This chief AI officer says the job is more of a temporary gig

The first in our series of profiles on people with the hot new exec title spotlights Dialpad’s head of AI.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

It’s not often in tech reporting that you talk to someone who happily tells you their job is doomed for obsolescence.

But Dan O’Connell, chief AI and strategy officer at the cloud communications company Dialpad, sees his current role—and the jobs of other AI-devoted C-suiters—as essentially transitional: They are there to shepherd their respective companies into a future where AI is ubiquitous enough that it no longer falls under the purview of just one exec.

“I actually think this is a moment-in-time type of role. And it’s funny to say that about your own job,” O’Connell said. “The need for the specific AI person goes away simply because everyone else levels up their skills and knowledge around these technologies, which is what my guess is probably happens.”

Like the chief metaverse officers before them, chief AI officers (CAIOs) emerged to ride a hype wave around a new technology that’s still transfixing upper management. A survey published in CIO magazine last fall found that 11% of midsize to large companies had hired a CAIO, and another 21% were on the hunt for one.

But what do these super-specialized higher-ups do that goes beyond the remit of, say, a chief technology officer or a chief information officer? And is this a role every AI-curious company needs in its org chart? This is the first in a series of profiles where Tech Brew attempts to find out.

Early adopters

Dialpad, which sees AI as a key weapon in challenging bigger rivals like Zoom, was ahead of the curve when it came to the CAIO trend. O’Connell accepted the role in February 2022, months before ChatGPT’s viral release captured mainstream business imaginations. Dialpad’s AI strategy dates even further back to its 2018 acquisition of O’Connell’s natural language processing AI startup, TalkIQ, he said.

“Everybody’s a protagonist, and everybody’s an expert in hindsight, but…looking back, we were very much making that bet and that decision many years ahead of other businesses,” O’Connell said. “It came down to then, we have to have somebody that’s directly responsible for getting those technologies and delivering the features in our roadmap to our customers.”

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Having an AI-focused executive was key to ensuring the company was able to manage more of its technology stack in-house, pick partners when it makes sense, and not have to be overly reliant on a third-party API, O’Connell said. That has allowed Dialpad to keep costs down as the platform rolls out features like voice transcription, call-center assistance, and—as of this month—AI recaps powered by DialpadGPT, the company’s proprietary LLM, through a partnership with T-Mobile.

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“What’s happened over the past year is a lot of businesses out there say they’re AI-first businesses or AI-powered businesses, and they’re ultimately wrapper companies around a foundational model or a third-party API,” O’Connell said.

Over time, O’Connell said AI could even lead Dialpad into the customer relationship management (CRM) business, the domain of giants like Salesforce. In service of goals like these, the startup has raised $450 million to date, according to Crunchbase.

“Traditionally, many people view the telephone line as this dumb pipe,” O’Connell said. “But suddenly that pipe understands these really rich, valuable conversations, and we can understand them in real time. And that allows us to go and build these features for assistance, automation, and insights.”

A day in the life

That’s the long-term hope for AI, but what do things look like from the driver’s seat? O’Connell said a typical day might start with some forecast calls about deals with other Dialpad execs. He usually has some calls with big clients to talk about specific features they’re looking for; for instance, Dialpad is currently custom-building AI features for a recruiting company that O’Connell declined to name.

He might have to field some security or compliance questions that crop up either with an individual client or terms and conditions broadly, he said. There’s also meetings with marketing around new features (Dialpad operates on a biweekly release schedule), and weighing in on adoption and usage stats. And, of course, interviews with the media and other tasks as part of his role as the public-facing “evangelist” for the company’s AI.

“I feel at times like a mini-CEO of AI because you’re responsible for the features, you want to see usage and adoption,” O’Connell said. “You’re fairly in the weeds of a lot of things.”

Luckily, he said, he gets along well with the company’s chief product officer and chief technology officer, both of whom he previously worked with at Google.

“I would say there’s a lack of ego or worries about empire-building,” O’Connell said. “[We] ultimately develop the roadmap and agree on the roadmap. I just get the side of anything that is AI-related, which, you see me smiling and laughing because I think that piece is more interesting, selfishly.”

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.