As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Prabhdeep (PD) Singh, Head of AI Products, UiPath.
Prabhdeep (PD) Singh joined UiPath in 2018 to lead AI Product Strategy after nine years of working at Microsoft. At Microsoft, he served as Head of Product — Sales Intelligence, Business AI and was most recently helping startups improve brick-and-mortar retail experience with AI. PD has 19 years of extensive experience in research and deep learning and has led various initiatives in large companies and startups that focus on bringing AI into business processes. PD earned an M.S. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and graduated in 2003.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I got my start at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where I earned my M.S. in Computer Science before beginning my career. My core focus was on building high-performance AI systems for several different industries and applications, including healthcare, customer relationship management (CRM) and productivity applications. In 2008, I joined Microsoft as a Program Manager. Over the course of nine years with the company, I worked on exciting, innovative projects, including an automated retail stores startup, a predictive system for patient readmissions and founding some of the first intelligent mobile apps and natural language processing (NLP) components for Microsoft Office. While I was there, I also managed the deep learning team and built a new business group focused on “AI for sales and marketing,” which had a multibillion-dollar impact for the company.
In 2018, I joined UiPath, the leading enterprise Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software company. I was really excited by the opportunity to bring my AI skillset to the UiPath team, which is reinventing the way the world works. Since I’ve joined, UiPath has pivoted from being a purely RPA company to integrating AI into its automation platform with the goal of helping customers more intelligently automate their processes.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I first started at UiPath, our Bellevue, Washington office was a small space at a local WeWork with just four desks. On my first day, I asked my team members where I would be sitting, as the desk that was offered to me was clearly already occupied. Param Kahlon, UiPath’s Chief Product Officer, had already been sitting and working at that particular desk for some time, but still urged me to take it. Right from day one, before I had even sat down, the UiPath culture of teamwork and humility was evident.
During my first week, I was having a hard time accessing the WeWork common areas, elevators and even our office space with my access card. To enter our spaces, I needed to call one of my new team members and ask them to let me in or to borrow their cards. Our SVP of Business Development and Product Alliances, Dhruv Asher, took me down to the front desk to sort things out and obtain a temporary access card for me while my permanent card was processed.
After some joking back and forth with the front desk, Dhruv got me my card; the joke was that I wasn’t a full-time UiPath employee, but actually someone who was watering the plants. I got my card, but the joke stuck and we still laugh about it to this day. From the start, it was clear this was a team that had a good time together while working hard; they even awarded me a commendation certificate to commend my excellent work as a plant waterer.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been lucky to have some really great managers throughout my career. One of my first mentors was Jim Oker at Microsoft. He was the innovative thinker behind Microsoft’s Encarta, the encyclopedia that killed Encyclopedia Britannica. When I worked under him at Microsoft Research, it was a great lesson on influence without authority. Without a deep research background, he was able to lead and command respect from a team full of individuals with PhDs in computer science and even a few Turing Award winners. The way he trusted the expertise of those around him while managing a project’s direction was something that’s always stuck with me.
Two other folks that have impacted my career are Steve Guggenheimer, the master presenter who fixed Microsoft’s demo problem in the 1990s, and Param here at UiPath. “Guggs” taught me a lot about how to communicate clearly to partners and how to position products — two crucial skills that I fall back on almost every day. Param’s style of leading has really resonated with me and I try to mirror it in my own management style. He’s hands off and cool under pressure, but he’s assertive with team members when he needs to be. Plus, he’s shown me how to best manage cross-cultural teams with poise, flexibility and clear communication.
In my personal life, my wife and sister inspire me every day. They are both two of the hardest working people I know. I’ve found that creative thinking and procrastination go hand-in-hand and it’s hard for me to avoid procrastinating sometimes. When those moments hit me, I think about my wife’s work ethic and the long hours she logs in her role with IRS, or the way my sister used to wake up at 4:30 a.m. when we were children to study for exams. It kicks me right in gear and motivates me to keep going.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When Daniel Dines founded UiPath in 2005, it was originally positioned as a software outsourcing company. As he developed the technology and rolled it out to the market, he realized there was an opportunity to focus on helping companies use automation software to streamline operations, drive efficiencies, improve employee satisfaction and boost overall productivity and performance. This beginning is baked into our company’s core DNA: we’re always willing to do whatever we can to make customers’ (and their customers’) lives easier.
Our mission is to usher in a new era of work where every employee has a robot. Using our enterprise automation platform, employees can delegate mundane, burdensome and time-intensive processes to software robots so they can focus on work that is inherent to people — tasks that require strategy, creativity and empathy. We’ve automated millions of tasks for organizations and government agencies worldwide, significantly improving business productivity, employee satisfaction and customer experience.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
First, I have a team of superstars. Building new products in an area like AI is a tough job, and we have so many high performers on our team. We actually saw an increase in productivity when the pandemic forced us all to work remotely, but as we all know, it’s easy for burnout to occur while working like that. As a leader, it was important for me to check in with team members regularly to really make sure they were taking care of themselves and not just focusing on the task at hand. These employees are laser-focused on results and building innovative products, so it’s important for me to help build in time for them to relax.
For example, I saw a lot of Zoom fatigue from my team members given the onslaught of video meetings that have become the norm. What used to take one minute to explain is now a 30-minute video meeting. When you’re remote, decision making, communicating with marketing and sales and finalizing product specifications and schedules all take significantly much more time. We’ve since reduced the number of calls to help employees focus on the task at hand and log off a bit more frequently to rest and make time for their families. When we do have meetings, I make it a point to allot time for non-work-related topics — pop culture, politics, technology news, etc. — to give my team members the opportunity to vent, share stories or just take a break from their day-to-day.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
If there’s one thing that keeps me going, it’s an urge to learn more and never be complacent. If something pops up that I don’t know about, it’s like bringing a sock to the nose of the bloodhound. I don’t rest until I am able to have a good understanding of that topic. Whether it’s a new product, new technology or a new market, that’s my main drive.
In October of 2019, UiPath made a host of acquisitions and I was deeply involved in helping bring new products — including Insights, Computer vision, AI Fabric and Document Understanding — into UiPath’s platform. Without this constant pursuit of knowledge, I doubt that I would have been as successful in this role. However, by learning as much as I could about the needs of our customers and the right technologies to address those needs, I was able to help the company successfully build out what is now our end-to-end enterprise automation platform.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is always being there for team members. Whether you’re checking in with them one-on-one or running a team meeting, you have to remember to be empathetic to what everyone is going through and realize that it’s harder than ever to recognize that now that we’re remote. I used to rely on lots of informal interactions to lead, whether that was popping by people’s desks to see how they were doing or just going to lunch with everyone. When you’re in the trenches building products, a little positive affirmation from a leader who is showing they care can go a long way. Those small moments used to be crucial in understanding when someone was struggling with work or a personal matter. Over Zoom, you have to be intentional about these things.
I try to check in with my team members at least once a week, and some I touch base with every three days. I stagger these meetings and don’t hold them at the same time every week because it’s important to me that they’re more informal and off the cuff. This way, my team doesn’t prepare for a recurring meeting and we can have a more authentic conversation. These check-ins can be quick — I mainly use Slack — but I’d advise other leaders to read between the lines and try to understand when it’s important to hop on a call. Some of the cues that I look for on video calls are talking faster or slower than normal. If people are speaking much more quickly than normal, I can usually infer that they’re stressed. If slower, they might be feeling down. That’s when I begin to prioritize interactions with these team members and see what I can do to make a difference.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Humor has always been a big part of my management tactics. I’ve found that you can receive much more insightful signals from employees because humor can subtly convey a lot of information and give employees a boost. Of course, you can’t be joking in every meeting, but it does help. When the pandemic hit, I had to adjust my humor to be effective in a remote setting. You have to use the digital tools at your disposal and for me, that included changing my Zoom background for internal team meetings. Sometimes, that’s the only way to look at the blue sky during work!
Speaking of these internal team meetings, we used to have an hour-long staff meeting on Fridays to make decisions about our upcoming activity. When we moved to Zoom, the format and agenda didn’t translate as well. We switched things up so that it could be an informal staff meeting where we would chat about current events and AI trends instead of solely focusing on the project at hand. These started becoming more fun and people were much more engaged.
We’ve also recently mandated our team take vacation time to rejuvenate themselves. With nowhere to go, people weren’t taking time off to refresh — and even when they did, they wouldn’t fully log off. Truthfully, I felt this myself. When I was on my vacation, I wasn’t on or off. It’s impossible to be productive at work while simultaneously taking time for yourself. Since then, we’ve made it mandatory that people take vacation and to use that vacation as a full digital detox. Vacation on our team means no checking Slack!
We humans have amazing resilience as a species. We can easily overcome short term difficulties if we are motivated by long term gains. Aligning the life goals of my teams members with what we are doing right now and keeping things in perspective is the best way to motivate people. Most of my team members are headed for bright futures and even if they are facing problems, giving them a perspective that those problems are just learning opportunities in their life expeditions has a stoic way of dealing with difficulties.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news to team members and customers is to be honest and transparent. With so much changing day to day during this pandemic, I’ve found that people appreciate the truth even more than they already did. Being empathetic, kind and transparent goes a long way in maintaining an authentic and real relationship, no matter what the message might be.
In terms of how to deliver that message, I’ve had to manage my monotone tone while on Zoom calls. I had never really realized it before, but without in-person body language to read, it’s something that my team needs from me. Now, when I talk slowly, people can tell I’m intentionally being more assertive. I change my cadence when I want to motivate employees, too. The more I vary my tone, the more engaged I’ve found my team members to be.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
This is a really good question. I used to work on Wall Street doing algorithmic trading, and I learned that you simply can’t account for all the variables. Back then, this meant that you shouldn’t look at your account while you continue to soundly manage your portfolio. There’s no way to cut change or failure out of the equation completely, but you can construct your portfolio completely and be comfortable with ambiguity/unknowns.
The lessons I learned trading have shaped the way I manage my team today. You can and should prepare for what’s to come, but you aren’t able to see the future.
I also like to use a football metaphor. Imagine you’re the quarterback and you’re dropping back to pass. You’ve prepared all week with your teammates, studying the opponent over film and practicing your plays. So, when the wide receiver goes out for a pass, you’re both on the same page and know what route the receiver is going to run. When you throw the ball, you are expecting where the wide receiver is going be. However, outside factors, such as the defense, can change that slightly. Not every attempt is going to be a touchdown, or even a completed pass, but if you don’t pass at all, you can’t score. For my team, I tell them to project where the market is going to be three to four years from now, have a plan to capture that future opportunity and give it our best effort to adapt as those circumstances change.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle in my opinion is to have a learning mindset make informed decisions based on data, even if they aren’t popular. When I was at Microsoft and the company was running low on morale and innovation, it was clear that there was no unified direction. Company leadership had to take stock of our current trajectory and identify where best to pivot the company. It’s a critical skill for a leader to be able to glean insights from data in order to make informed decisions. When something’s not working, you need to swallow your pride and pivot to more fruitful areas.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I’ve seen businesses make all kinds of mistakes during my career, but I’ve found the following to be most common:
- Prioritizing the short term: Large companies seem to think that the solution to down sales numbers is to just go out and hire more salespeople. Within these companies, the high-level leaders don’t have any idea of what’s happening in the trenches and make a short-term decision that may indeed boost numbers for a bit. Unfortunately, that type of thinking doesn’t address the root cause of the issue. If sales are down, maybe your product isn’t good enough, or maybe you’ve overestimated the market. You can’t fix it by selling more; you need to reform your product roadmap and think big picture.
- Taking a conservative approach: Strapped for cash, startups tend to be very conservative. Sometimes big, bold thinking that goes against the grain can be the jolt your company needs. Take IBM: the company has completely pivoted its business three to four times throughout its history. For example, the time executives bet the farm on mainframes; this saved their company and helped them reinvent themselves. I’ve seen this in my personal relationships, too. One of my friends declined to take venture capital money for his own company because he wanted to avoid the growth that money would inevitably bring. Today, he’s looking for a job. Embrace growth, even when you may be resistant.
- Thinking unconventionally: It may seem counterintuitive, but organizations need to embrace failure in tough times. It doesn’t need to be radical, but by thinking outside of the box, your organization can adapt and try something new when the status quo isn’t working. When I’m hiring for my team, I’d rather hire someone who has failed in a big project and learnt their lessons because it shows that they are thinking differently and aren’t afraid to take a wild swing.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Difficult economic times are also the times of opportunity. Business is inherently cyclical, but the downtimes in the economy can also give you a greater chance of growth if you are poised and positioned to take advantage of the uptick when it comes. Keep your overhead to the minimum. If you are always planning for the worst times, when they come, you won’t have to scamper to cut your overhead.
Keep a finger on the pulse of the customers and help them transition through the difficult times. If you help your customers through the difficult times, they will reward you when the tide turns. Also, if you can make changes to your product portfolio to deal with the changes causing the downturn, you have the opportunity to become a much more agile company and that agility leads to building resilience.
Organizations need to design their product portfolio properly and be data driven. You should be able to shift gears as the ground conditions change and you should be able to make these changes as fast as possible based on empirical data.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Here are the five most important things a business leader needs to do:
- Learn — During turbulent times, listen more than usual to your customers, market, partners and employees. That will give you early signals of the blind spots and the changes you need to make to your product or business or the new strategies you need to employ.
- Radical candor — Be honest with your employees, co-workers and customers.
- Kindness — Treat people with kindness because in difficult times everyone will have some level of increased stress. In all my difficult projects in the past I was always kind to my partners , employees and bosses, even in times of failure. That attitude of not burning any bridges has rewarded me handsomely with a large network of mentors, friends and folks who have joined my teams in subsequent ventures and have had a part in making my endeavors successful.
- Be Flexible — Be open to change but keep an eye toward creating long-term value for your customers and shareholders. During the early days right after I joined UiPath, we faced an uphill battle as, at the time, some of our competition was perceived to be ahead of us in AI capabilities. We listened to the core needs of our customers and were able to project where they would be four to five years down the road. By diligently working to meet our customers’ needs, we were able to reverse that perception and provide that long-term value our customers were looking for.
- Lead with Courage — A steady hand instills confidence in the whole team and calms everyone’s nerves. In my previous roles, there were many times when we came close to being shut down as a group. Either the research just wasn’t going fast enough or we weren’t producing the expected results. But, together as a team, we always came through because going in we had acknowledged we were a part of high-risk, high-reward undertaking. By leading with courage and transparency, we knew that, if we failed, it was just going to help us down the road when we worked on bigger, better things.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My latest favorite quote is from Nietzsche: “He who has a why can bear almost any how.”
When we are building new products and services it is very important to define the why, the essence of finding a product’s market fit. It is also the compass that guides the decisions and tradeoffs you need to make during the development process.