On the 18th episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, hosts Evan Reiser (Abnormal Security) and Saam Motamedi (Greylock Partners) talk with Akash Khurana, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Wesco International. With over 18,000 employees and $20 billion of revenue, Wesco is a leading provider of electrical, industrial, and communications MRO and OEM products, supplying vital infrastructure in countries across the world. Today, Akash shares his insights on digital transformation, the role of data in optimizing customer experiences, and the importance of AI in driving business outcomes.
Quick hits from Akash:
On AI optimizing product recommendations: "One area that we have seen significant improvements is product recommendation. We have massive data from our end-to-end value chain. [In the past] as we responded to commercial proposals, it was all about how we go to the product set that is available, the product set that a sales rep is familiar with. And that was the past, right? It was very linear in terms of responses. Using AI, we are able to now provide not only one linear option to our sales representatives, but we are able to provide multiple recommendations with different profiles, and different availability metrics, which allow much better capability for our sales organization to deliver to our demands customer commitments.”
On AI’s increasingly important role at Wesco: “We have something we call the ‘AI Factory.’ And every business model, every opportunity that we think of, we take a lens of ‘what can AI do in this area?’ You really need to make it part of your operating model so that it becomes the way you operate, the way you think about technology, the way you think about providing services and solutions.”
On how Akash defines digital transformation: “The way I define it is in terms of leveraging digital to create new value channels for the organization, whether it's through new products, new services, new solutions, new ways of going to market, new ways of engaging with customers, new ways of doing business with our partner ecosystems, new ways of tapping into innovation capability of the organization.
Recent Book Recommendation: Creative Construction by Gary Pisano
Saam Motamedi: Hi there, and welcome to Enterprise Software Innovators, a show where top technology executives share how they innovate at scale. In each episode, enterprise CIOs share how they've applied exciting new technologies and what they've learned along the way. I’m Saam Motamedi, a general partner at Greylock Partners.
Evan Reiser: And I’m Evan Reiser, the CEO and founder of Abnormal Security. Today on the show, we'll bring you a conversation with Akash Khurana, CIO at WESCO International. With over 18,000 employees and $20 billion of revenue, WESCO provides B2B electrical communications and maintenance service to customers around the world.
If your office building uses electricity and internet, chances are WESCO has helped your company digitally connect to the world. In this conversation, Akash shares his perspective on digital transformation, the importance of harnessing data, and how WESCO is deploying AI to optimize their operations.
Saam: Akash, maybe before we dive in, I just want to say thank you for joining us today.
Akash Khurana: Great. No, thanks for having me. I'm really looking forward to this discussion.
Saam: Awesome. Akash, great to have you on. Excited to kick off. Can you start by giving our audience a bit of background on WESCO and your role there as the CIO?
Akash: Yes, sure. WESCO is a B2B industrial distribution company. We're over $20 billion in revenue. We rank Fortune 200, very global in nature. We operate in over 50+ countries. We have a team size of 19,000 employees across the globe and we work primarily in the electrical and electronic space. We work in data communication and security solutions sector, and finally, the utilities and broadband sector and we take pride in saying that as an organization, we help power and connect the global people across different sectors, different industries, different geographic locations, and the services that we provide really make an impact on our day-to-day quality of life.
Saam: Yes, it's super interesting. A lot of the fabric of what we all do is actually built on top of the services that you provide, which is part of why we've been so excited to have this conversation.
Evan: Can you maybe share some of the ways that people who might be listening to this podcast in the future may interact or experience some of the services or price provided, but maybe ways they don't know because I imagine your business affects probably a lot of people indirectly. They may not realize a lot of the things they do because of the work you guys are doing behind the scenes.
Akash: If you think about utilities as a sector, we are one of the largest utility MRO and services and solution providers. Most of the utility providers in North America, we are their preferred choice of service providers. We bring their capabilities, whether it's on the generation, transmission side, we bring that to the household. We are very actively involved in taking broadband services across the Americas and beyond. There are many rural areas within the Americas where the connectivity, which we all take for granted, is not there.
We work with, whether it's public sector, private sector, local communities to put in the infrastructure that enables broadband, and in some cases fiber services. We are the people who are standing up the poles. We are the people who are laying the wire. We are the people who are taking the service to the market.
Evan: I appreciate you for sharing. I just want to help ground it for the audience because probably there's some listener out there that wouldn't be in that building without work from WESCO, or maybe getting power to their computer or internet to download the podcast.
Akash: Absolutely. I mean, that's essentially all the way from macro infrastructure to very specific building or a site, down to really how you are leveraging the technology to do your day-to-day job. WESCO is literally embedded in that entire value chain.
Evan: Actually, that point is exactly why Saam and I originally started this podcast is we knew that there were big organization enterprises out there that were doing incredible innovation and helping bring new experiences and new capabilities for civilization. People don't fully realize all the stuff that has to happen to go make that come true. I'm excited to share more. The specific topic that we've talked a lot about on the show is digital transformation, and that means different things to different folks we speak with.
I'd love to hear how would you define that. In the context of your business, I'd love to just hear about how you're using technology to transform how you work and create better probably employee, customer, and partner experiences.
Akash: First of all, it's a massive agenda. It's something that touches everyone from an enterprise perspective, everyone who's involved in the entire value chain. The way I define it is in terms of leveraging digital to create new value channels for the organization, whether it's through new products, new services, new solutions, new ways of going to market, new ways of engaging with customers, new ways of doing business with our partner ecosystems, new ways of tapping into innovation capability of the organization.
Now, that to me, that literally is the digital transformation. Traditionally, in a B2B industrial, we would pick, pack, ship, which is very transactional. We would do value-added services, value-added engineering. This is where the differentiation would come in. We will leverage hundreds if not thousands of business models to take those capabilities to our customers and to end markets.
Now, as you think about the digital transformation, it's making pick, pack, ship, the transactional components, much more efficient. It's allowing us to have a much broader portfolio of doing value-added services, value-added engineering, and it's allowing us to bring in the network effect on the business models, which we are a very innovative company, that's what we take pride in, but it's now bringing the scale to those business models and allowing us to really build on that foundation of innovation that we have in our company. Digital technologies are helping us to do that.
When we think about our partners, there's of course a component of how we share industry insights with our supplier, how we share our forecast, our demand with our suppliers, but providing that in a way that allows for our supplier partners to internalize and really leverage the technology depth that we have to create new channels, create new ways of taking their products and services to the market. Those are the three key macro elements that we think about as we talk about digital transformation.
Evan: That sounds like there's a lot of stuff to do and lots of impact. No small feats there.
Akash: It's all fun stuff, right? This portfolio and the digital transformation really is changing the way, not only just the industry that we are in, but the industries that we work with and the industries that we serve are changing as well.
Evan: I imagine part of the challenge, also technology is changing really quickly. What people thought was possible 10 years ago, we could probably do more today than we originally thought. Maybe just to help us visualize a really concrete example, is there some result of some of the digital transformation you've done today that you feel really proud about? Where if you went back in time 10 years ago, so maybe your former self, you're like, "Hey, in 2022, we're going to be able to use technology to achieve this thing. It's really going to transform how we work."
Maybe your former self or maybe other people on the team 10 years ago would've been like, "That sounds like science fiction, Akash. I don't know what you're talking about." Is there an example there where you feel like, "Hey, we've really transformed things in ways that were probably a little bit unexpected"?
Akash: Yes. I'll give you a couple examples. One is internal in our sales and commercial organization. Rather than our team members going and finding ways to respond to commercial opportunities, we are bringing those opportunities using data, using technology, and prescribing those opportunities to our sales organization. Imagine coming in and fetching for information versus being presented information in a way that you can go execute towards. The speed to market, the speed to value capture is exponentially increased. That's one internal example.
External is when we talk to our customers, we no longer talk about just the core transactional capabilities that we provide, but we are going in and we are having discussions about let's understand your value chain, let's understand those pain points, and allow us to bring those capabilities that stitch the information across various subsystems that a customer might have in their landscape. Customers don't limit themselves to one technology, but our company, WESCO can stitch that technology and take that burden away from the customers and really allow them to focus on what makes the difference in their customer base and their offerings.
Saam: Yes. Akash, I was thinking that was really interesting. I think if you take the extension of these trends you're talking about and data in particular, one area that Evan and I are highly interested in is once I have my data in a place where it's usable, how do I leverage AI and ML to unlock business value on top of that data? That's a theme lots of folks in the industry talk about.
What we find is there's not a lot of discussion around the actual concrete impact AI has in companies like WESCO. When you think about AI and ML, is there an example that comes to mind of an initiative you've driven recently? Maybe talk through that example, starting with the problem you were trying to solve and the role AI and ML played in solving it.
Akash: One area that we have seen significant improvements is product recommendation. We have massive data from our end-to-end value chain. As we respond to commercial proposal, it's all about how do we go to the product set that is available, a product set that a sales rep is familiar with. That was the past. It's very, very linear in terms of responses, and that's what we innovated towards using the AI technology.
We are able to now provide not only one linear option to our sales representatives, but we are able to provide multiple recommendations with different profiles, different availability metrics which allow much better capability for our sales organization to deliver toward demands, customer commitments. Now, we are starting to talk about generative AI, which recently, it has taken a lot of press. This is something that we have been working on for quite some time in bringing those capabilities to stitch together the information and provide that insight in a more prescribed manner to both internal and the external stakeholders.
Saam: There's a lot there I want to double-click on, but I want to start with the last point you made around generative AI. I'm sure a lot of listeners in our podcast have used ChatGPT or some of the image generation models to create images. I think certainly when I first used these tools, you get a sense of magic. You're like, "Wow, I didn't know computers could do this."
Then the question is, how do you connect that magic to changing our lives? Again, WESCO has such an interesting role here being the foundation to so much of all of our day-to-day lives. Can you expand on the generative AI either for WESCO specifically or more generally? Help us imagine a couple of real enterprise use cases for generative AI.
Akash: Let's assume that you have a robust foundation of data with the right quality, right governance, and right structures in place. Now, that's where generative AI in conjunction with the already existing AI models in the organization can help in various functions, whether it's finance, whether it's HR from a human capital management, really understanding the workforce planning, workforce modeling. It can help from a risk assessment perspective across the organization.
It can help from a sales and commercial side, identifying and connecting the dots as you think about opportunities. It can help with the operational components from supply and demand perspective, various use cases that become reality with a technology like this. I do want to caution that it's not magic. It takes that base principles and discipline around data. It takes a level of maturity from a core data science perspective. It takes some level of maturity in leveraging analytics. Then, we're just scratching the surface in this area.
Evan: I think there's a lot of skepticism in enterprise technology executives about what is the real value of AI. I think we all agree that there's some gap between the promise of AI versus the actual results we're getting today. The results will improve over time. There's work to do, as you said, we're in early stages there, but people have different levels of conviction about where those areas will accrue the most value. If we fast forward to 10 years from now, what are some things that you think that these types of new technologies will enable for your customers in terms of how it changes their experience working with you that maybe the cynic CIO might think is fantasy?
Akash: As I think about WESCO, we are becoming more and more of a technology-enabled company. AI is at the center of our approach, our strategy. We think of AI in terms of enhancing the services, the solutions that we provide to our customers. We see AI helping in internal operations, making it much more efficient, elevating our employee base to no longer be stuck in just a mundane task, but really focus on what moves the needle, what drives value.
Also in each and every transaction that we have with our supplier partners, we believe AI really enhances the quality of that interaction in many ways, just in terms of speed, in terms of accuracy, in terms of efficiency. That's where we see AI is headed. We have something we call an AI factory, and every business model delivery opportunity that we think of, we take a lens of what AI can do in this area. You really need to make it part of your operating model so that it becomes the way you operate, the way you think about technology, the way you think about providing services and solutions.
Evan: I appreciate you sharing. I know we have limited time. I'm going to switch over us into the lightning round. Try maybe a handful of questions and we’re looking for the one-tweet version. Sometimes, maybe it's two tweets but looking for the sound bite version. Saam let me turn over to you to tee up our first lightning round question.
Saam: Akash, maybe let's start with talking about the role of a CIO. How should companies measure the success of a CIO?
Akash: I think there are two elements. One is security, how CIOs are keeping the company secured from cyber and all the ever-evolving threats. The second is the bottom-line impact, which CIOs are really good at that. That's something that they have controlled and made an impact to for many years. The third one is the commercial impact, what new opportunities, revenue impact, margin impact, that the CIO is able to bring.
Evan: That makes sense. I like that framework. Maybe almost the opposite of that question. There's probably people that are stepping into the CIO role for the first time, are there any common mistakes that you see up-and-coming technology leaders overlook or maybe fumble on?
Akash: I think many times as a technologist, you come into an organization and you inherit a lot of legacy, lot of complexities, lot of investments that have been done in the past, successful or failed initiatives. It's just a tendency that we get comfortable with that complexity. You start to learn how to manage that complexity and get to the next day.
My suggestion is don't accept that complexity. Don't accept that legacy. You are brought into the organization to make a change. If a company wanted to do more of the same, they would have just left the IT or the digital organization the way it was operating. They are looking for the change. It's important that you remind yourself on a daily basis, don't get comfortable with it and find ways to bring about that change.
Evan: That makes sense.
Saam: Maybe one more question around CIO's responsibility which is which part of a CIOs role do you think is most underestimated in its importance?
Akash: I think it's the cybersecurity. I think it's an area which is evolving at a very rapid pace. Especially over the last few years, the evolution is exponential. The CIO's responsibility of course in partnership with the chief information security officer is to make sure that the company is safe, and secured, and compliant. Companies are starting to realize the importance of that, and what it can mean in terms of disruption to the business operations. It's an area which is still in its early stages of really elevating the discussion, giving the CIOs and the CISOs what needs to be done at the enterprise level to be safe and secure around this.
Evan: You got an amazing bookshelf behind you. I see a book written by one of Saam's partners, Reid Hoffman, but love to hear if there's a recent book that you've read that's had a big impact on you. I'd love to hear if so, why?
Akash: I really enjoyed a book called Think Again by Adam Grant. I think it provides a very interesting perspective on how you think about organizational dynamics and different roles people play and lean towards. Another one that I really enjoyed was focused on innovation that was Creative Construction by Gary Pisano. He has a way of synthesizing the literature around innovation, and there is a lot of it over the last four to five decades.
A lot has been published, and he just finds a way to synthesize it in a way that it's very practical and you can do something about it rather than getting overwhelmed by different processes, frameworks, ways to engage in the innovation cycles. Those are the two books that stand out for me, and I really enjoyed reading through, I think, during the last holidays. That was my reading.
Evan: Good choices. Akash, maybe to close staying on the personal theme, we've talked about a number of technology trends today. What's a new technology that's emerging or going to emerge over the next several years that you are personally most excited about?
Akash: I think AI, ML, deep learning, I just combine those in one segment, maybe an umbrella of data science. I think that's an area in which I still think that there are some very early stages. I believe as companies become more focused on the foundational components, getting the data structures, data domains right, and the power of data science will really unleash tremendous value for enterprises. I'm really excited about that. Again, generative AI, OpenAI is just one step forward in that direction.
Evan: Akash, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Really excited to see you and looking forward to chatting again soon.
Akash: It was great chatting with you both.
Saam: Thanks a lot, Akash.
Akash: Thank you.
Evan: That was Akash Khurana, CIO of WESCO International.
Saam: Thanks for listening to the Enterprise Software Innovators podcast. I'm Saam Motamedi, a general partner at Greylock Partners.
Evan: And I'm Evan Reiser, the CEO and founder of Abnormal Security. Please be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. You can find more great lessons from technology leaders and other enterprise software experts at enterprisesoftware.blog.
Saam: This show is produced by Luke Reiser and Josh Meer. See you next time.