The Futurist Technologist

Khushwant Singh

Gurdeep Singh Pall Corporate Vice President, Business AI, Microsoft Corp.

After nearly a decade in Real Time communication and the success of Lync, Gurdeep’s inner calling provoked him to explore new avenues. His career had been steady and an envy of many. His career was taking strides in leaps and bounds, both financially as well as vertically. The stock market boom suddenly made him realize the worth of stock options, which at the time of recruitment were nothing more than ‘something that looks good on an offer letter’.

It was during this period that Gurdeep got married to Seema Pareek, who, although born and raised in Kolkata, hails from Bikaner, in Rajasthan. Seema, also a highly accomplished engineer, was a colleague he had met at Microsoft. They both shared a formative past and common experience in Kolkata. Their friendship blossomed into love and then marriage. Seema and Gurdeep now have two lovely sons, Aditya and Vivek.

Skype or Sky Peer-to-peer

In 2010, with Lync 2010 done, Gurdeep was again knocking at the door of his boss, and chief executive of Microsoft at the time, Steve Ballmer. ‘I think I’m ready for a change, Steve, and want to do something else,’ he said. Ballmer was immediately supportive, knowing that keeping Gurdeep happy at Microsoft was key to retaining him, but asked Gurdeep that since he had been focusing on business communication all this while, there was a lot happening on the consumer front too, and Microsoft needed to focus there. Ballmer asked Gurdeep to have a look at Skype, a darling of the internet. Skype or Sky Peer-to-peer allowed users to communicate over the Internet by voice using a microphone, by video using a webcam, and by instant messaging. Skype made communications accessible to everyone with a computer and internet access – it had become the “verb” of communications.

Gurdeep along with a few business strategists had a close look at the company and suggested that Microsoft buy Skype. After the decision to acquire Skype was taken, Gurdeep started reporting to Steve Ballmer and lead the technical “integration” of the largest company Microsoft had purchased. However, he had struck a deal with Ballmer that whenever the process of acquisition was over, he would do something else. The process took nine months and Microsoft bought Skype in May 2011 at a cost of 8.5 billion USD and closed the acquisition a few months later.

While the industry debated whether the price paid by Microsoft to acquire Skype was a whopping one, Gurdeep as per his agreement with Ballmer was assigned to Artificial Intelligence, a field that was all set to emulate the human mind with profound implications for technology and society. His responsibility was to create a platform for Artificial Intelligence and everyone in the industry realized that this was the big wave, even bigger than the Internet, coming the technology industry’s way. While in AI, Gurdeep focused on speech recognition, knowledge graphs, image stabilization with holograms, mapping, and so on.

However, just two years into AI and with groundbreaking work on “Cortana”, he saw his immediate boss and Steve Ballmer reach out to him for a new role. They talked about the Skype acquisition, which Gurdeep had led and asked him to return to it. Ballmer felt that time had come to fully absorb Skype and bring the business and consumer communications solutions closer to each other – at the time Skype and Lync were still different. Gurdeep initially was reluctant to get back to the communication fold. However, he agreed to the proposal because he felt a certain sense of responsibility towards it. ‘Since I had played a vital role in its acquisition I felt committed to the offer,’ says Gurdeep. Other than the responsibility bit, Gurdeep was undoubtedly vested in this technology given his experience with Lync. He soon joined as the top man of Skype, his role being to run Skype and Lync (soon renamed Skype for business). Gurdeep shot into fame in India as newspapers paid ode to his elevation. Top newspapers including the Economic Times carried the news of an India-born being made the global head of Skype. It was a significant achievement for people of Indian origin.

Khushwant Singh
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