Topcoder investing in AI, capitalizing on cloud

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How do companies measure the ROI on artificial intelligence technology? AI technology typically replaces manual labor, said Mike Morris, CEO at Topcoder in Glastonbury, Conn., so one simple measurement of AI ROI is time. Whether the application of AI actually improves the employee or customer experience is tougher to ascertain.

SearchCIO caught up with Morris at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium and talked about how Topcoder — a crowdsourcing platform that hosts application design, software development and data science competitions — is investing in AI, how the cloud enabled the company’s business model, and why speed is a vital component for any innovation strategy.

Below are excerpts from the interview; click on the player to hear the interview in its entirety.

Are you investing in AI at your company? And, if so, for what purpose?

Mike Morris: There are two primary areas we’re focused on. The first one is on our sales and lead-generation side of the business. We can use artificial intelligence to do better lead processing, take some of the manual steps out of our sales process and build some cognitive capability into the way we even respond to customers on the site.

The second one is a maturity path. We see it as a significant piece of the software industry going forward. Topcoder has over 5 million code snippets — pieces of code that have been written. That corpus of data can be used to build AI technology to help with scoping — [that is be] able to determine what is the size of a project, how long should it take, how much should it cost. And it will allow us to quickly evaluate the size and the scope of something, which is powerful for customers.

Down the line, AI will start coding, so that’s something that we’re definitely thinking about.

How do you measure AI ROI?

Morris: It’s not that difficult because most of it is replacing manual labor. If something takes X amount of hours to do manually, and you can build cognitive capability to take that over, it’s a pretty clear ROI. The part that I think is challenging is: Is it a better experience?

How does a technology like the cloud affect the outsourcing business? What about the H-1B visa overhaul?

Morris: We’re a virtual community of over a million developers, [and we’re in] in every country. We disperse work all over the globe. We’re inherently a virtual model from a developer base. So, the H-1B visa issue isn’t going to be that impactful to us at this point, because we’re already a virtual model by design.

But cloud has been a huge impact to our business. As services like AWS [Amazon Web Services] from Amazon and IBM Bluemix and Microsoft Azure came out, they provided us this ability to have remote developers work on environments in a matter of seconds. It no longer took days to set up an environment and hours to install software. You can spin it up in seconds, and that’s just the infrastructure side of it.

What tips do you have for organizations looking to enhance their innovation strategy?

Morris: One main thing is speed. Speed is either your friend or your enemy, and if you’re not focused on doing it quickly and being OK with making mistakes and taking some risks, then you’re going to get passed.

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