Karen Base Interview

Q1: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Karen: I love that question, and I think that this is a very forward-thinking question. I believe that there is value in learning from our past to create forward-thinking workplaces. Something I've seen work well date back decades ago when I was just a young professional venturing into the real world. What worked well in that environment was an apprentice model, where every single individual has a connection with a mentor or teacher, somebody who is aligned with their values and skill set — somebody who's been there, done that, who will help them learn the skills and cultural awareness needed to succeed.  

This concept is not new, but we ought to consider the strengths of the approach and modernize it for current and future adaptions, leveraging technologies that are available to increase the effectiveness of this approach. McKinsey & Company published a nice piece on this topic a couple years ago.  Speaking from my personal experience, I’ve seen the apprentice model work well because you can gain so much from being an apprentice to somebody you admire and connect with at multiple levels. There's a skill set and professional level, but also a very personal level. I've been assigned mentors I didn't work with because I couldn't connect with them personally. And so I think the pairing of apprentice to mentor should be well thought out. I think you really need to take into account not just skills, not just I want to grow up to be like that person, but some core values play into it because those are the things that stick, that make it effective and makes it fun, quite frankly, for both parties. So, the apprenticeship model allows everybody to get that personalized attention, and they don't mind getting it. It doesn't come across as somebody's micromanaging me. It comes across as somebody's helping me and helping me avert issues that may be damaging or accelerates my learning.

And so your state of mind shifts from perhaps anxiety to something more positive, seeing work as a fun thing, which naturally leads to a feeling of safety that enables you to be more engaged, feel valued and heard. Having this comfort level helps you wake up and look forward to beginning your day because you know somebody's got your back. I don’t want to give the impression that it cannot be scaled effectively in a larger organization. It’s actually an interconnected web if you zoom out and look at the possibilities of pairings if the culture is such that everyone is expected to learn and mentor/teach. I may be an apprentice to somebody from a skill set perspective, and we're having fun, we're co-creating, and I'm learning a lot from her. I might lean on somebody else about what it takes to kind of think differently than myself. In turn, I would help someone with a product or situation that he or is struggling with.

I think these days it's easier more than ever to connect with mentor or apprentice. I mean, after the pandemic and after we've all been isolated and physically separated, it has become very natural to connect with anybody in the world.  We can create virtual workplaces that are quite effective and that allow people to be happy, feel safe, and therefore creates an environment for innovation — innovation of process, technology, methodologies, innovation from multiple angles, in multiple areas.

Q2: What do people really lack and long for at work?

Karen: That is a great question for where we are today in history — post-pandemic, in the age of ubiquitous and rapid technology availability. We're continuing to learn to adjust to post-pandemic living and working. How do we operate as a society? How do we show up at work in an effective, productive way, and makes us all happier and more balanced? 

I think what I'm seeing, just anecdotally talking to my network, colleagues, friends, and family, seems to be a longing for closeness and interaction. We're very close to our families in our pods. But now that the world has opened up, some of the problems we must tackle as a society and as a planet require us to work together more closely but from afar yet far, right? So far away, yet close. So I think that people yearn for that closeness. They yearn for a sense of purpose in an environment where we're still geographically separated.

It's easy to be out of sight, out of mind. It's very real. Managers of people who really tend to focus on the work and forget about time with the staff. It’s really easy to forget the caring and nurturing of the staff they're responsible for growing, advising, and connecting with. So it's that connection that I feel is lacking for many people all the way up the chain.

There used to be a saying, it's lonely at the top. Right now, it's lonely at every level. And so, how do we tackle that? I think it's about addressing this out of sight, out of mind mentality, having processes in place, and a culture where you incentivize connections. And it doesn't have to be real-time. It could be just a quick text. It could be a message on any of the social or texting or communication collaboration platforms just to check in on people.

The rate of depression has skyrocketed, I think, as a result of this. It's very convenient to work from home, wherever you are, wherever you want. It is very convenient, but it also creates loneliness. I think people lack that level of closeness, yet they want the convenience of not having to drive to work every day. Some people like the hybrid model as a way to ease in to physical connections again. I know I do because that helps get you out of the house and talking to people face to face, getting to be together, to be elbow to elbow with somebody, with a group, and collaborate and co-create and do something meaningful. The bottom line is there's a sense of loneliness, even though we may not feel it as directly all the time, but that seems to be what's missing here.

Q3: Karen, can you explain what a fractional CTO is for those unfamiliar with the term and how it differs from a traditional full-time CTO role?

Karen: So this concept of fractional executive, and in my case, fractional CTO, refers to a model that allows a company to hire an experienced chief [fill in the blank] officer on a project basis, on a part-time basis. There are a lot of different ways that you can tap into what amounts to a fraction of the time for a C-suite for hire. And so that's how it differs from a traditional full-time CxO. 

Let’s take a CTO example… a full time CTO is on your payroll year round, and he or she is usually responsible for  many things internal and external to the organization. For example, internal operational concerns may involve addressing: what are our IT systems doing that’s not optimized? Do we have the right talent to upkeep our infrastructure, prevent and respond to cyber threats, etc.  They're also responsible for strategic concerns of the company.Advising the Board of Directors on technology driven or enabled growth strategies, educating their peers about technology trends, addressing areas like: how can we be more competitive and be more differentiated in the market? A full-time CTO would cover all of that for a company. And they focus their time and energy on many different things year-round, year after year. A fractional CTO, on the other hand, tends to come in and address a specific thing, a specific area, that a company needs help with. 

A scenario could be a fractional CTO hired to come in to help a company that's in need of defining and getting a technology perspective on their growth strategy. They may be asking themselves: how can I leverage what my capabilities are more effectively? How can I meet my target growth ambitions for my company more creatively? What can I do from a technology advancements perspective that I'm not doing today? So you would hire a fractional CTO — in and out type of an arrangement — to come in for a consulting assignment, to help you see yourself clearly from an outsider's viewpoint, see the organization/the company, in a very clear manner without bias, and be able to bring some different perspectives and ideas, and map out a roadmap to get to what you want to achieve to get better internally and meet or exceed your growth ambitions.

That is an example of how you'd use a fractional CTO. You would hire them for a few weeks or a few months, get executive level experience to deliver on something of importance, and let them go without ongoing commitment. However, a fractional CTO could also be more than project-based. If the company’s need is more continuous, it could also consider an arrangement where a fractional CxO would work a fraction of the time throughout the year on a retainer basis. 

Q4: In what scenarios do you find that companies benefit most from hiring a fractional CTO rather than a full time CTO?

Karen: I think small and medium sized businesses are prime cases for hiring a fractional rather than a full-time CTO. These companies don't have the money to hire an expensive executive yet. They're still working on some basic things to make their business more stable. Yet they have a lot of great ideas, and they have challenges in terms of how can I get big company thinking, big company experience, to help me and meet my big aspirations. I don't have the investment funds and I don't have enough for a full-time CTO to do. 

The answer is to hire a fractional CTO, to be there to guide the strategic planning to ensure it is in the realm of possibilities. So, yeah, companies that either don't have the money to hire a full-time CTO, small companies typically, or companies that may have maybe a CIO (Chief Information Officer) that tend to be a very good liaison between your infrastructure and your technologies and the business but they've been there for a long time. You may want to have a different perspective. So then you might bring in an outsider CTO for a short period of time to balance out the legacy leadership and get more diversity in thought. So those are two scenarios where I think one small business that can't afford to have a full-time CTO and, quite frankly, isn't ready for that yet in their growth journey.

Where we are today with the global economic challenges, even big companies aren't hiring executives, but they still need the work done. They still need the input. They still need that thought leadership. And so the economical way to do it is hire a fractional CTO and be able to still get work done and achieve forward momentum, without the big commitment of a full time executive — you don't have to pay for the fringe and benefits of an executive. Think of the big bonuses, paying for all those nice perks, that can be saved. It's much more economical, lower risk and just as effective going the fractional route.

Q6: What inspired you to become a fractional CTO? And how did you transition into this role?

Karen: I've been a technology enthusiast and practitioner my whole life. As you know, I started off as a practitioner, becoming more of a strategist these days, constantly getting deeper understanding of emerging technologies and how they can be applied to solve problems and make this a better world. One of my mentors suggested that I try this CTO program that Wharton offers. I spent last year going through the program and loved learning about all the aspects of technology leadership. It was a top notch program and I would highly recommend it, by the way. Going through that program, while I performed as a CTO at my job at the time, solidified my interest in this path. However, coming from a consulting background where I got exposure to a lot of different clients, a lot of different domains, leveraging a lot of different solution sets, I found myself missing the variety.  When I interviewed for CTO jobs, it felt a bit unfulfilling because, where I am in my life, in my professional journey, I want to do a lot of different interesting things instead of being anchored down with any one organization.

So I thought about what it would be like to work for many different organizations and be able to go back to my consulting roots, doing a lot more high-impact work for many different clients. I have a lot of friends that own small companies and I started working with them while I was on my sabbatical this year, as I was exploring what I want to do next professionally. And I found a lot of joy in working for small companies, for my friends, colleagues, and people I've known for decades. I realized that I had more interest and skin in the game, helping these wonderful companies that have noble missions and want to do good things, want to create great work environments, want to be the best place that people want to work for and so on. Working for those folks brought me a lot of joy and satisfaction, to be able to help a small company get stronger and have a chance at competing or working in a big ocean of larger companies.

So what inspired me was my friends and old colleagues who were doing great things already and just needed a boost that I could offer.  It felt amazing to see the impact that I could have on people I cared about. There are so many people running companies, trying to do good work, operating in a “family style” type of culture that resonated with me and aligned with my core values.

Karen: The tech world is definitely challenging to keep up with at today’s rate. The way I keep up is every day I carve out some time where I scan interesting sources of information — whether it's LinkedIn articles or maybe Wall Street Journal articles or whatever sources there are out there, and just kind of look for highlights, what's going on in the world of tech, what's going on in the world of innovation? I do a lot of self-study. I think it’s fun to see what the leaders in their field talk about, what their perspectives are, and how they view certain emerging technologies, answering questions like: What are the challenges? What are the gotchas? There are so many people out there worthy of following to learn from.  

I do try to do some hands-on experimentation as time allows, like playing with code snippets or AI tools and applications. I think that's a very effective way to stay relevant and understand what works well and not so well. 

I also attend conferences. I just came back from Ted AI in San Francisco, where big names from AI offered thought-provoking perspectives from many different industries and lenses, solving a variety of challenges from policies to ensure responsible AI, to predicting protein structures for precision medicine. If you pick the right conference, you can learn so much in a short period of time. There are so many interesting things that happen at conferences outside of sessions too. You run into old friends, colleagues and clients — all of whom want to talk about the technology’s application to their world, so more learning goes on!

Between reading articles, taking micro-learning trainings, trying to keep up with certifications here and there, getting out there and conversing with peers and experts, I get a good dose of continuous knowledge upkeep. In the end, it's really about seeking opportunities to learn something new every day and just as important to reinforce what you’ve learned through practice and knowledge retention methods.


Q8: Was there anything surprising at the Ted AI that came up for you?

There were so many “Wow!” moments that were unexpected. There was a retired poker player, Liv Boeree, who talked about the Moloch Trap, conveying the dangers of competing for the wrong reasons and allowing the race to dominate take away something that is more precious along the way.  She talked about how competition for the sake of competition moves very rapidly at the cost of perhaps unintended consequences of things that we might destroy, possibly resulting in a lesser world when we all lose. I thought it was interesting to see so many speakers ahead of her talking about how fast things are going and we all need to keep up, and yet here is somebody that is saying maybe we slow down a bit and be thoughtful of the intense competition and its consequences.

Stephen Wolfram’s talk about computation as it relates to AI was mind blowing. He talked about a computational language that can help conceptualize anything in the universe. This talk was so magnificently complex that I was just in awe. This guy spent decades of work on this amazingly powerful development which can now be leveraged by AI can to convey a vast amount of concepts very effectively. He received a much deserved standing ovation.

What I learned in Rob Toews’ talk about the semiconductor industry was extremely shocking. His quote “The entire field of artificial intelligence faces a single point of failure in Taiwan.” was a rude awakening for me and many of the people in the audience. I haven’t paid much attention to the world of semiconductors so I was very surprised at how delicate the situation is with AI technology’s dependency on TSMC, the Taiwanese company with manufacturing capabilities far far ahead of the second and third largest companies in the world: Samsung and Intel. Given the geopolitical tensions in that region between China and Taiwan, one can only imagine the impact on AI dependent applications if something should happen to impair TSMC’s production. I always knew that Taiwan was the biggest manufacturer of chips that Nvidia, AWS and other companies design, but I certainly didn't realize how far ahead they were regarding precision and the ability to create these chips at scale.


Bill: How is AI going to impact what you do?

Karen: AI is a tool. No matter what your role is, whether you're a CTO, a developer, a life sciences researcher, a teacher, or a medical doctor, AI is going to be ubiquitous and, I believe, ultimately your friend if used properly. AI is here to stay and it’s only going to get smarter. I personally am excited about leveraging AI technologies to enhance my personal life as well as make me a more productive professional.

As a CTO, I can use AI as a tool in many ways. The most obvious one is leveraging it to summarize large volumes of information. If there are loads and loads of documents that a company would provide to me, such as model proposals used to win work, AI could be used to summarize what was it about those proposals that made them exemplary. What are the prevalent patterns in all those documents can help me understand what this company does that well and their tendencies.

In this case, AI helps sift through a lot of data and a lot of information and brings pretty accurate information to inform me as a fractional CTO to be able to advise and come up with a roadmap pretty quickly, saving my clients money in the form of hours spent on understanding their status quo. So I see AI as an enabler, as a very useful tool. It doesn't (at least currently) replace the creative parts of validating the findings through stakeholder interviews and developing the content of the deliverables. 

Another way I use AI is to “beautify” my deliverables. I tend not to be the best at creating Powerpoint decks, but that's a skill that is no longer a crutch for me. We now have these tools that can create nice looking decks, with your rough content as input, that can be a starting point for further tweaking. This can help someone like me quickly create a polished presentation that is at the quality level that I would be proud to submit. These are just a couple of simple examples but the possibilities of using tools such as Copilot to assist in many ways is so very exciting!