Interview: AWS’s Teresa Carlson talks about new role and cloud adoption during Covid-19

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After leading the public sector practice at Amazon Web Services (AWS), Teresa Carlson has expanded her role in 2020 to include the firm’s financial services, energy services, telecommunications, and aerospace and satellite industry business units, and is using a cross-sector approach to push a digital economy vision worldwide.

Carlson founded AWS’s public sector business in 2010, with a focus on how government departments, educational institutions and not-for-profit organisations across the world could benefit from the cloud, an area in which she reports to have made “enormous progress” over the years. Currently, more than 5,000 government agencies, over 10,000 education institutions and more than 28,000 non-profit organisations around the world use AWS.

The expansion of Carlson’s remit is part of AWS’s push to support countries in their overall digital transformation plans, and reflects a perception that these conversations cannot be limited to decision-makers in government. “When you go into any country that wants to become a digital nation, you start working with these other industries, and they are all so connected – financial services, energy, renewables, telecommunications,” Carlson tells Computer Weekly.

“Any government or country always wants to talk about what’s happening in the financial services startup space, and with 5G coming on-stream, everyone wants to be able to take advantage of the technology and its capabilities. We work with governments to create renewable energy models around solar, so  my role expansion just made a lot of sense.”

According to Carlson, discussions over technology advancement in areas such as cloud in businesses and government are intertwined, and guided by the premise that public-private partnerships are crucial to advance countries’ overall plans to create a digital economy – and not all sectors will be in the same stage of the modernisation journey.

“That means a reinvention of many industries, as well as teaching and working with them directly on how they take advantage of cloud innovation,” she says, adding that skills creation is a crucial area to enable customers move faster towards a cloud-based approach, with programmes such as AWS’s training and certification academy and the re/Start initiative, which equips people for careers in the cloud and connects them to potential employers.

“It’s not just about working directly with governments, but all that effort surrounding the government,” says Carlson. “Technology allows you to start companies and work virtually, and not just be dependent on face-to-face infrastructure.”

This is crucial to kick-start economies in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, she says, adding: “For a nation to be prosperous and create new economic development, it needs jobs that we know are higher paying and provide opportunities.”

Dealing with regulation

Many of the industries Carlson is embracing in her new role beyond government are also heavily regulated, with strict compliance and security policies, as well as data integrity and classifications concerns that have to be taken into account in cloud roll-outs. She says private sector businesses share many of the cloud adoption hurdles seen in the public sector, including the multiple local operating protocols in place for data, as well as operating standards.

“They are all very much similar, believe it or not, to the way government operates,” she adds. “And I think that’s why there is a good opportunity.”

Carlson says AWS works alongside these heavily regulated industries to help them set their standards and use a cloud-based model to move more quickly, and assess security and compliance aspects.

Public policy is another important area of focus for AWS, says Carlson, noting that the company works “very closely” with policymakers across the various industries it serves to educate them about the possibilities technology offers.

“A lot of the time, policymakers are also in their learning journey about new technologies, so it is important to let them ask questions and dive deep, because you never want your regulators or policymakers to be doing their job without all the information they need,” she adds.

Focus on cloud and data

Carlson has mapped out a number of multi-sector technology trends that have emerged during 2020 and will continue to unfold in 2021. As well as virtual work and study environments, which she says are here to stay, there are other developments that are gaining traction.

She notes that AWS has seen more innovation generated from customers in the last few months of the pandemic than it had seen in the last couple of years, much of it enabled by cloud and data, and this trend will not slow down in 2021.

“We see a big move towards a common operating picture of data and sharing it more,” says Carlson. “You’ve heard a lot about the idea and concept of machine learning and artificial intelligence in data lakes. During Covid, both enterprise customers and the public sector have realised the power of taking their data sitting in a data lake and hydrating that data away with all the important information and then crunching all that very quickly.”

According to Carlson, this increasing reliance on data has been illustrated by the healthcare sector, where organisations needed insights into their operations to be able to provide for current and future demand for treatment and testing, genomics research and, in the pharmaceutical industry, in relation to the various aspects of production and delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Pharmaceutical industries we’ve seen develop the best in vaccines at breakneck speed, and that can only be done with their use of data analytics at scale,” she says, adding that retail is another example where operations have been data-intensive as companies seek to help consumers shop more effectively and understand their shopping patterns, and the financial sector has seen similar developments.

On the other hand, there are sectors such as education – which is one of Carlson’s historic areas of focus and interest – that have traditionally been slower to implement new technology. Things have changed considerably in recent months with students shifting to online schooling because of Covid-19, but the executive says the move to remote learning is not the only aspect of digitisation in the sector.

“The rapid shift to remote learning is a brilliant and perhaps the most immediate example of digitisation in the education sector, but there are other initiatives,” she says. “We’re seeing schools set up chatbots to deal with the increased call volume that they have in the school systems, establishing mental health hotlines to deal with students having issues with being isolated during this time.”

Reflecting on the rapid change the education sector has experienced in the last few months, Carlson also notes that cloud-enabled startups are thriving. She gives the example of Firefly, a UK edtech with more than a million users in over 40 countries. The system enables teachers to set homework, students to share and access resources, and parents to track progress, and is delivered through the AWS cloud.

Another case study cited by Carlson is Better Examinations, an Irish company that develops an online exam management system using machine learning to allow students to continue sitting exams remotely via an internet-connected device. “That doesn’t sound that big a deal, but most of these examinations had to be done in person and it has been a massive change in the industry to be able to monitor people with webcams and show identification and do all that virtually,” she says.

Skills and diversity

The inclusion of under-represented communities in the IT sector is another of Carlson’s passions. Among the initiatives she has led at AWS is We Power Tech, a diversity and inclusion initiative that has engaged more than 1,000 people across eight countries worldwide in two years. It aims to ensure that groups including women are reflected throughout AWS’s outreach efforts.

Commenting on AWS’s diversity efforts, Carlson highlights the evolution of the strategy from gender to a broader scope. “I’d go around the world and talk to the best influential women I could find and say that we’ve got to get young girls excited about jobs in all areas of technology, not just coding,” she says. “I used to focus on young girls – I wanted them to understand that smart was beautiful, that using your mind was a beautiful thing. We then saw it wasn’t just about gender, but we also needed diversity and technology.”

Carlson adds: “What we’re trying to do now is just have a variety of programmes, not limit ourselves and make sure that we’re reaching out in every way and very much focused on diversity and equality, with tons of programming and accessibility.”

At re:Invent this year, AWS announced that it was investing “hundreds of millions” of dollars to “democratise knowledge” and address the need for cloud-related skills with free training for 29 million people worldwide by 2025.

Beyond plugging the skills gap, Carlson has many goals for 2021, but her priority will be to demonstrate the opportunity to organisations across various sectors to move more quickly and improve the use of their data to enhance go-to-market strategies, while also reducing cost and providing accessibility to their audiences.

“All the sectors under my new remit are important,” she says, “financial services, telecommunications, healthcare, technology, renewables, space, education. It’s all about the mission programmes they run and making sure that we’re helping each and every one of those industries give access to all.

“If I look back in a year’s time and say what one big thing could we have done, it’s really helping them create the tools for accessibility and ideas for not leaving anyone behind.”

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