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Thursday, 10 June 2021

My Morning/WFH Routine: Ahmed Abaza, founder and CEO of Synapse Analytics

Ahmed Abaza, founder and CEO of Synapse Analytics: Each week, my Morning / WFH Routine looks at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Ahmed Abaza, founder and CEO of Synapse Analytics (LinkedIn).

Edited excerpts from our conversation:

My name is Ahmed Abaza, I'm the founder and CEO of Synapse Analytics. I started Synapse with my partner Galal El Beshbishy in 2018 after starting out my career in industrial automation and organizational learning & development. I was at Oracle in 2016 when I started reading more about how technology is changing the world of business for legacy companies that are trying to stay competitive. I was really excited about the prospects for tech and how it was capable of creating a more abundant world. At the time most companies were either tech-capable start ups or these large generations-old companies investing a lot of money into expensive technologies that weren’t being put to use.

I partnered in a digital transformation consulting company, with an experienced business consultant. I worked with Galal on getting companies to move forward with digital transformations, given the potential of AI and data science as highly effective tools for growth and optimization. When we landed our first AI project and saw it successfully deployed we saw how artificial intelligence, if adopted correctly, could become a “nuclear weapon,” as Galal used to say. We felt vindicated when a few years later one of the biggest thought leaders in the field compared AI adoption in the region to nuclear arms capabilities in the US in the mid-twentieth century, for its competitive edge. Work from that initial project is what later became Synapse Analytics.

Synapse takes things a step further by making sure companies make the full transformation through AI adoption. We see a lot of companies spend money creating algorithms to boost their operations, but they’re rarely used over the long run. This happens because data scientists often lack the experience of working on production level AI — which requires a dynamic system capable of taking in new data and producing new outputs. Leading tech research firm, Gartner, found that 90% of AI projects fail because of post-deployment issues. AI has to be nurtured for a while until it can start sustaining itself in an operational environment, which is why we make sure to have our impact officers check in with clients on adoption long after our product has been deployed.

We take on two types of clients: AI newbies and AI dabblers. For companies who have no idea about the technology we help them with everything from design to implementation and adoption. For those who have some understanding of what AI is about and maybe their own data science teams, we help them adopt AI through our machine learning operations platform, Konan. There’s also a cultural shift that needs to take place to get companies on board with the new technology, which our consultants work closely with them to reach.

Our clients include startups, FMCGs, financial institutions and companies that have been around for almost 20 years. AI can help a consumer products company determine the number and location of warehouses that would boost logistics efficiency. For alternative financing, you can use AI to give credit scores for people or institutions who don’t have a formal credit history. In malls, our AI can be trained to analyze footfall using security cameras to provide detailed traffic analytics.

We’re a 40 person team across our five main departments. Data science and analytics: where people with PhDs in the field of algorithmic science are located. AI deep learning: where we manage unstructured data sets like videos, texts and images. Software and products: which involves handling machine learning operations. Consulting and impact: where we consult clients on AI design and follow up on its business impact. And our newest department, growth: which is responsible for things like creating content for our recently launched blog TechQualia.

The start of the pandemic saw us 100% WFH. We tried going back to the office several times, but there would always be a few people getting sick before our scheduled return date. We’ve so far delayed an official return unless absolutely necessary. We’re now at an 80-20 split between WFH and in-person work.

I personally don't like WFH very much. I say this despite living in Sheikh Zayed and commuting to our Masr El Gedida office. There’s a bit of confusion that tends to take form when working at a distance. I feel like conversations by the water cooler can actually be helpful in keeping everyone on the same page and diffusing tension. It also takes longer to sell clients services when you’re not there face to face with them.

Ideally, I’d love to see a 30-70 split between WFH and in-person work. It's important to have the flexibility to work from wherever you are but I don’t think it should be the main mode of work. I think a huge part of work is establishing relationships and making friends. But again, I understand that it can also be nice to have more free time to see family and exercise.

We went to WFH soon after the birth of my child so I had the rare chance to really be there alongside my wife in the early days of taking care of our baby. It made me realize how difficult childbirth and child rearing can be for women.

For my day to day schedule I have two modes, on the wagon and off the wagon. When I’m on the wagon, I wake up at 5:30 am, have a coffee, a couple of dates and head straight to the gym before starting work. I follow a productivity program called Getting Things Done, which basically advocates for organizing your life based on context not on time. My work days don't follow a fixed routine but it usually consists of a lot of calls, meetings and follow ups. When I'm off the wagon my day starts at 9:30 am, when I roll out of bed to grab a coffee and cheese sandwich before a quick run before my meetings. I try to end my day at 7 pm, but that almost never happens.

The most important thing is knowing how to get back on the wagon once you identify that you’ve fallen off. For me, that means spending a day just writing things down, in what David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, calls a mind sweep. Then I start organizing things and creating a schedule with priorities.

I like to wind down in the evening by watching sitcoms with my wife. We’ve been watching The Office recently. I’m also interested in philosophy, and Escape from Freedom by Eric Fromm is one of my favorite books, which I’ve just re-read. Next up on my list is The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker.

As for podcasts I really like Conan O’brien Needs a Friend, Conan always makes me laugh. I also keep up with The Joe Rogan Experience, How I Built This, Game Ranks and Freakonomics.

I’m a huge video game fan. I like everything by Hideo Kojima. I like The Last of Us, Resident Evil and really everything. My real inspiration for getting into AI has been through gaming. It's the only thing that hasn’t changed over the course of my life.

As far as words I live by go I like the quote “Never fear trying anything new, remember amateurs built the ark, professionals built the Titanic,” from the Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin S. Sharma

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