By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
Fil-Am Rufino Olay III was just too happy to be given the opportunity to run the Philippine unit of Wave Computing, a Silicon Valley company chaired and owned by a self-made Fil-Am and technology icon Dado Banatao.
The Philippine unit was launched in February 2018 only. Banatao wants to expand its footprint in the Philippines to give his countrymen more opportunities and his country a shot at becoming a leader in the region’s AI computing space (AI stands for artificial intelligence).
Wave Computing’s Philippine foray was Banatao’s strong urge to see the Philippines become strong in their tools and adopt worldwide practices in AI. To become a leader, at least in the ASEAN region, means having the right tools and knowledge. Banatao is guided by his strong sense of love for his home country.
According to Rufino, Wave Computing has chosen to locate in the Philippines for very good reasons. First, the founder is a Fil-Am, an Ibanag being born in a small barrio of Malabbac in the municipality of Iguig, Cagayan, who made it to become a Silicon Valley icon and would like to give back more for his country.
Second reason is that Silicon Valley is so expensive. “As a startup, we cannot grow as fast as we would like in Silicon Valley because it is very expensive already,” says Rufino. Salaries alone could be 7 or 8 times higher than in the Philippines.
But Rufino clarified that Wave Computing is not shortchanging Filipinos in their salaries. “We give the best salaries because we don’t want our employees to jump from one company to another,” he adds.
But Banatao gave Rufino a tall order, “Produce 50 Dados.” “I haven’t produced one, none yet my God that is a lifetime, but realistically that is all about a mindset,” he says, noting that Banatao is a self-made man.
He said that because of Banatao’s knowledge of the Philippines and the country’s strong educational foundation with emphasis on engineering, they believe they can bring Silicon Valley here and open opportunities for Filipino talents.
Already, they bring in the kind of engineers, who they hired from the top universities in the National Capital Region. But Rufino said they have started to scout raw talents from the provinces as far as Ilocos and Mindanao. They have recruits from University of San Carlos in Cebu and Mindanao State University in Marawi and Batangas State University. They also partnered with the Philippine Development Foundation which Banatao chairs. PhilDev is helping send brilliant young Filipinos to school to help them reach their full potential.
The local unit now employs 45 people from various fields but mostly from the engineering fields – electrical, computer engineers, stats, math, chemical and applied math. All of them attended a boot camp so they are harnessed not just to do research but customer relations because that helps in generating revenues from the economic standpoint and helping grow market share.
“Most of our 45 employees are in Manila, but eventually we will go to other regions,” he adds. Rufino sees their talent pool growing to 200 by end of 2020.
The entire organization is employing roughly 300 people including 45 people from the Philippines and 200 in the US. The rest is scattered in other offices in other parts of Asia Pacific.
CENTER OF EXCELLENCE
“I want Philippines to be the operations for Center of Excellence, for the ASEAN Region,” says Rufino adding that the Philippines is suited as the center because of the presence of quality talents.
“Filipinos are very smart people wherever they may be in the world,” says Rufino.
The local operation is focusing on data science, analytics using computer hardware and software to get the key insights from data.
“Only 10 percent of data is used and 90 percent is stored. So, we can analyze the data and understand it and can get insights that are useful to the business,” he adds.
In terms of local customers, Rufino said it is still early but they have already started meeting with manufacturing firms and business chambers to get the message out because if they want to get a solution, partners and to sell something, “I want to be there to help them realize the solutions they need.”
Rufino clarified that even if they are serving global customers, they must also have a good understanding of the local needs to be able to penetrate the local market. The focus now is to serve the Asia Pacific market.
Most of their foreign clients are serviced from its Silicon Valley headquarters. The Philippines is extension of the US operation.
He, however, noted that many of the applications at the AI Center of Excellence that Rufino initiated were developed by Filipinos at its office in BGC.
Rufino said that working with Wave Computing is not just about the pay, but working with the best company. He likes to give them a vision of their career.
“If you work with a Dado Banatao company, that is like working for the Bill Gates of the Philippines. For us to work with him is an honor, he can grow us, build our career for the country, not just for ourselves,” he adds.
“Banatao is well-known figure in Silicon Valley because every technology in Silicon Valley is his story. He is an icon in Silicon Valley and people who know him consider him great, a great IT entrepreneur and leader.”
As chairman, Banatao oversees the Philippine operation through his proxy Rufino. The Filipino-American entrepreneur and engineer working in the high-tech industry has other companies that he oversees and is still acquiring other firms that he brings to the market.
Despite his status, Rufino said that Banatao continues to interact with his team. He can feel there is pride and they also strive to uphold Banatao’s legacy so they are taking their jobs very seriously.
Working at Wave Computing is also fun. The office itself has a fiesta atmosphere – even they celebrate occasions to mark milestones in their operations from their acquisition in June 2018 of MIPS Technologies, a 30-year old company that Banatao believes a good complement to their operation. Now, Wave Computing is building the next generation semiconductor chip designs, a large portion of that was designed in the Philippines.
Rufino likened the Philippine talent pool to a sleeping giant, where they are honed overseas, that by the time they came home they bring home with them their learnings.
In fact, except for Rufino there is no other expat in its Philippine operation. Local talents undergo rotational training here and in the US headquarters.
“Filipinos are also resourceful,” says Rufino. There are also three things they are looking in their workforce: smart, articulate and driven.
Rufino noted that smart is different from being intelligent. They also like to hire articulate people so they can communicate with the team. Driven because that will make them perform their job well for themselves, for the company and country.
“If I look at that, I am blessed to have that kind of employees but I still continue to coach and mentor them to make sure we are not just knowledgeable about technology but have business acumen,” says Rufino, an ex-military man. He brought to the organization what he has learned from the military training saying, “The enemies do not care if you are prepared or not, delayed or late so we have to do cross training.”
The electrical engineer and MBA holder said he can also empathize with his people on what they’ve been going through and what needs to be done.
The only challenge he sees here though is the fragmented education of data science. To correct this is to get more companies to come here and train people. Rufino has started with the schools and government to collaborate and work together and fix the challenge.
Despite the challenges, Rufino sees beyond Filipinos coping at their best. “The kind of people we have here is hungry for knowledge and they are so collaborative. This generation is amazing, they communicate on a daily basis and used to working as a team. That is why they can work pragmatically,” he adds.
With this, the Philippine team has achieved very high productivity in the workplace. Rufino also challenges his team to be just as good if not better than their US counterparts. They can design very cutting-edge products, indicating a very high level of proficiency.
“That is because we are the center of excellence,” says Rufino, who initiated discussions with the government agencies, including the Department of Trade and Industry, Department of Science and Technology, and Commission on Higher Education to create a framework of AI policy for the nation with the Innovation Council stressing that AI can help proliferate the knowledge throughout the country.
Rufino, who was working with Banatao for four years prior to this Philippine posting, was not the original choice to run the Philippine operation. It just so happened that the original person was not available so he got in.
He remembered exactly Banatao’s instruction to him, “Let’s grow in the Philippines”. And Rufino intends to fulfill that goal. “Dado has full trust in me, how to expand the AI ecosystem here,” says Rufino noting that other countries have their AI policies. His idea is to create an AI industry with government to utilize the Filipino talent.
“We are still talking with the government on what can be done to ensure success,” he adds.
He noted that India, Singapore and Russia and everybody else are putting their AI policies and are positioning for a $1 trillion market in the next decade. The semiconductor business alone is expected to hit $70 billion by 2025. So far, China has the fastest computing cycle time.
“We want to grow here because we have the raw talent, strong in math and stats and engineering but they don’t know AI,” says Rufino. That is why they conducted a boot camp during their first three months. A boot camp combines theory with actual application and the practical side of AI.
At the boot camp, the local team was able to develop applications – design, build, test, deploy and document. They were able to create two applications – facial recognition based on sentiment analysis and object directional based on customers need in the retail environment. One application is instant translation. These are in pilot program phases yet with customers with the goal of serving the Filipino companies, which have different needs for their specific customers.
To those, who said that there are not enough talents in the Philippines for AI, Rufino countered that the seemingly shortage of talent is superficial because these engineers actually left for greener pastures abroad because there is not much opportunity for their talents here. In the same manner that Filipino nurses and other healthcare professionals are exported because, “We don’t have many hospitals. Now, doctors who left the country, are looking forward to coming home.”
These Filipinos overseas have honed their skills and talents abroad and are coming home with a pragmatic sense of how things are done.
“One thing I am fighting against is the notion that Filipinos do not get the same training as the rest,” says Rufino. On the contrary, he said, “Filipinos have lots of great ideas, we have engineers who are held at high standard and are at the same footing with the best of engineers around the world. That is what is being practiced in Silicon Valley, we bring out the best and if you can design something, we encourage that,” adds Rufino, whose roots are from Pangasinan and Iloilo. His dad was a former teacher at the Philippine Military Academy. This resulted in his mixed dialects.
He brings the same mentality into the Philippine organization. He would remind new hires, “When you join the organization, you are bringing knowledge, not what school you came from. I am university agnostic. The hires from the National Capital Region is no better than those from the provinces. We are all Filipinos, let us bond together instead of having this crab mentality. If you look down on anyone, I will fire you on the spot because that has no place in our organization. We are small and tight team but they know I support them and we bring the best practices from worldwide,” says Rufino who cited their Chairman’s humble beginnings.
“Everything we do in Silicon Valley we do it here, we have town hall meetings, snacks, we have on the spot recognition. We have the same culture such that when I open my I eyes I would think I am in Silicon Valley it just so happened that we’re located in the Philippines. The way we talk is very American because our employees hold themselves to certain professionalism and are able to communicate and articulate,” he adds.
Now, he has a very strong team and are helping him grow the organization. “They are the type who would fit our culture and passion,” says Rufino noting that being in a small organization makes them a cohesive one. They continue to think of their work 24 hours a day.
Rufino also debunked the notion that technology is going to replace people at workplace. “Everytime a new technology comes up, people are scared. Remember Excel, they were thinking they are going to get rid of all the accountants, but now everybody is using Excel. Just think of how technology can make my job become better, efficient. Let’s learn from what other people and learn quickly,” says Rufino, whose family still remains in the US but he travels twice a month to the US. Back here, Rufino indulges in local food such as sisig, gising-gising and Silog first thing in the morning.
As a boss, Rufino is kind but firm and supportive. “I will remove every obstacle from doing that job so you can do your job well, but I hold my team accountable as Dado also holds me accountable,” says Rufino, who has experienced in all parts of an organization and is running the operation very efficiently.
With the kind of work environment, Wave Computing has zero attrition. “If you leave our company, I would feel sad for you, not for me, because you are going to miss out a lot. I have more people trying to come on board than jobs available,” he adds.
While they have lofty ambitions for the organization and the country, Rufino said these are not just about numbers but quality of talent to ensure sustainable operations. He would like to tell his staff about succession. If they want to sit in his chair then they should start learning because he would like to see the next generation to take over.
“My gosh, I would be so happy. I certainly can plant the seeds and each one of my employees have big potential, every one of them,” says the 51-year old Rufino, who has been in the technology industry his entire career other than the time he was in the military.
That’s why he has learned the need to always push the boundaries of technologies. “Never settle, we design for the worst case and we hope for the best. But we are always improving of what we’ve done as we listen to customers to make lives better,” he adds.