In-Focus Podcast

Building the Base Episode 19: Shyam Sankar COO, Palantir Technologies, Inc.

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In this week’s episode of Building the Base, Hondo and Lauren join Shyam Shankar, Chief Operating Officer of Palantir, to discuss the future of the defense industrial network.

Shyam’s experience in Palantir and Silicon Valley pushes him to advocate for better use of the US’s strong tech sector in the national security realm. He emphasizes building an understanding between the diverse people across the future industrial network and allies around the world. He thinks that the DoD and private sector can do better to integrate new tech and assist burgeoning startups. He truly advocates for the mission of national security and how fulfilling it can be for those entering the national security workforce.

Hondo, Lauren, and Shyam go on to discuss a variety of topics, including:

  • DoD and Silicon Valley relationship
  • Integrating cutting-edge technology and software in the public sector
  • Utilizing key allies in our future industrial network
  • Engaging and listening between private and public partners

Shyam Sankar’s Bio

A computer scientist, Shyam developed Palantir’s Forward Deployed Engineering approach, whereby technologists partner with leading government, commercial, and philanthropic institutions worldwide to solve their greatest data challenges and enable crucial outcomes.

Prior to working at Palantir, Shyam was the director of business development for Xoom Corporation, where he developed a global network of financial institutions providing low cost remittance services to immigrant communities in Africa, Southeastern Asia, India, and Latin America. Shyam has been profiled by media sources including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, National Public Radio, Bloomberg Business Week, and Forbes. He was a featured speaker at the 2013 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, TED 2010, and TED Global 2012.

He received his MS in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford University and his BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Cornell University.

Podcast Transcript

BENS Intro 00:00
The business executives for national security welcomes you to building the base here thought leaders and practitioners discuss how we can ensure our shared security and prosperity. They’re shaping the future of the national security industrial base, your hosts or Silicon Valley defense expert, Lauren Bedula, along with Ben’s Distinguished Fellow and former head of acquisition for the Navy, Marines and special operators, Hondo Geurts.

Lauren Bedula 00:30
Welcome back to building the base, Lauren Bedula, here with Hondo, Geurts and recording from the Reagan defense forum in Simi Valley. So, we’re very excited to be out here. And even more excited to have Shyam Sankar, with us who’s the Chief Operating Officer of Palantir. And John was brought to the US to escape violence and corruption in Nigeria has really interesting background, which we can’t wait to get into that story. And also developed an early love of software. So as a developer, Founder and Executive really hits on a lot of the topics we talked about, on our show, Shyam joined Palantir in 2006, we’ve been there for quite some time now. And was the first business hire and oversees all customer engagements, product strategy, and day to day operations worldwide. So Shawn, thanks so much for joining us.

Shyam Sankar 01:15
Thank you both for having me. It’s really exciting to be here.

Hondo Geurts 01:17
So we’ve had a great set of guests here. But I don’t think any guests with this unique a kind of story is yours. And, you know, we talk a lot to folks up and coming in, I think all of us have this great adventure mapped out in detail 30 years in advance. And I think many of us, it’s amazed ourselves where we get to over time, can you share a little bit of kind of your story? And, you know, how did you get from growing up and in a family to winding up with Palantir? And what attracted you to get into kind of emerging market? Thank you for

Shyam Sankar 01:50
those comments. I know, I mean, to share a little bit about my own story, I think it really starts with my father, you know, my dad was the last of nine children, he was born in a mud hut in the rural part of southern India. And, you know, his is kind of a classic immigrant story where just through the shared sacrifice of so many other of his family members, he was able to get a job in Africa, he actually helped build the first pharmaceutical manufacturing facility there. Until then all drugs were really important to the continent. And, you know, he worked really hard to bring us to the US. And I’ll share a little bit about that, that journey there. And, you know, really instilled in myself and my brother, just eternal gratefulness for being here and what it really means to be American and to be part of this great society. So my father, when he was in Africa, we had to flee great violence, there was there was an armed robbery at our house, my father was almost killed. My mother and I were almost killed. And so we had to, we left everything, literally, and came as refugees and settled in, in Florida. And I was raised with this eternal gratefulness from him that, you know, just just remember what you have, when you ought to be dead in a ditch, that that’s actually the counterfactual reality. And no matter how far things get, you should be so proud and so happy and just make sure you give back that you had the opportunity to be here. And as many of my generation, I was in college during 911, I was in upstate New York, and I tried everything I possibly could to drop out of school and join CIA actually, but I think it was probably like everyone else in the country at the time. And, you know, that opportunity and open up for me, but after, after undergrad, I went to Silicon Valley, I worked in tech for a while. And when I heard about this company of a handful of people who wanted to work on promising counterterrorism, I was so excited. And it felt like the opportunity to give back and I was always looking for and at a time where I think quite frankly, I think the irrelevance of everything else was was kind of clear was kind of hollow, you know, what are we doing here? What are we building? Why does this matter? A lot of empty platitudes and the ultimate opportunity, you know, in 2005 2006, to be completely honest, it was much more likely than not that we were going to fail in delivering anything in this ambitious endeavor. But I would much rather have failed working on a problem this meaningful and valuable. And that’s how I ended up volunteering. That’s awesome.

Lauren Bedula 04:01
And how long do you have been a strong partner to the national security and defense community for many years? And I think, especially recently, with the conflict in Ukraine, a lot of companies are stepping up and eager to support the community. But that hasn’t always been the case over the past decade or so. Especially five years. And so could you tell our listeners a little bit about that passion of what drove Palantir? Maybe you individually, and then the company to be a strong partner to the national security community?

Shyam Sankar 04:31
Yeah, I think, for everyone at Palantir Domitian matters, you know, we all could be doing so many other things. And what’s ultimately charismatic about the work is knowing we’d have this direct impact, whether it was working on the frontlines of COVID and actually delivering the vaccine supply chain, or working on frontlines of national security and the current conflict in Ukraine. So I think for all of us that’s deeply personally motivating. My family was touched by by terrorism. My uncle was a victim of the 13 coordinated train bombings in Bombay and by It’s so interesting the opportunity to work on this, it’s very clear and what this means, I think, not only for Americans, but like for the world. And then the challenges that that we kind of faced, I think in the, in the beginning, you know, software, you kind of talked about how some things or features or bugs, even if it was highly unpopular to be working for the government in Silicon Valley in 2005 2006. It was also a magnetic filter for the right sort of person, you know, there, there were some other set of people to the extent and I was one of them, to the extent you discover that this company exists, you can’t stop thinking about it. You can’t even contemplate working somewhere else. It’s the mission is so charismatic. And so it really got a very passionate and motivated group of people together. I think that was ultimately really needed. Because perhaps as we’ll continue to discuss in those days, there was almost no onramp as an outside tech company to contribute to this mission. Yeah, I

Hondo Geurts 05:51
mean, you’re bringing up a great point I was at SOCOM, just as you guys were emerging. And and I think there was a combination of not that many people in the Valley in particular, were interested in national defense. And that that many folks in national defense were either interested or had any idea how to leverage what was out there, which caused a lot of friction and discovery and learning, I think, on both sides of both powder by software, commercial product, and then how to sell a software commercial product. So it’s, it’s been good learning, what’s your What have you learned kind of on that path? As we’ve interacted and, you know, over the years trying to get, I would say, the impedance mismatch kind of better aligned so that the government can use commercial products as they’re built commercially. And and you guys have an understanding how to sell into the government in a way that makes sense to the government? Yeah,

Shyam Sankar 06:38
I think I think we’ve learned quite a bit along the way. I mean, you know, we started this journey. So naive, we didn’t even understand that that acquisition was a separate, separate and distinct discipline, we didn’t understand the mechanisms. And so there was probably a lot of unnecessary brain damage that we accumulated along the way discovering these things. But we’ve been really active in paying that forward to the rest of the tech ecosystem and helping them with that on ramp. The department itself is wholesale changed its approach its receptivity, that the outreach, it’s done, the ability to bring people in even the mindset you see is starting to change. I think we’re far from done with that journey. But it would be would be a total mistake, to not acknowledge that a sea change of progress has been made over the last decade in terms of what’s capable and how well the department can absorb

Hondo Geurts 07:22
new technology. So as we, as we think about the future industrial I call it future industrial network, because I think it’s more than just an industrial base, which, which is kind of hardware centric. Where do you see us if we’re successful five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, as a country, do you think we can align and really leverage these commercial best practices, particularly in scaling software quickly between the government and in the tech base? You think it’s possible? And what would be the one or two things that would help accelerate that more quickly?

Shyam Sankar 07:56
I think that is the question and my my view, I’m, I’m an optimist by nature here on this stuff, I think we will align I think the the kind of resilience and adaptability of the kind of American System is a second bar none. And I see that even playing out in the commercial world today, and kind of presidents of an emerging recession, depression, and the different sort of attitudes and responses of different nations to this. But I think one of the crucial things and what makes this so hard, is that, you know, for an industrial base was really built for World War Two, you didn’t have tech, you didn’t have a spread of valuation, you didn’t have this sort of accretion of talent to certain pockets within the American economy. Now we have those things, how do we account for that and motivate folks to work on these problems? And I, my, if I was going to sum up my essential policy advice, it would be spend half as much money twice as quickly.

Lauren Bedula 08:49
That’s awesome. And now, when I introduced you, I talked about how you don’t just oversee what’s going on in the US, but really worldwide. And you mentioned, we’re at this interesting time, because of the economic outlook, but also as we think about globalization or discussions around D globalization. So can you talk about how you’re thinking about international strategy and working with our allies, or maybe countries you will work with going forward?

Shyam Sankar 09:12
Yeah, the Allied coalition component has never been more more important. I think we’re only starting to really formalize this, these concepts, but we should really think about the future of the kill chain as being distributed across coalition partners. You know, some folks will be doing target nomination, target development, some other folks might be helping with PDA, on the other side, there’s going to be a series of distributed effectors that are out there. This sort of concept that’s now being discussed the Uber for fires, you know, this is all going to come together and it’s gonna be maximally effective in an allied environment. And we’re already seeing bits of that happening on the battlefield today. And so the, the coalition component could not be more important. It actually is part of our founding vision, you know, so we never thought that any one country on its own could fight terrorism, that there are a lot of dots. And it was not only hard to connect the dots within a country, but actually different countries have different components of these dots. And so you are going to need a very strong data governance framework that allows you to selectively share information securely based on classification based on need to know based on the circumstances that you were participating in. And I would say that, you know, from a series of deployments that that has, that has been wielded to great effect, and I see that even now in in the, in the Pacific with indo PAYCOM, and the multi partner environment, that the need to facilitate real time collaboration across the quad, so that everyone is looking at a single pane of glass that’s backed by a single pane of data, despite the fact that you have all these policy, all these classification all of these coalition conditions that would otherwise have hampered information sharing.

Hondo Geurts 10:48
Sure, I think one for you know, one facet that the duty still struggles with is since World War Two, largely it was a technology exporter. I mean, Silicon Valley started out of that, and a lot of that technology, 6070s semiconductors, all that were exported out of DOD, and now the DoD in large regards, gotta shift to be an importer, importer and integrator of technology. And I know one of the struggles we had in software was DOD has kind of propensity to redevelop things as opposed to leverage things we already developed. But I do think there’s been some progress in Agios and all that, are you seeing a little less of that, you know, we’ll take your ID and redevelop it as your own and more a willingness to integrate existing tech, you see that getting better or worse, where it needs to be? Or what’s your take on that?

Shyam Sankar 11:36
I think it is getting better, it’s slowly getting better. And you know, it varies by pockets. You know, there’s certain parts of the government that really place a premium on developing the software themselves or certain parts, I want to move fast. And experiment. I think, to go back to your earlier comment on the World War Two industrial base, one of the things that we really had uniquely going for us may have not seemed like it at the time, was that it was we had tremendous exigency, there was no time to quote unquote, do this right, it had to be done quickly. And I think paradoxically, often, when you have to do it quickly, you end up doing it right. And so that we should be thinking about the ways in which we can actually impose some of these constraints on us. And if we don’t, those constraints will be imposed on us, we will find ourselves in the exigency having to do these things. I do think one of the real challenges with this, you know, the DoD is responsible from the World War Two area for American prosperity. And I think somehow we’ve kind of lost that broad narrative, although I think people in this community understand that I don’t think the citizen citizenry at large does. And so Silicon Valley is a child of the department. Now the child has become so prosperous, you look at Microsoft, look at Apple, you look at American tech is dominant, it’s so dominant, that we sometimes don’t realize that it’s American tech, we just think about it as tech, you know, and with all due respect to my Israeli friends in the German Berlin tech scene, and we’re but there is no tech scene, like American tech scene there. The second pass is not even on the same chart. And so we really have to think about that as a national asset and how we integrate it. One of the things that I think makes this really hard is like, the department is still a technology exporter for some truly exquisite things. You know, so I think part of this is you have to acknowledge the asymmetry. It’s like, well, look for what we’re doing in hypersonics, what we’re doing for a whole class of things, the exquisite, amazing physics and engineering is coming from the department and its industrial base. Now for a whole other class of things that typically tends to be software, all that r&d, the scale of what innovation is, it’s coming from the commercial world. And we and I liked the word used earlier with impedance mismatch, because I think that’s exactly what it is, is how do we get these two things to match? So along these

Lauren Bedula 13:45
lines, what advice would you give founders who are thinking about starting a business focused on national security or the defense markets, or maybe not entirely focused, but as part of their business plan, any lessons learned from this experience of building such an important business in the market? And that you’d tell our listeners?

Shyam Sankar 14:04
Absolutely, there’s, look, there’s no easy button, this is going to be a hard journey. But that’s going to be true if you’re selling to a commercial world or to the government world. And the mission is highly motivating. I think one of the things that I would say with the benefit of hindsight of our own experience is that we should have listened more, you know, there’s a lot that you can learn by really understanding what are the considerations that because the consideration is more than just how explicit is your technology, you know, and it takes a lot of energy, a lot of self motivation, a lot of belief to even get your tech to that point. But equally, there’s a need to understand and meet the commander’s and the warfighters and the acquisition executives with where they are with their programs, and how you’re going to find the fast insertion path. And I think working with the industrial basis is really key. And when we started the only real options were the incumbent legacy primes, who have again, exquisite technology, but also their business model is set but in a way that doesn’t make it very rewarding for them, actually, they might be biting their own hand off to be working with you. But now we have a much broader debase the base there’s a base of, of innovative companies who are going to find a lot of value and actually can accelerate your own journey to winning here. Yeah, I

Hondo Geurts 15:17
think another thing I’ve heard a lot of folks who have gone through this talk with founders about is, don’t sell the tech sell a mission solution. And don’t be afraid to partner with other companies to you know, put one on one one together and get 15 or something to their Do you see a greater partnership line unwillingness amongst the tech community to collaborate? Or is there still too much kind of founder siloing? You know, kind of trying to do it all themselves, in spite of maybe the opportunities that are out there,

Shyam Sankar 15:50
unsurprisingly, you see the most willingness to partner on New Capture initiatives, right, like where there’s time to influence and in shape, what the contracts gonna look like. And I think that’s a large function of once the contracts awarded, it’s really hard to figure out why the economics will make sense. And so partnering, my real advice around this is that whereas in the commercial world, you might be able to have partnerships that bring fruition in six months, you should really expect the cycle time on the partnership here to pay off in take more like 24 months, which is an eternity, I know and startup time, but having that sort of lens that you’re you know, that’s what it’s going to take and and making sure you’re not misreading the motivations or intentions of your partners, I think will make this a less painful and more more rewarding sort of journey. And I like what you say I almost take it for granted, because I’ve just been steeped in this for so long. But you absolutely I think this is one of the greatest challenges for tech companies is they’re selling the tech, nobody cares about the tech, of course, I mean, they care. But that’s only, that’s only, you know, half the problem. The other half of the problem is why does it matter? And how long is it gonna get to take the matter, and I think much of the processes that have been built up have been around that. So if you if you just start with, here’s how it matters, I can prove to you that matters, it’s fielded, I’ll do the work to do that, you’re gonna goose go so much faster, you’re gonna run circles around your competition there.

Lauren Bedula 17:06
I know, you see this firsthand. And it’s something that departments thinking a lot about, as well. But when we think about technology, it’s really the people behind it, whether it’s developing adoption, implementation, people matter. How are you thinking about talent as a business, and any advice about how we can stimulate more talent in both the tech and national security realm,

Shyam Sankar 17:26
I think, you know, the greatest asset that national security has is that it is a hugely motivating space, and it draws great people towards it. And I think the same is true in tech, there are lots of folks who want to work on these problems, but the barriers to have access to some of these problems very high. And I’ve seen that, you know, we’re chopping down those barriers collectively, as a group of private and public sector agencies and organizations. But and I think we should wield that to maximum that you don’t need 100% of the country to want to work on these problems. But for the 10%, who’s highly gifted, and they could be going into any other line of business for them. This is there’s actually no better job than this. They are so excited to have this. And so I think by continuing to make the opportunity to contribute on these problems available, we will magnetically attract this sort of talent.

Hondo Geurts 18:16
Yeah, you know, one thing I noticed in the department for a long time was we had many more authorities available than we culturally, would you. And we had all you know, a number of cultural barriers to get over one of those was we have great authorities to do job sharing, or people can go in between tech and do a couple of years in government, serving the government side, learn some more if you’re a government going into tech, I think that’s still an underutilized opportunity for us, you probably get a lot of military folks or ex civil servants into the tech scene, how are they integrating themselves? So they add value? And maybe do you have advice of kind of on the flip side? How can they best get their talents and bring them to bear after coming out of the military whatnot in in a kind of a tech company which has a different culture? To its to its own?

Shyam Sankar 19:05
That’s a great question. I mean, I actually think there’s a deep you know, we certainly felt this, working with folks at SOCOM that that the cultural alignment between the valley and the operators is very high. I mean, the skill set. The competency is very different, obviously, for between an operator and an a coder. But actually this complete focus on the mission outcome. It actually is the common substrate, it was the lingua franca that enabled us to bond together, whether we were working on problems forward, or whether there was someone who was transitioning and joining our institution, that they were not a fish out of water, actually, they found themselves, you know, in an environment they actually understood deeply and were profoundly able to contribute to right out the gate. And I think some of this sometimes we’re just there’s a little bit of imposter syndrome. I think folks coming out of this thing, you know, they’re they’re the world’s heroes, but they’re unsure sometimes of how they’re going to fit in into the professional world and they more often than not, they end up excelling Well on

Lauren Bedula 20:02
that note, because I think it’s an important call to action to those who want to serve both on the public sector and private sector side at companies like Palantir. So your story is such an inspiration. And these are great ideas about how we can help other companies enter the market. So thanks so much for taking the time out today to join us.

Shyam Sankar 20:19
Thank you both so much for having me.

Outro 20:21
You’ve been listening to building the base, a podcast from the business executives for national security, join hundreds of senior leaders and executives dedicated to the mission of keeping our nation safe. Check out our projects. We’re currently working with important upcoming events and the many ways you can get involved @ www.bens.org

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