Jean-François Barsoum

Senior Innovation Executive at IBM Canada

Jean-François Barsoum has over 20 years of experience at IBM where his focus is on understanding and communicating the societal and environmental impacts of technology. He was part of the core team that built the smart city concepts in the early 2000s.

Currently, his main objective is to communicate and popularise climate change solutions, smart city innovations, and the potential impacts of autonomous vehicles.

In 2008, he was selected by Al Gore’s Climate Project to be trained by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He later joined the board of directors of the Canadian branch of Mr. Gore’s Foundation for Climate change education.

He regularly advises startups in incubators and accelerators, and is developing large research collaborations with several Canadian universities in Artificial Intelligence and Quantum computing.

Work and impact

My role entails a few different sets of responsibilities. The focus areas are: relationships with the startup ecosystems and venture capital; research collaborations; and collaborating with the sustainability consulting practice. So my answer is different for all three of those functions. On the startup side, it’s mostly coaching and helping companies that focus on areas such as transportation, mobility, the environment, and water. On the research side, it’s assisting with research in any of the previously mentioned areas. For the consulting domain, I focus on helping the sustainability practice with contracts they have in my area of expertise (smart cities and environment). I typically help them with how technology can be integrated into their work on sustainability; that can vary as it is very project dependent. Over time, I’ll say the proportion of the work that is focused on sustainability has increased but there are political environments that change and that drives different behavior.

You’d have to go back pretty far for me not to be working on those three different areas. So focus has remained the same, there hasn’t been a massive change over the past seven or eight years. Before that, when I was consulting, sustainability was more of a personal interest because there was not a lot of tech strategy consulting that was tied into climate change. That has changed dramatically over the past few years. If you go back seven years ago, if you were doing environmental consulting, most of it was in engineering: the focus might be on determining if a construction project would impact a water table, for example. Compliance and environmental monitoring were the keys. Over the past few years there has been much broader interest in things such as greenhouse gas reduction, climate change mitigation and adaptation. This is something that we’ve known was going to be important (for 25 years at least!) but in the business consciousness it’s a relatively recent realization.

Having worked in tech strategy consulting for some time, some colleagues and I felt that the changes brought on by climate change would profoundly impact business practices in several areas. We attempted to create a consulting practice focused on that issue, but the market wasn’t yet mature enough, and somewhat removed from traditional technology expertise. Still, IBM explored the possibilities and at first, applied its manufacturing and nanotechnology patents to uses such as photovoltaic panel efficiency and water filtration membranes (for desalination) – clean power and clean water being two of the world’s most pressing needs. After a while though, we began to see how a data driven approach could help solve core environmental problems tied to GHG emissions (smart grid for power generation and smart transportation for vehicle emissions), as well as municipal and watershed issues (smart water). The right scale to tackle these three issues is, broadly speaking, cities: so our environmental concern was translated into a smart city approach, looking at gathering the data related to power, transportation and water, with the goal of optimizing and reducing waste and emissions tied to these activities.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, purpose comes after basic needs – like a decent salary… Motivation for impact work varies tremendously for each individual. Usually there’s a personal reason why it becomes a focus area; and the conditions have to be right (you’re comfortable your basic needs can be met). In my case, the timing coincided with the birth of my first daughter. I started thinking about the world that she was going to live in. That’s when I started thinking a little bit more about the future. 

Many people get that consciousness much earlier – maybe I was a bit late – but having children is a starting point for many. You might be doing well in the job you’re doing and then you start thinking a little bit more about “purpose”. Twenty years ago, your employer’s purpose wasn’t seen as relevant and acting on your personal sense of purpose  was almost a luxury – the job market wasn’t as plentiful. In many industries, and especially in tech, employers are chasing after employees like never before: job applicants can afford to be picky and find companies that are more aligned with their values and purpose. That wasn’t always the case. The may swing back, but I hope it doesn’t.

We talked about engineering a little bit earlier and how engineering has been fundamental to environmental compliance and environmental efforts over the years. In technology, we’ve seen both the rise of IoT (Internet of Things) and AI, which is essentially the management of big data, and both those things allow us to instrument a number of things, including the environment. So you can see forests and lakes are being instrumented in order to better understand them and how they operate. We can amass huge amounts of data and analyze it to try and figure out things like, “where’s the best place to put clean energy operations for renewable energy production?” 

Engineering is important, and so are climate science and weather forecasting; but AI and IoT support that in very fundamental ways. In the future, you’ll need to know about engineering but also know how to use AI. You’re going to have to start working with both fields and acting as a broker between “what can the technology do” and “what does the science tell us”. People with transverse skills will be treasured. That’s not something that school prepares us well for – we’re often directed to specialize. We learn about one domain, we learn about it well, but once we’re out in the real world, we end up with several specialists that cannot interact with people in other silos. There aren’t very many people that actually understand the convergence and the interplay between two fields – we’ll need more of them.

There is a misconception that to work in this space you need to have a really strong technology background – and nothing else. It’s important in most cases of course… (Although admittedly, I came into that business not knowing much about technology. I did my MBA in strategy and human resources and I did my undergrad in economics and sociology. So I didn’t really have the tech background but it was a personal interest of mine.) 

But the reality is that in technology, you need to bridge a business discussion with a technology discussion. We need somebody that can both understand the technology, but also understand market, business or corporate priorities and be able to mediate between those two worlds. There are roles for people who can only code and don’t really understand what they are coding for; but those roles are relatively limited and so is their growth. To do well, you need to understand the technology and understand the business and understand how the two are going to change each other. Understanding technology will get you a good job and a good salary when you graduate, but over time, you need to work on other skills.

Life and aspirations

There’s no typical workday. The only thing that is constant is the meetings – some are necessary, some are excruciating, some are pleasant, but that’s still the best way to get a group of people to understand and agree on complex issues. Much of that is related to various forms of communication: talking to customers, external experts and stakeholders in your field, different stakeholders in your own company. 

The next component is personal improvement: reading, acquiring knowledge, trying to soak up what’s new. Some weeks it’s at least 20% of my time – my field changes all the time, and staying current is important.  A hundred years ago, when you left school you knew everything you needed to know for the rest of your working life – now your educational baggage is good for maybe a year, and then you have to relearn. You really have to take that to heart and understand that things change very quickly. 

Some weeks, when I’m working on a specific project, I’ll spend a lot of time with customers and with a team internally – brainstorming, creating synthesis documents, presentation decks, business cases… I am typically brought in as a subject matter expert so I’m only a part time contributor here; full time consultants that do that kind of work all the time. 

Additionally, I spend some of my time speaking externally at various events although there was more of that aspect prior to the pandemic. 

As for my work life balance, that hasn’t been a problem but that’s because I work for an employer that considers that to be important. Not all do, and not all employers or jobs are right for certain times in your life. A lot of consulting jobs, for example, are extremely demanding timewise, but when I started, I didn’t really care. You could work 60-70 hours a week and it didn’t matter as much – you don’t yet have your own family to raise, your friends are at work. You have to think about what time of your life you are in and how you want to spend your time. Long work hours early in your career can be a great accelerator, but know when to take your foot off the pedal and look for a bit more balance when the time is right.

Right now, because of the pandemic, and because networking is an important part of my job, I’d say that’s the difficult part. It is more difficult to meet new people and understand what their problems are. Personal connections are difficult to build right now. 

Over time, the most difficult part of any job is learning that the job is going to change. Take climate change: ten or fifteen years ago, I could spend a lot of time explaining why climate change was important and why we needed to do something about it. The focus has changed: we need to address those challenges and what that means in a very concrete way. Adaptation is always going to happen and that’s really the toughest thing. Again, as mentioned earlier, you need to be prepared to be continuously learning even after only being out of school for a few years. 

Sometimes, you might be tempted to relax and feel that you have learned enough and can coast for a while…  but really, you can’t coast very long. It’s like a car, you hit the accelerator and if you lay off eventually, the car will eventually stop moving. And once you slow to a stop, it takes a lot of energy to start up again.  So think of your career like that – you don’t need to go 200 miles an hour all the time, so rather than mash the accelerator all the time, make sure you give it enough energy at a constant rate that’s sustainable.

I like to be the contrarian, out of the box, “wild duck” (in some places they are still called “black sheep”); and to be an effective wild duck, you need to understand that colleagues will not always welcome your advice, but your role is important if the company is to evolve. 

A friend of mine had done some post graduate research about people that she called “tempered radicals”. Her view was that if an employee was too radical, they would not stay in the company and have no impact.  A “tempered” radical is somebody who pushes the envelope, not enough to be let go or to want to quit, but enough to make the company change, and the world change by extension. Large companies that don’t have tempered radicals, or wild ducks, eventually just wither and die because they can’t adapt.

Advice for the next generations

So the first one, which is under-represented and undervalued, is the ability to communicate clearly. The ability to take a complex idea and make it simple. We’re bombarded with information and data all the time and what people need to act on is something that’s a little bit simpler and more direct. There aren’t that many people that can do that. You’re going to lose some detail when you do that but if you keep the essence, then it works great. 

The second one is, acquire enough knowledge of technology to understand what’s going on and how it works, regardless of what field you are in. I’m not an AI expert but I know enough to detect BS, at least some of the time. 

The third one (I’m not sure if that’s a skill) is having a goal. What is it that you’re trying to achieve? And why are you trying to achieve it? My goal is focused on helping the world reduce its environmental impact and adapt to climate change. Other people may have different objectives or goals but whatever they are, they will helpp you make choices about where to go in your career. “Should I take this job or not” or “Where should I move to”  – these decisions are hard if you don’t have a goal. And of course, your goal will be tied to your purpose.

Certainly to work in technology, you need to have some knowledge of tech, and it’s important to have a degree that’s related to tech somehow. Whether it’s software engineering, or math or physics, anything that’s STEM related, will probably get you in. If you’re in math, physics, or engineering, you’re going to be able to find a job in technology, because your mind works in a way that you’re going to be able to understand how things work. 

If you take a field like biology, there’s a real need for people who understand both biology and AI, for example, so you are going to be able to find a job in that particular area. 

The way I’d suggest thinking about it is this: figure out how your degree is going to be important in the field you are choosing to work in. For example, if I choose to be interested in economics, and I want to work in technology, I’m going to have to find a way to determine how something like AI and economics intersect and how I can play there. Is it something around understanding the carbon markets, for example?

Clarity and structure in your communication is important. Being able to create an argument that has structure, that has a beginning and an end is really important. That may sound basic but I’ve seen many people graduate without those skills. Soft skills like respect, and listening skills are also something all employers look out for.

I would have gotten a technical degree. My choices worked out for me but right now, if I think back to my career path, a technical degree would have been a great accelerator and opened a few doors. Perhaps I was lucky that the social sciences I took had a massive amount of statistics and math; by coincidence, that turned out to be really important for AI.

For career advice, you often hear people say “do what motivates you” or “do what’s aligned with your purpose”. But you also get the other side: “do something practical” – this we often get from our parents. The real challenge is trying to find a life where you can do both: a career that’s useful and that will give you purpose. The people that are successful are the ones, I believe, that have managed to do that.