Digital transformation is affecting businesses everywhere, even “floating cities” in the middle of the ocean. Sol Rashidi, Chief Data and Cognitive Officer at Royal Caribbean, tells industry analyst Michael Krigsman at CXOTalk how the cruise line is changing, how data and AI are shaping travel, and more.

Rashidi offers insight on roles of women in technology, how to balance family and work in tech, and explain the responsibilities of a chief data officer.

Royal Caribbean operates in 47 countries with more than 50 cruise ships, each equipped with floating data centers, which can support up to 7,000 guests at a time. The company enables AI for more control and personalized customer interactions, as well as augmented reality to provide more options for guests, such as expanding the vacation experience beyond the physical ship.

Transcript

Michael Krigsman: Hey, everybody! Welcome to Episode two-hundred and forty-… Hey, what's the number? The number is two-hundred and forty-seven of CxOTalk. You know, AI seems to be taking over our lives. Artificial intelligence is everywhere. And at the same time, everybody loves cruises […] and vacations, right? And today, we are talking about the intersection of AI and cruises. And, we have an amazing show!

I’m so thrilled to welcome Sol Rashidi, who is the Chief Data and Cognitive Officer of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Sol, how are you? Thanks so much for being here!

Sol Rashidi: Thank you very much for having me! I look forward to this conversation very much!

Michael Krigsman: So, Sol, tell us about Royal Caribbean and tell us about what you do? Let’s start there.

Sol Rashidi: Sure! Sure. Well, I think everyone knows who Royal Caribbean is. We are leading in the industry for cruise lines. We've got a three-brand Royal Caribbean. We've got celebrity and Azamara. And, earlier, I would say [since] 2/4/2016, we have been embarking on a huge transformational journey and I know a lot of companies often use that word pretty broadly as well, but I'm happy to say that we really mean it here. We're actually doing it. We've on-boarded some phenomenal talent. I would say, humbly speaking, I was a late addition to the group, and I am their current Chief Data and Cognitive Officer.

The data side, for obvious reasons, everyone is shifting and pivoting towards becoming a more data-centric organization, being able to collect the raw data that we have, converting it to information, and then building insights. And then, the hardest part, I would say, is being able to take action on the insights we gather.

But, the cognitive side; because in addition to just… I don’t want to call it “generic,” but the general analytics that we’re trying to run and the competencies that we’re trying to build internally, there is definitely a cognitive component. I personally don’t like using the word “AI.” I think it’s, quite frankly, a bit overused in the marketplace. I think it’s going to dilute the term and the power over a few years if we keep using it the way we do. But, more importantly, for those who have actually been in the industry for quite some time, we still understand AI is a term. But, as an industry, it’s still in its infancy stages.

So, I always use the term “cognitive services,” or “cognitive capabilities,” because the one thing that we do know and we do have, and there are capabilities around machine learning, adaptive learning, being able to train machines to understand intent, to be able to infer… So, being able to combine both wanting to become a data-centric organization with embedding cognitive layers across our customer journey, this position was born and hence, I became the Chief Data and Cognitive Officer for Royal Caribbean.

Michael Krigsman: Wow! So… [Laughter]

Sol Rashidi: [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: I know! [Laughter]

Sol Rashidi: That was a mouthful! Apologies! [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: No, it's great! So, given all of that, just to set the context, what is it that you do at Royal Caribbean, exactly? What's your… I know your title, but what does that encompass? Because one doesn't usually think about data and artificial intelligence in the context of cruises. So, how do the pieces fit together?

Sol Rashidi: Oddly enough, if you take a look at industries, consumer products and retail has done a phenomenal job. And if you ask me, airlines, CPG, and hotels closely following, have done a phenomenal job of understanding who their guests are. And by knowing who your guests are, there is a level of personalization, there is a level of customization; you can make them feel important even though you serve millions of guests a year. And that always resonates with our guests today. Their expectations are high, their tolerances for delay are low, and with

Michael Krigsman: Hey, everybody! Welcome to Episode two-hundred and forty-… Hey, what's the number? The number is two-hundred and forty-seven of CxOTalk. You know, AI seems to be taking over our lives. Artificial intelligence is everywhere. And at the same time, everybody loves cruises […] and vacations, right? And today, we are talking about the intersection of AI and cruises. And, we have an amazing show!

I’m so thrilled to welcome Sol Rashidi, who is the Chief Data and Cognitive Officer of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Sol, how are you? Thanks so much for being here!

Sol Rashidi: Thank you very much for having me! I look forward to this conversation very much!

Michael Krigsman: So, Sol, tell us about Royal Caribbean and tell us about what you do? Let’s start there.

Sol Rashidi: Sure! Sure. Well, I think everyone knows who Royal Caribbean is. We are leading in the industry for cruise lines. We've got a three-brand Royal Caribbean. We've got celebrity and Azamara. And, earlier, I would say [since] 2/4/2016, we have been embarking on a huge transformational journey and I know a lot of companies often use that word pretty broadly as well, but I'm happy to say that we really mean it here. We're actually doing it. We've on-boarded some phenomenal talent. I would say, humbly speaking, I was a late addition to the group, and I am their current Chief Data and Cognitive Officer.

The data side, for obvious reasons, everyone is shifting and pivoting towards becoming a more data-centric organization, being able to collect the raw data that we have, converting it to information, and then building insights. And then, the hardest part, I would say, is being able to take action on the insights we gather.

But, the cognitive side; because in addition to just… I don’t want to call it “generic,” but the general analytics that we’re trying to run and the competencies that we’re trying to build internally, there is definitely a cognitive component. I personally don’t like using the word “AI.” I think it’s, quite frankly, a bit overused in the marketplace. I think it’s going to dilute the term and the power over a few years if we keep using it the way we do. But, more importantly, for those who have actually been in the industry for quite some time, we still understand AI is a term. But, as an industry, it’s still in its infancy stages.

So, I always use the term “cognitive services,” or “cognitive capabilities,” because the one thing that we do know and we do have, and there are capabilities around machine learning, adaptive learning, being able to train machines to understand intent, to be able to infer… So, being able to combine both wanting to become a data-centric organization with embedding cognitive layers across our customer journey, this position was born and hence, I became the Chief Data and Cognitive Officer for Royal Caribbean.

Michael Krigsman: Wow! So… [Laughter]

Sol Rashidi: [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: I know! [Laughter]

Sol Rashidi: That was a mouthful! Apologies! [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: No, it's great! So, given all of that, just to set the context, what is it that you do at Royal Caribbean, exactly? What's your… I know your title, but what does that encompass? Because one doesn't usually think about data and artificial intelligence in the context of cruises. So, how do the pieces fit together?

Sol Rashidi: Oddly enough, if you take a look at industries, consumer products and retail has done a phenomenal job. And if you ask me, airlines, CPG, and hotels closely following, have done a phenomenal job of understanding who their guests are. And by knowing who your guests are, there is a level of personalization, there is a level of customization; you can make them feel important even though you serve millions of guests a year. And that always resonates with our guests today. Their expectations are high, their tolerances for delay are low, and with all the information that we gather of them, their expectation is that we know who they are, where they’re going, what they’re doing, regardless of their status with a particular brand.

So, take what we’ve done in the airline industry, take what we’ve done with the hotel industry, take what we’ve done with consumer products and retail, understanding where they shop, what they typically buy, making suggestions… It’s all around enhancing the customer experience by knowing what they’ve done historically with us, and then being able to predict, suggest, or infer what they may like to do with us in the future. What better industry than the cruising industry to be able to apply that same skillset? So, that’s what we’re trying to do here at Royal.

Michael Krigsman: So, for you, the use of these technologies is all about personalization and enhancing the experience of customers. And I’m assuming it’s not just when they’re on the ship, but before their journey and after. So, maybe take us through the life cycle of that personalization.

Sol Rashidi: Sure! I mean, soup-to-nuts, if you think about it, it is the entire journey. From the first time they inquire about a promotion, or a destination, or a ship release, so when they call back, and they want to understand packages, offers, and promotions, to when they put their first deposit down, to when they put their last deposit down, to when they have basic SAQs of, you know… The number one question, can we bring out the hull on board? What's the dress code for a particular restaurant? What type of events do you have? Can you make reservations for a specialty restaurant? "We just added two to the party, can we adjust our reservation?"… All the way to when they actually embark onto a ship, because there's a lot of compliance and regulations that we have to follow.

And then, of course, the experience starts once they’re on the ship. So, whenever they’re with a three-day, five-day, seven, or fourteen, being able to help them and make things easier, from where they are on the ship, where they can find something seamlessly, activities, events available to them appropriate to their age level and their likes, all the way to the time when they disembark and then they give us feedback as to how their vacation went. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a vacation, but I’ve been on plenty of vacations where I’ve needed a vacation from the vacation. That’s a scenario we want to completely avoid. So, our goal is to really enhance the customer experience across all touch-points in that customer journey […].

Michael Krigsman: So, let’s talk about the data aspect. So, these… I was going to say, “operations on data,”… It sounds so clinical when we’re talking about vacations and enabling a fun, personalized experience. So, where does the data come from? What kind of data are you using? And then, what happens to that data?

Sol Rashidi: So, that’s… It’s a phenomenal question in that. The tagline of enhancing the customer experience, and sort of embarking on a more personalized approach, is the glamorous version of everything. The unglamorous version is the work that we actually have to do. With any company, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with the largest and the smallest of companies: financial industries, supply-chain, manufacturing… And as we all know, in all of our environments, there are a ton of applications and systems that capture data. And to unify this information is an extremely overwhelming and daunting task. So, we’re no different from any other company in that. We have multiple touchpoints. We have multiple organizations. We have multiple third-parties that we work with who quite frankly do a phenomenal job of booking these reservations for us. However, do we necessarily have control or influence over how the information is entered? No. Do we get all the information we want, when we want? No.

So, being able to join all these disparate systems with different formats, types, comprehensiveness of data, the back-end to sort of build a unified layer of who this guest is prior to them embarking is a very difficult task. And that’s what we’re currently doing. Being able to unify the guests. And, everyone loves to call it as like the 360-view or the 360-profile of a guest, but I think that’s like living in the land of hobbits and unicorns. I think we all strive for it, it’s a bit of a fantasy land, but the actual execution of it is very complicated.

So, the tagline and the glamorous version of it is more a personalized experience across the customer journey. But in order to do that, we have to codify all the different elements and facets and pieces of information that a guest shares with us and being able to make sense of it. And then, we have to be able to provide that into the right hands of the right individuals who are going to encounter our guests at different points of the journey. So, piecemealing it all together is what we’re taking on right now.

Michael Krigsman: I want to remind everybody that we're speaking with Sol Rashidi, who is the Chief Data and Cognitive Officer at Royal Caribbean. And right now, there is a tweet chat going on using the hashtag #cxotalk, and you can send in your questions, and we'll try to get to them.

So, Sol, you've got this data, you're building up this profile of the guest, and so, that's the first part of your job title of Chief Data Officer. But then, you're also the Chief Cognitive Officer. And so, where does the cognitive or AI dimension come into play?

Sol Rashidi: In multiple, multiple layers. Our biggest challenge is not necessarily how to apply cognitive capabilities, but where to apply because there’s just so much room for opportunity. Leveraging video analytics on the ship, leveraging video analytics prior to embarkation and check-in, leveraging past preferences, sailing information, to infer what they may want in the future, or even infer something they never tried but could potentially like based on other feedback. A lot of it is being able to predict, infer, and suggest in advance of the customer asking so that we could either do one of two things: either enhance the experience because they go, “Oh! I’ve never thought of that. That’s amazing! Thank you for suggesting that!”, or course-correct anything that may go wrong or is about to go wrong, in advance.

Michael Krigsman: That’s…

Sol Rashidi: So, there's a number of opportunities. We're trying to figure out where to actually apply them. The vision is granted. It's wonderful. But, I always say, "Vision is nothing without the complete and utter success of execution."

Michael Krigsman: That’s interesting! You said, “Predict, infer,” and what was the third one? “Course correct, I think?”

Sol Rashidi: Course-correct. So, if we can infer sentiment in advance; if there’s a customer of ours who is not as happy as we’d like them to be, we have an opportunity to course-correct because we can infer their sentiment based off of, let’s say, video analytics or a video feed. Or, they shared something in a dialogue that was captured properly. And so, we now know every interaction they’re after from crew to guest; we need to be able to attend to that guest with a velvet glove. If they did not have a good experience with us in one particular area, we are going to more than make up for it with others. But without that knowledge, we won’t be able to do that.

Michael Krigsman: Sol, we have an interesting question from Twitter. And, Chris Peterson asks...

Sol Rashidi: [Laugther]

Michael Krigsman: Do you know Christ Peterson?

Sol Rashidi: I do! [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: Oh, okay! Well, Chris Peterson is asking, “Do you have years of data to ingest for training algorithms, or is the data gathering and cleansing relatively new?” This is a very interesting and very important question because data is, of course, the lifeblood of what we’re talking about and yet, I think the data aspect is relatively new. Thinking about data for many organizations is still relatively new.

Sol Rashidi: Right.

Michael Krigsman: And so, how do you address this?

Sol Rashidi: So, that’s one of the things that we have to go through and figure out. There’s just, on one aspect, it’s going to be all historical data that’s sort of going to go into some factory to give us some patterns, behaviors, things that we need to understand about each trip, each journey, each guest at an individual level. So, all the way from a city of embarkation and the particular ship, down to the guest and their individual… We need to get that historical view, no matter what, to understand trends and patterns. I think that’s the obvious part.

However, once they’re on a journey with us, then it’s a matter of gathering, how do we gather, I should say, that live data feed so that we then know do their current patterns match the historical patterns that we have; and if so, great. We know how to treat this. But if their current patterns don’t match the historic patterns we have, how do we create a predictive model or algorithm to include those exclusions or those exceptions and be able to understand how to approach them thereafter? So, it’s going to be a combination of both, but more definitely heavier on the ingest all the data, understand all the historical patterns, infer, and then move forward with action from there.

Michael Krigsman: That’s pretty incredible! And, I need to mention that I happen to know that your ships are floating data centers.

Sol Rashidi: They are!

Michael Krigsman: And, you talk about it that way.

Sol Rashidi: We do! Each ship we refer to as a “floating city” with its own infrastructure; its own datacenter. And that’s one of the challenges, oddly enough, that I don’t think anyone ever considered. So, here’s an example: Has anyone ever flown with American, or United, or Delta? They all have an in-flight… For the most part, it works fine. But every now and then, there’s an issue. And you don’t understand why. And, it’s probably because they’re going over water. There is something about water and satellite feeds. Like oil and water, they just don’t get along.

Now, by no means, am I smart enough to figure out where the issues lie. I don’t know if it’s the reflection, but satellite, and water, and WiFi just don’t like each other. Well, our entire operation’s on the water. So, every ship has to have its own infrastructure; has to have its own data center to support that. But the challenge that we have to overcome is how do we create near real-time syncing of data between our major applications and systems that are on the shore with those that are on the ship? That’s the problem we’re currently looking to solve.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. So now, if we bring these two pieces together, you’re collecting… So, you’ve got models of customer historical behavior, and then, you’re collecting data on the cruise because your ships are floating cities with their own data centers. And, you are now doing comparisons of the data with the models collected on the ship with the historical models, and at the same, you are, I’ll use the term “suffering” or “challenged” with the fact that satellite and water don’t mix. Is that sort of more or less correct? [Laughter]

Sol Rashidi: And that’s the foundation. That’s the core. And then, the layer of that is when the two datasets do combine, how do we provide that layer of analytics to the crew who interact with our guests on a daily basis so that they then know what they have to do to make that experience as best as possible for each guest that’s on one of our ships. Because, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters to us; to make sure every guest leaves that ship completely fulfilled, more than content, absolutely happy; with their friends, or family, or whoever else they joined with.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. So, that paints the picture of, let’s say, the ground-level foundation on which you have to build?

Sol Rashidi: That’s correct!

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Twitter, and Scott Weitzman from IPSoft is asking about […] gamification as part of the AI aspect in the service of the customer experience that you are just talking about. So, what about gamification?

Sol Rashidi: All I can say at this point right now is T.B.D. We’ll probably have to discuss that in a few months from now. [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: So, I’m sure…

Sol Rashidi: I can’t go into [specifics] yet.

Michael Krigsman: So, I’m sure it sounds like… Let me ask you this. Where are you in the AI journey? AI is new for everybody and so, where are you in that journey, would you say?

Sol Rashidi: Sure. You know, the interesting thing is, I had the pleasure of being part of the leadership team with IBM, Boston. And, we took […] in the market for the financial industry. And so, you kind of get to learn the advantages, the disadvantages, the maturity of the industry. Of course, that was about three, four years back, so things have definitely advanced but oddly enough, things are still in R&D mode.

So, the good news is, we've got over thirteen-hundred companies who are invested in AI, about $9 billion of research are going into AI… So, we have plenty of options. Our challenge is understanding which option, or which vendor to choose and select based on not only their longevity within the industry but their ability to demonstrate and perform and execute because most things are still in the R&D stages; most companies are still being seed-funded. So, longevity is still very key for us, understanding their capabilities and functionalities because unfortunately, of that thirteen-hundred that say they're AI-based, but all they really offer is a chatbot.

Chatting is not a new technology. Yet, they’re putting it under the AI umbrella just because there’s a bit more glamor to it. So, we have to sift through, unfortunately, a lot of companies who claim to be AI companies, but aren’t. But then, we have to go through our use-cases to understand, “Okay. Of these use-cases, which provides the most amount of value to our guests and therefore our business? Which vendor matches up?” And luckily, we’re currently in that journey right now. We’re looking at partnering up with multiple vendors to solve multiple problems on the AI front.

We are actually sending out an AI team right now. We’ve built a few prototypes; we’re campaigning to see who has the most bang for its buck, if you will, and in terms of execution to deployment, well, it’s all on the roadmap.

Michael Krigsman: That’s pretty interesting! So, as you are trying to find the right solutions, vendors, [and] products, you’re finding that many software companies talk about AI, but it’s really just a thin veneer for products that are really not AI? Am I saying that…

Sol Rashidi: Unfortunately. And, I’d like to say, I even had one…[Laughter]… one vendor say, “You like to expose vendors.” I’m like, “I don’t like to expose vendors. I just don’t want the sales pitch in saying it’s AI when, in fact, it’s not. The technology’s you’re going to market with has been around for over a decade.” So, it’s not new. It’s just, putting on a new skin on top of it doesn’t make it AI. So, I think a lot of companies claim it. I think very few can actually deliver on it.

Michael Krigsman: Well, that’s, you know, for enterprise software vendors, in general, making sales claims that are… This goes back probably to the beginning of enterprise software.

Sol Rashidi: Indeed! It’s a game. It’s the game. So, you know, I think maybe the cognitive part of my title is “BS Detector.” [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: That’s really interesting! So, and I take that … I was going to say it’s a sign of the lack of maturity in the industry, but at the same time, if you look at on-premise ERP, which is a very mature industry, in a way, you have kind of the same set of issues. Not exactly, but similar.

Sol Rashidi: Oh, one-hundred percent! Every industry started this way. You know, AI’s just the new buzzword. It’s the new trend. Everyone wants a piece of the pie. What it actually means, I think very few can really define. I was speaking with one of the Gartner analysts and it was so funny because I thought that we would have a cautious opinion, because I am coming into the industry with a background in AI, knowing that a lot of things are still in their infancy stages. And, what’s being claimed in the market as AI is a really strong stretch. So, I had a feeling that we were going to disagree, but he absolutely came on board. He’s like, “We’re still working our way through it. It is so early to claim something is truly AI, and to start scaring folks. ‘Robots are replacing humans.’” I’m like, “We both agree we’re so far away from that. Not even close.”

And most of the demonstrations, the videos you’ll find on YouTube; it’s all projections of the Art of the Possible. Very little of that. I would even debate even a few percentage points of that have actually been implemented, or deployed, or tested, or tried.

Michael Krigsman: But hey, it sounds good, right? And that’s what everybody seems to want to hear.

Sol Rashidi: It’s all about packaging! We know that! [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: Somebody must be buying it, I’m assuming! It’s like telemarketers. Somebody must be answering the calls.

Sol Rashidi: Well, by default, if you have a great name to it or a great title to it, everyone’s going to see the show. But everyone’s finding stuff to see the show! [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: So, it sounds like, as part of this journey, one of the dimensions is thinking through the role of your internal personnel. What are the skills that they need? How will processes change, or stay the same? And, actually, we have a question, a comment from Twitter; another one. Arsalan Khan is asking about… You spoke about the customer journey and do you think at all about, or how do you think about the employee journey, and the use of technology to support that?

Sol Rashidi: Arsalan, that's a phenomenal question. So, guests, if we had to prioritize, are the first priority, but crew and employee are definitely our second priority because our guests are only as happy as our crew treats them. And, you've got to make the crew happy in order for them to have the sort of exuberant effervescent way of approaching our guests and making them happy. So, the guest is already close behind. We're already starting to tinker and toy and build some prototypes for them because unfortunately, today, a lot of stuff has been very laborious and manual. I mean, we're still talking about printouts and things like that. So, being able to arm them with technology that gives them information faster that they can then take action on is one of our top priorities. It is one of the things we're trying to solve right now. And, it's going in parallel with how can we make the customer journey better.

So, it hasn’t been forgotten. It’s top of mind. If it’s not one-and-a-half, it’s number two.

Michael Krigsman: How do you divide up your time in terms of, I'm thinking, with your data hat, now? And is this even a reasonable question? So how do you divide up your time in terms of thinking about data associated with customers? Data associated with employees? Data associated with operational operations? What are the buckets that you think about?

Sol Rashidi: Yeah. I don’t know if I was trained this way, or born this way, but I think my brain is a bit of a relational database. I can compartmentalize very, very well and I can make the joints and the linkages very, very well. So, I’ve always told my team, “By no means, am I the smartest person.” But I’m very resourceful, I’m relentless in my pursuit, and I know which compartment to pull, when. So, if you ask me which way my majority goes, I haven’t quite quantified that, to be honest with you, but I for some reason, my brain just works that way. I’m just analytical in nature, I can compartmentalize, and I can create linkages when appropriate.

Michael Krigsman: How is the… How is all of this changing the cruise industry? Because I think that context also is interesting to see the… I hate to use the term, but the "digital transformation" of the cruise industry.

Sol Rashidi: Yes. It sounds very cliché.

Michael Krigsman: It does.

Sol Rashidi: But, it’s true. To be honest with it, everyone’s going through it. Whether they’re competitors or allies or partners of ours, everyone in the cruising industry is embarking on this journey. And, if you think about it, airlines sort of took the path forward, lessons learned. Hotel industry’s following up second, and the cruising industry is behind them and we’re in line to be third. But, it’s behooving all of us to go down this path because we have so much information on our guests that we simply aren’t leveraging. And, our focus has been around nothing but excellent customer service, but we can do so much more if we were to just understand or take the time to understand who our guests are in advance so we can couple it with the customer service that we provide.

And, I think every cruising company in our industry is taking that approach. I mean, in what other world do you have guests in a container, if you will, for seven days in a row, enjoying the products and services that you and only you provide to them continuously? You know, consumer products and retail; […] they say that the average attention span or a consumer, or of an individual shopping online, is at most seven seconds? We've got seven days! So, it would behoove us to start taking a look at this stuff. So, everyone's on a very aggressive path forward to make it happen.

Michael Krigsman: I can only imagine, because people get bored pretty quickly.

Sol Rashidi: Yeah! Yeah. And, the fact that, quite frankly, [in] the cruising industry, billions of dollars are generated, that’s how many people actually cruise and you’ve got their attention for that long, and continuously. Most of our business is repeat customers. So, they didn’t get bored. They like the product and services. We’re always coming up with new ideas. And, I have to say, it’s not just us. It’s everyone in the cruising industry. I have tremendous respect for everyone. To keep a consumer’s attention in this day and age, where we expect nothing but just high expectations and fast turnaround times for seven, fourteen, ten days in a row, is an enormous task. And, we've done so phenomenally. It's one of the reasons why I joined the firm, to begin with.

Michael Krigsman: And, we have another comment from Twitter. And, this is from Vijay, and I am always going to, Vijayasankar, who is my good friend, and I never get his name right. And he says, "Hi."

Sol Rashidi: [Laughter] Oh, fantastic.

Michael Krigsman: So, I know the answer to this, which is, I am sure you’re thinking about data as a competitive advantage. Can you elaborate, without, and I’m not trying to go into your trade secrets, but can you elaborate how you think of data as being a competitive advantage?

Sol Rashidi: I think there are two facets to that. There’s no doubt everyone’s trying to be more data-centric. There is no doubt that everyone’s trying to be analytics-driven. But, what we’re hoping to do differently here is one of two things, but hopefully, two of two things. Knowing what to do when the data is provided. So, let’s say, driving the right type of analytics is one, and that’s a very difficult challenge because it’s a bit of a subjective exercise. Some of it’s quantifiable, some of it’s not. You can’t always place an ROI on an MPS score. So, knowing what type of analytics to derive is key. So, that’s something we’re working through.

But, not to use another cliché term, but insight into action, I would say, is the second facet of that. Now that we have the information, now that it tells us some really good data points, how do we then convert that into action and actually do something about it versus, “This is interesting! Okay, I didn’t know that! Let me just adjust a few things that I’m doing right now.” I don’t think the intention is just to adjust, I think it’s fundamentally changed the way we do business. But, the challenge is how do you get individuals, business groups, who’ve been in an industry ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years to change their way of thinking and not going off of necessarily just experience with a combination of gut, with a combination of past performance, but also using data they may not be comfortable with because they haven’t seen in before to modify their decision points moving forward.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. You know, we only have a short time left. And, I hate to break off the conversation about data and AI, because it’s so really interesting and I feel like we have just not even scratched the surface here. But, there is one topic that I think we should talk about and that is the role of women in technology. You’re unique because there are very few… You’re a woman in this senior role, but there are very few Chief Data Officers and fewer still who are women. And so, maybe, can you just share some thoughts on that important topic?

Sol Rashidi: Sure! I mean, to be honest with you, I think that's where I have to give Royal credit, because there are layers, upon layers, upon layers of this one. The Chief Data Officer role, in general, is newer in the industry. And, I think we're also trying to figure out how the Chief Digital Officer, Chief Data Officer, and the Chief Information Officer intertwine to create very, very strong pillars to support the company and its growth. Being a female in the industry, in and of itself, it's had some challenges, but it's been a very, very fun journey.

I also have to give credit not only to Royal, because not only did they create this position, they absolutely are invested in women in leadership positions. But, they also brought me on board five months pregnant. So, I started back in April when I was five months pregnant. I’m actually nine months pregnant right now, due in a couple weeks. But for them, it was a matter of, “Listen, if you have the right skillset, you’re passionate, you’re relentless in your pursuits, and we trust that you’re going to be able to do this, it doesn’t matter your condition, your situation, or your background, or whatnot. If you’re the right person…” And so, even though I was a consultant for them, I officially converted over to become a full-time employee because it was just an investment they felt a strong desire they needed to make, and they saw something in me and the teams that I brought on board, so here we are.

So, while I want to take the credit, it's been a very fun and interesting journey to get at least to the position, or the caliber that I'm at. It was really Royal's belief and investment in bringing me on board. So, I definitely want to give a shout-out there.

Michael Krigsman: So, they hired you to be Chief Data Officer when you were five months pregnant, and now you’re nine months pregnant, which I’m assuming means that pretty darn soon, you’re going to be having a baby! [Laughter]

Sol Rashidi: [Laughter] That is true! I'm technically due in about two, three weeks. So, anything after two weeks is fair game at this point in time. But, in the past three, four months, we've been working aggressively not only building up the team, gaining enough momentum in areas, working through, convincing the business this is the right thing to do, showing incremental progress, momentum for us is huge. And even though I'm going to take that three to four weeks off, we can't stop the momentum. It's something I'm adamant about and the team is… They're living that charter, day-by-day. Speed and communication, I would say, are top-of-mind. We’re not careless; we’re not thoughtless; but at the same time, we don’t […] wait.

Our pursuit for progress is extremely aggressive, I would say. But yeah, that’s true. They brought me on board knowing I was five months pregnant. I don’t anticipate the pregnancy slowing me down. I think, if anything, it will actually give them a break because having lived in New York City, and moving to Miami, my pace is just actually a lot quicker than most.

Michael Krigsman: So, you must have given some thought to this notion of work-life balance, and juggling work, and juggling the new baby, and I think that’s a question that many people have. And so, maybe share your thoughts on that topic?

Sol Rashidi: Sure! I don't know. I don't think I believe in the term "balance." I don't… I think things will take different priorities at different points in time. And, your best shot at doing everything is just to be comfortable with change and with the fact that you're going to be discontent with almost everything but your level of discontent is more than likely content for most people. So, I have extremely high expectations of myself. I want to be the best wife. I want to be the best mother. I want to be the greatest executive they ever hired. I want to be a tremendous leader to the people who work for me.

There are so many things that I want. There's a creative side to me! I like to make jewelry. There's just so many facets. I used to be an ex-athlete. I want to get back into doing triathlons. And, you don't get to all of it, all at once. So, if you could almost talk yourself into, "Okay. At best, of the eight things I'm interested in, I'm going to focus on these three for this following quarter or this year. Then, I'm going to pivot and focus on these three at this point in time." I think then you start getting comfortable with stuff. But if you expect too much, and all at once, I think that's just a recipe for disaster.

Michael Krigsman: So, as we kind of draw to a close here, what advice do you have for women who want to enter these kinds of leadership positions and just feel they're experiencing a glass ceiling?

Sol Rashidi: If the issue is you’re experiencing a glass ceiling, do something about it. I do know many women who tend to sit and wait because they don’t want to be perceived as being difficult or being aggressive, or asking for too much. I think it all comes down to delivery and tone. If you’re careful with your delivery and tone, go to bat for yourself. You’re the only one that’s going to protect yourself. And are you going to have a few hiccups along the way? Absolutely. That’s natural. But everyone does! But at a minimum, at least be confident enough to go to the table and ask for what you want.

You know, there's a major stat that says "Women don't get paid as much as men do." And I sometimes wonder the legitimacy of that because I wonder, "Is it because they don't get paid because we're devalued? Or is it because we don't ask for what we want and we don't negotiate well?" Anyone who knows me knows that I go to the table always negotiating because I'm comfortable there. And it's okay. And as long as the delivery is done right, it should be perceived as a strength and not as a weakness. So, I would say, if you're frustrated, do something about it and don't be afraid of how you're going to be perceived, but be thoughtful in your tone and delivery.

I would also say, if you have desires of getting to a certain level, for me, having a very supportive spouse has been absolutely tremendous in the journey. I had this unquenchable desire to keep going higher and higher, and luckily, my partner in crime, my husband Drew, is very, very supportive of that. And so, you know, we co-lead. We co-parent. There isn’t a primary, if that makes any sense.

And then, my third, I think it’s really the culture of the organization. Some organizations claim that, you know, they’re number sixteen in the Hundred Best Companies to Work For. I always question the metrics behind that. I said, “Well, how do they judge that?” Is it based on compensation? Is it based on ability to move up? Or, is it based on the fact that they support you when family priorities kick in or when health priorities kick in? I think if you can combine those three together, why would you not be able to go upwards, if that’s your goal?

Michael Krigsman: So, it's not just a matter of being assertive, although being assertive is extremely important, also, when you go into an environment, look critically and make sure that they're not just paying lip-service to supporting women in leadership roles.

Sol Rashidi: One-hundred percent. The environment has to cultivate; has to enable you to be able to accelerate in the position that you’re in. And if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t make sense to be there.

Michael Krigsman: Sounds like a lot of companies are putting out hype about supporting women in leadership, in the way that some companies are putting out hype around AI!

Sol Rashidi: Yeah! [Laughter] There's a lot of lip-service out there. And I'll call B.S. There's a ton of lip service. So, do your diligence, do your homework, and if it's not a right fit, don't be afraid to leave because there's always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I'm absolutely convinced of that. I would never have thought I would have upgraded my family, at five months pregnant, with a two-year-old, by the way. We started very late in life. Moved from New York City to Miami to start over, if it wasn't the right environment. Do your due diligence and don't be afraid to take chances.

Michael Krigsman: That is pretty incredible and what an endorsement of Royal Caribbean. Sol Rashidi, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today! I really appreciate it, and hope you'll come back another time!

Sol Rashidi: One-hundred percent! Thank you for having me! It’s been fun!

Michael Krigsman: And, I need to tell the audience that we started a few minutes late because we had technical difficulties literally right up to the instant when we began. And, we kind of used the metaphorical, technical, sticky-tape and glue to make it work.

So, you have been watching Episode #247 of CxOTalk. We’ve been speaking with Sol Rashidi, who is the Chief Data and Cognitive Officer of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Sol, thanks so much, and I hope we’ll see you again back here soon!

Sol Rashidi: Thank you!

Michael Krigsman: Everybody, thanks for watching! We have two shows next week. Go to CxOTalk.com, and please “like” us on Facebook. We would really appreciate that. Take care, everybody! Have a nice day. Bye-bye!