Can you automate the personal touch?

Former Google executive Amy Chang explains how her new virtual chief-of-staff product taps into big data, personalization and artificial intelligence (AI) to anticipate and serve up information based on users’ communication patterns and interactions

A female executive assistant hands a seated and smiling female executive some briefing notes.

Ever wish you had an executive assistant working through the night to gather all the information you could possibly need to make your working day run smoothly, from research on the people and companies you’ll be meeting, to related industry headlines and even email triage? Amy Chang did. So in 2016 she launched digital chief of staff app Accompany to do just that. 

Amy Chang

Why is now the right time to launch Accompany?

There's a number of factors. Professional users have a higher bar when it comes to software, and we have the ability to actually personalize that software with intelligence and automated learning and the ability to build an enormous and efficient data platform at scale with computing power and storage at an extremely reasonable cost. All of these factors combined to allow the real magic to happen.

We had a fairly long development period compared to a lot of start-ups because we spent two and a half years building out a huge data platform of people and company information. It took some patience and perseverance to build a foundation capable of ingesting billions of data points and discerning which of the 30,000 John Smiths is the one a particular user is meeting with. 

What are the technology, business and social trends that Accompany taps into and where do you see this trend leading over the next five to 10 years?

Massive data, personalization, AI and automated learning to craft a service that delights the user. Without lifting a finger, we are now able to take all the passive signals from a user’s interaction and communication patterns and anticipate what information they need on the people and companies that are of growing importance to them, and serve it up before they even have to ask. It’s effortless and it’s delivered right to you.

Software should become more and more effortless for the user and increasingly anticipatory. With the pervasiveness of mobile, you get geo location, movement from accelerometer-based data, an understanding of the user’s communication patterns and network graph from their phone contacts, calendar and messaging. Users’ expectations have also greatly heightened in terms of accuracy. All of this will help challenge companies to continue to be ambitious and take risks to leapfrog what is currently available.

Did you go into the Accompany venture with a declared objective to disrupt, or is it more a case of executing well on a big idea and disruption will follow?

We went into this because we desperately needed the product ourselves. It didn’t exist and we felt compelled to build it. I hate those moments when you can feel the blood creep up your neck to your hairline from embarrassment over not knowing something that you just should have known. When you missed a big headline that morning – a giant reorganization, a member of the executive team being let go, huge M&A activity that affects the person sitting across from you. Why can’t someone be watching my back and gathering up this intelligence for me? It should be easily automated and prepared based on who I’m meeting with and who is becoming increasingly important to me. Now it is. We’re completely focused on the user, and if disruption is a side product, so be it.

You worked at Google for several years and are now on the board of Cisco. You’re also an advisor to several start-ups. What can small companies and big companies teach each other?

At Google, when we thought we had set an ambitious goal, Eric (Schmidt) or Larry (Page) or Sergey (Brin) would push us to think bigger. The features that serve your current piece of the market are important, but what about the features that will shape the market? It was that kind of thinking that, when Google Analytics had only 1% of the market, pushed us to think about serving 90% as opposed to 10%.

With a much smaller team, what’s surprised me most is the speed at which you can execute, even though you don’t have the same resources. Accompany is a team made up of founders and hyper-performers. I’ve definitely learned to let the team run with more autonomy, give them more breathing room, and they’ve surprised me time and time again. You don’t always need 100 people and 20 meetings to get something done. Sometimes, it’s a single person who can make all the difference.

Amy Chang is a guest speaker at Innovation Realized 2017the two-day retreat presenting a uniquely creative, dynamic and interactive environment in which to explore innovation, collaboration and growth in a digital world.