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InTechnology Podcast

The Future of Work: Collaboration, AI, and Sustainability (161)

In this episode of InTechnology, Camille and Tom get into the future of work with Meghana Patwardhan, Vice President and General Manager of Dell Commercial Client Products. The conversation covers changes in how work is done in remote and hybrid environments, the evolving roles of AI and IT, and consumer approaches to sustainability.

To find the transcription of this podcast, scroll to the bottom of the page.

To find more episodes of InTechnology, visit our homepage. To read more about cybersecurity, sustainability, and technology topics, visit our blog.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the guests and author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Intel Corporation.

Follow our hosts Tom Garrison @tommgarrison and Camille @morhardt.

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How Work Has Changed in Remote and Hybrid Environments

Meghana, Tom, and Camille discuss the positive and negative impacts on remote and hybrid work as a result of the pandemic. Now that more companies are requiring employees to return to the office and more employees are voluntarily returning to others, companies are now re-evaluating how they do remote and hybrid work. This includes the demands on PCs and the entire work ecosystem. Devices need to be more adaptable to the environments and contexts where they’re being used, whether that be at home, in the office, in a coffee shop, or anywhere else. Beyond the use of PCs and other devices, the way people collaborate and work together has also changed. Collaboration now requires more planning and the use of interactive tools in an attempt to replicate the face-to-face collaborations coworkers used to have with each other every day in the office.

The Evolving Roles of AI and IT in the Workplace

Meghana explains that while AI has been at the forefront of PC industry leaders like Dell for a long time, it’s only recently come into the public consciousness. AI in the workplace is going to only become more prevalent to improve workflows in jobs across multiple industries. AI is no longer something for only developers and scientists to use—it’s now becoming a tool for everyday end consumers. Related to this is the shifting role of IT in the workplace towards a strategic business unit rather than just focusing on the day-to-day management and deployment of workforce technology. Now, employees across the board are being expected more and more to take on those more simple IT tasks.

Sustainability for Consumers

Consumers are increasingly prioritizing sustainability with their devices, including PCs. Consequently, companies as a whole are also embracing sustainability to meet consumer and employee demands. Some ways for consumers and employees to incorporate more sustainable practices with their devices include giving them a second life as well as leaning into modularity like with Project Luna. However, the biggest challenge to large-scale PC modularity is the supply chain.

Meghana Patwardhan, Vice President and General Manager of Dell Commercial Client Products

Meghana Patwardhan hybrid work AI sustainability

Meghana’s history with Dell began 14 years ago when she interned with the company as an intern while pursuing her MBA. Since then, she has served in a variety of leadership roles at Dell, with her current position as Vice President and General Manager of Commercial Client Products (Business PCs, Docks and Software). It was during her time as an undergraduate computer science student at the University of Texas that Meghana realized her additional passion for the business, marketing, psychology, and creative sides of the tech world. This led her to pursue an MBA in Marketing from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, where she graduated in 2010. Today, Meghana uses her background in computer science and business marketing to lead successful product management strategies at Dell.

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[00:00:28] Tom Garrison: Hi, and welcome to the In Technology Podcast. I’m your host, Tom Garrison. With me as always is my co-host, Camille Morhardt, and today we have special guest Meghana Patwardhan. She’s Vice President and General Manager for Dell Commercial PCs and software. She’s responsible for managing multiple global PNLs. She’s experienced in cross-functional collaboration with software engineering, program management, design and sales. So that is quite a background and welcome to the podcast, Meghana.

[00:00:59] Meghana Patwardhan: Thank you so much for having me, Tom and Camille.

[00:01:02] Tom Garrison: We’re going to talk mostly today about the future of work. There’s so much we can cover there, but I’m interested in your background. Can you share more about your background, where you went to school, how you got into some of these leadership positions that you’re in now?

[00:01:17] Meghana Patwardhan: Sure. So I actually grew up in India and came to UT to do a degree in computer science. So technology is part and parcel of my education. But while I was studying at UT, I realized that I actually had a love for psychology, marketing, business, those kinds of things. And I really wanted to put both my scientific mind and my creative mind, if you will, together to do something that was interesting. And that’s where the idea of doing technology product management really, really appealed to me. I’ve been at Dell 13 years. I came here as a intern straight out of my MBA and have been doing various roles in the product management space up to being an executive and now leading the entire commercial business. It seems like a dream.

[00:02:08] Tom Garrison: Wow. Yeah. I’m just sure there’s got to be advice that you can share to recent graduates that are maybe just coming out of school that you wish you had heard that has helped you over your career.

[00:02:24] Meghana Patwardhan: I’ll tell you what my mother always told me, and that’s something that I’ve always followed. I’ve always wanted to have a life in which I’ve had both family and work and not sacrifice either. And of course sometimes you have to sacrifice one for the other, but it’s temporary. And what she told me is, “treat your life like a marathon, not a race.” Especially if you are a female leader, you will have to make certain choices where you feel like you are sort of running at the back of the pack for a certain reason. And then certain times you’ll be able to pull up the front. It’s really not about being a consistent leader of the pack all the time because you’ll burn yourself out. It’s about pacing yourself so that you finally end up winning the marathon. And that’s advice that I have followed so that I haven’t had to sacrifice either.

[00:03:14] Tom Garrison: That’s great advice. Can I add just a corollary to your marathon advice?

[00:03:18] Meghana Patwardhan: Yeah, sure.

[00:03:19 ] Tom Garrison: And that is that with marathoners, even when you’re tired, when you’re exhausted, the key is to slow down but never stop because when you stop, that’s when the pain really starts. So when you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’re feeling down or whatever, you can slow down, but keep going and get your second wind and keep going after that. But anyway, it’s a great, great analogy.

[00:03:46] Meghana Patwardhan: Yeah, I would say the one thing that has really worked for me at least earlier on in my career is like all of us would do, we compare ourselves to others and other folks who graduated with us and kind of say, “Hey, this person’s gotten promoted, this person’s running their own company. This person’s so successful.” You kind of have to just look inward and say, “Well, I had two babies while the rest were getting promoted, so obviously I couldn’t do that.” You just have to stop looking at the other side. The grass will always be green and kind of focus on your own growth.

[00:04:18] Tom Garrison: That’s right. That’s right. All right, well, so today Camille and I want to talk to you about an interesting topic that we’ve actually broached a few times over the several years that we’ve been doing the podcast, and that’s the future of work and of course such a broad topic. There’s so many things in areas that we can talk about that, but you as the head of the commercial business at Dell, we’d love to get your perspective.

What does the future of work look like, at least according to Meghana?

[00:04:49] Meghana Patwardhan: We’re in a way really living in a very exciting time where that future is getting defined now. There’s so many exciting things that are happening, and COVID I think was a huge push for all of us to really modernize in the way that we served our end users. So I think lots of bad things came out of it, but some really good things came out of it, too.

As I speak to customers, I speak to customers every week. I hear some things very, very similar. And then on the other hand, you see every customer is slightly different. There are certain tweaks that they have to make for their own environment.  But the things that are so similar are hybrid. People are going back into this definition of what does hybrid look like? and how do we do it right for us and for our end users and for our company, given maybe we are a global company or maybe we are a small business with certain locations around the world?–how do we define the right cadence of people coming into the office? When they come into the office how do we figure out whether they have the right tools to collaborate, whether they have even a place that they can take all their Zoom and Teams and collaboration calls that they would didn’t ever need to be taking. Four or five years ago you always had a conference room that they would go into.

So in a sense, we’re working from everywhere now. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in the office or whether we’re at home or whether we’re at a coffee shop or an AirBnB, but because we are working from everywhere, the demands on the PC as well as on the ecosystem have changed so much. And that PC that you carry around, the technology that you carry around has to act differently based on whether you’re in a conference room, based whether you are at home, you’re in a coffee shop.

And so overall, I’m seeing a really huge demand on PCs as well as the right ecosystem that attaches to it so that it doesn’t matter where you are, you’re still producing the same quality of work, informing the same quality of relationships and collaborations.

[00:06:58] Camille Morhardt: Do you see certain norms settling out across industries? Because I imagine your commercial customers include a variety of industries, and I’m just curious whether this is sort of a company by company thing or whether there’s certain industries settling in. Like for example, I joined just a continuing ed sort of exec ed class and in two different universities a while ago, and one of them, everybody had the camera on all the time, and in the other one, the camera only went on when somebody was speaking. It was sort of like a norm within each of these learning environments. And then of course, Intel kind of has its own thing, but I noticed some divisions do it a little bit differently than others. Are there certain trajectories where ultimately I guess commercial PCs will have to adapt? Are you seeing these things settle out or is it just a big mess right now, we don’t know yet?

[00:07:49] Meghana Patwardhan: A lot has to do, like you said, with team culture and also how much people are coming in, into the office. I would say the pattern is more than before people are coming in, but there isn’t an established norm yet. Some companies are saying, “Hey, you shall come in five days a week, or you shall come in Monday, Wednesday, Friday.” Some companies are leaving it very open, but encouraging folks coming in. But I think the pendulum is shifting more towards a little bit more time in the office than we had before. And that means now that conference room technology in the offices is going to have to change. I mean even simple things like, “Hey, I never used to have to eat at the cafeteria before, but now I’m coming into the office a lot more and there needs to be food as a cafeteria for me to be able to eat.”

So simple things like that to more complex things like what is the right monitor and docking setup? How do I reserve office spaces? When I reserve most of the times when I come in, somebody’s already sitting in my spot. So those are the kind of challenges that I see that most customers are talking about. And I think the one challenge that just hasn’t gone away that is a norm is that securing those endpoints, securing those peripherals and managing those endpoints and peripherals is as large a challenge as it was during COVID. We haven’t found a good answer yet to that.

[00:09:22 ] Tom Garrison: With COVID or actually pre-COVID–so back in the old days–we had a setup where when people were interacting in meetings, because the predominant way of working was face-to-face, then the people that were first class citizens were those that were in the room and the people that were outside that were dialing in–we had the technology to dial in, but we sort of had a two-tier system, and the people would try to get their word in edgewise or their connections would be spotty and they just didn’t participate at the same level.

Then COVID hit and we were all gone, so we were all distributed and the tools weren’t quite ready yet, but they did mature relatively quickly, and we got to the point where we could see each other, which felt great when we first got it. We could see each other and we could talk and we could see a shared presentation or something.  And by and large, throughout the entire COVID time, that’s how we spent our work. We worked individually, so focus time was in our office. It was super quiet. You didn’t have kids or dogs and you could really, really focus and then connect to make decisions, those kinds of things.

But the one thing, the one thing that I don’t think we ever tackled over the COVID time or since even, is still collaboration, meaning creativity; where it’s like the whiteboard. We never replace the whiteboard. To get in a room together and just start drawing on the whiteboard and create. And I just wonder from your perspective, are we ever going to solve that or is the only real way to do that practically is we got to be back in the office really with a whiteboard and solving it that way?

[00:11:09] Meghana Patwardhan: I think there’s really something to be said for that in-person collaboration, but you’re absolutely right is we all had people who moved out of town even because they figured they could be as productive remotely. And so that is going to be a challenge now of everyone cannot be in the room, and so we have to have equal citizenship or equal class treatment of people who are on video and people who are in the room.

We had to outfit a lot of our design studios with cameras that we could walk around with and share all the different models and things that we were looking at so that folks who were on the Zoom meeting or the Teams meeting could actually see what we were talking about when we were white boarding.

I don’t think that there is a full solution to being able to do all remote collaboration unless it is very scheduled and you have to spend a lot of time thinking about how you as a “master of ceremonies” will elicit that collaboration and make it happen and ask the right questions, et cetera, versus people just being able to grab lunch together or grab a team room together and talk about a problem. So it has to be a lot more orchestrated and a lot more thought has to go in if you are doing the collaboration over a Teams or a Zoom.

[00:12:37] Tom Garrison: I think technologically speaking, there’s a billion plus dollar market out there for somebody who can solve the whiteboard, not only in the room, but also in an office. So you have people remotely and everybody gets to draw on it. Everybody gets to see exactly what’s going on. You don’t have to point a camera at the whiteboard in the room and say, “Do you see what’s going on?”

And that’s the one thing that I think for all of the goodness that happened with trying to deal with a bad scenario with COVID, we got people together virtually on camera. We got them making decisions and sharing presentations, but we never really solved the collaboration creativity angle.

[00:13:24 ] Meghana Patwardhan: Yeah. And I think there’s only so much that one can do with annotation and using pens on a touch screen or some of the collaboration applications out there. People are definitely going to start traveling again, and they have to do that mix of the orchestrated collaboration versus the allowing organic collaboration.

[00:13:48] Tom Garrison: Yeah, planed versus unplanned.

[00:13:52 ] Camille Morhardt: So Meghana, how do you see, I’ll just ask the common question we’re all wondering about right now when we look at artificial intelligence and this kind of future of work, how do you see those two things playing together?

[00:14:05] Meghana Patwardhan: AI has been a topic that we’ve all been talking about for a while now, but it feels like just over the last few months to a year is when really in the public conscious, it’s become a bigger thing right after the Microsoft investment in OpenAI. Suddenly the acceptance seems to have shifted and people are looking at talking about how they would use AI, whereas before it was only something that was relegated more to the data scientists and those teams. So definitely really, really think that there is a cusp that we’ve hit, and I know all of the PC partners are definitely looking at it and investing in a big way.

I think there’s so much that if you just think about your job on a daily basis, that can change and become more productive because we have AI there, but we’ve been talking about it for a while and incorporating it in our products for quite a long time, as well.  AI and ML learning how people use applications and tweaking settings on the PC so that we make that performance better or tweaking battery life, making audio through noise cancellation, those kinds of things. We’ve been using AI a lot in the PC space. I think the marketing of it and the public consciousness of it will happen now. And of course use cases are going to explode on the workstation class–people using these workstations to be able to build AI models, train AI models, develop those AI models. But I think now you’re going to see the shift to the consumption of AI where all of the work that these scientists and developers have been doing are finally going to get consumed by knowledge workers and end consumers like you and I.

[00:15:56] Camille Morhardt: So a follow-up quick question on that. So I think that most people are familiar with customization around the edges on mobile phones–where there’s sort of a central model that’s getting incrementally better and better for things like you said, noise cancellation. And it’s using your sort of conversation and sending not your raw audio file back, but sending weighted things back through aggregators and then improving the general model and then outcomes your phone, but then it customizes to you, so when you’re texting it’ll give you a pre-fill; that’s you specifically and how you speak. And so I’m just wondering, are you saying that we’re going to see similar kinds of things happening in the commercial client or PC space now with that level of customization at the edge?

[00:16:42] Meghana Patwardhan: Well, I think that we do already have software that we ship on our PCs that has built-in AI models that will do things like audio customization, like performance optimization and things like that. What I was talking more about is when I say “consumption,” I mean more in terms of like, hey, let’s say you are a services and support personnel. You work at a call center and you get calls. You’re going to have a lot more AI-based tools now that are going to be able to tell you, “Hey, the customer who’s called in is unhappy and they’ve called in five times, so you should really think about doing A, B and C steps because the last time we tried it, steps A and B didn’t work, so go straight to C.” So putting more intelligence in around those pieces, your business workflow.

And I think a lot of corporations will start looking at over the next few years developing sort of their own agents or helpers for their own use cases.

[00:17:48] Tom Garrison: I wonder just also on hybrid work, the ways that you are envisioning around how devices are going to be managed or secured or are there other things that are, I guess maybe more traditional IT-type concerns?

[00:18:05] Meghana Patwardhan: IT’s job has actually become a lot harder than it used to be. As I speak to customers, so many of them are looking to really modernize and really looking to get to a place where they can become a lot more strategic and leave the daily grind type of job of deployment and installation of images and all those kinds of things or even support–they’re kind of looking to leave that lower value added work, if I may, and really go pivot more to being strategic because IT is becoming much, much more of a strategic business unit where they advise CEOs on how to run their business that they don’t have that much time now to do the daily block and tackle of the deployment and the manageability.

And so they’re going to be looking for us to be partners with them to take on some of that burden. And we are seeing a big, big need in the market of a) modernization–so like going to more modern ways of deployment and modern OSs, but also consumption models. So “I don’t want to have to own those devices. I don’t want to have to inventory them. I don’t want to be responsible to send someone on my own company to go fix it when there’s something wrong. I don’t even want to maybe run my call center. I want somebody else to run that for me.”

There’s a huge market where that’s being pushed to the PC providers to be able to do that for the IT decision makers, as well, so that they can free themselves and go do more strategic stuff, figure out where the next investment needs to be, how they’re going to go build their applications to run with AI on them, those kinds of things versus, “Hey, how do I create an image for you and deploy it and make sure that it’s always secure and always safe.”

[00:19:55] Camille Morhardt: Where do you see us on the sustainability front when it comes to commercial PCs? How are people looking at that right now and how are the next few years going to evolve in that space?

[00:20:07] Meghana Patwardhan: Speaking for myself and speaking for my own company, I think similar to AI, we’ve always looked at sustainability. I mean, it’s not new to us to look at sustainability and to make sure that whatever we are delivering, whatever PC’s, ecosystem, monitors, et cetera, that we are delivering are as much as possible, less impact on the planet. But I think that in the consumer space, there’s a lot more consciousness now of making purchase decisions potentially based on sustainability, whereas in the past it was a checkbox. Now there’s actually more of a decision making around, “hey, that’s one of the big consideration criteria.” And the more and more companies, whether they’re SBs or large enterprises, start putting out sustainability goals and start communicating to the public and to their shareholders what their goals are, then that will lead to good tension on the rest of the industry to make sure that we are delivering products that can help them meet their sustainability goal.  So not only is it becoming more important to end users, it’s now becoming more and more important to companies, and when that happens, that’s only a good thing for our planet.

[00:21:27] Tom Garrison: Building on Camille’s question, I wonder, Meghana, if you can share your views on PCs that would instead of having a single user over its life, that it would be used by, let’s say, a corporation or a small business, whatever, and then repurposed. Sort of like what we see in phones today. Do you see that being more of a trend moving forward?

[00:21:54] Meghana Patwardhan: Definitely, but I think there’s a lot of challenges that still need to be resolved for that to become a mainstream type of use case. I don’t know if you guys have heard about or seen Project Luna.

[00:22:05] Tom Garrison: We have.

[00:22:06] Meghana Patwardhan: So that’s really built on those principles, right? To be a very modular PC that can very easily be opened up, repaired, feeds telemetry into our system so we know, “okay, how old is this battery? Or how many cycles has it gone through? Or is there something wrong with the LCD? Can it be replaced? Is there some component like the keyboard that isn’t working and so we need to replace or can it be reused?”

So I think definitely there is the technical know-how and capability to be able to do those kinds of things. The question now is going to be can we do it at scale?  If you are a consumer, that might be an easier thing where you’re replacing one speaker module or one LCD, but to be able to do it at scale and really put a supply chain behind that product is really the difficult part, and that is really what the next kind of frontier is.

You’ll start seeing a lot of these modular replaceable kinds of things coming up over the next few years, but having a supply chain behind it so that you can have the reassurance that when you do want to repair it, you actually have the parts and the know-how and the telemetry to be able to repair it; I think that’s going to be the difficult and interesting problem to go solve.

[00:23:28 ] Camille Morhardt: It sounds like you’re anticipating kind of PCs as a service, much the same way that IT departments handle them for a lot of people in a large enterprise. You’re almost suggesting that if we want to have this kind of thing happening at scale, there may be a similar kind of a service at the consumer level where individuals-

[00:23:47] Meghana Patwardhan: Potentially.

[00:23:47] Camille Morhardt: … don’t have to worry, but you just know that you’re subscribing to your PC essentially, and if something happens or you can specify the capabilities that you require, maybe all you’re doing is searching the internet and you don’t need… Or maybe you need sophisticated state-of-the-art processing at the edge that would be different than a different user, but somebody could potentially provide exactly what you need based on what’s available at a bigger scale.

[00:24:19] Meghana Patwardhan: Yes. I think that’s one outcome, right? The other outcome could be that, I mean, there’s a lot of folks who still like to do self-service, self-repair, for various reasons–even if they’re consumers or commercial folks. So how do we enable them to keep all of their PCs and data and all of that safe within their own control? And also, like you said, return it, give it back, get it repaired, and you’re up and running with the next iteration of that technology. It’s going to require the PC provider, all of the supply chain partners, the silicone partners, all of us, to be able to enable that kind of a supply chain and process.

[00:24:55] Tom Garrison: Well, Meghana, it has been a pleasure. We have covered so much ground in a relatively short amount of time, but we really would like to thank you for joining us on the podcast today.

[00:25:06] Meghana Patwardhan: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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