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A Conversation with Ian Barkin, MBA ’06

On this episode of Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, host Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04, interviews Ian Barkin, MBA ’06, co-founder of 2BVentures. Barkin discusses his experience at MIT Sloan and how it influenced his career in consulting and outsourcing. He also talks about the concept of robotic process automation (RPA) and its role in intelligent automation. Barkin shares insights from his book on intelligent automation and discusses the democratization of technology tools and the importance of harnessing grassroots automation within organizations. He emphasizes the need for IT departments to adapt to the changing landscape and support the creativity and innovation of non-IT professionals. Barkin also highlights the evolving role of AI and the availability of big data in driving advancements in automation. He concludes by discussing the importance of staying connected with the MIT Sloan community and offering advice for prospective students and alumni. 

Ian Barkin: Nothing energizes me more than speaking to a Sloanie, and you always need insight, information, guidance, or just a reference to finding good talent to hire in your startup. And that's always what I see this community doing for one another. 

Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. So ,what does it mean to be Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at Sloan. 

Hi, I'm your host Christopher Reichert, and welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My guest today is Ian Barkin, a 2006 MIT Sloan MBA graduate. Ian's wife, Shirley Geldfeld, for any listeners out there who know her, is also a Sloanie from 2004 and I think can arguably be credited with introducing Ian to all things MIT and Sloan. So welcome, Ian! 

Ian Barkin: Thanks, Christopher. Great to be here! 

Christopher Reichert: Great to have you. After Sloan, Ian went into a career in consulting and outsourcing at places like Infosys and Capgemini. Ian was the Global Head of Innovation at Sutherland Global Services, where he led their innovation labs and his work in the labs incubating robotic process automation technologies inspired him to co-found Symphony Ventures in 2014. I suspect that maybe you can correct me, the name Symphony Ventures was a nod to the blending of people, organizations, machine learning, low code platforms, and of course, robotic process automation needed to make an intelligent automation a reality. Is that correct, my assumption? 

Ian Barkin: Nicely done. It's close. It is a blending. It was a different collection. It was a blending of captive people within your own organization, outsourced teams, crowdsourced teams, and then digital teams. The automation. And actually our tagline to play on the symphony theme was “orchestrating the world's work.” 

Christopher Reichert: I love that. 

Ian Barkin: So it meant that it was combining them all in a sensible pattern that was always evolving. But yes, Symphony, orchestrating the world's work. 

Christopher Reichert: So Symphony was acquired in 2018, four, years later by Sykes, where Ian became their Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer and hosted the podcast One Take, which ran for 66 episodes and explored the future of work, life, and culture. And I've watched a few episodes and they're a lot of fun. And I love your theme music in that podcast series. 

Ian Barkin: Thank you. I deserve no credit for it. The team picked that, but it was a lot of fun. It was born out of a plan to talk to interesting people prior to COVID, and then we all got sent home and it became a way to stay in touch with people because of COVID. We were able to actually ramp up and do quite a bit more production, more shows than I had planned. We sometimes did two or three a week just because where else did we have to be? 

Christopher Reichert: Yeah, that's impressive. 66. And I love the spin on one take, which is minimal editing, right? 

Ian Barkin: Double entendre was, it was one take from visionaries, entrepreneurs, academics and industry shapers and makers. But the other intent was its live. So we're doing this in one take. There's no fixing it. Just say what you want to say and if you fumble, just keep going. 

Christopher Reichert: Right? That's great. That's a great experience in life. And also, I love the video side of it as well, which adds another layer of kind of interaction to it. 

Ian Barkin: It taught me about putting on sort of a powder base on my forehead so I wasn't so shiny. I don't use it anymore, but I have it somewhere. 

Christopher Reichert: I love it. I love it. 

Ian Barkin: I got quite good at applying that. 

Christopher Reichert: So for the last five years, Ian's been active on LinkedIn as a member of the first LinkedIn Creator Accelerator Program and has produced a number of LinkedIn courses on robotic process automation and AI. And yes, long before AI became the frothy buzzword, right? 

Ian Barkin: It's sort of always been a frothy buzzword. But yeah, I've tried to hold the line that it's an interesting promise. You owe it to yourself to understand the constituent parts that make it up and what are we really talking about? And so that's what a lot of the education tries to cover as far as what are the components that make up this sort of algorithmic innovation and how does it matter to you and your business and whatever processes you're looking to apply it to. 

Christopher Reichert: So most recently, Ian has written a book on intelligent automation. You can probably sense a theme here. And wrote an article for Harvard Business Review, and along with Tom Davenport, wrote one for the Fall 2023 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review entitled “Harnessing Grassroots Automation.” And we'll put a link in the show notes to these accomplishments, the articles, the book, and of course Ian's LinkedIn profile. Did I miss anything that you want to cover about yourself? 

Ian Barkin: That's a lot about me. That's too much about me. No, I mean that's it. Ultimately, we'll get into the sort of Sloan experience, but I was lucky enough to be able to pursue entrepreneurial aspirations. It worked. I was given the freedom to both build a brand for that company and then continue to do so through education and a personal passion around this stuff—around podcasts and live streams and education and teaching. And it's now expanded to include writing and it's been an absolute blast. 

Christopher Reichert: And right now you're the founding partner for 2B Ventures, which is some of that advising that you've talked about, right? 

Ian Barkin: Correct. Yeah, it's co-founder, one of my co-founders from Symphony Ventures days, who is just an extraordinary individual who fills in all of the gaps where my weaknesses are. And I think we complement each other very well and certainly work really well together. And so we decided to sort of get our small band back together and we do now spend time advising, investing, and exploring what the future is for the future of work. 

Christopher Reichert: That's great. So the sale to Sykes has given you kind of the freedom to explore those paths, which is great. 

Ian Barkin: It has, which has really been a tremendous experience and a very lucky one that I'm incredibly appreciative of every day. 

Christopher Reichert: So let's talk about MIT and Sloan. So when we were talking earlier, you talked about how you were, when you first got to MIT and Sloan, you were essentially a hangers-on for your wife. 

Ian Barkin: I was the better half.... 

Christopher Reichert: The plus-one. 

Ian Barkin: No, I'm never the better half! I was as, anyone at Sloan knows, and I'm sure it's common in other programs too, if you were at school, if you're going to business school at Sloan and you happen to already be married or have a girlfriend or boyfriend, they are known as the “significant other, the SO” and I was said SO in that group. So I did, I followed Shirley from, we were living in San Francisco before that. I was thrilled she got into Sloan. I absolutely love Boston. It's my favorite city in the world. And I got the chance to crash in her Beacon Hill flat with her and then tag along to Beacon Hill Pub events, C-functions. I came in to see some visiting speakers that were at Sloan. It was an absolute privilege and honor and fun to just be in Boston with my girlfriend and to be exposed to Sloan. 

Christopher Reichert: And so she graduated in 2004. And then did you apply, you must have applied to Sloan while she was still a student, is that right? 

Ian Barkin: I did, yes. I always knew I was going to go to business school or I wanted to go to business school. And it was sort of, you always had to make a decision of where you want to go or how many schools you want to apply to. And I fully fell in love with Sloan. It was such a great place and felt like the right place for me. And so I took the perhaps hugely foolish decision to just apply to Sloan because I sort of felt like if I don't get into this place, I don't want to go anyplace else. So, I did apply while she was finishing up and pure luck, I was accepted. 

Christopher Reichert: So tell us about what hooked you to Sloan. And I think culture is a huge component. 

Ian Barkin: Oh, I mean, it comes down to that. I mean obviously it's a great school with a distinguished brand and incredible resources and instructors, et cetera, but it really was down to the personality of the place. It was just the friends that I got to meet and make. Just the way that everyone was so open and supportive and friendly and it was a good vibe and it felt like the place that I wanted to be. And certainly, I looked around, I'd talked to other schools, I knew people who went to other schools and they didn't feel like Sloan. So that was my primary driver of why, in addition to all of the other really great characteristics of Sloan, it was that it was the personality and the family. 

Christopher Reichert: Your recent articles have been with Tom Davenport from the Initiative on the Digital Economy. I guess I'm asking a roundabout question about the network that you created, that you joined, I guess as part of Sloan, and tell me about that and how you've stayed connected and how that's helped you, changed you? 

Ian Barkin: Sure. It's funny, you go through various different stages in life where you go from your friends in high school to your friends in college to friends in whatever other groups you're part of. And I must say that the cohesion of the folks that I went to school with at Sloan really has trumped any of them. We're all on a WhatsApp group that sometimes buzzes way too often and as everyone updates each other on their successes, supports each other through struggles. Folks are all over the world. So you're constantly getting pictures of dinners out where Sloanies are getting together with each other in London and Tokyo and in various other places. And so we really have stayed close. And that really began from day one. I was particularly lucky. I would be remiss if I didn't do a shout out to the Baltic Parasailors, my core team at Sloan. 

We were incredibly close from the very first second we were put together and stay as close to this day. And some of that is to the spirit of the folks that they choose to bring into the program and how that vetting works and how they found people who really did resonate with one another and support each other. And then as far as the network's concerned, yes, various different stages in your career. You always need insight, information, guidance, or just a reference to finding good talent to hire in your startup. And that's always what I see this community doing for one another. 

Christopher Reichert: And so you had the advantage of having spent two years on the campus, in Kendall Square. So that's one thing when you're not a student, but then when you became a student, it's different, right? So, tell me about that transition from observing it from the outside as a significant other to being in the thick of it for those two years. 

Ian Barkin: There was more homework when you were actually enrolled. I found there to be more work involved. 

But no, I mean in the thick of it, I don't know. I mean I loved every course. Some of them I did better in than others. There were some I fell absolutely in love with, things like system dynamics, I became passionate about and it was just fun to be parts of different groups and clubs. I was a member of the E52s, which was the acapella group, so that was enjoyable. I hadn't done that since college. So, it was nice to sing again. And then all of the other extracurricular opportunities and exposure you got from Tech Treks out to Silicon Valley to international trips. I went to India for the very first time with Sloan and a group of 60 odd other Sloanies. And so it's busy, it's frenetic, and it's all awesome. 

Christopher Reichert: Do you have any sort of courses or professors that you think back on and refer to as a framework or as a way of organizing your thinking? 

Ian Barkin: John Sterman is my hero. I fanboy that guy if I see him at events. I am still so passionate about the things that I learned in his course and tried to apply them in some of my work as a consultant sometimes to better success than others. But no, I really enjoyed that. I actually, there was an Enterprise Systems course, it was Stuart Madnick. I took the course and liked it so much that I became the TA for it the next time around. So that I found to be interesting. I didn't get the chance to take some of the stellar marketing courses, I wish I had actually because ironically, I found myself in roles where I was doing a lot of marketing and I could really have used that education. And then there were other courses, some of the finance courses I did not excel at as much, but certainly were invaluable foundation stones to what I did do as an entrepreneur and skills I needed to just do the day-to-day in building a business. 

Christopher Reichert: So let's unpack the robotic process automation because I suspect there's probably a systems dynamic component to that. I mean, I just understanding the whole arc of a process and mapping it and reversing it and then automating it. But just unpack that for us a bit. 

Ian Barkin: After Sloan, I went into outsourcing, and outsourcing was effectively tapping into global resources to get work done. And those global resources you hired to emulate the work that you were already doing, but often were doing onshore in teams that were part of your company. And so, it was a mechanism to tap into arbitrage, lower cost, but still talent and in this case, human talent. And what robotic process automation then presented was an opportunity to examine those processes and determine whether any of them were so structured and routine and usually originated from digital data sources. And so definable, you could build process maps around them and if you could, then you could look to automate some of those tasks. It just so happens many of the tasks that you felt comfortable offshoring, giving to a team that was not your own, that was a perfect set of criteria to also find you the same exact processes that you were comfortable then automating. 

And so that's where so much of the RPA early waves came out of the business process outsourcing industry. And so that's where I picked it up. But to your point, when we got started, this is my co-founder of 2BVentures now is an absolute process geek. He's the reason that we did so well is because he didn't get distracted by the automation robot element of this capability. He went back to core principles and the fundamentals of what is it that we're trying to get done, what actually is a company needing out of this process and how do we define it? And then given the technology we have available to us, can we redefine it? Can we cut out some of the inefficiency or the do loops or just the steps that humans need to do because we're not robotic? And so that was the birth of my journey in the RPA space was very much around process and process understanding and process optimization and re-engineering, and then an application of just the latest technology available at the time, which was RPA. 

Christopher Reichert: And by the way, I think I got the double entendre on 2B. I can see that it's you, Ian Barkin and David Brain, right? 

Ian Barkin: I will not lie. That did cross my mind. I'll say in my one take shows, actually one of the early opening icebreaking questions I asked of every one of my guests was, what did you want to be when you grew up? I always found that the answers to that question were some of the most fascinating pieces of the discussion. 

Christopher Reichert: Alright, so I'm going to ask you that same question then. What did you want to be? 

Ian Barkin: I don't know. It's funny. I think I wanted to be a performer. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be on Broadway when I was a kid. That's the stuff I found fascinating. And I did acapella, I did singing. I did show choir. And so that's what I wanted to be when I grew up, Christopher. 

Christopher Reichert: So are you a bass? I assume 

Ian Barkin: I was a tenor. 

Christopher Reichert: Really? I'm a tenor as well. I'm a first tenor. 

Ian Barkin: We should have planned ahead. We could have closed this show with a song. 

Christopher Reichert: There we go! Yes. 

Ian Barkin: We still could. We might regret doing that. 

Christopher Reichert: Well, we could cut it out... So robotic process automation, what's the robotic component to that? 

Ian Barkin: Yeah, so it's interesting. That's marketing, is what that is. It is the emulation of work that humans were doing. It is very much process-oriented. It has to be rule-based and routine. It has to be structured and definable. You have to be able to map it and you're automating. And ultimately, automation as a concept is using, in this case a tool, a software tool, digital tool to do the steps to open and access systems, to pull in data, to do computations, to click buttons, to control the systems that you use.  

The robotic element was literally a way to give it imagery, because in the early days it was sort of just process automation or some of the leading companies, vendors in the space had other names for it that just weren't visual. This concept of a robot, which is this mechanism that does work for you. 

Now the problem was, well two things. One of the challenges is people would envision physical robots. So for a decade, I've been asked by people whether these are physical or not, which it's a viable question, but no, they're not physical robots. And then Hollywood's done a good job of creating some pretty apocalyptic robots. So you've got the negative tone to them. But what it did do, is it opened us up to a world of robot clipart, which made every presentation, every conference display, and everything else a little bit more creative and colorful than it otherwise might be if you didn’t have robot. In the same way that I think Cloud, if Cloud didn’t have an image, it just wouldn’t have shown up in as many logos and it wouldn’t have resonated as much with end users in the market. Robot helped. 

One of the very first blogs I wrote years and years ago was about how when you do build one of these RPA bots to do whatever process you were having to do in your organization, almost every time I saw enterprises, the next step was to name it. They literally named the robots. They would give them birth dates, they would celebrate those birthdays, they would have it in a desktop computer and dress up the computer in a little tuxedo. It was cute and absurd all at the same time. We anthropomorphize things as humans. 

Christopher Reichert: So let's talk about your book, “Intelligent Automation.” What inspired you to write this? I mean obviously your work informed a lot of it, but why now? 

Ian Barkin: Yeah, so this was very much a joint effort. The lead author, Pascal Bornet, did a lot of heavy lifting, but ultimately what it was the umbrella was opening up. There were also cognitive tools. There were tools that did more than just click buttons and open applications and move data from place to place. There were ones that had more of a machine learning or deep learning element. There were other tools, things like character recognition, voice recognition. And so if you broke work down, RPA was effectively doing the work that your fingers were doing as you went into work, you would log into your computer with your keyboard and you would then be using your mouse and moving the cursor around In opening applications. We used to call it swivel chair integration. You were looking from one machine or one system to the other and moving data. 

That was a lot of the finger work, but there was a lot of documents scanning, understanding what was in PDFs. There was, if you got really complex, it was understanding what people were saying, understanding pictures, and then further looking for patterns in that data. So doing some of the mining in the data. And so every one of those pieces was sort of auxiliary and an add-on to the RPA part. And so that combination of things is what made for the full complement of what a human does at work. You show up with your ears and your eyes, your brain, your mouth, and your fingers, and you do that work. And so technology has been aspiring to do each and every one of those pieces, ideally a little faster in discreet ways, and then better collectively. And so that was the purpose of intelligent automation as a name, is that you could speak to each one of those specific parts. And like I said earlier on, AI is this sort of fantastic big title that everyone's excited about, but everything is AI. And so intelligent automation was a means of defining what goes on in work and how these different complementary technologies handle different parts. And together you can do some pretty complex and significant automations. 

Christopher Reichert: I'm trying to figure out why AI is so present in our zeitgeist now compared to, and by that I mean the general population as opposed to industry. Separate the wheat from the chaff, at least from your perspective. 

Ian Barkin: I wish I was smart enough to do that, but I do agree it very much is part of the zeitgeist. AI is a term that's been around for decades, 50, 60 years. It has gone through hypecycles, if you will. It's gone through winters. AI winters are literally where people's expectations were just not met by the capabilities at the time. So surprisingly, AI as the name for this continues to stick even if it disappointed, people give it a second, and a third and a fourth chance. And now we're in an absolute renaissance where computational power, hardware power, and just the availability of data are such that AI really is evolving at an extraordinary pace. 

Christopher Reichert: And I think it's that point that you mentioned, the availability of vast amounts of data that can be mined for new purposes is what seems different. 

Ian Barkin: Mined or synthesized if you don't have it. I mean there was always a big discussion around big data and big data existed in very discreet places, but if you went into a company's accounts payable department, there wasn't huge amounts of data and it was all relatively unique from one supplier to the next or one customer to the next. And so now you can bridge that gap and as you said, there's a lot more big data available, where prior I would see promise of AI. Really, I was somewhat negative about it just because in recent versions of AI, I watched a lot of enterprises pursue very expensive science projects that came to very, very disastrous, costly ends. They did little or nothing for the company other than burn resource and money. And yet the last sort of year, year and a half, especially with generative AI, it's been frankly extraordinary to see what's happening now and how it is piquing interest and catalyzing imagination and creativity. 

Christopher Reichert: So there were two articles that you wrote and you kind of alluded to the democratization of the tools or the accessibility to the tools and for your Harvard Business Review article, “We Are All Programmers Now.” And then for MIT Sloan Management Review, the title was “Harnessing Grassroots Automation,” which pushes improvements in business processes or at least thinking outward. And this I guess comes to probably that image on your book, which people are departing from the center of information to a dispersed model. But talk about the pluses and minuses of that. 

Ian Barkin: The inspiration, again, it's the trajectory of travel where technology is becoming more accessible and the way we sort of characterized it is technology is becoming more human and humans are becoming more technical. And so there's that interesting inflection point where what constrained digital innovation in the past was you needed to know Java or C++ or Python. You needed to work with the IT team. You had to ask for them to develop something and then put it into a multi-year long waiting queue for when they got around to it. And so what you would do to inspire innovation and figure out what we could do better, you'd run things like innovation competitions and you'd get comment cards and you'd get ideas. Fast forward to today, you can get full-on applications, you can get full-on automations and full-on scripts and people can literally turn their ideas into actionable code effectively. 

And so that's so exciting and that's what has inspired the articles, is that you're able to leverage the entirety of the creativity of an organization in ways that was never accessible before. That's the positive side of things. The negative side is it could become an entire dumpster fire of risk and exposure and collapse if you don't design for it, plan for it, and run it well. How do we enable these innovators within an enterprise to think like a process designer or to think like a programmer, a data scientist, or a risk manager? And we can't expect them to necessarily, we want them to think like a creative subject matter expert who understands what really drives our customers crazy and how we can make a delightful customer experience and we want to enable them to do that, but we also need to make sure that they're not exposing customer data to places we don't want to expose that. 

And so this is one of the calls to action, and the research that backed those two articles, is this is an imperative and a call to action for IT departments. Effectively, you ain't stopping this train, it has left the station. Your obligation now is to figure out how to harness what is happening and do so that it's being handled responsibly, which is interesting. I mean, I think we've grown more impatient. Enterprises really do have to start working at a different clock speed to be able to figure this out and to harness it. I mean the citizen movement, it probably bears rebranding. Some people they hear citizen and they think it's more, you're talking about politics or just the citizenry in general. This really just means the non-IT folks. So everyone else in an enterprise, the citizens within the enterprise are given all this opportunity. 

And so the citizen movement, whether you're a developer or a data scientist or just a designer, the opportunities are extraordinary. It's very exciting now. So the citizenry push is either enterprises trying to do more technology without having to pay all of the IT experts. It's also a byproduct of there just not being enough IT experts.  

There was one example we cited in our articles about these training programs that are now being embraced in enterprises more frequently to just teach people about digital in general. And I relate it back to the old Six Sigma days where you would train people as white belts, yellow belts, before they got to a green belt, black belt stage. Much of those earlier stages of learning, they were, in some cases they were an hour or a few hours of training, but it really was just giving you the lens through which to look at your world. 

And so this citizenry training in some cases, you don't need to be coding or even low coding, no coding. You're just aware of the fact that it exists as a resource. And so you do start to come back with some more interesting and complex ideas that, as you say, would engage the more technical builders in the enterprise and make everybody more useful as contributors to the brainstorming of how we can do this better. 

This goes back to the root of what we used to talk about with RPA too, because one of the greatest fears with any automation is the fate of jobs. What are we going to do in the future when all these robots do all the work? That's never gone away. I used to do a presentation 10 years ago that said, we've been automating since the wheel. That's a consistent pattern, but what it does do is free your best people to do their best work. Enterprises still to this day, even the ones that say that service is their primary focus and they want to create great customer experiences. You and I both know there are a lot of not-so-great customer experiences out there, and I had like to believe that freeing up people to spend more time emphasizing and really sort of walking the talk, will keep them busy first and foremost. Jobs aren't going anywhere. Jobs are changing. 

Christopher Reichert: So it's been 16 years since you graduated, and how have you kept your connections alive? I know you've written this article with Tom Davenport who's at the Initiative on the Digital Economy. So tell me how you've kept that alive and how that factors into your work life? 

Ian Barkin: Yeah. Well again, so just the connectivity with my fellow students, my classmates through WhatsApp, through Sloanies Helping Sloanies on Facebook, which is another network where we seek each other's guidance or help each other find jobs, et cetera. I do try to get back to Boston as often as possible. I absolutely love it there. And so I've stopped by the school a few different times to visit different professors that I had or professors I've met since leaving who I interacted with for various different reasons. We used to go to Sloanies on the Road, was always fun wherever they were, I was able to visit a few of them or attend a few of them in London. I spent a lot of time in London during my career, so they were over there and I'd drop in. And then just being available on the alumni site, if a student does reach out, they're always extremely well-written requests for assistance or insight, and nothing energizes me more than speaking to a current day Sloanie. 

Christopher Reichert: Well, that's great. Do you have any parting advice for prospective Sloanies or even alumni for how they can become engaged or stay engaged? 

Ian Barkin: So alumni, again, make sure that your password and your registration are up to date and that you're getting all the different emails in some of the larger cities, the Bay Area and Boston, obviously there's big groups, so stay involved. 

Christopher Reichert: Well, on that note, thank you to Ian Barkin, [MIT] Sloan Class of 2006, husband to a Sloanie from 2004, and I guess you're an honorary member of 2004. 

Ian Barkin: I think so. You're right. Technically I have two diplomas from [MIT] Sloan. 

Christopher Reichert: There you go. Well, thank you for joining us on this episode of Sloanies Talking with Sloanies

Ian Barkin: Thanks so much, Christopher. It's a pleasure. 

Christopher Reichert: Great to have you. 

Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is produced by the Office of External Relations at MIT Sloan School of Management. You can subscribe to this podcast by visiting our website, mitsloan.mit.edu/alumni, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. Support for this podcast comes in part from the Sloan Annual Fund, which provides essential flexible funding to ensure that our community can pursue excellence. Make your gift today by visiting giving.mit.edu/sloan

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