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12 questions with Silicon Valley marketing visionary Satjiv Chahil

A champion of game-changing innovations, he talks about his journey from Punjab University to influential C-level roles at Sony, Hewlett Packard, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Swarovski. He is the digital pioneer who founded Apple’s New Media Division 25 years ago.
BY Uma Asher |   16-01-2017

Satjiv Chahil

Satjiv Chahil is a Silicon Valley-based global marketing and innovations advisor. His life’s mission is to extend the benefits of technology to all aspects of life, including education, sports, music, film and fashion.His clients range from some the world’s largest corporations to start-ups in health tech, fintech, adtech, IoT and hearables. He chatted with BrainGain Magazine recently about some of his ‘paradigm shift’ experiences and upcoming trends. Edited excerpts:

  1. You graduated from Punjab University, Chandigarh, in 1971. What prompted you to go to the Thunderbird School of Global Management at a time when few Indians studied abroad?

    During my college days, India was a highly controlled economy with limited opportunities. I wanted to escape that stifling atmosphere. That brought me to Thunderbird, which was the only American university back then offering a graduate program in international business. All the global companies used to recruit from there, and after I got my degree, IBM hired me. Though computers were hardly mainstream back then, it was already the 5th largest publicly traded company, and the tech pioneer.
  2. Today, it’s very easy to find information to study abroad, thanks to the internet. Back then, how did you decide where to go study?

    Indians who went to study abroad those days had to be very resourceful in finding out about American universities and applying. [Laughs] Now that I reflect on it, it’s quite impressive how we shared information, filed and mailed applications, and waited for months to hear back. In spite of the ordeals, or because of them [laughs], everybody did very well, be it in academia, medicine, or the corporate world.
  3. In your career, you have driven major initiatives at iconic companies where people dream of working. Was this what you dreamed of when you first went abroad to study? Or were you surprised at how things turned out?

    Total surprise! As an Indian, the moment you graduated, you’d try to get a job, any job, in those days that would get you a green card. If you think it’s difficult today, you have no idea how tough, almost impossible, it was back then. Because I had a Masters in Management, IBM hired me in a financial analyst / business development role, though I had no prior background in either engineering or sales.
  4. It must have been different to be an international student back then – you couldn’t take for granted what kind of food or community you might have. Was it a huge adjustment?

    [Laughs] We were adventurous. What courage all of us had back then, going places with almost no money, working graveyard shifts, and dealing with tiresome questions about cows and whether we lived in huts back home. Americans had a very poor impression of Indians back then. Today, it’s just the opposite. Indians have done so well that they command respect wherever they go. We are considered the highest-income community in the US today. Returning to your earlier question – at that time, I did not foresee an exciting future in the tech industry. I just saw an opportunity to work and earn a living. Fortunately, life has a way of surprising you in unimaginable ways.

  5. You have worked with musical legends such as Peter Gabriel and Herbie Hancock, and you were responsible for the world’s first webcast. I think you were at Apple then, which is known for connecting creativity and cutting-edge technology. Could you tell us about your role there?

    Apple often gets a lot of credit for things that actually originated at Xerox. I was [at Xerox] working amidst great scientists… I was manager of the group that created the Unicode standard. It allowed text to be expressed in most of the World’s languages / writing systems beyond just English… Well, Steve Jobs (Apple) ended up hiring all of the Xerox people. In those days – mid-80s to early 90s – Japan Inc. ruled the world. [To counter it] Apple needed a special group of people. I was hired from Xerox to create a new beachhead for Apple in Japan and across the Pacific. My role allowed me to sit in on top management meetings in Apple, where our technology folks would show new capabilities, including moving images and sound. Being in and out of Japan, with its pictorial languages and way of communicating, I thought this was a compelling technology. Many of my colleagues in the U.S. didn’t think so; they wanted their spreadsheets to go faster than IBM’s and Microsoft’s, whereas I championed the multimedia technologies because I thought they could redefine the entire computer paradigm. Back then, it took 40 floppy disks to load the Japanese operating system, but I could put it all in only one CD-ROM.

    To drive multimedia, we needed to work with musicians and filmmakers. I had to cultivate relationships in these industries to motivate them to create new media-rich, interactive, experiences. Some people thought I was being disloyal to the company by doing ‘cool things’ that wouldn’t add up to anything. But I had the benefit of supportive bosses, imaginative teams, and kickass engineers. So, with CD-ROM, we created the first digital interactive experiences.

    When I first met with George Lucas, he said, “Don’t think of me as a filmmaker but as a storyteller.” I met with Francis Ford Coppola, and he said, “I want to see how this technology will increase the persuasiveness of my narrative.” They were all looking at technology from the viewpoint of an artist and a storyteller, which was learning for us. Peter Gabriel was not just a musician but an artist and a perfectionist. The music had to sound precisely the way he had imagined it. We could not understand the relationship between sound perfection and emotional impact, but he would not allow us to compromise his artistic expression. Almost 20 years later, that learning helped me while driving the partnership between Hewlett Packard and Beats headsets.

    Technology continues to redefine how entertainment is created and consumed. You can see it in the excitement surrounding AR and VR.
  6. And you also pioneered moving images, video and entertainment on the internet, beginning with the world’s first ever webcast. How did that come about?

    I had the reputation of championing novel and adventurous ideas, so the engineers would just pop into my office… One day, they were explaining the possibility of moving images being spread through the internet. They’d keep explaining compression ratios and technical details, and I’d get a headache. It was too much for my mind to absorb. One day, I finally got it. I said, “What you’re suggesting is like broadcasting over the web.” And the engineer went, “Yeah!” I then said, “Let’s just call it webcasting!” He said, “Makes sense to me!” Just the next day we were invited by Bill Graham Presents to support the San Francisco New Year’s Eve party, featuring Carlos Santana. We grabbed the opportunity, and decided to make it the world’s first webcast.

    People were responding from Australia and other countries, and we [Apple] were going, “Wow! This is amazing!” It even got the attention of NARAS, and they said, “Let’s webcast the Grammys. But it has to be perfect.” Well, it went flawlessly, and the artists loved the two-way interaction with their fans.

    Shortly after, we were helping BMW create a website. Nobody knew what websites were. I thought, “Why don’t we turn it into an ad and broadcast it at the Super Bowl?” That sent horrors into advertising circles, because a website was not of the production quality of a TV spot. But we aired the spot anyway. Next thing I knew, all the companies wanted a website. We ended up with a 70% market share of web creation. Then the film people wanted to announce their films [on the web]. You know, when the experiences are compelling things take on a life of their own.
  7. What is your advice to students aspiring to become marketers?

    I would advise them to never forget that markets are not just geographies and economies. Markets are human beings. When we innovated in multimedia, we began with human beings and then worked the technology to make them more delighted. In the process, you foster strong customer affinity and a future revenue stream.
  8. You have said before that “Silicon Valley is to the digital age what Florence was to the Renaissance.” Could you expand on that?

    When I first got into the tech industry, it was all about data processing, word processing, management information systems and controls. Today, technology is redefining and disrupting every conceivable industry and every function within an organization. As a result, there are ever and ever new names – biotech, healthtech, fintech, adtech, and fashiontech. Even the autobahn and infobahn are headed for an all out merger.

    Not only are these traditional industry-redefining/disrupting waves being driven from Silicon Valley, so are the new trends in lifestyle, social media, and entertainment. New work paradigms are merging with terms such as “gig economy”, on-demand services, shared economy, crowd sourcing/funding.

    Almost everything is being reinvented here, by people from everywhere. In fact, it’s a phenomenon bigger than Florence and worthy of another conversation.
  9. For many young people, working in an iconic Silicon Valley company is success. As someone who has been there and done that, what’s your advice to students on defining goals for success?

    One of the people who came to Apple from Xerox, [graphical user interface creator] Alan Kay, said, “If you want predict the future, invent it.” Earlier, IBM and other companies were on the East Coast. They called the West Coast the ‘Left Coast’ because of the hippie movement. The mainstream thought of it as ‘counterculture’. Actually, it was the biggest positive cultural revolution. The anchors were Berkeley and Stanford – highly educated people who were sick of wars and all that. Whatever they did, they did with a passion to improve the world, not for return on investment. You should not think of Silicon Valley as a location, and create an Indian Silicon Valley, or a German one, with buildings and internet, and dish out money. It’s about the mindset: how do I make the world a better place? See your passion, where you want to make a difference, and go for it! Kodak, Sun Microsystems, Palm disappeared – that old way of joining a company is now out the window. I’ve mentioned the term ‘gig economy’… people get together around their passion. Cloud, big data, biotech – wherever your interests are, you group with people. That will be the most fulfilling, and the best chance to go anywhere.
  10. I gather that you recently spoke at the Hermes Future Forum 2016 in Hamburg, Germany, and earlier at Innovex 2016 in Tel Aviv, Israel. What messages did you convey in these talks?

    At the innovation forum in Tel Aviv, I actually spoke about innovations that failed, and others that were unexpected successes. There are big learnings in failure. Quite often innovations fail in the area they are originally deployed but become huge successes in other unexpected areas. So, be careful before you dismiss a failure.

    I was invited to speak at the Hermes Future Forum in Germany by Sabine Christiansen, the famous TV host. The forum’s theme was ‘Thinking Beyond – Strategies in Times of Disruptive Change’. My talk was entitled ‘Think Different – A Silicon Valley Perspective’. My key message was that Silicon Valley should not be thought of as a geographic location, but as a unique mindset. And it belongs to the entire world, not just to America. I encouraged Europeans to not just set up technology innovation centers, but also develop their marketing and business strategies from Silicon Valley, and with a Silicon Valley mindset. I would love to share my thoughts in greater detail at some other time.
  11. We would welcome that. Before we close today, could you tell us what courses and teachers were the most influential in your success?

    I always said Math and English were the most essential to master. Ironically, my most favorite Math teacher was a photographer! And my English teacher was a Spaniard. Thanks to these great teachers, I aced both subjects. Today, I tell everyone to learn how to code and user experience design. Unfortunately, mobile devices have destroyed the English language.
  12. Nowadays, MOOCs and online education are popular, platforms such as Coursera and EdXbring quality education to even the poorest parts of the world. How do you view the potential and promise of online education?

    I laud these companies. It is heartening to see institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley offer online courses that are of the same standard as their classroom programs. My own marketing analyst is enrolled in UC Berkeley’s Master of Information and Data Science program, which is entirely online.

    The day is not far when a student from Punjab University can get the finest Stanford advanced degree without having to leave home.

    Online education is what will truly democratize society, and finally allow the world to become truly flat.

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