Episode 416 – Your AI Survival Guide with Sol Rashidi

Sol Rashidi‘Embrace AI, but also make sure that you evolve as an individual and you understand the art of the possible while still staying grounded in the art of the practical.’

Implementing AI in your business isn’t easy, but NOT implementing it could be disastrous. Sol Rashidi is a former C-suite executive turned AI consultant who knows more than most about the real-world challenges and opportunities in AI deployment. She’s been in the field since 2011, developing enterprise-grade applications that integrate AI into business processes effectively, and now she’s written a book to help leaders avoid the pitfalls and reap the benefits.

But how do you write a book on such a fast-moving technology? You write it FAST, and you keep it focused on principles, not specific tech tools. Sol reveals how she managed to write her book in two and a half months (or 26 years, depending on which way you look at it…), and how she learned to love the challenge of marketing. 

AI can be an augmenter and accelerator in your business, and this episode can do the same for your writing. 

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Sol’s site: https://www.solrashidi.com/

Sol on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sol-rashidi-a672291/

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Sol Rashidi, who is a former C suite executive, now a consultant and influencer within the AI data and technology space, having helped IBM launch Watson back in 2011, and been involved in hands on AI deployments since. She’s been named one of the 50 most powerful women in tech, a top 100 innovator in data and analytics, CAO of the year, CDO of the year, one of the global data power women, and she holds eight patents.

Makes you wonder what you’ve been doing with your life. doesn’t it? And her new book, The AI Survival Guide: Scraped knees, bruised elbows and lessons from real world AI deployments, was named among the best books in AI by CEO World.

So first of all, welcome Sol, it’s great to have you here.

Sol Rashidi: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

Alison Jones: It is quite the CV.

Sol Rashidi: And it’s funny, I’m like, I haven’t done enough. There’s so much to do. The pace of change is so fast. I’m like, oh my gosh, I’ve got to catch up.

Alison Jones: And I want to come on to that, because writing a book about a topic that is so fast moving has its own challenges. So I definitely want to come on to that. But before I do, let’s talk about AI more broadly because, you know, one of your arguments in the book, and it’s hard to argue with it, is that you can’t ignore this as a leader.

It’s coming and you better get in there and prepare to scrape your knees and bruise your elbows and all that kind of stuff. Why does it matter so much that leaders just get to grips with this?

Sol Rashidi: Well, I think what ends up happening is, you know, yes, it’s a… I don’t want to say it’s a hype because the legitimacy of the capabilities and solutions that it provides is unbelievable. I think the challenge is, is right now everyone’s figuring it out, but yet there’s a lot of folks, teams saying they are experts.

It’s just funny that people are claiming to be experts. I’ve been doing this stuff since 2011. I’m the furthest away from being an expert and I’ve gotten nearly 40 enterprise-grade applications in production right now. And it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a lot when people really understand what it takes to actually form the team, identify the use case, go through the POC, market successful, push it into production, realign the organizational model and the new business processes so that it’s an embedded capability within the organization, versus the shiny new toy that lives for a few months and then dies on a branch.

Like it takes two years minimum to really get it operationalized.

And so what’s happening is like, you know, I resigned if you will, or I’ve taken a break, a hiatus from enterprise and corporate America about a year ago. Just because I saw so many companies get into trouble. And a lot of my peers were tapping me on the shoulder. Like, what would you do in this case? What would you do in that case?

And that’s when I realized, you know what, let me just give this a go and help other companies versus representing a company. And so people are figuring it out as they go. And we call it the ‘learn while you earn’ method. And companies are dumping millions of dollars and it doesn’t matter if they can afford it or not.

The fact of the matter is, is you’re pulling time and attention and focus away from other individuals who are already tapped. And they can barely keep up with family life, home life, gym life, personal life, work life, you know, like, so I just felt it was unfair.

So the book was really a culmination, an aggregation, a summarization of all the mistakes I’ve made since 2011, to help others avoid making those same mistakes.

Because they’re not one-off mistakes. They’re mistakes that in every single capability… they

Alison Jones: They’re systemic..

Sol Rashidi: …were were systemic and they were the root causes, not the symptomatic features of something. And so the goal was, is that, well, I know this and now I’ve gone independent. Why wouldn’t I? With the help of many who encouraged me, because I’m not a writer by trade, I’m a doer.

I don’t write about stuff. I don’t read and regurgitate. I have to physically do, understand and learn the nuances. And then maybe I could write about it. So I decided to take a leap of faith and make sure that others can avoid the same mistakes I’ve made. And so that they can increase their probability of success with AI.

But honestly, the stuff that I talk about could be applied towards a data strategy, an AI strategy. Any tech or business process optimization, anything that needs to be improved within an organization.

It’s gone well, it hit bestseller a few weeks ago, which is great. So as a first time author, I’m super thrilled.

I’m almost thinking like I should just hang my hat and let it go from…

Alison Jones: …this is what I do now. Yes.. And you say it could be applied to any business process, but there are layers of uncertainty and fear and anxiety and AI’s got, I was going to say mystique, that’s not quite the right word, but there’s sort of levels of psychological complexity because the people that you’re asking to do this stuff feel uncertain, it’s not in their skill set.

They’ve heard horror stories about their jobs being replaced. So actually it is kind of different, isn’t it?

Sol Rashidi: Very much so, unlike the advent of other technologies. The first response wasn’t fear, but for those of us who’ve been in the field since 2011 to now, right. I can’t predict the future but it was like, well, Excel didn’t replace accountants or financial analysts. Adobe didn’t replace graphic designers or those that were in user experience and user interface design.

They became tools that just sort of got, we got attached to by the hip. Email didn’t replace face to face communication. Has it made us lazy with face to face communication? Yes, but it didn’t replace fundamentally what we needed to communicate, how often we needed to communicate. It was just a lot more efficient.

And so, you know, even with robotics and the industrial revolution and how car manufacturing plants operate, these have now become tools in the toolkit that become an assistance to us. So, with where we are right now, I would say view AI as an accelerator, as an amplifier. It’s meant to help us become more efficient and faster.

And like, I just did a talk at New York Life a few months ago. And it was with a group of women. We were closing out women’s history month, the end of March. And I was like, I use about six to eight tools a day on a daily basis. And I’ve calculated, because I’m in the data space, it’s given me about 6. 7 hours back a week. Now, my workload keeps increasing, so of the 6. 7 hours, half of it has been reallocated to just doing more work, which is the danger of it. But the other half, the other three hours, I get to I spend an extra 22 minutes in the gym every single day. I get to take my kids to jujitsu one night a week, whereas previously I had to be in the office because I had to catch up on work, but now I can rapidly automate some of these things.

And so I use it as a supplemental tool, no different than Excel or Word or email. So for this day, I would say, embrace it, but also make sure that you evolve as an individual and you understand the art of the possible while still staying grounded in the art of the practical, because it will evolve certain goals.

Alison Jones: And I loved the phrase, and I’ve heard it before, but you really insist on that. The human in the loop, the importance of that. Yes.. And you had some really interesting stats about, I mean, we talked about personal productivity gains, if you like, with AI, but actually corporately, the businesses that are using AI effectively, I was astonished by the results that, that you’re already seeing in that space.

Sol Rashidi: Yes.. I mean, I would be wary. Some of it is marketing and hype. They’ve put a lot of money into it. They can’t say it was a failure, right? Like I’ve had many, many projects fail and I was like, well, this is how much we spent. And we were not able to gain our 29 percent productivity because of X, Y, and Z.

So either we have to throw good money after bad money, or we, you know, we just call it quits. So I do think there’s some PR and marketing embedded into it, but then there’s also some, a few companies who’ve done amazing things with it because they fundamentally have doubled down and said, we are leaning into this very strongly. This is going to become the new normal. And it was kind of a top down mandate. The grassroots efforts doesn’t really work, but the top down says, this is the direction we’re going, forces people to evolve.

I would say that the one caveat to that is, the productivity gains are there., The capacity and bandwidth gains are there, but there’s a few decks that I’ve seen from some management consulting firms that are saying, you know, you could reduce the workforce by 30 percent if you were to apply this AI solution or capability or tool. And those are big no nos, because if any of those people who created that deck had ever done a project before, they know that in the first year and year and a half, you actually don’t replace anyone because you need them as part of the human in the loop. You need those knowledge workers that don’t have that institutional knowledge documented fact checking and validating, making sure that the outputs of those AI models indeed aligned with how the business runs.

And to be honest with you, when you do receive and see productivity and capacity gains, that workforce doesn’t go away. In the 40 different capabilities I have that are in production and enterprise grade, one of two things have happened: they’ve either been reallocated to the backlog of things that have been growing quarter after quarter after quarter, because, but we’re limited in headcount, so it’s not like we can get to them. So we de prioritize them. And then they start going through and do backlog grooming. What still needs to be addressed? What is irrelevant now? Or they get reallocated towards the growth verticals, the growth division, growth products, because companies are consistently expected to grow and they need a staff and a workforce to do so.

But how do you maintain EBITDA? How do you maintain margin? How do you keep headcount stabilized and grow at the same time? And this is a perfect reallocation.

Alison Jones: It’s your productivity gains, Yes.. It’s, it’s like you don’t sit around for the six hours a week that you save. You allocate that time to something. Absolutely.

 

Sol Rashidi: Of course.

Alison Jones: The point about the sort of the, the the bruised, I’m going to get this wrong, but the bruised knees, the, the, the scraped elbows, you’re hinting at something really I mean, you’re doing it in a very jocular way, and a very kind of accessible way, but actually you’re acknowledging the fact that this, this is going to hurt.

And I’d love to hear your insights as to how leaders approach that, going into something that they know they’re going to make mistakes and they know that this is going to cost them because they’re going to get it wrong. How do you get over that and say like, the only thing worse than doing this is not doing this?

Sol Rashidi: Yes. Well, I think this is where that theme, you have to believe in the art of the possible to even take on something like this. You’ve got to think big, you’ve got to dream big and you’ve got to understand that at the end of this rainbow is that pot of gold. But the art of the practical is, is you need a backbone where some people have a wishbone.

This isn’t something that you can just throw money at. 70 percent of the issues I’ve encountered when doing the deployments are all human based, workforce based, culture based, has nothing to do with the tech, 30 percent of it has to do with the technology, those things can, you can easily, I shouldn’t say easily, you can figure out because it’s zeros and ones, and there’s a method to them, but it’s the individuals.

And so I don’t think most people are aware of that or understand that, but looping back to our original conversation, the systemic issues across every implementation I’ve ever experienced: it’s the workforce. It’s picking the wrong strategy. It’s picking the wrong reason to do it, because the board said so, or because it’s FOMO and it’s the cool thing and if we don’t do it, we’ll look irrelevant.

Or even picking the wrong use case. A lot of people choose AI use cases based on business value. That is not good. And part of it is because if you pick it based on business value, if the head of manufacturing is plagued with an issue and he wants to resolve that issue and AI happens to be a good formula for resolving that issue, there is inherent business value in that.

Well, if the head of supply chain is also plagued with an issue and they want to resolve that issue and AI is a great way of solving that problem, there is inherent business value in that. Then you’ve got the head of finance. Then you’ve got the head of a new division or the head of a new brand or the head of a new label or whatever the head of it is.

Each one of these problems have inherent business value. And so you don’t want to be in a position to pick and choose which one gets prioritized. Or you pick it purely based on business value because it’s got the greatest return. But part of the reason why it has the greatest return is because you fundamentally are so behind because you haven’t invested in the fundamentals.

And what ends up happening is, is if you only choose based on business value, you end up in perpetual POC purgatory, perpetual proof of concept purgatory. Because what ends up happening is doing something on a small scale is very easy to do, but broadening it out to a large scale or within an enterprise, there are certain nuances and characteristics that need to be in place.

So I have a very different framework than business value. Business value is one of the 10, it’s mentioned in the book, to be able to understand which of my use cases I’m going to select first to increase my probability of success. And it takes something that could be subjective and makes it very objective.

And you actually avoid pissing people off because you’re not choosing which use case…

Alison Jones: …this is the framework. Don’t blame me. Yes., and what’s really interesting as well is because you’ve been involved in so many specific implementations, as you were saying earlier, when you come to write the book and you’re not in the room with the reader and it’s not a specific instance, it forces you, doesn’t it, to abstract those principles, to create that, that intellectual property, that framework.

How did you find that?

Sol Rashidi: Trial and error, face plants.

Alison Jones: Well, I meant how was it for you? But yes, actually, how did you unearth the framework? I guess is the bigger question, isn’t it?

Sol Rashidi: I mean, I think this is where you can have all the tools and techniques, but if you don’t apply critical thinking and common sense, It only gets you so far. The tools don’t solve your problem. The narrative, the storytelling, the value, if we don’t do this, this is what our lives will look like in six months, in two years, the consequences… Here’s like an interesting analogy I always give. Everyone knows that data quality is important. Your insights and your reports are only as good as the data that you generate and leverage. But a lot of organizations, small or large, either don’t know where their data is, or it’s very fragmented, or they don’t trust their data.

Data quality, fundamentally, it’s just an issue. I’ve never crossed an organization that says their data is perfect. And oftentimes, I’ve been brought in, I’m like, listen, we need governance, we need better data quality, we need faster insights. I’m like, okay, no problem, no problem, no problem. But when it comes to data quality, it’s a very, very easy fix.

And you have two options. One, you give me enough funding and give me the time to focus to go figure out where the leaky pipe is, and you give me both the responsibility, which you are, but also the authority to be the plumber and fix that leaky pipe so that we don’t have a leaky faucet of dirty data. Or you give me enough funding where I just go to any wholesale store and I buy enough pails and I just continue to catch all the leaky water coming out of the leaky faucet because you did not allow me to fix it at the original source. The first option of giving me, yes, the responsibility, but you have to give me the authority to fix the business process. That’s generating the bad data quality, which means I’m going to have to work with my peers, maybe in procurement, maybe in finance, maybe in supply chain, and re engineer their business process.

And you have to give me the authority to do so because that’s what’s generating the bad data, which many companies are like, Ooh, we don’t know. And I’m like, or the alternative is. I’m going to have to fix the data as it’s coming out dirty, which means we are forever going to have dirty data. You’ve got to give me enough funding to build a team and a factory that’s reactively cleaning the information before it goes into reports.

This will never end. If anything, I’m going to continue to ask for headcount and budget because proliferation of data is just going to continue to grow. That volume, the variety and the veracity that we all keep talking about. Or give me the authority to fix it at the source. Like that’s a example. And that visual analogy helps sell the story.

And then ultimately the choice is theirs. I can adapt either way. And so I always say you can have all the fancy tools, but you’ve got to be able to articulate what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And that common sense and critical thinking, and then the interactions with individuals is kind of like over the years has helped me develop these frameworks and these principles along the way.

Alison Jones: Yes. So you abstract the outcomes of those conversations into, into the book. Did that process. surprise you at all? What did you find interesting about pulling that into a book format as opposed to that kind of face to face conversation you’d normally be having?

Sol Rashidi: The running joke with Wiley is I’ve probably wrote this book faster than any other author. Most authors take a year. I took two and a half months. We had the conversations in November. We signed the book deal in December. I had my final draft in February 9th. Because I’m not a researcher. I’m not in academics.

I’m not… my career isn’t to read, regurgitate, and reprocess. I’ve spent the past 20, I don’t want to age myself, but 24, 25, 26 years doing the work. And I’m very maniacal with note taking. So after every project, I have files of doing postmortems of like, what went wrong? Why did it go wrong? What assumptions did we make that didn’t hold true and what went well? I’ve got hundreds of projects where I have those notes. And then at the end of every year, I would always do a summation of what did I learn? What did we do that didn’t go well? What did we pivot that did go well or also didn’t go well? And so for me, it was just a matter of going back to all my notes.

And the hardest part was organizing it in a cohesive way. And then the next hardest part was editing it, because there’s a lot more that I wanted to include, but I’m like, okay, this needs to be more concise and clear and don’t overwhelm individuals. The marketing was the hard part, not writing it, which is…

Alison Jones: …oh right, everybody thinks when they’ve written a book that’s their job done. Oh no, then the marketing starts. But also when you’re writing about such a topical, fast moving issue as AI, you kind of got to write fast. You couldn’t take a year to write that book because the first chapters would be out of date, right?

Sol Rashidi: Yes, if I was taking a very technology centric view, but I’m not.

Alison Jones: So tell me how you address that issue.

Sol Rashidi: Yeah. Yes. Well, that was the other thing. My issue is AI fatigue. It’s, if I had released this book last year, it would have had much different results than because me releasing it this year. But things happen the way they happen. It is what it is.

But I think what’s happening is it’s too much. It’s everywhere. AI fatigue has set in. I stopped reading articles, like instead of like two dozen articles a day now it’s like I pick and choose which ones I want to read. And my trusted sources. So I knew I had to get it out there at a certain point in time, but it’s also a very critical juncture because everyone’s in proof of concept mode and they’re ready to push to production.

And so there’s the laggards who are still kicking the tires and thinking about it. So this book is relevant for them. Then there’s those that are picking their use cases, so they understand where they want to focus. This is relevant for them. But then there are those who are ready to pivot from, from proof of concept into production.

It’s relevant for them, but it means that they may have to re work or re evaluate and reassess a few things before they can kick it off into production. And put it in the right, in the…

Alison Jones: Go back to their ‘Why?’

Sol Rashidi: Yes. So for me, getting it out was the reason why I accelerated and I killed myself. I wrote, I don’t even know how many hours a day just to get it out there.

So it was very, very, very focused on making sure that it was very timely and relevant. To, to avoid further heartburn.

Alison Jones: Yes. And it’s interesting because you’ve got a timeline in there that of course goes up to 2023 when I’m guessing you had to sign off for print.

Sol Rashidi: Yes.. But the good news is these principles and the actual approaches are relevant for a lot of projects outside of AI, but there, there are nuances, very specific to AI. And because it’s not tech- centric I’m not worried about it becoming outdated whatsoever. There is like maybe two pages where I talk about specific tools that I recommend that I, they may or may not be around in a year or so, but like it’s two of 285 pages. I made it very relevant for how to actually think about it and deploy it successfully versus how to approach the technology, which is changing every three months.

Alison Jones: Yes. And I think that’s such an important point to take on if you’re writing a book about a technology. product or any, any topic that changes fast. You have to focus on principles. There’s just no point trying to be current because that’s not how books work.

Sol Rashidi: It’s not how books work. That’s it. And I wanted this to live on past. My challenge was making sure that the attention span was going to be there because books are hitting AI fatigue, not because the material in it was going to be irrelevant.

Alison Jones: So having come to the other side of it now, I’m wondering if your tip is going to be, you must document for the next 10 years everything you do because it’s such a great thing to do. You’ve basically been preparing to write this book for so long. But what would your best tip be for somebody who is maybe just starting to think about writing a book in their space?

Sol Rashidi: Oh, you better have something unique to say. There are so many, so many books out there, and I think it was part of what motivated me, is I was reading a lot of high level principles around governance and ethics and responsible AI and leadership. And the people who were writing it have never done it before. And it was kind of pissing me off. I’m like, how do you know that this is supposed to be this way? If you’ve never been in a position to actually do it that way, and you had positive outcome? And it was, it was a lot of thinking, theory and principles and an aggregation of things that are already out there.

But I didn’t, I didn’t, I did not read a single book or an article from someone that had, you know, the, the scraped knees and the bruised elbows and the lessons learned of like real deployments. I did this and this worked because I did this and this did not work because I found out, and by the way, this holds true for all industries and all functions.

I wanted something meatier. I wanted to, if I were reading it, learning from someone who’s actually gone through the trenches of both successes and failures. And I would say I’ve had a lot more failures to achieve a few more successes, similar to the winery concept. They say, you’re going to throw a lot of money into having a winery so you can eke out a small gain.

Very, very similar. I had to have a lot of mistakes to have these like 38 applications in production. So I, I’m hoping that’s the value. So if you’re going through the process of writing a book, make sure you have a unique voice, it hasn’t been done already before, and the writing is the easiest part.

I’m not a natural person in sales and marketing. I could sell a market when I know a subject matter area, but like the, the process of marketing for me was the hardest. Be prepared for that.

Alison Jones: What was hard about it for you?

Sol Rashidi: Exposure, getting out there. Like as an example I was a C suite executive. Anytime I speak, anytime I write has to be approved by corporate coms. You are an employee and a representation of that company. So I was never very public. I didn’t have a large following on LinkedIn. I wasn’t really active. And then when I decided to take time off of corporate and do this thing, my publisher was like, by the way you should probably start being more active.

You should probably have a newsletter. And I’m like, what are you talking about? And they’re like, how are you going to sell the book? And I’m like, well, aren’t you going to help me with marketing?

Alison Jones: Isn’t that your job?

Sol Rashidi: Publishers do not help with marketing. Not at all. You yourself and you are the only one that’s marketing.

And so then it’s a number of how many times do I get on a podcast? How many conversations are you a keynote at? Then it’s a matter of publications, building a followership, making sure that your voice is a value where you can build a followership and a newsletter. And so I crammed what some people have done in three years in like six, seven months.

But again, when I’m focused, I’m focused. And that was part of it is you’re spreading yourself thin because you’ve got to, it’s all about the awareness and it’s all about this book is out there, but you have to tell the story. So people are interested in reading as well, which I love doing, but I’m not very good at the sales.

It makes me feel icky. Like it’s not, it’s not a genuine feeling for me. Yes,

Alison Jones: I hope that podcasts are really good for that. Because actually you just end up talking, you just have a really good conversation about the topic, don’t you? And everyone’s like, that sounds really fascinating. I’d love to…. I love podcasts. It’s like marketing for people who hate marketing, isn’t it?

Sol Rashidi: Yes. And yes.

Alison Jones: Now, Sol, I always ask my guests for a recommendation as well. Is there a book that you would like to recommend us? It can’t be your own. Sorry.

Sol Rashidi: Of course. Okay. I have, I have just three. Yes.. So, Strength is Strength from Arthur Cook. I am living this right now so it resonates with me very, very well and it’s it’s already a New York Times bestseller, so I don’t know if he needs more marketing, but it was just very for where I am in my career.

Alison Jones: I haven’t read that yet, so it’s good to hear. Okay.

Sol Rashidi: Same as Ever from Morgan Hausel was an amazing, amazing book in the sense that… patterns repeat if you’re paying attention. And then I would say the third is an older book, Open by Andre Agassi, which was, I don’t know, 10, 15 years ago. And you know, I don’t know if I’m aging myself again, if people know Andre Agassi and the legend that he was in tennis, and his hair, and like he took the eighties and nineties by storm, but the entire book is how he felt like a fraud the entire time.

And his hair was not real, it was a wig because he’s, h e started balding at 21 years old, but he had, he had to keep up with the persona. And then he talks about how, you know, everyone thought him and Brooke Shields were the superstar couple, and he was so miserable in that relationship. And like, what you think a life of someone is, is on a pedestal.

And then his genuine heartfelt, like, aspect of how insincere he felt and how he felt when he was a fraud the entire time, I would have never guessed it. And that book I read on a train in Europe when I was traveling by myself. It is still memorable to this day.

Alison Jones: Amazing. I have to go read that immediately. Thank you. Brilliant. And Sol, if you want to find out more about you, obviously you’ve got your fabulous marketing platform now, where can we find you?

Sol Rashidi: Well, the book is on Amazon, Walmart, depending on where you’re located. It is a bestseller. The reviews are good. So I would love the support. Of course, I’m very active on LinkedIn. And I have my own newsletter. So Sol Rashidi, I have a website as well. If you’re even curious about stuff that I’ve done with Forbes and CNBC and Fast Company and the podcast and, like, the videos; so solrashidi.com, but I’m very, very active on, on LinkedIn. If you want to look at my name and follow.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. I’ll put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com along with the transcript of the conversation and the links to the audio and video, but what a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for your time today, Sol.

Sol Rashidi: Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it. I really appreciate you.

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