Interview

AI-Tech Interview with Murali Sastry, SVP Engineering at Skillsoft

From cultural transformation to pioneering CAISY, discover insights shaping the future of education.

Introduction:

Murali, Could you begin by providing us with an introduction and detailing your career trajectory as the Senior Vice President, Engineering at Skillsoft?

I joined Skillsoft in 2016 as the VP of engineering after a career spanning over two decades at IBM, where I led the build out of large-scale enterprise solutions and innovative software products. 2016 was an exciting time to join Skillsoft as the learning industry was undergoing major disruption. To stay competitive, Skillsoft was in the process of building an innovative, AI-driven learning platform called Percipio. With the support of a new leadership team, we were able to build the platform from the ground up and bring it to market within a year.  

The project involved not only building a new product but changing the culture and operations of our technology team, including the launch of a new tech stack built on the AWS public cloud infrastructure. Over the past years, we have grown the product family and organization to include new products and services, and in the process, took ownership to transform the cloud operations organization. 

We managed to modernize how we build, deploy, and support our products in the cloud through continuous integration and deployment to deliver new capabilities to the market at lightning speed while maintaining a highly secure, resilient, and performant learning platform that serves millions of learners. 

Over the years, we built a strong culture of innovation within our engineering team, which is one of the most exciting parts of my job today. Every quarter, we do an innovation sprint, where team members organically produce ideas to advance platform capabilities. Our philosophy is to establish a grassroots mindset to produce innovative ideas that solve our customers’ business problems and improve experiences for our learners. Many of our AI and machine learning innovations have come out of this process, helping to make our platform smarter and our learning experiences more personalized.  

Can you provide a brief introduction to CAISY (Conversation AI Simulator) and its role in Skillsoft’s offerings?

CAISY, which is an AI-based conversation simulator that helps learners build business and leadership skills, was born out of one of our innovation sprints. The original idea was implemented on a simple terminal text-based interface using GPT 3.5, though we saw the power of the concept and decided to progress it to be customer-facing. Skillsoft launched CAISY out of beta in September using generative AI and GPT 4, to help learners practice and role model various business conversations. While Skillsoft has extensive learning content on how business, management, and leadership conversations should be handled, learners can now practice and apply these skills in real time. Developments in generative AI allow us to leverage our knowledge and expertise in this area while providing a hands-on environment for our learners, so that they can practice conversational skills in a safe and secure zone before implementing them in the real world.   

Overview of CAISY: 

How does CAISY simulate real-world conversations, and what types of scenarios can it be used for?

CAISY is built around a system of AI agents that power, simulate, and evaluate the conversation. We have guardrails to ensure that the conversations are on topic, safe, and unbiased. Different AI agents act as subjects and actors, emulating different roles so that the end-to-end conversation mimics a real-world conversation.  

In our initial launch, CAISY offered ten conversation scenarios for practice, including topics across performance management, sales motion, change management, and more. As we continue to build and release more scenarios, we are focusing on key areas like first-time managers and coaching. For example, we’ve found that 60% of first-time managers fail to meet their performance goals in their first two years on the job and 52% struggle with giving feedback to their team members. We believe CAISY can make an enormous impact for our customers in these critical areas.  

What are the key benefits that organizations and learners can expect to derive from using CAISY in their training programs?

CAISY provides a personalized simulated and interactive experience where learners can practice and test their business conversation skills in real time. The evaluation and feedback from CAISY provide a clear understanding of the learner’s conversational and communication abilities. We provide learning resources based on the learner’s skill levels and provide personalized recommendations and pathways to improve their knowledge and capabilities. Organizations can analyze the skill level of their business leaders and implement learning strategies to advance their workforce.  

Using AI Ethically and Responsibly: 

Ethical use of AI, particularly in training and learning applications, is a growing concern. How does Skillsoft ensure that CAISY mitigates biases in training data and maintains ethical AI practices throughout its operation?

Ethical use of AI is a fundamental principle for everything we build. We’ve developed a system of guardrails and test methodologies to ensure that these conversations are unbiased, safe, and relevant for learners. These guardrails ensure that any deviations within the conversations that are found to be unsafe, biased or unethical are immediately stopped. 

Given your expertise, could you shed light on the ethical considerations you personally emphasize when working with AI and technology in education?

Generative AI is here to stay and will continue to evolve at a rapid pace over the next few years. I anticipate Gen AI becoming a necessary tool for future productivity needs, like how email and Excel emerged as critical parts of our daily work lives. Just as GenAI itself will become necessary in the future of work, so too is the need for AI ethics at the organizational and individual level. Organizations that incorporate AI ethics into their corporate DNA – via how they build products and educate their employees – will be most successful.  

Finally, Murali, what advice would you give to aspiring professionals who are looking to follow in your footsteps and make an impact in the field of AI-driven education and technology?

Think big. Imagine ideas that seem impossible today but may be possible in the future. From there, build things step by step.  As they say, Rome was not built in a day. Embrace change, be curious and become a lifelong learner to grow and keep your skills on pace with innovation. Be a technologist at heart and build things to make a difference to the world. 

Murali Sastry

SVP Engineering at Skillsoft

Murali Sastry is a seasoned IT executive with 20+ years of experience in leading large-scale engineering organizations and developing innovative products. Currently residing in Westford, MA, Murali has a strong history of building transformative software products and teams. As the SVP of Engineering at Skillsoft, Murali manages a global team of engineers developing and supporting Skillsoft’s learning platforms. Under his leadership, Skillsoft launched the award-winning AI-powered learning platform “Percipio.”  Before joining Skillsoft, Murali worked at IBM for 20+ years where he was instrumental in competitive SaaS products such as IBM Connections, IBM Sametime, Bluepages and building W3 – IBM’s intranet and workplace for 400K employees. Murali is a proven leader, distinguished by his ability to inspire and manage high-performing teams in today’s dynamic IT landscape. Murali has a Bachelor’s in Electronics from JNTU, India and an MBA from Babson Olin School of Management.

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