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Game Changer: Justin Granek, VP Operations, Xtract AI

Justin Granek started developing machine learning algorithms for the natural resource sector a few years ago. “This background provided me with a good foundational knowledge of machine learning technology, the challenges of working with real-world data (and how it is very different from academic or theoretical data), and the focus to deliver value and solutions to clients,” he said. Today, Granek serves as VP Operations for Xtract AI, a company that has a team of experts in machine learning and computer sciences with the mission to transform organizations with the next generation of AI technology.

Justin Granek was selected as a Vanguard Game Changer for the June/July 2020 issue. Below is the full interview with him.

Tell us a little more about your role in your company? 

As VP Operations, I oversee everything from the day to day running of the company, to strategic planning, as well as, still working on the technical side – both in providing an understanding of our technology to prospective clients within a business development purview and delivering technical insights for our existing projects. 

What was your most challenging moment?

Making the transition from being a technical worker to a manager requires a different set of skills and responsibilities, and forces some difficult decisions around team management.

What was your aha moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?

Any time I have conversations with people about artificial intelligence it’s always eye-opening to hear their perspective. AI is talked about a lot in the media – and has been for so long – that there are all kinds of different misconceptions around what it is, what it does, and how it works. Some people believe it’s much further along than it is as a technology, or that it’s much easier to deploy than it really is. Others are shocked to learn of all the things we can accomplish with AI today, and how it has relevance for everybody, regardless of industry or application.

What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?

Decisions should always require data. In too many places important decisions are being made with sub-optimal data. I enjoy being part of an industry that is working towards making better, more informed decisions and applying AI to help end-users solve real challenges. 

What is the best advice you received?

It’s important to think ahead, plan, and research, but at some point, you need to get your hands dirty and start DOING. Reading about something is no substitute for doing it yourself.

What is a habit that contributes to your success?

Being optimistic, and opportunistic. You never know what doors will open in your path, and when an interesting opportunity is presented to you, take it on and run with it. There’s always a path forward.

What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?

No singular person or organization jumps to mind, but as always, adversity is a great ally of innovation, and COVID-19 has brought about a number of impressive and inspiring adaptations across many industries. There have been hardships for many, but it’s been interesting to watch how we all have taken this new reality in stride and changed the way we do business.

How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?

We are developing AI solutions to help empower people to solve real-world challenges, ensuring we incorporate domain expertise to deliver solutions that fully answer the needs of our clients. 

What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?

Misunderstanding of the technology. AI can’t be deployed successfully by a technology company alone, or by domain experts alone. It requires collaboration and discussion to develop solutions that make a difference. 

How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?

As a company, we love hearing new challenges from our clients and brainstorming potential solutions. We pair this with our strong academic background, and our ability to keep ourselves up to date on the state of the art technological developments in AI to leverage the best research from around the world and apply it to new challenges with real-world applications. 

What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

The technology (both hardware and software) has been accelerating in development for years; that’s not new, and it will continue. Over the next few years, the piece that will be more interesting will be watching the ethical and legal frameworks surrounding AI catch up with the technology as the public becomes better educated on the art of the possible and starts to voice opinions around where the boundaries should be. We are on the cusp of accomplishing many incredible things with AI, but in some places just because we can, doesn’t always mean we should.

What is your parting piece of advice?

Be curious and ask lots of questions. It may sound cliché, but making assumptions can far too often get us in trouble, whether in business or our personal lives. You can’t solve a challenge unless you understand it.

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