Paul Vallée – The Boundary Breaker

Paul Vallée – The Boundary Breaker

December 6, 2016

If you ever want to be inspired by a ‘big picture human’, CEO and co-founder of Pythian Paul Vallée is your man. Vallée is a high-profile advocate for universal basic income in Canada due to the fast-closing reality of technological unemployment.

By Joanne Leila Smith

In late 2015, the world’s first summit on technological unemployment which was held in New York City featured some of the globe’s most distinguished thought leaders to pro-actively tackle what will become an inevitability – an increasingly displaced workforce due to robotics, artificial intelligence and other innovations around automation in industry.

With the dominant political discourse blaming international trade and immigration, and the closure of traditional manufacturing industries as the cause for rising unemployment, true thought leaders who are in-step with the times understand that the impending tsunami of unemployment has little to do with a shifting populace – it’s automation of routine work.

Oxford University predicts 47 percent of jobs will disappear within two decades.

The University of Toronto has estimated that job automation will put up to 7.5 million Canadian jobs at risk over the next fifteen years.

If we take a small slice out of the job market to understand the impact of one sector alone – vehicle drivers in Canada total 500,000 jobs – the second most common occupation for men in Canada will soon disappear due to driverless cars. In the US, that means at least three million driving jobs on the scrap heap… When we consider the recent US election was won on the promise of restoring car manufacturing and the coal industry – the latter of which employs around 300,000, we can quickly surmise that our leaders are looking backward, not to the future.

One guy who is forward-facing is CEO and co-founder of Pythian, Paul Vallée, 44, whose business model is about taking the power of the internet and giving individuals in remote regions the opportunities to reach their maximum potential in a global market.

“A lot of my entrepreneurship is around social projects. Pythian uses an electronic service delivery model, which means we can employ over 300 people who live in 150 cities – all working remotely,” says Vallée.

Based in Ottawa, Canada since 1997, by 2003 Pythian, a global leader in 24/7 data consulting and managed services, had a footprint in India for its midnight shift, by 2005 was in Sydney for its evening shift and by 2007, was no longer advertising positions by geography, but time zone.

“We made meaningful investments in technology, enabling us to securely collaborate with individuals all over the world, integrate them in cohesive service, and then perform pure internet-based delivery. We only go on premises to visit our customers —not to deliver,” says Vallée.

Pythian has essentially, a two-pronged approach – it is a classic technology-enabled services business as well as a technology vendor. It provides a subscription service to its customers that blends in advisory and transformation services. It permits clients to decide and then do what they want (i.e. adopt a public cloud, or open source database, create an auto engineering platform that allows continuous integration and delivery of code or anything else customers want to do with technology), and then help them operate the footprint once it’s implemented.

“Adopting tech can be intimidating for some of our clients, so we help them across the entire value chain. We focus on environments for customers who really love their data. For those who rely on the strategic advantage that their system brings, we are an appropriate vendor for them,” says Vallée.

Sitting at the top-end of the boutique data services market, Pythian attracts clients who operate mostly revenue generating systems, such as e-commerce, media, SaaS, or any other customers with extremely valuable systems.

On the product side, Pythian has invented a web-based security technology that means customer enterprise data centres and the valuable systems within can be securely managed and accessed anywhere in the world through VDI – virtual desktop infrastructure.

“We invented a technology that instead of using a physical end-device, connects using company-owned and secured end-point devices in the cloud. We can connect to them using our laptops, but we only see the screen. You can’t route packets or copy files in and out; it’s just purely VDI,” says Vallée.

Once the device is cloud-connected, users are strongly identified, which means multiple points of evidence of the user login are required, and a permanent seven-year audit trail captures all activity once the user is logged in. By creating a video record of the session, insider threat deterrence and audibility is increased – it is estimated that half the cost of the Edward Snowden incident is due to not knowing what data was taken. VDI addresses both of these potential problems.

For Vallée, the challenge of embracing technology disruption is to maximise its reach, potential, and application, while being prepared to positively mitigate it with a global workplace opportunity and advocate for stop-gaps during times of technological transitions that significantly impact the world’s socio and political economies.

“We have a vision whereby anybody, anywhere can bring their maximum effort to the global industry, specifically the workloads where they have the most impact. This is so important because if you are capable but can’t find an employer who knows how to extract the maximum return on your capability, you can never be fairly compensated for your ability. We want to create a world where the internet empowers everyone to project themselves electronically at a distance, in a secure way, so that the customers have confidence they can engage that talent, no matter where they reside,” says Vallée.

According to Vallée, creating opportunities for people to access a global marketplace is one way the business community can provide a real counter-leverage to the challenge of technical unemployment. We are becoming more efficient at automating workloads, creating automated engineering platforms for the software we build, and growing innovation around machine intelligence and robotics. This is creating a genuine fear. The number of things that we will still need or want to employ people to do will decline so quickly that it will be near impossible to re-train or recover from this.

After reading the book Race Against the Machine in 2011, Vallée was convinced that at the current trend of innovation, we are likely to lose that race. As a data scientist working in automation, Vallée was acutely aware of just how successful his own discipline was becoming at automating not only his customers’ workloads but their own workloads – which is at the heart of the entire DevOps movement.

For Vallée, DevOps is a big deal. If computer science in the 80s was about automating banks, and the 90s were about automating factories, then this decade is about automating computer scientists’ own workloads. For the first time, the industry is looking in the mirror with automation of engineering and delivery platforms.

“When you start automating the work of automating other things, you start amplifying the productivity of your automation efforts. Because I work in this field, I felt that either I’m a sociopath creating a dystopia or socially coherent with what I’m working on in my career to try and create a better future… it’s a Frankenstein situation. Technologies themselves are often pure software, and you don’t need to install a physical box in a location, so a lot of the work needed just goes away. Take translation services for instance. Translation is very close to becoming solved by software. That’s a lot of jobs right there. If you look at what Google has done with their robotics investments, they now have bipedal, human-shaped robots that can manipulate doors and walk over irregular surfaces. The progress has been remarkable,” says Vallée.

Technological Enterprises are rapidly succeeding at automation, creating a challenge for society, namely how are we going to address displaced employees? A remedy proposal fast becoming the topic of social policy circles is Universal Basic Income or UBI. UBI is seen as a way to not only protect those who hit skid row but as a means to encourage the average person to pursue entrepreneurial projects – which are at the heart of human advancement. For instance, Vallée argues that people working in factories, and in shipping and receiving industries, as well as professional drivers among many other occupations will increasingly become redundant as the technology to replace them develops and becomes affordable. A UBI will create a baseline for individual income and protect the economic system on a macro level.

“There is a direct correlation between risk appetite and the consequences of a risk gone wrong. Historically, people who failed to pay their debts would languish in debtors prison – until we established bankruptcy law, which allowed a person to reset to zero. This law created a lot of entrepreneurship as before then, individuals who gambled and lost would die in prison – which created a lot of risk aversion, rather than risk appetite. Having a risk appetite matters a lot. We may live in a society that is ruled by a power elite, a group that either inherited or accumulated their wealth and power through risk and risk-taking. Entrepreneurship is about seeing a problem solved in a dumb way and having the wherewithal, the time, smarts or skills and risk appetite to tackle that problem. If you have a segment of society that enjoys the luxury of more risk appetite than another segment of society, then the segment that has more risk appetite ends up ruling the world. This isn’t fair, but it is a consequence of the fact that any time you try to increase your personal wealth or personal power or influence, you have to make a bet. Sometimes that bet is asymmetrical in that you may not lose a lot if you lose but you may win a lot if you win. Those are always the good bets. But if you can’t afford to lose a bet, even if it’s a small loss for a possible huge gain, it doesn’t matter. You just can’t afford to make a bet. If we look at the structures of our society, we dream of a well-functioning society with a social ladder. Unfortunately, the reality is that it breaks down when people can’t afford to take a chance and climb to the next rung. This results in wage slavery, where you’re stuck in a minimum wage job, barely making ends meet, so you can never afford to take a chance and remain trapped,” says Vallée.

Vallee says that being a part of entrepreneurial circles in Canada, means he sees a painful lack of women founders and wants to encourage greater opportunities for female entrepreneurs. 

“To unwind inter-generational poverty and the patriarchy, we must understand that it’s the risk takers that end up ruling the world. In addition to a basic income, I also advocate for the early academic teaching of decision models and risk quantification models – which we currently only teach in grad school. It should be mandatory in high school for everybody. Tying this back to my interest in women in technology, I believe that a UBI can help entrepreneurship in general, and disproportionately so for female entrepreneurs,” says Vallée.

It may be argued that the consequences of bankruptcy are scarier for some women than men in our society, which is why we have more things like women’s shelters, because desperate circumstances, for the most vulnerable, which means they need a safe place to go. Men may also go through it, but we don’t create men’s shelters in the same circumstances.  To this end, it may be fair to say that rock bottom set at zero is far more hostile to women in our society.

“When you set rock bottom to a basic living wage instead of zero, you create the kind of circumstances where you can afford to make a bet on yourself. Zero is known not to work, that’s why we create social structures like the welfare state, shelters, and food banks and so on. We have taken all this personal agency and freedom away and replaced it with a very arbitrary number we decided was zero. It seems like an unfair trade. Instead of zero why not reset to a basic income that permits people to live in dignity?” says Vallée.

Basic income is a practical solution to a model problem, and the alternatives seem to be to create a nanny state or a police state and for Vallée, neither are desirable. Understanding the need for a major shift in public policy and perception, Vallée started to advocate for basic income and joined the board of Directors of the Basic Income Canada Network in 2015 – which is the Canadian branch of a global movement called Basic Income Earth Network.

“We have made enormous progress in Ontario, we have a UBI pilot project, which has allies on both the left and the right side of politics. The designer of the pilot is Hugh Segal, who was formerly a prominent conservative senator in Canada. Basic income is not a movement that belongs to the left or right. In fact, the most recent major UBI proposal in the US was championed by Richard Nixon. The Democrats were the ones that killed it,” says Vallée.

Vallée argues that while it is perceived to be a progressive idea, the concept creates a smaller Government apparatus, which will allow for the dismantling of a nanny state and replace it with a UBI that is unconditional – which will ultimately generate enough savings to make it a sustainable alternative as ironically, poverty is extremely expensive.

“In Ontario, the total cost of poverty is in the CAD 32 billion range, including social programs, a lost opportunity for tax revenue, and a lost opportunity for productivity. The UBI program for all of Canada according to Queens’ University is between CAD 40-58 billion. Which means we can fund nearly two-thirds of the cost of UBI just by reducing the cost of poverty, says Vallée.

Vallée is not alone on his advocacy of basic income. Major players such as the president of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s largest start-up incubator, Sam Altman, has planned a basic income experiment in Oakland, California to see how the system works. Starting in 2017, roughly 100 people will receive USD 2,000 a month, no questions asked. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes is also an active supporter of UBI, arguing that rather than try to restructure the US economy, so it looks like the 1950s, more honesty is needed from leadership on the state of the nation.

Another high profile supporter of UBI, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, told CNBC in a recent interview that “there’s a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation”.

For Vallée, understanding the ‘machine of society’ whether it be socio or economic, is vital to a thriving society and for those who were fortunate to make the ‘good bet’ he argues that we all have a collective obligation to help unlock the maximum potential of human beings who are less fortunate.

“Whether it be about increasing female entrepreneurship or using basic income to stop wage slavery, if we create a context where people can take a chance on themselves and as a society we start steering as opposed to sleepwalking through the inevitable challenges of technological unemployment, we can really create an awesome future for our society. We get to decide, is it going to be a utopia or a dystopia? I’ve been to Riyadh and it’s an awful place. There is a gun turret at every corner and a concrete chicane at every mall and hotel downtown. This is a city where if you can afford to shop or stay at a hotel you’re a target and the reason is income disparity. If we are not careful, that’s the future we have to look forward to. We are trending towards it already, for instance in the San Francisco Bay Area. There, you’re either homeless, a member of the working poor, or a member of the tech elite. There has been massive erosion of the middle class. I want to create a world where we have a functioning social ladder, where hard work, industry, and intelligence lets you unlock a better life for yourself,” says Vallée.


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