Acky Kamdar, CEO, Magic Software Inc serving Education markets (Magic EdTech) and Financial Services Markets (Magic \Finserv), has been active as a technology entrepreneur and an investor in the fields of digital technologies, blockchain, machine learning, AI and NLP. A seasoned business executive with over 25 years of experience launching and running businesses within the services industries, Acky specializes in business management, mergers and acquisitions, technology services, process optimization, and a lot more.
Besides his current stint at Magic Software Inc., Acky serves as General Partner at Solmark, a US based private equity venture started by technology veterans. Acky is a hands-on leader running operations of global technology businesses and is used to leading large teams of sales, marketing, and service delivery executives, at organizations such as Genpact, Headstrong, Compaq Computers and the HCL group of companies. Acky holds a Business Degree from Mumbai University and a Master’s Degree from the prestigious NYU Stern School of Business, New York.
Sajid Khan: Acky, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. Can you begin by sharing your perspective on the role of digital learning and engineering solution providers in the technology sector?
Acky Kamdar: My pleasure, Sajid. The world is revisiting the idea of digital learning and how distance learning can work, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our schools and teachers do much more than just provide education! The operational challenges of delivering remote learning are all in the last mile. We took for granted the availability (or lack of) of network bandwidth, and the devices. We assumed that the efficacy of digital curriculum, and offline testing is just there(it is not!). And the equity issues in our societies have now come to the centre stage. The existing edtech platforms have seen issues around scalability and integration – many systems were not tested for the sudden spike of adoption of the digital platforms. It is our time to step up and provide some practical solutions that actually work.
SK: In your opinion, what have been some of the biggest challenges faced related to digital technology globally during the last few years?
AK: Digital Technology has an adoption problem. Edtech has not been thinking holistically. The reasons for poor adoption are many. The technology itself is still evolving – has its limitations. At its simplest implementation, converting learning content from its current format(textbook) and delivering it in a digital format may have caused its own reasons for poor adoptions! No wonder, teachers and students still stick with the traditional format of learning, and in most places, the textbooks still win! But technology has a huge headroom for innovation and growth. We will have to rethink pedagogy, the instructional design, and learning architecture if we have to fully exploit the power of digital technology. The lack of digital infrastructure (poor network bandwidth, fragmented and disparate systems that do not talk to one another, lack of devices in the hands of students,) does stall the adoption of the new generation EdTech solutions. School, district, state, and national levels guidelines to adopt digital technology and help rethink a digital/hybrid classroom with commonly accepted performance metrics around learning outcomes will help adoptions. The cost of digital technology adoption in the education world will be high in the short term, and the school budgets have to be redesigned to support the constant upgrades in the technology. The EdTech businesses have to rethink their revenue model and should be willing to manage their shareholders expectations. This is a long-term play for all the stakeholders. And finally, digital technology has the last mile problem- teacher ed. Technology should make the teacher’s life easy and empower her to deliver learning efficacy. I loved debating by asking this question “what comes first – digital content or the platform that delivers the digital content?” We forgot the student and the teacher in that debate!
SK: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced related to digital technology and how did you overcome them to improve the overall sector?
AK: Magic Software Inc was established in 1989, to serve publishers needs to move their textbooks to digital platform. What was digital in 1989? Well, back then picture books for K-3 were moved to video cassettes and sold as a digital educational program! That was digital then.Over the course of 30 years, Magic’s challenge was to remain relevant by investing ahead of its time in the evolving technology – cassettes, to CD to DVD to web, and mobile. And now AR/VR and gaming platforms. The content and the player had to evolve as the media and the medium changed. The second area of challenge is the industry’s revenue model for digital learning is still evolving. For many of our clients, digital technology still did not represent the main source of income whereas for Magic digital technology is 100% of our income! We are all investing heavily, in the hope that the adoptions will scale. We launched MagicBox platform to fill a gap in the industry – provide a very cost effective online/offline white labeled, cloud-based digital learning platform that helps our edtech/publisher clients to reach a very wide market worldwide with their learning products. We invest and partner very closely with our clients (particularly small medium edtech/publishing houses) to develop their businesses here in the USA and globally – helping them with product vision , strategy, program management and execution. Given the education landscape, it often means we have to not only invest in interpreting curriculum and the technology trends but also policy and mandates by various stakeholders across 50 States (in the USA) and across 20 other countries globally. As an example, Magic found itself on the frontline of interpreting the State mandates on digital accessibility and adoption of WCAG 2.1 standards. These days, we are busy interpreting and delivering the tech solutions that meet the student privacy and security guidelines by various states. Addressing a fragmented technology and policy landscape in education can be very challenging. It makes scaling difficult. With MagicBox, we are addressing this fragmented technology landscape by providing out-of-the-box integrations to student onboarding platforms, SIS, and LMS systems. Magic partners with publishers and EdTech companies to address the equity issue of access to digital learning by providing accessible content on online-offline players. Finally, talent development is key – Magic is unique because it blends its understanding of education business with technology and the content – for every solution we build for our clients we have to bring a diverse team of instructional designers, learning architects, content engineers, technology developers, QA testers, user experience programmers, and customer support personnel.
Over 30 years, we are proud to say that Magic trained talent and alumni is now making a difference in helping the EdTech world in creating and delivering new generations of digital technology solutions worldwide!
SK: What is your take on Cloud Based Technology development and AI Based learning content production services? Which fundamental steps should be taken to make them more effective for organizations?
AK: Cloud-based technology is very transformational and will allow EdTech companies to create platforms that can scale, and be modular using microservices at relatively lower costs. The software tools for developing enterprise scalable as well as AI applications are in general available in the open-source arena. Magic firmly believes in using open source technologies and invest its effort in bringing our domain understanding to apply the technology to deliver business value at a lower cost. Our industry has used rule-based engines to automate content production services, with NLP, Machine learning, and AI, we can take a quantum lead in the way to automate content production services. One example is content tagging and another one is quality assurance. With open source Cloud and AI technologies, I am now focused on developing the market and solving last-mile operational challenges rather than investing my effort, time, and money on technology alone.
SK: Would you like to share some of your key initiatives that you implemented for processes and procedures related to Digital Learning Technology Services?
AK: Magic is unique because we blend education with technology and content expertise. Our policies, processes, and procedures are continuously evolving as we adapt to technology and market expectations. We are really watching for the emerging scenarios post-COVID era, and how schools, teachers, and students drive the digital adoption. Magic had invested in digital learning technology services ahead of the curve, and we played the role of empowering our publishers and EdTech clients with technology even when the digital revenue models were still evolving. We are willing to partner and co-invest with our clients to create new markets by leveraging digital learning technology. The partnership model is the way to go- we look to moving from being a supplier of technology to developing the markets jointly with our partners.
SK: What’s been your greatest achievement in your career thus far?
Relationships. Technologies will come and go. But we build sustainable value and businesses because we build long-lasting relationships. This applies to my partners, my clients, and the team that worked with us – we have a long-lasting relationship amongst us. I have won business from my clients even when I did not have specific application knowledge – but the client valued the relationship and trusted us to do the job right. We all have our war stories – how we innovated a new business or how we did a larger M&A deal. I am with the same 6 partners (refer www.solmark.com) that I started my journey way back in 1985 – we are all running our own businesses now, yet, we are connected and co-invested with one another. We are fiercely independent in our styles, but we are together as a team. How many can claim this kind of achievement?
SK: What advice would you offer to our readers who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
As an entrepreneur, I found starting a business is easy, but establishing the business is really hard work, and often mired in doing the boring, mundane tasks that often only you have to do. Second, managing cash is a beast – when we do budget planning, the easiest part is to commit to spending the money- and the hardest part is to correctly project the revenue on a timeline. Finally, the team – not everyone has the same appetite to take risks and not everyone is willing to work at the entrepreneur’s pace because not everyone is you. And yet, you won’t have a business if you dont have a team!