Posted on May 15, 2018 by Matt Pressman
If you listen to Tesla's quarterly earnings conference calls, you've likely heard the voice of Deepak Ahuja, the company's CFO, answering questions. Deepak typically provides a calm, soft-spoken counterpoint to company CEO Elon Musk. He's also got a fascinating history at Tesla.
Above: Tesla CFO Deepak Ahuja (Flickr: TepperCMU)
It turns out that Deepak was recently a featured panelist at the TiE Inflect Conference. He was joined by fellow CFOs from Visa and Levi Strauss in order to discuss a wide range of topics including IT, AI, blockchain, start-ups and other disruptive forces that are transforming industry today.
The moderator, M.R. Rangaswami, Founder of Sand Hill Group, started the panel with a question probing the background of each CFO. Deepak admits, "I'm an accidental CFO." It turns out that, surprisingly, Deepak actually began his career as an engineer and later moved into finance.
When asked about IT, Deepak explains that Tesla views IT from a first principles perspective. He explains, "We're growing historically at about a 70-80% annual top line revenue increase. Our business is scaling extremely fast — we simply can't hire people at that linear rate to grow with the business which means that we (and I personally) spend a lot of our time transforming our processes — simplifying, automating, coming up with new applications that enable us to go on this full digital journey."
Above: Tesla's Deepak Ahuja joins Harmit Singh of Levi Strauss and Vasant Prabhu of Visa on the CFO panel at the TiE Inflect Conference (Youtube:
Asked about artificial intelligence, Deepak explains at Tesla, "the use of intensive AI in Autopilot and in autonomous driving... there's clearly a lot of machine learning there, a lot of neural net capabilities required with the amount of data that's coming [in]... how do you try and learn from it as soon as you can — [there's] a lot of image processing that happens with it. So clearly in so many parts of our business AI is integral to our future success."
Asked about cryptocurrencies, Deepak says, "For me, blockchain seems to have a lot of promise... but it will take a little bit of time." He appears to be supportive of its future possibilities and explains, "I clearly see a couple of high potential applications in the long-term... [including for instance] our interaction with our suppliers. The invoice that we get, the request for payment that we get, could be super-secure... you're able to pay your vendors in a secure manner."
Does Tesla work with software-related start-ups? Deepak admits that it's fairly uncommon. He says, "We look at software applications as a core competency... we tend to build these applications in-house, and the fundamental reason for that is that we believe it gives us long-term agility in adapting our systems to our continually changing needs and our scaling of the business." However, he contends that third-parties are sometimes used at Tesla in areas of "really specialized knowledge" where start-ups can be utilized to help accelerate growth.
Above: Tesla CFO Deepak Ahuja discusses his impressions of the TiE Inflect Conference (Youtube:
What were the Tesla CFO's parting words for younger entrepreneurs? Deepak comments on the critical step transitioning from private to public company. He says you need "clarity" before going public — it should the right time (primarily for funding reasons). Regarding his interaction with others at the conference, Deepak notes that he's impressed (and inspired) by the optimism he sees in young conference attendees. Perhaps a lucky few will get in the door at Tesla.