Chief Content Officer,
Techstrong Group


In this Digital CxO Leadership Insights series video, Mike Vizard speaks with Sravan Ankaraju, president of Divergence Academy, about AI and how it affects employee training and needed skills.



Mike Vizard: Hello. And welcome to the latest edition of the Digital CXO Podcast. We’re here today with Sravan Ankaraju, who is the president of Divergence Academy. They are a vocational training school that specializes in a lot of things like cybersecurity and other skills that are critical. Sravan, welcome to the show.

Sravan Ankaraju: Thank you, Mike.

Mike Vizard: We are seeing a lot of folks talking about AI these days and what the impact that’s going to have on the workforce, and of course digital CXOs are trying to figure out how to plan for the future. What’s your sense of how should we be thinking about skilling and training our folks going forward when we have so much more automation coming down the pike?

Sravan Ankaraju: It’s a broad topic, Mike, and the way I think about it is, just think about the stuff that’s happening in front of us today, specifically related to COVID-19 and that scene. And the amount of time for us it really took from knowing nothing about a vaccine to producing a vaccine, what, 18 months? And again, getting that in front of over 150 million, 180 million people, that acceleration from signs to delivery in less than 18 months is a human/AI collaboration. Working together to implement and execution of that clearly says that I think there is a wonderful marriage of a human and artificial intelligence and that going forward we may have to do a lot more of that together, because of all the profound changes that are happening in the economy, social and economic changes and all that good stuff.

And it’s interesting to think about this for a second. We lost over $16 trillion of value, GDP value, in one year and 600,000 lives in one year. And we have to bring all that back and accelerate our workforce development, accelerate that economy back to where we were about two years. And when I’m thinking about it, what are the essentials of people to get to that new work and how many of those are going to come through our university systems? How many of them are going to come from upskilling and reskilling?

Upskilling would be somebody who already has the talent and can be brought up to speed, and the majority of them are regular everyday IT folks. Reskilling would be your nontraditional learner, somebody who is hungry, somebody who wants to do a wonderful job of playing around. They already do a lot of tinkering today with artificial intelligence and we play with robotics, we play with Alexa, we play with Siri. We kind of know, right? How do you bring that young talent, nontraditional talent into the workforce and train them in artificial intelligence?

Mike Vizard: How do you do that in the context of what we’re seeing with this great resignation and a lot of people are leaving their jobs? It’s not clear to me if they’re going to take another job or if they’re just going to go play somewhere or what’s going on, but do you think that that whole trend is going to force people to rethink how they hire folks and what skills they look for and maybe also drive them further into AI faster?

Sravan Ankaraju: I think there’s a little bit of they’re in the inflexion point. There’s contention of, hey, should I be at work in person or can I do this work remotely? Do I really have to travel one each way? Am I going to commute both ways and be at a workplace or can I do this from wherever I sit? I think COVID and post COVID work we have created for ourselves. Some good, some really good, is that we’ve created opportunity for a person to work from any place.

So we created that body of work, is you can work from anywhere, and some people are choosing to go somewhere. Now we also have to think about, all right, if the person is going to sit somewhere and do the work, what does it mean to be in person at work? So resignation is about choice, right? We have created that opportunity for somebody to do whatever they want to from wherever they can work from.

So we also have to accept that you’re going to lose some talent in the process. And companies are aware of it. I work with over 400 companies on and off in terms of asking them questions about their talent, what their talent needs. Entry-level talent, we know they’re going to need a feeder pool. A lot of companies are asking for a day. We have talent that that has exited, resignation or otherwise. We have to bring in new talent that needs to be a little more AI aware, more digitally aware, digitally native employee.

And they’re saying, look, we need to create feeder programs for university relations, bootcamps like Divergence. Let us bring them in, whether they’re internships and apprenticeships, and throw them in the system so that they become part of a larger pool of talent that is available as a company is growing over the next three or four years with all these digital technologies, immersive experiences. And these are expected. Today our customer expects some of these immersive experiences. They are used to going up and down on a mobile phone and talking to somebody on a chat quickly, and if you don’t provide that experience companies hurt.

And we also have to factor in the human empathy, people working at home, and providing those remote technologies so they can perform their jobs. I think we’re at that inflection point, Mike, and I think this will take a little bit of time for us to flush it out. But I think employer and learner or person doing the job, they understand these changes are inevitable.

Mike Vizard: And it cuts both ways, right? Because as a company, I can now hire folks just about anywhere. I’m no longer kind of confined to who can drive to my headquarters within a 90-minute window. I can think about hiring just about anybody anywhere. But I hear a lot of times that senior managers are concerned about the productivity of remote workers because they can’t really see or feel it or touch as easily as they could when everybody’s in the office. So do you think that there’s new metrics to be put in place or is it just a matter of us getting used to the fact that we’re going to have to trust people who are on the other side of the country more?

Sravan Ankaraju: I would say the latter, trust them more. People love big, meaty projects, something of a purpose, something of a mission. They love to know that they are participating and contributing to an overarching organizational mission and purpose. I think people love those big, bold ideas that they’re working on. They like to be given time to work on.

The good news in this world is when you’re at home, unfortunately the clock never winds down. You’re in front of a computer and you’re working from, I don’t know, pick 9:00 AM, 8:00 AM. If you are an East Coast employee working on the West Coast, a West Coast working on the East Coast. They’re working 12, 14-hour days, longer hours. And so we have created – we’ve got to trust, right? I think we’ve got to build that trust in the ecosystem that we value your work wherever you are and we’re going to be able to communicate with you in any form that you want us to communicate – text, email, chat, Slack, Microsoft Teams.

Pick one. People are available. I think we just have to begin to trust that productivity is possible. But again, I want to be careful in what I say. There are also organizations that want people to be onsite, your frontline workers, your folks that are going to be delivering. There’s been a lot of Instacart going on, a lot of deliveries going on, a lot of drivers required today. And you’d be surprised, Mike, that even though we talk of a driver, an Uber driver or an Amazon delivery, they are doing a lot of work.

They don’t do just delivery. They use digital technologies. They are now in front of a house with a Ring and they’re being captured. There’s a video on it. They’re being scrutinized. So there’s a lot of digital technology even in the hands of a delivery person. They’re just not driving anymore.

And all this to say, so there are some groups of people and some occupations that need to be in person. If you choose to say, hey, at some point we don’t need drivers, well that creates another body of work which is now automation, robotics, self-driving cars and things like that. So if you force that direction, it’s going to go towards extreme levels, which is self-driving cars and deliveries by robots. In fact, some of those are already happening, right?

So the choices we make are we are the choices. The decisions people are making, executives are making, the outcomes are the ones we are receiving. And this is happening because workers not showing up or workers having a tough day on a job because they’re doing 15, 16, 18 deliveries, or they’re a frontline worker. Because their load has gone up they’re getting tired. There’s fatigue kicking in.

There’s a lot of fatigue in this new world. So how do you support them? You’ve got to bring digital technologies to help them out. I don’t think it’s this or that. I think it’s an end solution. I think we are at that inflection point.

Mike Vizard: Do you think it’ll also go the other way where – you know, sometimes we talk about employees are afraid of AI because they’re thinking their jobs will be automated, but I also go a step further. I may not want to work for an organization that doesn’t have some AI capabilities because it just will be too hard or too complex, and I’ll look at them and say, wow, they’re kind of behind the times.

Sravan Ankaraju: You’re absolutely right. And I was listening to a conversation the other day, and this was about cyber talent exchange, and they were talking about how do we recruit people who are going to enter the company quickly? And of course labor shortage being very high, the ransomware attacks being very high. _____ let’s get a young talent, a 17-year-old, an 18-year-old who is already playing games, playing video games, and they understand the idea of investigation, detection, detective work. So our young talent have a lot of new things that they already are experienced with. And they’re talking about let’s create a hackathon, let’s create an AutomATAhon, an automation-related hackathon.

So companies are already thinking is there a pool of talent that is already AI aware? Is there a pool of talent that is already Siri aware, Alexa aware, or Cortana aware? Are there people that understand the voice technologies, that they’re not afraid of having your image in front of a camera?

So surprisingly, companies already know that there’s an audience out there that is not afraid of AI. They already do this every day with video games and they’re already thinking about how do you take them and put them into solving your new world problems like ransomware attacks, cryptography? And I’ll tell you one more thing. This is interesting.

And it’s interesting because we all talk about Bitcoin and crypto and we talk about Ethereum and all kinds of digital currencies, and the people who are adopting them are people who play video games, Endgame crypto, Endgame stuff. So people are already used to some of the talent that we know exists out there, are already used to some of these things. So I think it’s a marriage of who is ready and who needs to be upskilled so that they understand that the jobs of the future are not just going to be about automating driving and self-driving cars. It’s also about things to solve, real big problems that more people can be brought in to do those kind of work. I think it’s there. We have good, wonderful talent in the United States, and I think it’s out there for us to reach out to.

Mike Vizard: One of the things that seems to be happening is a lot of employers are like, well, we have somebody that quit and then we’ll go look for somebody and we wind up with this big gap for a few months because we couldn’t find the right talent. People think that they’re may be general managers of baseball teams or whatever. But do we need a different approach where we are creating more of a farm system and companies are reaching out to train people before they need them even, and then bring them in and have their eyes on who it is they want to recruit and have a much more aggressive approach to how they manage talent?

Sravan Ankaraju: Absolutely. I think so. Many companies, I would like to believe, medium to largescale enterprises, anywhere from $500 million in revenue, they probably have some of those systems already in place. They now call them university relations. You have employee resource groups, veteran employee resource groups, and they have these feeder systems for entry-level talent coming into their organizations.

But think about military, how military does it; ROTC, Junior ROTC, and they have a feeder system where they start to recruit early and put them into a feeder system, their own feeder system of creating the farm, where you’re calling it, hey, can we create that talent pool – I think we’ve got to start. And assuming that there’s a large amount of pool ready for you to bring in today, for all the changes that are happening over the last few years, I think it’s a myopic view. I think we’ve got to be able to craft and mature and build those feeder systems, and it starts today.

If it’s not already happened, we should start today. We have so many jobs out there that are unfilled. I would like to believe that those feeder systems should be accelerated and not taken for granted that we’re going to get people through immigration policies, people from outside the country anytime quickly. Our supply chains have been disrupted. Our labor has been disrupted.

And the more it gets disrupted we’ve got to look at internally within the United States, with the feeder pools that we have, university systems and military all-connect sources to include nontraditional learners, people who are going to bootcamps to say, can we bring in all the talent and get them ready? And you’re absolutely right, and I think we need to accelerate any of these feeder systems that we already have access to and start looking at other places too.

Mike Vizard: Part of the reason I think at least that we see so many of these unfilled jobs is that the requirements are a little out of whack with what’s available in the supply side of the equation. So they’re asking for entry-level jobs that require certifications that take three years to get. There’s kind of a disconnect in the way that the people go about posting these jobs. So do we need to think about that more holistically than we currently do and have a better, deeper conversation about what is entry level and how to recruit somebody and bring them on?

Sravan Ankaraju: Absolutely. I think we’ve got to be clear about what does entry-level mean, and does entry-level mean a $15.00-an-hour job or an $18.00-an-hour job? And if you’re going to create, hey, I want an entry-level job with five years of skills and a student or two have just graduated from a program, you’re not going to get them at $15.00 to $18.00 an hour. They have other choices.

They don’t have to spend so much time going through this digital transformation and all the dramas that come with it and say, I’m going to receive just $18.00 an hour. Right? There are other choices. A lot of food restaurants and other businesses have already raised minimum wages, they are able to make $18.00, $20.00 an hour. So we’ve got to be able to present the bare minimum requirement of what it means to be an entry level and have corresponding wages to go with it and be very clear about the expectations of the talent acquisition teams and recruitment teams. And by the way, they’re doing wonderful jobs.

There’s fatigue in the talent acquisition teams. I’ve worked with quite a few of them. They’re being required to think about diversity, equity and inclusion, they’re thinking about we’ve got to make sure we have everybody inclusive and covered in those aspects too. They have to bring them in. They have to bring in entry-level talent. And they also have to figure out how to work with the new conditions that does not include immigrant workers.

So if you think about all those for a second, the talent acquisition teams are also burdened and the expectations have gone up. So we’ve got to reset some of these expectations, and the Department of Labor does a wonderful job. They talk about apprenticeships and youth apprenticeships as a way to bring talent in, give them two years of employment, provide 144 hours of related training instruction, do on-the-job training, and provide these workforce intermediaries and other solutions to bring talent in. Of course, employers are going to receive tax credits and tax benefits.

We have programs out there, but I think how many of employers are actually taking advantage of the systems that we have created? It goes back to we have to evangelize, advocate, and say if you want to have talent that has five, six, ten years’ experience entry-level, and you’re going to give them $25.00, $30.00 an hour, they have choices.

Mike Vizard: So what’s your best advice then as a digital CXO about how to go about creating something that feels like a farm system and managing their talent? Are there things that you see companies that are savvy doing that others are not?

Sravan Ankaraju: My view is simple. So look, reach out to the talent that is ready to work with you and meet half a distance if not completely, which is about – the talent today expects you to be digitally ready, that you are talking the talk, you’re walking the walk. If you want to get talent coming into your organization, create those opportunities of hackathons, create those opportunities where young talent can say, hey, I was part of this community sponsored and organized by an organization. I think these sport kind of come up quite often as, hey, I was part of a team and we cracked a ransomware phish situation or we cracked a cryptography issue, we worked through the issue in a team environment and we solved the problem.

So as long as you’re thinking about big, mega problems, and you’re bringing talent in and providing the forums to solve those problems, what it creates is a brand awareness for digital CXOs. And then as a matter of fact, just because of the pockets of work you created, people are going to come in. And today, everything is social. You know, somebody is going to give you a like, somebody is going to give you a thumbs up, somebody is going to post a heart on Instagram. And I think we’ve got to reach where people are and we’ve got to give them those forums for them to come and look at your brand in a certain way.

Give them the opportunity to work with you. Build that relationship. I think we’ve got companies that are doing that. Kudos to them. If companies are not doing it, it’s time to do it. And we’ve got to accelerate all the right sources of talent.

Mike Vizard: Alright. Well, people aren’t just going to show up because you hung a shingle outside the door that says help wanted that’s for sure. Sravan, thanks for being on the show.

Sravan Ankaraju: Thank you so much, Mike. That’s for the opportunity.

Mike Vizard: Alright. Take care.

Sravan Ankaraju: Bye-bye.