Interview with Bert Kaufman, Head of Policy and Regulation @ Zoox (Self Driving Cars)

Today, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Bert Kaufman, Head of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs at Zoox, one of the hottest self-driving car start-ups in the Valley.  I’ve previously written about why tech companies need policy teams more than ever, and Bert’s work is at the forefront of this.

When I first met Bert, we had already heard of each other, and immediately hit it off. In addition to being extremely kind and generous, Bert is a killer combination of a big-picture, systems thinker – from his days in Washington – and an embodiment of the generous, action-oriented, and creative start-up culture in the Valley, where he currently works.

In this interview, I ask him about his transition from Washington to Silicon Valley, issues surrounding self-driving, what he wishes Government folks knew, and how else he thinks technology should be harnessed for public good.

This is my third profile piece on folks who work at the intersection of tech and public good, following Xinwei Ngiam and Kenneth Tay. Enjoy!

 

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  1. Tell us a little more about yourself. Why did you move to the Valley after almost 8 years in Washington?  

I spent most of my time growing up on the East Coast and down South, so from a cultural standpoint, I always thought Washington was a great mix of north and south—“The Northern most Southern city.” From a professional standpoint, I am a lawyer who loves policy issues, so I gravitated towards Washington after law school. But what I discovered about myself over the past decade is that I really love building organizations and organizing initiatives around good ideas. And there is no better place in the world to build these things than the capital of innovation and entrepreneurship. My move out to the Bay Area was prompted by my fiancée who was in graduate school at Stanford, and because my role as an appointee in the Obama Administration was winding down.

  1. What did you enjoy most about your job in Washington and how did it prepare you for your current role at an autonomous vehicle startup?

Before joining the Obama Administration in 2013, I spent five years growing an organization called Business Forward. We started Business Forward to help business leaders from across the country do a better job of advising Washington policymakers and, conversely, to make it more efficient and transparent for policymakers to listen to business leaders. Through that experience, I faced the challenges of building an organization from scratch and learned the importance of taking a long-term view. Our funding came from about 60 large companies—our members—and I traveled around the country, engaged with thousands of people, and learned about issues that businesses of all shapes, sizes and ages faced as the country emerged out of the 2008-09 financial crisis.

That experience prepared me for the chance to join Penny Pritzker’s team at the Commerce Department. Not only did I get to work for an incredibly brilliant, demanding, and hard-working leader in Secretary Pritzker, but I also had the opportunity to help build and manage an initiative we created called the Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship. This initiative worked across The White House, Commerce and State Departments, USAID, the Small Business Administration, NASA, and with some of America’s most successful entrepreneurs to mentor, motivate, and in some cases fund aspiring entrepreneurs from across the U.S. and around the world. I also worked on policy issues related to the digital economy on areas like data privacy and cybersecurity.

In my role now, as an in-house lawyer working on policy in a sea of engineers and computer scientists, it’s important to communicate clearly and to understand the policy implications of the technology that we’re developing. This is important both within my organization and externally. Transportation is a highly-regulated space, for many important reasons. As a society, we want people to move around freely, but we also want to ensure that they can do so safely. The advent of autonomous vehicles will lead to innovation in road safety. What we are doing is so new that we have the opportunity to create best practices that can set the bar for future policy.

Policy is really important to any technology business intersecting with regulated markets. Technology startups that fail to consider policy or regulatory implications do so at their own peril. Conversely, regulators need to understand that the regulations should be nimble, flexible, and fair and not cumbersome. These principles will allow technology to advance on a level playing field.

  1. What is one thing you’ve learned or experienced that you wish your colleagues in Washington had a chance to?

Meaningful innovation is hard and takes time, so it is important to take a long view. Government can and should catalyze and support innovation through funding basic and applied research and challenge grants. Government should set ambitious policy goals while at the same time leaving innovation to the private sector.

For example, between 2004 and 2007, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) set out some “Moonshot-like” challenges and put forth a modest amount of prize money for autonomous vehicle-related technology. Today, the payoffs are huge. The teams that competed in those challenges are the fathers and mothers of all the autonomous driving R&D now taking place across the entire automotive industry. In other words, a series of small government challenges have generated an enormous amount of private sector investment and job creation. Two lessons here: the first is that a little can go a very long way; the second is that government set a goal, got out of the way, and let academia and the private sector drive the evolution of the space.

  1. Self Driving Car technology is one of the hottest areas in the Valley. What are a few things the international community should know about Self Driving Cars?

Three points here:

  • First, autonomous technology will usher in a paradigm shift as large as when we transitioned from the age of the horse and carriage to the age of the automobile. Getting around will allow for increased productivity, and for people who live in areas with poor access to public transit, it could make it easier to access jobs and opportunities. We will also think about real estate differently. For example, much of real estate today is built for and around the automobile. Think parking lots and parking garages. In a world of shared autonomous vehicles, demand for parking decreases.
  • Second, the first rollouts will happen in cities in a ridesharing model, not in vehicles sold to end customers. Cities can benefit from shared electric, autonomous transportation because it will ease congestion and decrease pollution. As more people move into cities, the idea of individual car ownership becomes less tenable. In this model, liability shifts away form individuals towards fleet managers and manufacturers.
  • Finally, and most importantly, safety is paramount. In the U.S., more than 35,000 people are killed every year in automobile collisions. Most of those fatalities are caused by human choice or error. Autonomous vehicle systems will be designed to interact safely on the roads with other road users like human drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists.
  1. Moving away from Self Driving Cars, what is one problem in society today – perhaps one you encountered at the Department of Commerce – that you think we can solve more aggressively using technology?

I think that technology, correctly harnessed and understood, has the potential to improve the lives of many. Technology underpins most of our economy today, and it’s only going to compound over time, so we need to use technology to do a better job of training and educating people for the jobs of the future. Governments can identify important priorities and strategies and incentivize education and training so that people are prepared and trained for an evolving economy.

Finally, as I said earlier, if the private sector’s job is to drive innovation, government should work to ensure that there is an adequate social safety net in place for all people as the economy changes.

Thanks, Bert, for sharing your insights!

 

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Bert, Zoe (his super-woman fiancee) and Talia!
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Featuring Xinwei Ngiam: Government Policymaker turned Start-up Business Strategist

I’m really excited to share this interview with Xinwei, Director of Strategy at Grab (formerly GrabTaxi), a ridesharing platform in Southeast Asia. She is also Regional Head of Grab’s social ridesharing service, GrabHitch, which beta-launched in Singapore in late 2015 and has since expanded to Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Bangkok. Prior to joining Grab, XW worked at the Boston Consulting Group and the Singapore Ministry of Finance.

In this wide-ranging interview, she shares her biggest lessons in her journey from policy-maker to consultant to start-up director, where she wants to see technology applied more aggressively, advice for companies looking to expand into Southeast Asia, and insights for both policy-makers and technologists from both sides of the fence. Besides being a good friend, Xinwei is someone I admire deeply for her work ethic, depth of thought and calm under pressure. Definitely someone to watch 🙂

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1. How did you make the transition from Government to Tech? What’s it like working in a start up vs in a more traditional industry?


After I left Government, I joined consulting for about 2.5 years, and 
thereafter joined Grab, where I’ve been working now for almost 2 years.

I would recommend consulting for any generalist who is looking to learn at hyper-speed about the business world and about the region we live in. While at BCG, I spent at least half of my time in Indonesia (if not more), and it’s benefited me greatly now that I work in and manage teams in our Jakarta office.

Joining Grab opened my eyes to start-up life and culture. I’ve loved this way of working from the beginning – the juxtaposition between the casual team culture but incredibly intense pace of work; the tension between wanting to reach for the stars but having to ruthlessly prioritize based on your current resources and capabilities; the ever-present low-level existential crisis of not quite knowing whether you’re flying or falling. It’s a thrilling place to work, but with that thrill also comes stress and increasingly blurred lines between work and life (my husband will not hesitate to confirm this last point).

For those who are seeking to move from more traditional industries to start-ups, you have to be prepared to let go of some of what you know; but also have confidence that you’re bringing an expertise and knowledge base about how companies work that is very valuable to
start-ups. Some tips:

 

(a) Learn to embrace uncertainty.

Uncertainty will exist in all aspects of start-up life. The type that seems to affect people most is professional uncertainty. In a startup, it’s not uncommon to experience frequent reorganizations, to see the team you joined dismantled, or to undergo several title or portfolio changes in a few months. Then there’s business uncertainty – how do you know whether to invest in a new vertical/market/business or not? When choosing between two ideas that could 10X the business (or send it into a downward spiral) how do you choose? There is no playbook for what startups typically do, and that can cause a lot of anxiety.

There is no perfect remedy for this, but it helps to take a philosophical view that no matter what happens you’ll live to die another day. Channel all your nervous energy into obsessing about your business and outserving your customers, put aside your personal anxieties and just enjoy the ride.

 

(b) Execution is what makes good ideas great

There are two common pitfalls (that I have personally experienced many times now). The first is to overestimate your ability to execute, which results in jam-packed workplans where items are checked off the list, but not done in a truly excellent way. The second is to underestimate the need for excellent execution; this usually comes hot on the heels of a great idea where one is seduced into thinking that the awesomeness of the idea will carry the day.

The truth is that good ideas are everywhere, especially in fast-growing startups where everyone is obsessing over big questions such as how to win market share, how to serve customers better, or how to leapfrog the competition. What makes an idea truly great is elegant, flawless execution that delivers outsized results.

I don’t have any big secrets to share on how to execute well – I’m still very much a student in this journey – but I think a big part of it is about disavowing silver bullets and instead being very deliberate about tracking and measuring any intervention you make in your market. You want to get to a point where you know how best to deploy every dollar based on what channels you have at your disposal and what your objectives are. The tradeoff of course is that learning takes time (not to mention failure), and in a startup, time is often the one thing we don’t have. But our job is to walk that tightrope.

2. What is one problem in society today that you think we can solve more aggressively using technology?

I would really like to see how we can use technology to facilitate elderly lifestyles and caregiving. I think the amount of thinking and consumer research done in the field is simply not commensurate to the tremendous need and opportunity. In fact, elderly care has many similar themes with infant care (ranging from personal hygiene products to food to mobility solutions), but the two sectors are worlds apart in terms of customer-centricity, product variety and innovation. One reason is that elderly people aren’t as tech savvy as younger cohorts, nor are they constantly connected to the internet via smartphones – but that is changing very quickly.  I think there is another deeper reason, which is that elderly care fundamentally faces a brand image problem – we associate it with the end-of-life, the loss of dignity, and diminished versions of ourselves, rather than simply a challenging stage in life where we have different needs and require more support and help than we used to.

I would love to see innovations in areas that facilitate independent living (mobility solutions, health monitoring and remote caregiving of some sort, seamless chronic care), reduce the burden on caregivers, and that use the internet to create active communities or learning opportunities for the elderly.

3. What’s one thing you wish your friends in Government knew about the tech sector, and one thing you wish your friends in the tech sector knew about Government?

That no one is really in this only for the money. There’s a common misconception that everyone in the private sector (and especially in tech companies) is out to make a quick buck. Of course, there are always going to be companies that fit that stereotype. But in my experience, the most impressive and successful entrepreneurs never quite set out to make big bucks. Rather they became obsessed with some crazy idea that they thought could deliver huge impact, executed on it and managed to bring the world along with them.Making money is a necessity for businesses (at least once the growth capital runs out) and so it’s unrealistic to expect companies to behave like charities. But just like the humans who found and build them, companies have their own personalities, culture and DNA. Of course, there’s a limit to how nuanced our regulations and economic policies can be, but if governments see that many businesses come from the same starting point of wanting to make a positive impact on society, then it paves the way for more open and productive engagement.

Another misconception – which, like the first, isn’t restricted to people in Government – is that what makes a tech company great is solely dependent on how good their tech is, and nothing else. The companies that we consider great “tech companies” – Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, Google – certainly had and continue to build superior technology; but what sets them apart is clarity of focus, a winning business model, and the willingness to fail and pivot.


I recall a conversation with a friend who was trying to understand how Didi beat Uber in China, and a sticking point was whether Didi had any original tech or whether they simply copied ideas; or whether Didi had superior tech which allowed them to win. There are many versions of this story, but what’s fairly clear to me is that technology was merely table-stakes in the Didi-Uber fight; these were two giants at the top of their game and a more finely-tuned surge algorithm was not going to be decisive. What Didi had was incredibly efficient and locally rooted ground operations (back to execution and the ability to deploy every dollar more efficiently than the competition), excellent and often viral marketing, and deep integration with China’s all-pervasive mobile payments network.

In terms of what I wish the private sector understands about Government – I think it’s that the current system of rules and regulations was constructed for a reason and changing it does require time and deep consideration. There’s a general impatience among the private sector with governments, and especially so in the tech sector given that so much of what we do challenges status quo norms and systems. But just as we wish governments understood that we are just trying to serve our customers the best we can, they too need to do the required diligence to make sure that this is the right thing for society as a whole. So the approach shouldn’t be to try and disassociate ourselves from government or brazenly disregard regulations, but to build bridges and try to align our interests. If you’re in it for the long haul, then engagement and trust is the only sustainable way forward.

4.     You work extensively in Indonesia and Kuala Lumpur. What are they key differences in how you operate in these contexts? What advice to you have for companies looking to move into these regions?


One gradually exploding myth about Southeast Asia is that it is a coherent region; in fact, Southeast Asia is extremely fragmented with clusters of countries sharing some common cultural history while others are relatively unrelated. I’ve found that Singapore and KL feel 
culturally very similar, for obvious reasons. Indonesia, on the other hand, feels quite different, more so the further you travel from Jakarta. As my CEO likes to say, Indonesia is a continent, not a country. The energy and vibe is quite different from what you’ll feel in Singapore or KL. The war for talent is far more intense there. We’ve seen some really impressive tech companies come out of Indonesia in the past few years.

If you’re looking to expand to or start something in Indonesia (or really anywhere outside home ground), I think the most important thing to do is to spend time on the ground and learn the language. There’s only so much management you can do from afar, and most of these markets are intensely competitive. There is no substitute for being on the ground and experiencing your product and services in the local context. You’ll learn things that no management report could adequately describe.

 

5. Some of our readers are interested in entering the field of tech. What is your advice for them?


First, if you are currently in a non-technical role but would like to become a technical Product Manager, a software engineer or data scientist, then some formal training is required and there are tons of great options out there to acquire those skills. That aside, I believe that in every company will be a tech company in the future, in some shape or form. It will become increasingly meaningless to think about entering the “tech industry” because every company will have to adopt relevant technology to stay ahead, including how to use the internet to distribute services, understand their customers and facilitate payments and other transactions.

So I would encourage anyone keen on “tech” to first ask themselves what real-world problem they are trying to solve, or what business vertical they feel best fits their interest. Once you’ve figured that out, then go in search of a company that you think is harnessing tech in the right way to solve that problem. Otherwise you put yourself at risk of becoming an unknowing participant in “innovation theatre” in a company that’s just using tech as a marketing tool.

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XW and I at CES2017, speaking about the potential and challenges of the sharing economy in transport

“What I Wish They Knew”: 5 Answers from a Government Data Scientist

One of the goals of this blog is to bridge the worlds of tech and government: I believe we can do so much more by working together, yet we often don’t understand each other deeply enough to begin. I will be starting the “What I Wish They Knew” series, which features people who are familiar with both these communities.

The first person to kick off this series is none other than my husband, Kenneth, who worked in Singapore’s Government Data Science unit before pursuing a PhD in Statistics at Stanford. By the way, you can find out more about Singapore’s Government Data Science unit on their blog: https://blog.gds-gov.tech/ – highly recommended.

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Kenneth at The Hive, where the Government Digital Services team is located.
  1. How did you get into Government Data Science? 

I’ve had a strong interest in mathematics and related quantitative fields like statistics and computer science for as long as I can remember, and studied math at Princeton as an undergrad. [NB: Kenneth’s mathematics blog can be found here.]

I began my career in the Singapore public service, hoping to give back to society in the small ways I could. While I was at the Ministries of Defence and Environment, most of my work did not involve any advanced math or data analysis.

I missed the intellectual challenge of quantitative thinking, and started taking online courses on the side. Andrew Ng’s “Machine Learning” course on Coursera first piqued my interest in data science. I learnt how we can use a small toolbox of algorithms to extract a whole lot of information from data, and I thought to myself, “How cool would it be if I could use some of these techniques in my work?”

Fortunately, a unit in Government was being set up to do just that: use state-of-the-art data analysis techniques to inform policy decision-making. I joined the Government Data Science unit in 2015 as a consultant. My work experience in policy and my quantitative undergraduate training put me in a rare position to understand the mindsets of both the policy officer and the data scientist. As such, I felt that I was an effective translator between the 2 parties.

  1. How about an example – what is one meaningful thing you did in Government Data Science?

An agency was very concerned about congestion during peak hours at the checkpoint between Singapore and Malaysia. Understanding cargo traffic patterns could help them design policies to reduce congestion. All they had was tens of millions of “permit data” entries, which captured the time that the cargo truck carrying the permit passed through a checkpoint, the industry code and value of the goods carried. I worked with the agency to define useful problem statements to shape the direction of analysis. One example: what are the top 5 industries moving cargo during peak hours? (Since policy interventions would be done at an industry-level).

Next, since each truck could hold multiple permits and the number of trucks was what we cared about, we went through a (non-trivial) process of turning “permit data” into “truck data”. We were able to identify the top industries moving cargo during peak hours, and further narrowed this group to those who were moving cargo on the busiest roads. We were also able to develop hypotheses on what influenced industry behaviour.

After completing the analysis, I shaped the narrative of our presentation in a way that delivered impactful policy insights, ruthlessly cutting down on unnecessary details. This is often the most painful part of the process for a data scientist – it’s so tempting to want to show ALL the great analysis we did.

After dozens of hours of work, there was nothing more satisfying in seeing the audience’s facial expressions saying, in effect, “before I was blind, now I see”! They never had a picture of the cargo traffic patterns until our analysis was done, and could now act upon it to improve congestion.

  1. What is one thing you wish non-data scientists knew about working with data scientists? 

That good data analysis requires significant collaboration between the data scientist and you, the domain expert.

Some people view the relationship between the domain expert and the data scientist as follows:

  1. Domain expert gives data scientist a bunch of Excel files.
  2. Data scientist crunches the numbers and churns out a report or presentation 3 months later. After all, the data scientist knows everything about data and that’s what we are paying them to do, right?

Nothing could be further from the truth! Domain expertise can speed up the data analysis process tremendously and direct it meaningfully, resulting in greater value from the project. Let me give two examples of this.

First, explaining the data to the data scientist, down to what each column means and how the data was collected, will save him/her much second-guessing angst. For example, if the patient check-out time was 18:00:00, does it mean that the person checked out at 6pm, or does it mean that the clinic closed at 6pm, and so everyone who hadn’t checked out yet was given a standard check-out time? Explaining the data will also give the data scientist a better sense of which variables are of greater importance and deserve more attention. In the example above, what does “checking-out” mean anyway, and is it significant?

Second, domain experts can pick up on insights that would escape data scientists. For example, a data scientist finds that Chromosome 21 seems to have an impact on a health outcome. Is that expected? Does it confirm some of the other hunches that we have? Or is it something completely unexpected, that suggests that the model is wrong? These are questions that a data scientist is unlikely to have any intuition about. However, with feedback from the domain expert, the data scientist can quickly decide to pursue or drop lines of inquiry.

  1. As a policy-maker, what is one thing you wish more data scientists paid attention to?

That data analysis is not for the data scientist, but for the policy-maker (or client). As such, good data analysis always puts findings and insights in the proper context.

Consider the sentence: “Our prediction model for which patients will be re-admitted over the next 6 months is 34.56% more accurate than the existing model.” Upon seeing this sentence, several questions come to mind:

  • What do you mean by accuracy? Is the measure for accuracy that you are using appropriate? (See this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confusion_matrix for a whole zoo of accuracy measures.)
  • 56% seems overly precise: can we really compare performance down to 2 decimal places? (35% might be better.)
  • Does 35% more accuracy translate to a meaningful difference? For example, will this allow us to tailor our services better to 100,000 patients, or 10 patients? (If possible, relate the finding to something the policy-maker cares about, like dollars or man-hours saved.)
  • Is this even a meaningful thing to predict?? (Hopefully, the domain expert would have said so. See answer to question 2.)

Good data analysis also provides enough detail to illuminate, but not too much till it confuses. For example, saying nothing about the modeling process could make me wonder whether you did your homework in choosing the most appropriate model (and whether I should have spent all that money hiring you). At the other extreme, I will not appreciate going through slide after slide of raw SAS/R output.

At this point I cannot overstate the importance of appropriate data visualisation. These visualisations have to be thought through: good charts clarify, poor ones confuse. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to make the latter. (See this for examples not to follow.)

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Truly, a (well-designed) picture is worth a thousand words

 

5. What is your hope for the field of data science?

The economist Ronald Coase famously said “Torture the data, and it will confess to anything.” In an era of subjective reporting and “fake news”, this concern is more pertinent than ever.

My hope is that the general population will have enough statistical knowledge so that they can call a bluff when they see one, and demand quantitative evidence for decisions their leaders make. To this end, I hope to see reforms in statistics education at the high-school level so that it becomes a subject that people feel is relevant and interesting, rather than abstract and theoretical (which is often how it is taught today).

Thanks for reading! Know anyone who should be featured in this series? Do let me know at karentay@gmail.com.