Apr 10, 2024 | 6 min read

Gayle Sheppard

Podcast #229 Cognitive at Scale


Good day, listeners, and welcome back to another exciting episode of our Momenta Industrial Impact podcast series. We are thrilled to bring you Episode 229, featuring Gayle Sheppard, Global Board Director at Astroscale.


Gayle Sheppard brings with her a wealth of experience and expertise in the tech industry. Before her role at Astroscale, Gayle was the Chief Executive Officer of Bright Machines, Inc., a pioneering software-defined factory automation company. Before that, she held the prestigious position of Corporate Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft Asia, where she spearheaded visionary strategies and execution programs for customer and partner co-innovation and digital transformation.


But Gayle's illustrious career doesn't stop there. She has also served as the Head of Global Expansion and Digital Transformation for Microsoft Cloud and AI and the Corporate Vice President of Azure Data at Microsoft. Earlier ventures include her role as CEO at Saffron Technology and her tenure as Vice President and General Manager of the Saffron AI/ML Division at Intel.


Throughout her career, Gayle has been at the forefront of groundbreaking initiatives, contributing to the growth and evolution of start-ups and Fortune 100 companies alike. Her expertise spans artificial intelligence platforms, business, and consumer market solutions, and the digitization of businesses across various industries.


Tune in: In this episode, Gayle shares invaluable insights gleaned from her extensive experience in the tech world, offering listeners a glimpse into the future of industrial impact and innovation.


 Discussion Points:

  • What would you consider to be your digital thread (the defining interests and experiences that brought you to this point in life)?
  • You’ve been at the forefront of key enterprise and AI platforms for several decades. With that perspective, what has surprised you most and least about the proliferation of AI today?
  • Let’s drill down a bit into Saffron, one of the first cognitive computing systems companies. Their “natural intelligence” platform was used across manufacturing, energy, defense, and healthcare to help decision-makers manage risks, identify opportunities and anticipate future outcomes. This was quite the high-flier, with the former National Security Advisor John Poindexter on the board and ultimately competing with IBM Watson. Tell us a bit about the company and what you are most proud of as its CEO.
  • You exited the company to Intel in 2015, which unceremoniously shuttered it three years later. Going back to that time and knowing what you do about the renewed interest in AI, would you have done anything differently?
  • Let’s fast-forward to your time at Microsoft. You served as a key leader in Japan (which you had also done for J.D. Edwards). What attracted you to Japan, and what were some of your key achievements?
  • Does Microsoft’s recent headlong move into AI surprise you?
  • You were most recently CEO of Bright Machines, a software-defined factory automation company. Tell us about the company and your factory automation focus.
  • I noted you are a director at Nutanix and Astroscale, so you are truly taking your leadership to both the edge and space. What are some of the key trends you are watching these days?
  • So, what is next for you?



Join the Industrial Impact series by subscribing to the Digital Thread podcast.

Explore the evolving landscape of digital transformation for industrial enterprises. Discover concepts and elements that drive innovation, shared by industry experts and forward-thinking visionaries.


Please rate us and share it with your network if you enjoyed this podcast.

View Transcript



Ken: Good day, and welcome to episode 229 of our Momenta Industrial Impact Podcast. Today, I'm pleased to host Gayle Sheppard, Global Board Director for Astroscale. Gayle previously served as Chief Executive Officer of Bright Machines, a software-defined factory automation company. Prior, she served as Corporate Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft Asia, where she was responsible for establishing the vision, strategy, and execution programs for customer and partner co-innovation and digital transformation. Prior to that, she served as the Head of Global Expansion and Digital Transformation for Microsoft Cloud and AI and as the Corporate Vice President of Azure Data at Microsoft. Early in her career, Gayle was CEO of Saffron Technology and later Vice President and General Manager of the Saffron AIML division at Intel. She has founded, created, or contributed to startup and Fortune 100 companies focused on artificial intelligence platforms, solutions in business and consumer markets, and digitization of business in various industries. Gayle, welcome to our Industrial Impact Podcast.



Gayle: Thank you, Ken. I'm excited to be here with you today and to talk with your listeners.



Ken: Thank you. I'll tell you; this is a timely podcast. We have decided the theme is 'cognitive at scale.' For anybody who's been watching the press's treatment of Gen AI lately, you cannot turn anywhere without that being the topic du jour. As you know, we used to call this the Digital Thread podcast, and we started to look at this idea of industrial impact, so we always start still with our signature question, and that is, what would you consider to be your digital thread? In other words, Gayle, the defining interests and experiences that brought you to this point in life.



Gayle: I will start from the beginning; this is a critical question. It starts with being a natural builder. I am so fortunate that when I was six years old, my father, a builder who started his construction company, took me on his Saturday job walks. I'm a six-year-old, and I'm on the Saturday job walks. What's cool about Saturdays on construction sites is that they are sparsely occupied. You can walk around, see what's going on, what's been working and not working, and talk with people. I'm following my father around; he is a great customer-centric entrepreneur and has shared his philosophy with me many times, which will be one of my digital threads: regardless of what you think, the customer is always right. He maintained a dedicated workforce augmented by subcontractors, so he operated within an ecosystem that would become important to me and my journey through technology. I learned this first-hand from my dad's interaction with his workforce, subcontractors, and customers. He was a respected leader and a domain expert, yet he knew a workforce of experts surrounded him. He leaned in to listen and learn from them, creating what we think of today as a continuous learning culture based on the idea that to get respect, you give respect. There's the foundation for a digital transformation journey throughout my career. There are roughly a couple of things—there may be four or five points here—that follow on to this learning base that my father gave me.


One is cross-industry transfers. I started life in construction and farming. Still, I will have touched every industry by now, from aerospace, manufacturing, financial services, retail, telecom, heavy engineering, consumer products, and engagements with the national government, so I have had the wonderful benefit of not only going deep into some of those industries but also to transfer knowledge and learning across industry, which has served me well. In addition, I've been global since 1992, when I first went to Asia Pacific to lead the growth of Asia for J.D. Edwards and then onward to Japan. Having this global perspective—North America, South America, the Middle East and Africa, Asia, and Europe—has been informative and helps again when you're helping companies make digital transformations that are global companies. That cross-culture, cross-geopolitical environment is helpful. I also think that this customer-centric innovation and growth is in my DNA, and anyone who's ever worked with me closely knows that true joy comes from working with customers.


The more exposure, the better. It's where true learning begins, as I would learn from my father. This direct engagement with customers also helps you understand their unique needs, and you can also anticipate what they don't understand they need and help shape that with them. Ultimately, it's the force that helps us design technology that delights and scales. It's the force and energy behind building and growing diverse teams and the wisdom of participating in scaling strategic ecosystems. Then, I would also say two more things. One is ethical technology use and social impact. Not a must for me so many years ago, but today, with AI and machine learning, my experiences at Saffron, my experiences at Microsoft, and my experiences at Bright Machines, it is so fundamental that we have this at the forefront of our minds in terms of the future of AI. Finally, resilience and adaptability. We've been through some pretty—or I, at least, have been through some pretty—interesting times from the dot com boom to 9/11 to the 2008 financial market meltdown to the most recent episodic memory of the pandemic. Each of these businesses turned down—businesses turned back up again, so having the resilience and adaptability to learn and grow from that is vital to a digital transformation journey.



Ken: What a great set of attributes and experiences you talk about there. That's why I always love asking that open-ended question about the digital thread; you never quite know how somebody will answer that. Let me go right to what many people are most interested in. We'll start with the end game. You've been at the forefront of key enterprise and AI platforms for several decades. With that perspective, what surprised you most and maybe least about the proliferation of AI today and the hype around it?



Gayle: Great question. As I'm pondering this question, natural language processing emerges as a key factor that once posed a barrier to what I consider the rapid scalability of technologies like Saffron's 15 to 20 years ago. Natural language processing was quite rudimentary then, but today, it's taken for granted as it plays a critical role in enabling machines to understand, interpret, and generate human language. Much of the AI we use today, whether chatbots, translation tools, voice-to-text translation in foreign languages, sentiment analysis, information extraction, or tools like ChatGPT, exemplify seamless human-computer interactions facilitated by natural language processing. What surprises me the most is how rapidly and sophisticatedly it has advanced to the point where we hardly notice it anymore—it just runs in the background on our behalf.


On the flip side, what surprises me the least is the ongoing rigorous governance needed to ensure that we get this right—that we adopt an ethical approach to AI, maintain role-based information access, and establish a zero-trust environment in enterprises to safeguard data and privacy. We have much to address in terms of bias, as eliminating bias is crucial to our future success in AI utilization. It's a challenging task, considering that models inherently carry biases, influencing recommendations and automated decisions. Thus, ensuring explainability and transparency in AI decision-making processes is essential. We must also remain aware of any limitations affecting the results AI helps us derive.


Regarding bias, I want to highlight a recent survey conducted by the Conference Board—an organization closely aligned with CEOs—revealing that 70% of CEOs believe they will need to rethink their business models in the coming years. They are proactively addressing this understanding and collaborating closely with their boards and management teams. Additionally, 90% of these CEOs acknowledge that AI will have a transformative impact on productivity. These findings underscore the pressing need to harness AI's potential for productivity enhancement and business transformation, highlighting an exciting era for those engaged with AI as there's much yet to be explored and learned.



Ken: Wow, I'd have to fully agree. Those are some amazing stats. But it's interesting we tend to operate in the operating technology space more than necessarily the enterprise IT. The number of conferences I've been to as of late, even by large industrial OEMs, where they talk about the impact they foresee on businesses, their workers, and everything else is, I'd say, relatively unprecedented in any technology that I've seen in the past. I agree with you; being in the space is an amazing time. You mentioned Saffron, and I'm not sure everybody's familiar with the company well, so let's drill down a bit on your time with Saffron. This was one of the first cognitive computing system companies. As you said, their natural intelligence platform was used across manufacturing, energy, defense, and healthcare to help decision-makers manage risks, identify opportunities, and anticipate future outcomes. It was quite a highflier for the time. You even had the former National Security advisor, John Poindexter, on the board at the time, ultimately competing with IBM Watson. Could you tell us about the company and, more importantly, what you're most proud of as their CEO?



Gayle: It certainly was a brilliant moment for me. This will be my first introduction to a more modern AI, having grown up in statistical modeling and similar fields. Now, we're transitioning away from modeling and moving toward making sense of connection patterns and the context of those connections in both structured and unstructured data. That's the genesis of Saffron. Saffron was founded by Dr. Manny Aparicio and the late Jim Fleming, who were researchers at IBM. They left IBM with its full approval to work on the crossbar scaling problem that limited what would be called associative memory technology from being applied to large data problems. They were solving that problem and had just patented their solution when I met them. We were both associated with the Kenan Institute, which is part of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler School of Business and includes an entrepreneurial institute. This group brings together people from businesses, academia, and public policy. I met Manny and Jim there, and we had a conversation. I had recently left Enterprise Software and was a research fellow at the Kenan Institute working in supply chain. I was asked to meet Manny and Jim. Long story short, I had a great conversation with them. They shared their work with me, and I was very excited about it. They asked me to be their CEO, and I declined because it was too early for me to take on that role, but I offered to help. I invested in the company, assisted with fundraising, and became engaged day-by-day, helping identify problems that could be solved and working with customers like the Defense Department and some healthcare customers on applying this technology to solve complex problems they were facing. And the story goes on.


Five years later, I became the CEO. We had great proof points, and now, we're scaling out the business. Intel will be an important partner for us; they invested in the company, used the technology in-house, and helped us develop an Edge portion of the technology. In doing so, we're solving some very serious problems. You asked about my proudest moments. Clearly, the work we did in the IED Defeat Program in early 2007 and 2008 was significant, as we helped identify supply chains feeding parts for bombs and reduced the impact on American and Allied soldiers. The ability to work in healthcare and cardiology, distinguishing between heart disease types A and B with significantly different impacts - one resulting in death and the other in health issues - and aiding cardiologists in diagnosis to improve people's lives were significant moments in our work. Ultimately, the sale of Saffron to Intel will also be an important moment as a CEO, as our investors will have received a very good return on their investment. These investors included individuals as well as a few strategic investors, so it's always a proud moment when you achieve such an exit.



Ken: You exited the company to Intel in 2015, and unfortunately and unceremoniously, they shuttered it three years later. Now, going back to that time and knowing what you do now about the renewed interest in AI, what would you have done differently at the time, if anything?



Gayle: I stayed with Intel for three years, by the way, helping build a software company with them, so we did that. I would have sold the company if I knew then what I know now. I would have rallied the investors and convinced them that the right thing to do was to keep going. However, there was pressure to exit from investors, and so, therefore, we did. The other thing to remember is that during that period, NVIDIA was rising, right? Gaming, cryptocurrency, Cloud, vision, and other factors were driving the growth of the GPU, which Intel had not invested in. As a result, Intel had to focus on its core business, and the CEO effectively left. The CFO became the CEO. The company was refocused back on its core business of developing and producing silicon, and therefore, anything not related to the chip, if you will, was de-invested. So that's how Saffron became a de-investment. The company wasn't sold off, and the assets weren't discarded; they went back to Intel Research.


Nevertheless, it was the right thing for Intel; if we look back, their focus was on their business. In my three years at Intel, we applied Saffron for internal use and supply chain in some parts of the business. We built pipelines with customers and educated the marketplace about Intel and AI, and Intel's ability to deliver software. We built a strong AI marketing and sales teams within Intel that would continue after the Saffron team left. All in all, I can look back on it and say, darn. But it was another part of the adventure, learning, and transformation for us as individuals and companies.



Ken: Human nature is- we always assume that the path we didn't take would have been as favorable as we can think at this time. The reality is 50/50; it could be more favorable, it could be less favorable, and certainly, heading into the pandemic and all of the other wonderful shocks that we had to the system after that, things could have been negative. But I still wonder, because Saffron was such a highflyer, it reminds me of Banzai, which, of course, Microsoft bought- unfortunately, almost did the same. They unceremoniously shuttered it. But it's interesting to think what could have been. Speaking of Microsoft, let's fast forward to your time there. You served as a key leader in Japan, which you had also done with J.D. Edwards. What attracted you to Japan, and what were some of your key accomplishments?



Gayle: Well, it's interesting. My time in Japan, first with J.D. Edwards in the mid to late nineties, is what I consider the second most impactful period of my career, with Saffron being the first and Microsoft being the third. However, building an enterprise software business in Japan was personally transformative. You're building multicultural teams, learning the importance and meaning of culture in work and life, understanding how diversity is a force multiplier for innovation, and returning to my father's philosophy that the customer is always right. That holds true in Japan, where customer commitment trumps everything else. These key accomplishments are rooted in these learnings and transferred to Microsoft.


For Microsoft, I chose to be based in Tokyo due to Japan's critical market position for the region. Although I was the CTO for Asia Pacific, the mission I was tasked with was to create a CTO organization across Asia Pacific in every major operating country. This involved many countries, and the goal was to develop a deep understanding of local customers and industries while applying global best practices from digital transformation initiatives worldwide to the local economy. The leadership at Microsoft recognized the need to develop technology intensity for Asia Pacific, and that became my mission.


During my time in that role, I remembered my prior experiences in leading the global expansion, planning, and launching of Clouds worldwide and the data product portfolio. Drawing from this experience, I was able to define and design a strong CTO program for Asia Pacific. Although I got distracted by Bright Machines before completing my mission, I'm proud of the team that was formed and left behind to carry on the work.



Ken: I like that. You got distracted with Bright Machines. We'll get to that in a minute because that's a core interest. I'm curious, does Microsoft's recent headlong move into AI, thus the co-pilot, if you will, surprise you at all?



Gayle: Not at all, actually. I'm also considering this in terms of ecosystems and how the future will look for businesses. Microsoft exemplifies the ecosystem strategy and the importance of ecosystems in delivering exceptional customer results and building great companies. I expect nothing less from Microsoft than to make major investments like this one in OpenAI and to stay the course with them. This decision was driven by Satya and key members of his very senior leadership team. Microsoft excels at building ecosystems and selecting which partners to invest in, and they have a history of doing so across their business portfolio. So, no, I'm not surprised; I'm excited. I'm excited for Microsoft, for myself, and for everyone who benefits from it.



Ken: Excellent. Since you raised that, let's jump on into Bright Machines. Again, "A software-defined factory automation company," so there's a tagline for you. Could you tell us a bit about the company and your factory automation focus?



Gayle: Factory automation is crucial for revitalizing US manufacturing and enhancing our competitiveness, both domestically and internationally. Many countries are now seeking to reshore manufacturing that they had previously offshored in the 1990s and 2000s. When considering automation and Bright Machines' role, it's evident that automation improves efficiency and helps reduce labor costs. In cases where labor may be scarce, automation enables the production and assembly of products domestically that would otherwise be impractical. This results in increased production speed and quality. The concept of automating assembly, along with the framework utilized by Bright Machines, offers numerous benefits. One particularly exciting aspect is the integration of software and machine learning-based intelligence to enhance speed, throughput, and operational efficiency on the production line. This integration also leads to higher-quality and more secure products facilitated by vision inspection automation. These advancements empower customers with greater control over their production capabilities and create operational efficiencies that may ultimately reduce production costs.


Additionally, automation plays a significant role in expediting new product design processes. By leveraging vision capabilities to understand new designs, such as server configurations, manufacturers can quickly identify necessary processes, required skills, and associated materials. This dramatically shortens the time required to introduce new products, potentially reducing the timeline from months to weeks, if not days. These benefits underscore the importance of factory automation and highlight some of the initiatives undertaken by Bright Machines, fueling excitement for the next transformation in the manufacturing industry.




Ken: I can clearly see that. It's interesting that when you first introduced yourself with the digital thread question, you really painted a very broad picture of all the things you've done, and moving from enterprise IT to OT certainly makes that quite a jump. I also noted you're a Director at both Nutanix and Astroscale. You're truly taking your leadership from, I'll call it, 'the near edge to the extreme far edge of space.' Between those two extremes, what are some of the key trends you are watching these days?



Gayle: It's interesting. Nutanix sheds light on the challenge of multiple Cloud adoption, where enterprises operate separate Clouds as independent silos within and across the world. The associated business risks are notable, as we discussed AI earlier. The inability to unify data across all operating IT environments adds unnecessary costs and risks to managing critical data assets, which are always under threat of security breaches. As a data executive, I find this latter point most concerning: the lack of control over multiple Cloud environments. Nutanix addresses this issue, which is not likely to disappear anytime soon. In fact, a notable data point reveals that 53% of IT professionals surveyed said their organizations move data between data centers and public Cloud services every day and 50% move data between multiple Cloud services regularly or all the time. With this high level of data movement comes an increased risk of loss. To optimize the environment, consistency must be provided across locations and providers, both on and off-premises. Nutanix solves this problem by creating a fabric that allows organizations to run applications and databases consistently with performance and scalability across locations, minimizing data movement complications and reducing the dependency on human intervention.


Furthermore, Astroscale addresses another significant problem: space sustainability. The increasing number of satellites launched into orbit poses risks to space services, necessitating a sustainable infrastructure to mitigate these risks and maximize value for operators. Astroscale offers operators and launchers choices and flexibility across a spectrum of on-orbit servicing options, creating a sustainable foundation for the growth of the space economy. This includes missions to eliminate non-functioning devices, on-orbit repair, analysis, and surveillance of assets, thereby revolutionizing the future of space and making it safer. It extends the lifespan of existing space assets and paves the way for future innovations.


Being involved with Astroscale is exciting, as it operates in a nascent market segment with significant potential. I serve on the global board of Astroscale, which also has local operations in the United States, based in Denver. This exemplifies how the company collaborates with local governments and organizations.


I would also like to mention to the listeners that if you're interested in this topic, the European Space Agency publishes an annual report called "The Current State of Space Debris." The last report was published in September 2023. It provides valuable insights into this domain from both technological and other perspectives.


Ken: Excellent resource. Given your very successful career trajectory and background, I will ask the question everybody's wondering: What is next for you, Gayle?



Gayle: A vacation.



Ken: I'm going to go to Disneyland.



Gayle: But truthfully, I've decided to focus on strategic board work and to work with companies that are truly changing the way we think about and solve real problems in our lives today but have not yet been addressed, if you will. I love the two things I'm currently involved in Astroscale and Nutanix. However, Gen AI and the whole new digital transformation that CEOs are discussing, in terms of worker productivity and redefining business models, present a new generation of opportunities for thinking and creating. So, I'll be paying a lot of attention there.

One of the recent steps I've taken is enrolling in a Wharton C-level class program. I've always wanted to attend Wharton, and I'm using this program to structure all the learning from the experiences we've discussed today. This will allow me to apply my own experience appropriately for the companies and people I work with and support. I'm very excited about that.

One last thing: I'm fascinated by markets. With more time available now, I'm paying close attention to what's happening geopolitically and in the financial markets. Currently, I'm reading a book titled "How to Listen When Markets Speak" by Lawrence McDonald as a means to fuel my learning in this area. I'll let you know how that goes.





Ken: Wow, you are certainly keeping busy. I cannot imagine somebody with more potential in their next steps. You've clearly done board work, been on CXO work, and worked in Asia and North America. Your background with AI, particularly, sets you up for so many different ways you can go. Your most impactful days are probably ahead of you.



Gayle: Nice of you to say that, thank you.



Ken: You already mentioned one book, and as a wrap-up, I'm curious how you maintain your edge as a leader. Beyond the book and the Wharton course you mentioned, do you have any recommendations you would like to share?



Gayle: First of all, Ken, and you may share this sentiment, it's about curiosity, right? Just be curious, explore things you want to know more about, and don't worry too much about where that takes you. Reading, listening to podcasts, or watching videos on YouTube, or whatever your preferred source may be, is crucial. Personally, I have a couple of books I'm currently reading. I always tend to have too many books going at once, but among them are "Hidden Potential" by Adam Grant and "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences" by Howard Gardner, which is particularly relevant given the advancements in AI. Although it was published in 2011, it still holds relevance. Lastly, I mentioned "How to Listen When Markets Speak," which I'm also currently exploring. These three different areas of interest are keeping me engaged at the moment.



Ken: Wow, Gayle. I appreciate you taking the time and sharing these great insights with us today.



Gayle: Ken, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you. I appreciate being invited to be here, and I hope that your listeners have enjoyed this chat and our time together. Thank you so much.



Ken: Absolutely, and this will be a timely conversation for many reasons. This has been Gayle Sheppard, Global Director for Astroscale. Thank you for listening, and please join us for the next episode of our Industrial Impact podcast series. We wish you an impactful day. You've been listening to the Momenta Digital Thread podcast series. We hope you've enjoyed the discussion, and as always, we welcome your comments and suggestions. Please check our website at momenta.one for archived versions of podcasts, as well as resources to help with your digital industry journey. Thank you for listening.


[The End]

Subscribe to Our Podcasts

Connect with Gayle Sheppard on LinkedIn!

Gayle's book recommendations

Here are three books that Gayle recommends to our listeners: "Hidden Potential" by Adam Grant explores uncovering talents and unleashing creativity. At the same time "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences" by Howard Gardner delves into different types of intelligence, especially pertinent in today's age of AI advancements. Gayle also mentions "How to Listen When Markets Speak," a valuable resource for understanding market dynamics. Additionally, for those interested in space exploration, Gayle suggests checking out the annual report titled "The Current State of Space Debris" by the European Space Agency, offering insights into this fascinating domain from both technological and other perspectives.


About Astroscale  

Astroscale is the first private company with a vision to secure the safe and sustainable development of space for the benefit of future generations. It is dedicated to on-orbit servicing across all orbits.

Founded in 2013, Astroscale is developing innovative and scalable solutions across the spectrum of on-orbit servicing, including life extension, in-space situational awareness, end-of-life, and active debris removal, to create sustainable space systems and mitigate the growing and hazardous buildup of debris in space. Astroscale is also defining the economics of on-orbit servicing and working with government and commercial stakeholders to develop norms, regulations, and incentives for the responsible use of space.