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View From The Top: Jin Hian Lee

View From The Top: Jin Hian Lee

Sean Tong Market Insight, View from the Top

In the latest edition of our View From The Top series, we sit down with Jin Hian Lee, Founder of Evie.ai, to find out more about Evie.ai and his views on the evolving role of HR. 

Jin, tell us a little about yourself and your journey so far?

I'm the founder & CEO of Evie, and I'm currently leading an amazing team delivering effortless, human-centered AI recruitment coordination and interview scheduling for recruiters.

I graduated from Stanford University at the height of the first dot-com boom, and spent 20 years in product, technology and strategy roles. I've been lucky to have been part of the development of the internet - first at StarHub, a next-generation fixed & mobile operator, followed by a remarkable stint at Yahoo, building and launching global products.

As an engineer by training, I'm passionate about using technology to transform the way we work and live. There's a famous quote that "the best way to predict the future is to invent it" (originated by scientist Denis Gabor and often credited to Alan Kay), and that's what I'm doing now - creating a future where human creativity is freed from the chains of mundane busywork.

You can usually find me in Singapore, the San Francisco Bay Area or somewhere in between!

Tell us a little bit more about Evie and how you came up with the concept?

I'd always been interested in the idea of AI employees who would help us take care of busywork, but the idea really came to life because of a very specific pain I had.

As a global product manager at Yahoo, I regularly engaged with stakeholders worldwide, from Sydney to Singapore to San Francisco, and I wasted nearly half my day just scheduling calls. Imagine juggling schedules, time zones and meeting rooms, chasing people when they don't respond and - worst of all - going through the entire process again if someone reschedules!

All this busywork meant that (a) I was wasting a lot of precious time, (b) meetings weren't scheduled and, most critically, (c) I couldn't focus on my real job of listening to users and the market and designing great new products!

A human assistant could have helped, but that would just foist this unpleasant job on someone else who could potentially be doing so much more.

That's how Evie was born - to take on the busywork of coordination so that people can focus on the really important, high-value and (hopefully) fun parts of their job and maximise their potential. We invested a lot of time and effort to build a truly flexible AI coordinator that behaves just like a real person - one that is able to converse naturally, understands people, times and locations, and can handle the complex scenarios needed to schedule meetings and interviews in the real world.

As word of Evie spread, recruiters embraced Evie. Teams from companies like Siemens, OCBC and Telstra Health, who schedule hundreds of interviews every month ("the crappiest part of the job", one said), found that Evie reduced their time spent scheduling by 10X! Evie became indispensable because it's so easy to use and natural - for recruiters, hiring managers and candidates.

The human touch at scale is critical to the candidate experience. People love the human conversational experience - they interact 4X more with human-sounding AIs compared to robotic chatbots or click-through menus. Evie is so real that most candidates don't even realize they're talking to an AI coordinator!

What role do you think AI will play in the future of HR?

McKinsey has a great report titled "The CEO’s guide to competing through HR", and they note that despite the critical strategic importance of HR to organizational performance, HR teams still spend ~60% of their time and resources on transactional and operational tasks rather than strategic HR issues.

I think this is the largest immediate opportunity in HR - using AI techniques and smart automation to free up time for HR practitioners to focus on their real strengths. Companies are experimenting with primitive one-off solutions like simple chatbots but tools like Evie represent a new breed of intelligent AI employees that can work autonomously alongside people to coordinate the operational part of HR across the entire talent lifecycle, from recruitment to on-boarding to off-boarding.

Beyond autonomous operations, I see another exciting opportunity where humanised AI can democratise the best human expertise and personalise it at scale. For example, if you could provide every employee in your company with a personalised counseling and career development advisor, the benefits to the organisation and the workforce would be tremendous!

That is the power of AI & autonomous systems in HR.  It is an area that is rapidly evolving, and in many ways, our imagination as practitioners is the limit, and we are always looking for innovative partners to work with.

What is next for Evie?

Our mission is to build the autonomous-first enterprise - a world where  AI employees empower people to do their best work at scale.  We've started with interview scheduling in all its complexity, and we'll continue to expand Evie's capabilities to coordinate activities across the entire talent lifecycle, from on-boarding to development & engagement to off-boarding.

We are building the foundation for such autonomous systems for AI employees in the enterprise to coordinate core business activities and someday all systems, not just self-driving cars, will have some degree of autonomous capability.

What key human attributes in the workplace do you think will never be replaced by AI?

Today, smart systems do so much more at scale than humans can, and they're getting better all the time.

Yet, at the end of the day, AI and autonomous systems are simply machines. Using statistics and rules, they are able to perform functions that we design them to, but they are not truly intelligent.

They cannot respond to new, unseen situations, nor can they create new concepts on their own. They have no emotion, no empathy, no ability to make exceptions and no morality except what is implicitly embedded in their design.

We must harness all their power to deliver better outcomes for people and the workplace - think about better diversity through data, or more personalised services and democratised expertise.

AI systems, like all technology before it, will continue to free us from the routine and allow us to be creative and empower us to solve bigger problems, make better judgements so we can fulfil our potential as unique individuals.

What is one lesson you learnt the hard way?

Building a high-tech startup is very much like winning a war. You not only need a vision and a plan, but you need to be able to communicate that to everyone on the team. When you're in the trenches every day, it's hard to remember what the bigger goal and plan is. If people don't have a sense of where they are, if every day is just a series of unrelenting obstacles to be overcome, they become demotivated and leave.

As a leader or manager, you probably have the vision and plan in your head, but you need to share that with the team. You need to give everyone the broader context - show them where they've been and where they're going. Once people know how what they're doing today is meaningful, they can fit the day-to-day skirmishes into the larger battle plan. This is incredibly empowering and motivating because they can make better tactical decisions independently, but more importantly, they can feel how each win contributes towards the inevitable victory.

How have you had to adapt your leadership since the start of the pandemic?

Like everyone else, we've had to make the shift to fully-remote working, which has pushed us to communicate better, because you're forced to document things clearly to ensure you're understood. We've also had to find ways to move team-building online, with things like online game sessions and virtual "happy hours".

Still, as a startup, we've always been agile, and the global pandemic is just one more event in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous ("VUCA") business environment, so we've been fortunate not to have to make major changes.

Ultimately, I think the same principles of good leadership apply regardless of the situation, and our values of ownership, humility and leading from the front stood us in good stead.

What are you really, really good at?

We live in an era of rapid technological change, and my greatest strength (and passion!) is in identifying new opportunities and building technology and products that will reshape the market. In the early days of 3G networks, I launched a suite of cloud-based photo sharing, instant messaging and music streaming services that would work seamlessly over mobile data. Today, we take these types of services for granted, but fifteen years ago, when data was charged by the kilobyte, they were unheard of. I believe the AI-powered autonomous employees will be that next transformational opportunity - in ten years time, every company will have AI employees working together with people, and I'm excited to be building that future.

Please note that all commentary and opinions provided are those of the individual, and not the organisation/company.