By Peter High, President, Metis Strategy
This article is by Featured Blogger Peter High from his Forbes.com column.
Sophie Vandebroek has been with Xerox for 25 years, and in that time has seen tremendous change. The one-time elite brand went through a period in the woods, so to speak, and now Vandebroek (among others) have helped the company return to its innovative roots. As company’s chief technology officer, and as the President of Xerox Innovation Group, she has put a lot of thought both into what has made the company special at its core and from its founding, while incorporating in new methods such as developing “dreaming sessions” in which Xerox employees and customers dream up new ideas without the constraints of what is possible today. She also indicates that innovators must have fun at work, as well as leading balanced lives.
Vandebroek is also one of several examples of female executives. It continues to be rare in technology companies to have CTOs and innovation heads who are women. Vandebroek has spearheaded diversity programs at the company, and she has employed a variety of creative methods to ensure that female technical leaders continue to be found and groomed for leadership. She discusses all the above and more herein.
Peter High: You are the Chief Technology Officer of Xerox, as well as the President of the Xerox Innovation Group. Please provide a breakdown between the two sets of responsibilities you have.
Sophie Vandebroek: They are very complementary. As you might know, Xerox is a global corporation with 140,000 employees across the world. We are the largest corporation in business process services and document management services. About 60 percent of our revenue comes from business process outsourcing services in areas like healthcare, transportation, financial services, education, etc. 40 percent comes from our traditional printing, imaging, and publishing business, which continues to do very well.
In my role as Chief Technology Officer, I partner with the business group presidents, and with our CEO and senior team to constantly predict disruptive changes that will impact our clients. I help make sure that, as a business, we are positioned to provide the services to our clients that they need to successfully provide services to end users. As part of that, we look at the trends and define the investment portfolio together with our joint venture partner, Fuji Xerox, which is now more than fifty years old. We invest over a billion dollars in research, development, and engineering. We determine the right investment portfolio, what the right strategy is, and how to execute.
As the head of the Xerox Innovation Group, we have people that not only know what disruptive changes are coming, but they also create those new waves, whether that is in computing, machine learning, or the Internet of Everything. Within the labs around the globe, we envision the future together with our clients. We do a lot of co-innovation and co-creation to envision the future and make it a reality for our clients, the world, and our business. Those are the two roles.
High: You talked a bit about the creation of the strategy, as well as the interaction with customers, which are essential to developing the insights as to where innovation will be focused. Can you talk about some of those strategies and some of the things you briefly touched on – computing, the Internet of everything, and machine learning?
Vandebroek: I have been with Xerox for 25 years, and have gone through many different industry changes. I became CTO a decade ago. Ten years ago, the mission of the research labs of all the Xerox Innovation Group was to spearhead innovation for our customers and the world. Now, we catalyze, because the world is flat and has changed significantly. In addition to the amazing researchers, scientists, and engineers that we have in the lab, we now embrace the start-up ecosystem and have a huge amount of co-innovation with the customers. We have always embraced collaborating with universities as well.
Overlaying everything we do, the Xerox point of view is that “Work can work better”. In the case of a traditional enterprise where people struggle with information and paper, we help streamline business processes and workflows in a knowledgeable environment. We are also in healthcare. We work with hospitals. Our software, MidasPlus, is in over two thousand hospitals, where we help administrators, nurses, and physicians, manage more effectively the flow of individual patients through the hospital. Through individualized precision, the patients gets the care she needs. Through leveraging analytics, machine learning, and other great technologies, we can do great prescriptive analytics to be able to share when the right time is for the patient to go home, or make them aware that a patient is likely to end up in the ICU. We made an investment in HealthSpot, where we helped them with business process outsourcing needs. We work with governments and commercial partners to help them do their work better, by doing a lot of processing work at massive scale. We process about 950 million healthcare claims on a yearly basis with individual precision. That handles the flow of patients through the hospital, back home, and all the way into the distributed healthcare sector, including managing their benefits.
In the transportation industry, we help city officials manage the flow of citizens through urban cities. We call this urban mobility. We give city officials the insight on how to optimize their transportation infrastructure in large urban areas so that they know at which time of the day and which day of the week they need more buses, fewer trains, etc. This helps them provide an infrastructure where city officials can seamlessly optimize flow of people through the city across multiple modes of transportation, including car-sharing, bikes, Uber, Lyft, etc. For the several many years, Xerox has managed lots of processes for the cities. We have been doing parking management. We run E-ZPass solutions in many states. We do 37 billion ticketing transactions per year, for buses and trains, etc. It is a huge volume of transactional data that flows through our systems because we do it for them. Now, we are moving up to the higher levels to provide cities the insights, based on the data we have at our fingertips, to help them flow citizens through their cities. This results in more livable cities, as well as greener cities.
Those are some examples, but the core of it is helping people work better, because we know “Work can work better”.
High: I know that one of the methods that you are your team employ, you refer to as “dreaming sessions” as a mechanism by which some of these new methods are born. Can you describe the process used in these cases?
Vandebroek: We love doing dreaming sessions with clients. In the end, another big difference between ten years ago and today in how we innovate is the whole ecosystem. It starts and ends with the users of the service that our clients provide to them. We focus on the human layer not just the technology layer. We focus on human-centric design. This is something that we have been doing at PARC, in California. Some of the first people at our lab in Bangalore were ethnographic experts, because it all starts with the human that will benefit from the service.
We do dreaming sessions, and then we do a lot of ethnographic studies. During the dreaming sessions, we bring our big customers and the enterprises to our labs. We listen to them, and we try to understand their pain points. We then give them some insight into the research that we are doing. Then they ask questions, so we can get into this mode of dreaming together about a better future to address pain points and their dreams. I call it dreaming sessions, because I like Henry Ford’s quote “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”. We cannot just ask the customer what they want, because they will think about what they have today and make incremental suggestions. We have to dream together. More importantly, in each of our labs, the ethnographic experts go out into the field, living in hospitals, observing people commuting, living in schools to see how teachers teach, or live in enterprises to see how people do their knowledge work.
High: You started to talk about some of the skills that you hire for – ethnographic experts for instance. As you think more broadly across the Xerox Innovation Group, what other kinds of skills are growing in demand by your team, and why?
Vandebroek: The Xerox Innovation Group, compromises all the Xerox Innovation labs around the world, including PARC, which was incorporated a decade ago. What we are looking for is always deep skills. Moving the boundary of the unknown is a difficult thing to do, so you have to be an expert in what you do. About 60 percent of the people in the labs have advanced PhDs in their domains. Most of the PhDs are in computer science related to machine intelligence, statistics, data analytics, and all kinds of skills related to being able to streamline and automate business processes as well as being able to create deep insights in real time so that our end users can benefit. Computer science and data analytics continue to be extremely important.
We continue to have amazing people working in our hardware and materials labs with deep technical skills. We have people that work on flexible electronics and printing smart 3-D objects continuing to disrupt digital manufacturing.
It continues to be a spectrum of skills. The highest in demand are computer scientists with advanced, extremely deep skills in machine intelligence or visual analytics, to answer how to allow computers to see and hear. For example, we have a call center business today where we answer two million phone calls each day. Fifty thousand people are answering phone calls on a daily basis. I can clearly see the disruptive wave coming where virtual agents will be able to do most of the jobs that real agents are doing today in a more precise and more empathetic way because we have computer scientists working on that. For example, in healthcare, we need to influence people to continue to take their medicine.
High: You have talked about how innovation and developing creating ideas need to be linked with having fun. I wonder if you could talk a bit about this, maybe some personal examples, but also how you think about it in the greater context of your team.
Vandebroek: You need to be truly happy. You need to feel comfortable. You need to feel that you are a good innovator, because innovation is hard. To constantly be removing barriers, you have to fight for funding, you have to fight to get the best team members, and you have to constantly influence a new business model. You have to convince people inside and outside the company about the creative idea that you are bringing to the market. In order to do that, you have to be able to bring your whole self to work. You have to make sure that you are not working for a corporation where you are putting a suit on that does not fit.
There are two things. You have to have a balanced life, because you need to be happy at home in your personal life, as well as at work, because as an entrepreneur, it is going to be a 24×7 integrated life, as I have done for many decades. At work, it means working at an organization where you are not the only woman, or the only person with an accent, or the only gay person, old person, etc. Building an inclusive environment where everybody, no matter their identification, can be themselves at work is number one. Xerox has created a culture where that is possible. That is one of the reasons that I have been there for more than 25 years. Creating the inclusive culture is extremely important for innovators.
Number two is to be able to work on problems or projects that truly make you excited and that you truly believe in. My first job, when I got my Ph.D. in micro-electronics, I worked in the IBM research labs, and what turned me on was working on extremely difficult problems, pushing the knowledge in my field, publishing papers, and writing patents. It is a challenge, and many scientists and engineers love that. What excites me now is being able to help a teacher provide personalized education for students, or being able to help a nurse in a hospital spend more than a quarter of her time with a patient by eliminating a lot of the paperwork. There is so much administrative work that you can automate and allow a worker to work better.
Having fun at work is being at a company where you can truly be yourself and working on projects and things that have a mission that you believe in. Then, you cannot have fun at work if you do not have fun at home. There what is important is making sure that you are healthy – making sure that you schedule time for exercise, sleeping, and eating healthy. In addition, as a mother of three children, I have learned that to have fun at home, I had to delegate as much as possible. I had to make sure that I delegated so I could free up time to spend with my children. I also leveraged IT as much as possible. I worked from home, and I tried to integrate work and life. I have educated managers that it is not about being in the office from eight to five that counts, it is about what you deliver, no matter where you are.
We try extremely hard at Xerox to make sure that the culture of allowing you to be yourself at work and working on projects that excite you, because you believe in the mission of what you are doing, is so important. That way you can bring your heart to work in addition to your mind.
High: You personify something that is a cultural touchpoint for Xerox – grooming women leaders, especially in technical fields. That begins with your CEO Ursula Burns. There are a number of women, including you, in significant roles. Could you talk about the path ahead for companies that may have a dearth of female talent in their technical ranks?
Vandebroek: One of the suggestions that I give to people looking for a job or new students, especially female students, is to go somewhere where you do NOT need to be a trailblazer. I tell them to go somewhere where amazing women have blazed a trail for you. Xerox definitely did that for me. We have had many amazing women, Ursula Burns, our current CEO, and before her, for ten years, Anne Mulcahy. We have had amazing women in many leadership positions in the company. I was the first female CTO, so I have had to blaze a bit of a trail, but I am happy that behind me there are many amazing female engineers and scientists that are a part of this company.
Xerox has been managing diversity for over five decades. The senior management then, originally all men at the top, had to believe in diversity. We have metrics that we track. We created an inclusive environment so women will want to come work for us. We actively track those metrics. We ensure that we have a diverse slate of candidates to get any particular role. We have many caucus groups – employee resource groups – that bring forward and elevate key issues to the leadership teams.
When you become a corporate officer – the top twenty or twenty five people – Ursula Burns appoints you to become champion of one of the caucus groups that is different from yourself. My first assignment was as champion of black women for Xerox. It forced me to deeply show empathy and understand what the specific issues are that black women deal with at Xerox. I became friends with so many people, and was able to work with the management team to put a specific mentoring program in place for black women at Xerox.
After three years, I became champion for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people at Xerox. Truly, they had been invisible to me, and being a champion for them caused me to learn their struggles. We worked hard with the core leadership team at Xerox that any proposition that came forward supporting gay rights was supported in court. I remember having a roundtable with some of our best transgender employees, and they were telling me how they could not afford the surgery to make them who they truly were. Within a couple months, we made sure that we had transgender medical benefits established. Given how few people go through this transition, around one per year at Xerox, it did not have any financial impact. It was the right thing to do. These are things that, if they are not part of your culture, you would not ever think about. The fact that even before I joined the company Xerox had this active support for these caucus groups is amazing and makes it a better place for women to work.
In addition, specific to research, given the low percentage of women who graduate with computer science or engineering degrees, my leadership team has an advisory committee. It is made up of two of the technical women in each of the labs around the globe that constantly gives us advice on how to make the Xerox research labs the best place for women with doctorate and advanced degrees to come work and help us solve some of these challenges.
High: Many people are familiar with PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center, which has, since 1970, been a legendary source of innovation. I know that is now a portion of your team. Could you talk a bit about its influence on the greater team, its fit within the greater team, and any ideas that are emerging from PARC?
Vandebroek: We incorporated the Palo Alto Research Center a little over a decade ago. PARC was established back in the early 1970′s. I fondly recall BusinessWeek in 1975 featuring George Pake, being able to clearly articulate how the office of the future would look. An office of the future would have a terminal on every desk, and with the push of a button you could communicate with your colleagues, no matter where they were around the world. He was extremely visionary. This was the time when mainframe computers filled the whole room. How did the founder of PARC know this? He knew because in the early 1970′s at PARC there were prototypes of the mouse, user interfaces, and even Ethernet. The laser printer was invented at PARC. Even Dynabook, which if you look at it, looks much like an iPad or tablet today.
What we have always believed is that the best way to predict the future is to create the future, as Alan Kay, who was a researcher at PARC in the 1970′s used to say. PARC, over the decades, continues to make amazing innovations. We have spun off about forty companies. Some of the innovations have ended up in Xerox products, and about twelve years ago we decided to incorporate PARC so that even more of the innovations, especially those outside the very broad Xerox set of businesses, could be successfully commercialized to impact the world.
Today, about half the revenue of PARC comes from doing research for Xerox in areas like healthcare, automating customer care, urban mobility and transportation, etc. The other half comes from very interesting business models. The PARC team does research for commercial clients all over the world. PARC is strong, for example, at ethnographic research and expertise, to find out how users use technology and deal with interacting with new products. We do that as a service for other companies globally that may not have anthropologists or ethnographic experts. We work with them to build prototypes, to help them move to the new world of information-centric networking, or helping a host of other services.
The second source of income comes from the government. We do many programs for the government. In fact, we are doing a project for ARPA right now, related to environmental projects with batteries and other energy related projects. We also do projects for the National Institute of Health, the Army, and across the board for multiple government agencies. That includes, most recently, a great demo of our disappearing chips, sensors that, through embedding certain levels of stress into tiny sensors, fracture so that they totally disappear into their environment. It is a cool program that the government is relying on the amazing PARC people to do.
The next external revenue comes from licensing and intellectual property. PARC has their own patents, so we have a licensing business.
Finally, we work with the startup ecosystem. There are startups that can benefit from some of the great technologies that are being created at PARC. Some of our researchers will collaborate with the startups in return for equity. At any point in time, we have equity in a couple startups. It is not the main core of our business, but that is yet another way that PARC creates value to the innovation ecosystem. It is a unique system that we have in our Palo Alto Research Center in Silicon Valley.
Originally published on Forbes.com