"I have never seen any dissonance between my work and my faith," says Microsoft VP Messaging and Real-Time Analytics Platform Yitzhak Kesselman, the tech company's most senior Haredi engineer, who is two rungs below the CEO on Microsoft's management ladder. "There is a reason we have a physical body," he explains. "We have a purpose to do good in the world. Every time we build technologies that really succeed in helping people, I am filled with a sense of meaning."
Kesselman was one of the first Haredi employees at Microsoft Israel and one of the leaders in the integration of the Haredi population into the tech giant. He joined Microsoft a decade ago and currently manages a division of 400 employees worldwide. He is behind the development of real-time data analysis capability in Microsoft Fabric, an end-to-end data management and analysis product, which allows employees in non-tech positions to generate significant insights from huge amounts of data. "This product is what I believe will fuel the next generation of AI services," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said when he introduced the product at the company's annual conference in May.
"AI plays a central role in all the company's products," says Kesselman. Microsoft is the company that has invested major resources in chat-bot ChatGPT developer OpenAI. According to Kesselman, Microsoft takes AI capabilities very seriously and the effects that it will have, and ensuring that its future will be safe.
On where AI will take us, he says, "Like any technological leap, it will solve many problems and make current tools superfluous, and will bring new challenges and new possibilities. On a personal note, as a Chabadnik, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was an electrical engineer by profession, referred to innovative scientific discoveries as part of preparing for a better world. Over the years, the Rebbe often referred to scientific or technological issues while learning lessons from them as part of God's instructions. This phenomenon should certainly be seen as a recognition of the importance of science in life, and even in Jewish life."
Calculus and data structure in the morning - Gemara in the evening
Kesselman, 39, married with five children was born in Riga, Latvia (then in the Soviet Union). Aged six he immigrated to Israel with his parents. He grew up in Ramla and says he was drawn to technology at a young age, infatuated by computers and software in elementary school. He became religious at the in high school in Tel Aviv, after which he enrolled in the pre-army Atuda academic program. "In the mornings I studied calculus and data structure at Tel Aviv University, and in the evenings I studied Talmudic tractates and Hasidic literature at yeshiva." After completing a bachelor's degree in computer science, he served as an officer in the computing unit of the IDF Intelligence Corps.
Kesselman is currently completing his Orthodox rabbinical ordination in the US. "This is a full year of intensive studies, in which we delve deeper into issues relevant to the daily life of the Jews. In the program I am taking there are seven exams, each of which is oral and written, and in order to succeed it is necessary to demonstrate knowledge of the subject across the entire chain of law, from the halachic rulings to the latest rulings. This is something I have wanted do for many years."
Early in his career, Kesselman was development director at Retalix (a retail data company), where he managed a relatively large team. He joined Microsoft in 2013 as product manager. He left Microsoft in 2021 to become director of monitoring at Google and in May 2023 returned to Microsoft to become a Vice-President.
"Despite the excellent place I am in today, it is important for me to emphasize that my professional path, especially at the beginning, was also accompanied by difficulties and dealing with stigmas. In the first years, before Microsoft, I worked in various companies both in Israel and abroad, and there was a phrase that repeated itself - 'if only all religious people were like you', and I admit that even though it was an attempt to flatter, I never felt comfortable with it. I don't think I'm that special, just as I do believe that the more different people get to know and be exposed to a language different from them, the greater the understanding that in the end we are all similar."
Of Microsoft, he says, "The policy in the field of diversity and inclusion is part of the company's DNA, and there is a feeling here that there is everything from everything. No one has ever expected me to give up something of myself to get ahead, and I believe that when a person acts according to his principles, people respect them." Several years ago, he and his family relocated to New York.
"A few months after the relocation, during an online meeting with a large client, we were asked to schedule a follow-up meeting for Friday. My manager put the call on mute, and asked me when Shabbat was coming in, so I wouldn't have to feel uncomfortable."
Despite the relocation, "a significant part of my wonderful group is in the Israel development center, so I come to Israel several times a year," says Kesselman, who adds that there are other Haredi men and women he works with, some in the US and some in Israel. "When talking about Haredim, even in Haredi society there are many streams, each of which has its own nuances. It makes the job interesting on a personal level as a manager, to work with people from dozens of countries, and of course also from many streams in Haredi society."
Accepting the other is not at the expense of professionalism
Kesselman points out that diversity has been a major part of his life. "I grew up in Ramla in a neighborhood where everyone lived together, Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, and even at my wedding you could find friends from the yeshiva, from the army, from the neighborhood from the university together on the dance floor - all friends who happily remain with me to this day. Today too, it is important for me to incorporate into my daily practice the values of love and acceptance of the other, which guide me." He insists that this was one of the reasons why he continued on a managerial path, after many years as a developer: "As a manager, you can have a huge impact on the experience of the people who work with you, and I get to be their listening ear and support them so that they have all the room to develop. Unlike technical tasks, it is a process that takes a long time until the rewards are reaped, but it leads to tremendous satisfaction."
Kesselman has been among those pushing for integration of men and women from Haredi society in Microsoft. "We invited candidates for job interviews whose dry data did not exactly match the common pattern of the average tech employee and we saw that a high percentage of them passed the interviews and were accepted," Kesselman says about the project. However, he clarifies, "It is important to note that it is not that we lowered the bar, but only removed some of the barriers that got in the way. With the time and experience I have gained, I have learned that accepting the other does not come at the expense of professionalism, but the opposite. I truly believe and hope that this can be our starting point to create a better world."
Even before he moved to the US, he was also personally involved in hiring Haredi women to work at Microsoft. "We looked at how it was possible to diversify the company's employees without compromising on quality, and this is something that needs to be clarified: diversity is not affirmative action, but the removal of barriers to qualified candidates. We had to look outside the box and examine candidates from different educational institutions, for example higher education institutions for Haredi women. During the interviews, I heard very positive feedback from managers who interviewed them and were happy to see the high level of talent, which was unknown to them due to artificial barriers."
What are your tips for Haredi men and women who want to integrate into the work force?
"I believe that every man and woman from the Haredi community who wants to integrate into the tech industry can do so like anyone else - with hard work, curiosity, and a willingness to learn and improve. Many companies already understand the importance of employee diversity, and I believe that creative and smart people who work hard will always have a way to integrate." However, Kesselman also recommends looking for dedicated training programs and relevant mentoring programs. "These can help candidates take the first step to building their careers, help remove barriers as they exist, dispel their initial fears and of course see that there is no glass ceiling, which I hope reading this interview will also do for them."
"This product is going to change the world of data
The new Microsoft product that Kesselman has been involved in developing presents a leap forward in the company's data and data analysis - a unified platform that enables storage and management, convenient display, and accessibility to the various organizational data. One of the key features that differentiates the product from rivals is the ability to analyze data in real time. For example, he says, "During the Covid pandemic, shipping companies in the US invested huge sums for dedicated tech solutions to ensure that vaccine consignments arrived on time and at the required temperature. Today with Fabric all these capabilities can be achieved."
Companies today are flooded with enormous amounts of data that only keep growing. This is a valuable raw material for any organization, which is the basis for developing new products, understanding trends, increasing sales and more. Kesselman explains, "This product changes the rules of the game we are familiar with in data management, and will allow any organization to exploit the competitive advantages, especially in the new reality of AI, where the need to be innovative, creative and effective is critical to success."
In addition to the overall solution of the system, Kesselman says that customization to the user's profile is what sets it apart from the other products on the market: "If you are an analyst, your product experience will be tailored to you and if you are a data scientist, it will be a different user experience." The new product also incorporates Copilot AI capabilities, so that even non-technical users can get advanced level analysis tools. For example, asking a chat-bot to generate code snippets, or customized Q&A tools.
Kesselman is no stranger to the field of business intelligence (BI). During the eight years in his first stay at Microsoft, he was a Partner Director in the field of software engineering and one of the founders and leaders of the Power BI platform. He says it was, "One of the most formative experiences in my career."
Power BI is a software service that enables data analysis and provides interactive visualizations for end users who need to track information. "Of course we didn't start from scratch, many of the technologies were developed years before at Microsoft and parts of the infrastructure of the cloud service were developed in Israel, and it is impossible not to be proud about this. After that, everything is history, Power BI today has been the leading product on the market for several years according to all analysts' indicators and affects hundreds of thousands of organizations worldwide. Upon moving to the US, I led the entire platform of the product, which became the Fabric platform. At that time, usage grew exponentially. It's very challenging from a technological point of view."
I ask Kesselman about the feeling when CEO Satya Nadella launched the product he developed, and defined it as the biggest announcement of a Microsoft data product in 30 years. "It was a very exciting moment," he recalls and also wishes to thank the thousands of engineers, in Israel and around the world, who worked day and night to get to that moment. "It's going to change the world of data, at least as much as SQL Server, which made a real revolution in the field."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 24, 2023.
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.