Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian
Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian

Inside World’s Hottest Cloud Vendor: a Chat with Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian

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With Google Cloud growing 50% faster than the enterprise cloud businesses of Microsoft and Amazon, and with its rate of growth actually having increased in Q3 over Q2, what the heck is Thomas Kurian’s company planning to do for an encore in 2021?

(On my weekly Cloud Wars Top 10 rankings, Google Cloud is #3, Microsoft is #1, and Amazon and its AWS unit are #2. Earlier this month, Google Cloud leapfrogged Salesforce, which slid to #4.)

Priorities

In my conversation with Kurian in mid-December as part of my CEO Cloud Outlook 2021 series, he offered a range of riveting examples of the transformative work Google Cloud is doing with customers, described the two areas of focus he’s centered on as CEO, and offered a forward-looking perspective on why the cloud has become so appealing to business executives.

A quick aside: to get a firm grasp on Google Cloud’s prospects for this year, please check out my in-depth analysis called Google Already Fastest-Growing Cloud Vendor, but Thomas Kurian’s Just Getting Started. That piece is part of last month’s series of profiles in our Cloud Wars Top 10 Special Report: Which Cloud Vendors Will Thrive in 2021? 

“It’s a testament to the human spirit that when something like the pandemic happens, people find almost magically a way to adapt and persevere and have hope, despite what’s obviously been such a complicated year for everybody,” Kurian said at the top of our Google Meet conversation in mid-December.

Asked to share his view of what’s happening in the global economy, Kurian said there’s no question that digitization is front and center.

Digitization approaches vary across industries

“Digitization is uppermost in the minds of CEOs, but it takes different lenses in different industries. 

“In retail it’s the huge, huge growth in e-commerce. 

“In medicine and healthcare, it’s telemedicine. 

“In financial services, digital banking. 

“And it’s not just having that digital front door, but once you have that digital front door, a number of things have to change behind it,” Kurian said.

“If you’re a retailer or a restaurant or a grocery store, demand planning is extraordinarily different because of e-commerce, as opposed to when you were stocking goods in stores. 

“That has a huge impact on supply chains, which are extremely fragile because if you’re dependent on a set of parts or products or components that came from a part of the world and you didn’t have a second supplier and that part of the world got locked down, then you have an urgent issue. So the process of digitization has sped up dramatically.”

Triggering the Digital Revolution

Kurian then described the dynamic of “greater optionality” that’s arisen within—and in some ways triggered—today’s digital revolution.

“So there’s enormous change happening in areas like supply chains to provide greater optionality for people; obviously there’s a new way of working that we’re all experiencing, and people want to ensure that employees feel connected, and productive, and creative in this new reality we’re facing. 

“And there’s also new technologies coming along such as 5G. We see a lot of interest in that we are working very closely with people in that sector.

“Then, through all that, there’s also the longterm desire of organizations to plan for what the recovery will look like, and their view is that the future is not going to look much at all like the past,” Kurian said.

“As a result, many companies are trying to reinvent their own futures.”

As those essential but wrenching efforts take place around reinvention and reimagination, the top-of-mind priority that Kurian has championed since arriving at Google Cloud in January 2019 underscores why the company’s become the world’s fastest-growing major cloud vendor.

And while Google Cloud will be deploying modern technology—lots and lots of it—to help customers reimagine what they need to become in the future rather than how they perfect their pasts, Kurian doesn’t address that opportunity with a lot of 4-letter acronyms that have become, unfortunately, the lingua franca of far too much of Silicon Valley.

A very simple but essential mission

He speaks instead of, quite simply, helping customers. 

“As a CEO during this period of great difficulty that people are facing, for me, it has come down to two or three simple things.

“One, we need to keep our organization focused on helping customers. So mission and purpose becomes a very important thing during this period: you have to reiterate and reemphasize our mission and purpose, and how it’s so important to help our customers through this period,” Kurian said.

For all the tech talk that gets tossed about so ubiquitously today—serverless containers with multitenant platforms that deliver stateless virtual environments that you couldn’t beat with a bare-metal stick even if you wanted to—Kurian refreshingly reinforced an old but priceless and simple notion.

“What customers really want are solutions to problems that they have, and given the discussion we’ve had on the compression of time, the most important thing is for their cloud providers to give them the solutions that are easiest to adopt.”

 

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian

 

Helping customers while also helping employees

Simultaneously, there’s the parallel need to help employees in various ways.

“Second, when people used to go to the office, there was an emotional connection that came from the fact that you were a team and worked together. And now we’re all trying to figure out a way to recreate that team spirit, that collegiality, that emotional bond, but in a way that is different because you don’t have the ability to have that physical connection anymore. 

“In some ways it has brought teams together that were much more geographically dispersed because now there’s a greater reach for these things. But in other ways, we are trying to recreate that, and we spend a lot of time with our teams, giving people a sense of comfort, telling them to take time for themselves, and helping them to sort of not feel anxious as we look forward.

“Because I really do believe that we are facing a brighter future because of everything we’ve learned through this period.”

And speaking of brighter futures, here are several customer examples shared by Kurian to showcase the new ways Google Cloud is leveraging complex technology to enable customers to achieve simple but essential steps forward. 

As he described these breakthroughs, Kurian repeatedly made the case that while better infrastructure is vital, the highest-value impacts that Google Cloud can deliver for businesses is helping them do essential customer-facing things they could not do before.

And his examples spanned from the more-rapid development of pharmaceuticals to the end-to-end digitization of retail to the creation of new types of securities to—my favorite—the arrival of Google Cloud on the shop floor of factories.

Battling fraud and money laundering with AI and ML

“Historically, financial institutions looked at cloud technology as IT infrastructure to run their systems, and we certainly work with many, many leading banks to provide that. 

“But increasingly they say, ‘Can you help me with some problems that I couldn’t solve before? Can you give me a real-time customer-360 views—the ability to see my customers and exactly what they need at any point in time, but in real time? Can you help me with anti-money-laundering and fraud detection?’ 

“Because today that’s an extraordinary complexity for financial institutions, as well as a large expense on the books. Traditional approaches to detecting fraud have not been as accurate. So they’re asking us to use our machine-learning and data-science capabilities to help them detect that.”

Processing mortgage applications at unprecedented scale

As the pandemic hit and many people confronting financial difficulty decided to refinance their mortgages, banks, though willing, were simply not equipped to handle the surge of applications.

“They asked us, ‘Can you use your machine-learning products to automate the process of approving or monitoring a loan? And then can you provide assistance to the mortgage officer when these requests come in by running your algorithms on top of it?’

“Those are two very important business problems that represent the way that the cloud is moving outside of purely the IT department.” 

The end-to-end digitization of retail

“In retail, the cloud was historically about running the IT systems,” Kurian said. “And then it was about running the e-commerce systems, and then translating and transforming the in-store experience, and linking that with e-commerce. 

“But now it’s about demand forecasting, improving product discovery online, helping optimize the supply chain, and applying a lot of the expertise in data management and analytic processing to some of those problems.” 

In single weekend, complete shift from retail stores to online

The pace of these changes is “amazing,” Kurian said—and there’s no sign that it’s about to ease up.

“I still remember we got a call from a major Canadian retailer and they told us—and this is on a Friday—they said, ‘Monday morning, we’re not going to be able to have physical stores open. We need to shift our business entirely online.’

“And the volume they saw on that Monday in terms of the peak was well above what they had ever experienced, including a Black Friday. And just imagining that you would see that kind of shift in just a few days—from a Friday to a Monday!—that time-compression is just remarkable.”

Digitizing the entire banking experience

What was fairly simple to execute in the old way of doing banking business requires powerful and complex technology, all of which must be completely hidden from consumers.

“People have increasingly gotten comfortable scanning electronically their checks, rather than having to go to the bank to deposit checks. Now that’s one of the primary reasons people went to the bank, but when they went to the bank, they also got a lot of other services. One example is advisory services on loans and mortgages, and in many cases identity verification required a physical presence—there were many things you still needed to fill out paperwork for,” Kurian said.

“All of those are going digital now. And so the changes people want is how do you bring the expertise that a bank advisor would have over to a digital medium? How do you encapsulate everything that a financial institution could be, and deliver that to a digital experience?

“A lot of organizations distinguish themselves because they bring that notion of customer intimacy through their people. And how do you transform their people through a digital medium?”

Turning capital goods into securities

I found this one to be particularly fascinating because it shows how every business in every industry can use reimagination to create new revenue streams from areas that might have seemed, well, hopelessly old-fashioned.

“We’re working with a major financial institution to help them build a new platform for securities. And ironically, the securities are really about capital—things like construction equipment and earth-moving equipment. In the past, if you were a construction company, you paid for that as a capital purchase,” Kurian said.

“But increasingly they want it paid as a service. Now, once you pay that as a service, it becomes an annuity, and that annuity becomes a tradable financial instrument.”

So voila! In the rapidly emerging digital economy, the purchase of a 7-ton earth mover’s now a financial instrument!

The revolution in pharmaceuticals and biochemistry 

“Pharmaceutical companies have amazing chemists whose core competency is molecular chemistry, but to identify what’s the best and most effective drug for a particular disease, you also have to simulate the chemistry of that drug. How will it be absorbed? Is it going to be toxic, etc.? 

“In the past, that required traditional experiments, going through clinical trials, and all of that. And now there are digital tools that allow you to simulate those things much more effectively, and we’re working with a number of partners. And so the idea there is to bring a digital competency to an industry to help it transform more quickly.”

The booming market for industry-specific solutions

Asked about this entirely new category that Google Cloud dove into about 15 months ago and that now is drawing the very aggressive attention of every major cloud provider, Kurian expressed great optimism.

“It’s going really well and we’re super-thrilled about the work that those solutions have enabled for our customers,” he said.

“Contact centers faced a very difficult situation during the pandemic because traditionally they had people sitting next to one another, and many of them were not designed to be able to work from home. 

“At the same time, they had huge spikes in calls into contact centers because of questions along the lines of ‘Is the bank open?’ We’ve used virtual-agent technology over the past year with many customers and our technology has been able to handle billions of interactions.”

Google Cloud on the manufacturing shop floor!

“Manufacturing shop floors are very challenging during the pandemic because you need to keep the factory running but you can’t have employees stand right next to one another. So one of the solutions we built was a way to do visual quality inspection. The uptake for this solution has been enormous because, historically, people in quality control have stood at the end of the manufacturing line. But with our image-recognition solution, quality control remains very effective and it eliminates the risk to people on the shop floor.”

Final thought

Without question, Google Cloud had a banner year in 2020 in spite of all its challenges and misery. And based on Kurian’s outlook and vision, it looks like more—much more—of the same in 2021.

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