ServiceNow's chief product officer says the cloud giant plans to win the 'war for AI talent' through its aggressive M&A and hiring top execs from Microsoft, Salesforce, and Google

  • ServiceNow is beefing up its AI capabilities through aggressive hiring and acquisitions, highlighted by back-to-back news this week.
  • The cloud giant said it is acquiring Element AI — it's fourth AI acquisition in 2020 and eleventh since 2017 — and hiring John Ball, who had led Salesforce's flagship AI program called Einstein for the past six years.
  • Acquiring Element AI will add more than 100 technologists to the company's growing AI team, including cofounder Yoshua Bengio, a respected AI pioneer.
  • "The war for AI talent is real," chief product officer CJ Desai told Business Insider. 
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Cloud giant ServiceNow, which has a market cap around $102 billion, has been bulking up its abilities in artificial intelligence, which has become a critical tool in enterprise software.

The firm, whose platform automates enterprise workflows, notched a couple of big wins this week, announcing that it was buying startup Element AI, its fourth AI-focused acquisition this year and its eleventh since 2017. 

ServiceNow also announced a major AI hire: It signed on John Ball, who previously led Salesforce's flagship AI program called Einstein for about six years, to lead its workflow business division.

The news comes just eight months after ServiceNow named its first chief artificial intelligence officer, Vijay Narayanan, a Microsoft and Pinterest veteran who is leading the tech giant's rapidly growing AI team which now includes about 300 technologists. 

"Over the last three years we have gone from zero to a few hundreds now," he told Business Insider. "The technology is just evolving so rapidly. It's incredibly hard to have a large number of people, high caliber people with a lot of experience, both on the research side, and also people who are practicing AI within enterprises."

His boss — ServiceNow's chief product officer, CJ Desai — said hiring Narayanan was an important step in the company's AI game plan.

"I said we are going to be an AI first company so let's start with the best talent as the head of AI," he told Business Insider. "Vijay is a deep technologist who worked at Microsoft. He has an astrophysics degree, was Princeton postdoc, super, super technical and very well respected."

Desai said ServiceNow has had great success hiring seasoned executives with experience in AI products. In November 2019, ServiceNow also lured Amy Lokey, a Google veteran who helped develop Gmail's smart compose technology.

But finding talent remains a challenge, he said.

"The war for AI talent is real," he said. "It's very hard. People who are doing their PhD in machine learning get approached three years before they even finish and get picked up by the big names in the valley."

To find talent, ServiceNow has increasingly turned to acquisitions.

In fact, ServiceNow kicked off 2020 by buying two AI companies in January: Passage AI, a Silicon Valley conversational AI company; and Loom Systems, an Israel-based AI operations company. In June, the tech giant also acquired Sweagle, a Belgium-based data management firm.

"All of those acquisitions gave us somewhere between 10 to 20 machine learning engineers at a time," Desai said. 

Element AI will add more than 100 new AI technologists to ServiceNow's ranks, the biggest talent haul for the company to date, Desai said.

Element cofounder Yoshua Bengio, a 2018 Turing Award winner, will serve as a technical advisor for the cloud giant. Bengio is considered "one of the three godfathers" of deep learning, Desi said, the branch of AI that enables a computing system to process data and signals in a way similar to how human memory operates.

ServiceNow's AI M&A offensive this year is noteworthy after CEO Bill McDermott suggested shortly after taking over last year that he would focus more on inorganic growth, instead of acquisitions.

But Desai said M&A is key to expanding ServiceNow's AI arsenal.

"This just gives us faster acceleration than hiring one at a time," he said of ServiceNow's AI acquisitions push. "Can we hire one at a time? Yes, but to do it at this scale, in one shot, makes it much easier for us."

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