comfortable with these virtual events.

Mohamad Ali (09:30):

And, um, and I think they're here to stay. And then the media business things like CIO magazine, computer, world network, world, PC, world, Mac, world, et cetera, uh, you know, we're seeing a lighter media spend, we're doing okay. Um, because we do have, you know, these multiple businesses, um, we have had to do some rebalancing for the most part. Uh, you know, we've frozen hiring and we're managing costs, but we haven't had to take dramatic actions like you've seen in some other, in some other businesses. And in some ways it's, it's because we have this portfolio of businesses that we're able to, to balance and get through this strategically, uh, argue, making any strategic moves, that and position you to come out of this crisis, even stronger than getting into the crisis. You know, I joined the company on August 1st on December 4th, our board approved a one inch thick document that is our strategic plan for transforming the company.

Mohamad Ali (10:29):

And that that strategy is to transform IDG and all our components into a full technology platform that allows everything to be digitally provided and everything to be easily consumed. You know, this is happening. We did this before COVID-19 and then COVID-19 hit. And then we realized this is exactly the thing, the company that we need to be, to be the strongest coming out of this. So in some ways COVID-19 has actually caused us to accelerate that strategy. And we're doing that even, even while we're conserving cash and cutting costs and certain areas we're investing in other areas so that when we come out of this, we will come out of it even stronger, you know, at the heart of what we have in the research team is a dataset of nearly a billion data points. That model is the $5 trillion it industry, since COVID-19, I think we've hired data scientists and so forth who have been working to make that data set even more consumable by our customers. And we've seen a huge increase in demand for it. So the company was really lucky to get you on board before this whole crisis strategy was articulated, and you cannot even accelerate implementation. How

Sophie Vandebroek (11:54):

do you keep this global workforce motivated and especially how do you onboard new individuals in this case data scientists when everybody's working from home?

Mohamad Ali (12:04):

Yeah. We started thinking about this very, very early on, you know, in some ways we have a little bit of an advantage because we know how to create compelling programming for our customers. So now we're doing it for ourselves. And, um, and one of the things that we noticed was that a lot of companies were, um, coming up with all kinds of interesting ways of communicating with their employees. And so, um, so we thought about how to do this and, and, you know, we're using all our usual methods, uh, regular emails,

Sophie Vandebroek (12:33):

some bad companies now are already telling their employees, you can work from home for the [inaudible] of the year, or maybe even forever. Have you seen any trends or any additional information, but that a CIO and the it individuals should be aware of and how that will impact their profession in the future?

Mohamad Ali (12:55):

You know, wild tech is less impacted. It's still impacted. And the CIO is, you know, our customers, tech vendors for all changing their practices. We are starting to see, you know, the first glimmers of hope. One of the new products that we launched at the beginning of COVID-19 is something we call the IDC COVID-19 tech index. Um, and one, uh, aspect of the tech index is a, uh, a global buying sentiment view. What we've started seeing is, you know, over the last three, four months, month after a month, the buying, um, sentiment was decreasing in every geography. But, uh, you know, I think the tech community is watching this extremely carefully and, and being, you know, cautious in how, how they react. Um, we still see a lot of our customers who are investing in spending, uh, in technology because, you know, I think for, for many of them, they also recognize some of the other side of this pandemic. You know, being more of a technology enabled company will make them more competitive.

Sophie Vandebroek (13:57):

Sure. Many companies, this was a big push to make the digital transformation that companies have been talking about for decades now. So let's, let's switch a little bit now, do you have additional advice to maybe some of the other directors that are listening to this podcast?

Mohamad Ali (14:15):

You know, I think we're at a, we're at a time in history where the, you know, the first thing that we need to do is, is come together and support that the management team, the, you know, the best ways we can, you know, I think every board should be working with their management team and scenario planning, um, and regular reviews, scenario planning, um, because it's scenarios are constantly changing.

Sophie Vandebroek (14:39):

Yeah, no, definitely. In fact, I see that most of the boards are touching base more frequently with the executive management team, but still you have to communicate inspectors suggests all the scenarios, but do it without creating too much new work for the team. Public companies normally work for the equity shareholders, right? Suddenly in the kinds of situation like this, you're working for the banks for your debt holder strike. You have to make sure you have enough liquidity to keep going, but once you have that, and there are many strong companies out there that are not past this phase, then it is just, as you said, what is the longterm view? Yeah. So we're coming near the end of our podcast here, but I'm going to ask you what you will have been. Number one, the biggest and during lessons are innovations that will have come out of our pandemic. What do you think we will remember most so that we'll have had the biggest impact on how the world works?

Mohamad Ali (15:39):

You know, I think digital and virtual are here to stay, that my parents have gotten comfortable with zoom. And this is, this is like an unbelievable thing. You know, we had a, a, a virtual graduation ceremony for my daughter and her three sets of grandparents all connect us through zoom. And so I think companies that don't move very, very quickly to, uh, the digital, uh, are going to be less behind because the world is going to accept digital. It doesn't mean that face to face won't come back. It will, but, but digital playing bigger and bigger part, I think a work from home will become more common because companies are seeing that their employees can be productive, at least in some sectors working from home, you know, in terms of things that I, I would like to see. And I hope to see, uh, I'd like to see us, uh, you know, become more community oriented versus the individualistic world that, you know, our kids have been growing up in.

Mohamad Ali (16:38):

Um, I think community really, really matters. And I think over the last many decades, you know, maybe 50, 60 years or so, we've sort of lost sight of that. Um, and then the last thing that, again, I I'd like to see, I don't know that it will happen the other day. I heard somebody say that they're not, the person was not eager to get back to normal because normal, it was part of the problem. And I think the person's right, our, our, our prior normal was one of high pollution was one of race, you know, to climate catastrophe, et cetera. And with the pandemic, you know, I mean, people are sending me pictures and other people pictures of before and after views of their skyline. And there's less smog. And, and, um, you know, there's some, there's some benefits that can come out of this. We're also starting to realize how important, uh, equal access to broadband is. And, you know, it's, it's really sort of differentiating the haves and have nots. If you don't have access to things like broadband, uh, you can't participate in virtual learning. You can participate in virtual healthcare and, you know, online doctor's visits. And so, so I'd like to see our state and our business leaders galvanized to craft a better future and not just try to reopen the, uh, you know, the, the economy to go back to where we were before

Sophie Vandebroek (18:07):

all this started well, SAPs you're totally right. It would be really great if out of this incredibly painful situation with be oriented at a better normal would even a March two, you have any final messages for the audience.

Mohamad Ali (18:23):

I think civic leadership really, really, really is important. And I think we've lost sight of that. I think we've elected, you know, people who are not really capable and don't have the skills to run our, you know, our governments and our institutions, but at the end of the day, uh, you know, part of government's responsibility is pandemic planning. And when we don't have a leadership that, uh, successfully, you know, that, that have that as an integral part of their planning, we end up with huge problems. We ended up with deaths, we ended up with a disease.

Sophie Vandebroek (19:03):

Yes, I totally agree. Mohammed, thank you for sharing your life journey as well as a really great suggestions, recommendations, and inspirational messages for all of us.

Tom Hopcroft (19:15):

Sophie, thank you. Thanks for joining us today on the tech trail, we hope you've picked up some new insights to help you on your journey. Please tweet your key takeaways with hashtag tech trail and be sure to subscribe, to get the latest episodes special. Thanks to our production partner matter. We'll be taking our next journey with Stephanie MLS and Corey Thomas. I look forward to seeing you out there on the tech trail.