Business at the speed of AI: Lessons from Rakuten

The Data Exchange Podcast: Bahman Bahmani on attracting and retaining talent, and the importance of delivery-oriented teams.


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In this episode of the Data Exchange I speak with Bahman Bahmani, VP of Data Science and Engineering at Rakuten, a large Japanese ecommerce and online retail company. When I first met Bahman several years ago, he was finishing up his Computer Science PhD at Stanford, and at the time he was giving technical talks on machine learning algorithms and their applications to computer security. Today he leads a large team at Rakuten, and in my opinion he has established an organizational structure, processes and an AI practice that other companies should study.

Our conversation spanned many topics, including:

  • The impact that AI, machine learning, and data have had on Rakuten’s businesses.
  • Attracting, nurturing, and retaining talent in an environment when data scientists, data engineers, and analysts who all have many other options.
  • The trio of strategic options: operational excellence, product leadership, customer intimacy.
  • Organization and culture, including key roles within an AI practice.
  • The power of delivery-oriented teams with end-to-end responsibility.
  • (Full transcript of our conversation is below.)

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Short excerpt:
Ben: ​So Bahman, before we dive into how you do AI technologies and implementation in Rakuten, at a very broad level, how would you describe the impact of AI and machine learning technologies within Rakuten?

Bahman:​ It’s been very significant. We have businesses that are essentially completely driven by AI. For example, we have a suite of products that we call Rakuten intelligence. It is in the alternative data business for financial companies, such as hedge funds, and it is completely driven by AI. We drive insights around e-commerce purchases that the population is making, and what brands and companies are getting traction, and we provide these insights to investors, who make significant investments based on them. Rakuten itself also makes investments based on them. Some of our largest Rakuten investments that you may have heard about were based on these insights.

So, we have businesses that are completely based on AI, and AI has percolated throughout Rakuten in a lot of different lines of business that we have. We have a large fintech business that heavily relies on AI—for instance, we have a very large insurance business. We have e-commerce, which heavily uses AI. We have a mobile network now, and we are working heavily on AI for mobile networks. We have a medical business called Rakuten Medical, which is aiming to cure certain types of cancer, specifically head and neck cancers. And we use computer vision to detect cancer cells. So, it’s really all over the place; we use it in a lot of different places. As I mentioned, some of our businesses are completely driven by it.


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[Image: Hong Kong skyline by Ben Lorica.]