Dragan Gajic Of Nortal: How AI Is Disrupting Our Industry, and What We Can Do About It

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Don’t tie your destiny to one vendor or technology: The AI landscape is rapidly evolving, with new vendors, tools, and technologies emerging frequently. Avoid becoming overly reliant on a single vendor or technology, as better options may surface. Maintain flexibility and an open mindset to adapt as the industry progresses.

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the future; it is the present. It’s reshaping landscapes, altering industries, and transforming the way we live and work. With its rapid advancement, AI is causing disruption — for better or worse — in every field imaginable. While it promises efficiency and growth, it also brings challenges and uncertainties that professionals and businesses must navigate. What can one do to pivot if AI is disrupting their industry?

As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dragan Gajic.

Dragan Gajic has a strong background in technology and leadership roles. Dragan is currently serving as the Group CTO at Nortal, where he brings a global perspective and develops best practices for the company’s engagements. He also takes a hands-on approach in strategic projects and promotes Nortal internally and externally. Prior to his current role, Dragan worked in the IT services industry for many years starting as a Software Architect at Levi9 Technology Services and eventually taking on the role of Principal Software Architect. In these positions, he supported clients and stakeholders in defining their vision and needs, designed and developed software architecture, and provided guidance throughout the entire software development life cycle.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I embarked on my career as a developer, immersing myself in the intricacies of coding and software development. This hands-on experience laid the foundation for my deep understanding of technology and its practical applications. However, as I honed my skills, I found myself increasingly drawn to the architectural aspects of software design, seeking to understand the broader systems and frameworks that undergird complex technological solutions.

This curiosity and desire for holistic comprehension led me to transition into the role of an architect, where I could leverage my technical knowledge to design and oversee the implementation of robust, scalable, and efficient systems. It was during this phase that I developed a keen appreciation for the intersection of technology and business needs, recognizing the importance of aligning technological solutions with overarching organizational objectives.

Approximately 12 years ago, I was presented with an opportunity to transition into management, which allowed me to focus on cultivating a deep understanding of the professional services industry, honing my ability to navigate the complexities of client relationships, project management, and team leadership. This experience proved invaluable, as it allowed me to develop a unique perspective that balanced technical prowess with business acumen and people management skills.

Today, as the CTO of Nortal, I leverage this multifaceted background to drive innovation, foster a culture of excellence, and ensure that our technology solutions consistently deliver value to our clients. My journey has taught me the importance of adaptability, continuous learning, and the ability to bridge the gap between technical expertise and strategic vision.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story / example?

Nortal is known most famously for its contribution to the digital transformation of the Estonian government (known as ‘e-Estonia’). Estonia has been named by Wired as “the world’s most digitally advanced society”. The country is known for all services being available online for citizens, tax declarations taking only 3 minutes with most information pre-filled (in the US it takes around 13th in total preparing their return) and most recently they have been rolling out “proactive services”, that we are happy to be contributing to as well.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Genuine curiosity: Possessing a strong desire to discover and understand things thoroughly has been invaluable in my career. When Nortal was preparing for scalability by transitioning from a vertical to a matrix (helix) organizational structure, my genuine curiosity drove me to deeply understand not just the technological aspects but also the organizational intricacies of professional services firms. That required establishing Nortal’s engineering capability organization (700 people across 7 locations). This curiosity helped me convince stakeholders and our team to successfully implement a new people-leading model in 2022, resulting in an impressive 88% eNPS for the Engineering organization.
  2. Ability to explain concepts clearly: The ability to explain complex ideas in a way that resonates with people is crucial, especially when dealing with technical subject matter. During a large project over a decade ago, we aimed to implement a proper CI/CD pipeline with full automation, but progress stalled for months due to abstract goals and lack of personal connection. By redefining the objective in a more concrete and relatable manner — enabling releases during business hours without service interruption — we motivated the team to understand the tangible benefits. Within a month, we achieved our first seamless release during business hours, ultimately leading to a fully automated CI/CD pipeline.
  3. Passion for technology: Genuine passion for technology is impossible to fake, and clients can easily recognize it. In the professional IT services industry, where we commit to building tailored solutions for clients, passion is a key factor in convincing stakeholders that we will go the extra mile to ensure success. It provides assurance that we will overcome any challenges that arise during the development and delivery of custom solutions. While I don’t have a specific example to share, a wise person once told me that the satisfaction derived from witnessing the success of those you lead is incomparable, even surpassing the joy of solving supreme technological challenges on your own.

Let’s now move to the main point of our discussion about AI. Can you explain how AI is disrupting your industry? Is this disruption hurting or helping your bottom line?

AI has the ability to reshape industries. Its disruptive nature and swift advancement has led to high expectations and its adoption is being pursued by individuals across the board. But when it comes to practical implementation, one must grapple with a diverse set of challenges. To strike the balance between opportunity and caution, CTOs must remain deeply informed about AI’s capabilities and potential risks and use this to manage client expectations — overpromising and failing to highlight gray areas can lead to disappointment.

AI can introduce cybersecurity risks for several reasons, the biggest being its access to company and consumer data. We recently launched Nortal Tark, an AI solution that can utilize the power of multiple Large Language Models (LLMs) to get insights from company data seamlessly. To ensure data privacy, the solution is installed within a company’s controlled environment so they have full control of their data and privacy.

Alternative methods for enhancing AI security include establishing a robust compliance framework and implementing crucial regulations. In addition, 34% of organizations are already using or implementing AI application security tools to mitigate the accompanying risks of generative AI.

Which specific AI technology has had the most significant impact on your industry?

As an IT services company, our focus is on leveraging technology to drive impact and create solutions for our clients across various industries. In the realm of artificial intelligence (AI), the specific technologies that have had the most significant impact on our industry are Natural Language Processing (NLP), particularly LLMs, and Retrieval Augmented Generation (RAG).

We recognized early on that while LLMs like GPT represent groundbreaking advancements, they lack the ability to incorporate our clients’ proprietary data and domain-specific knowledge out-of-the-box. This posed a challenge, as our clients demand personalized and accurate AI solutions tailored to their unique business contexts.

To address this, we prioritized the adoption of the Retrieval Augmented Generation (RAG) framework, now considered an industry-confirmed best practice for extending LLMs with a company’s proprietary data. By implementing RAG, we can offer our clients a ChatGPT-like experience infused with their own data and knowledge bases, mitigating the risk of hallucinations and ensuring highly relevant outputs.

Our focus on NLP / LLMs and RAG stems from our mission as an IT services provider — to help our clients unlock the full potential of emerging technologies like AI. We opt for speed and innovation, constantly exploring the latest advancements to deliver cutting-edge solutions that drive real business impact for our clients.

Can you share a pivotal moment when you recognized the profound impact AI would have on your sector?

in November 2022, with the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT. This breakthrough marked a significant shift in the accessibility and affordability of advanced AI capabilities.

Prior to November 2022, developing and deploying AI solutions required immense computational resources, vast datasets, and a concentration of specialized expertise — making it an endeavor primarily limited to large tech companies with extensive financial and human capital. However, the advent of large language models like ChatGPT changed this paradigm.

ChatGPT demonstrated that a pre-trained, powerful AI model could be leveraged and built upon in a more cost-effective manner. Rather than needing to train complex models from scratch, companies could now capitalize on these foundational large language models, which already possessed a vast knowledge base and impressive reasoning capabilities.

This democratization of AI made it feasible for businesses of all sizes, including IT service providers like ourselves, to explore and integrate advanced AI technologies into our offerings and operations. Suddenly, the barriers to entry were significantly lowered, making AI not just a pursuit of big tech giants, but an accessible and transformative force for the entire industry.

The impact of this shift cannot be overstated. AI, which was once an abstract concept confined to research labs and Big Tech, became a tangible reality that could be harnessed to drive innovation, enhance efficiency, and unlock new realms of possibility for our clients and our own internal processes.

How are you preparing your workforce for the integration of AI, and what skills do you believe will be most valuable in an AI-enhanced future?

We are actively integrating AI tools across our workforce to prepare for an AI-enhanced future. Currently, we have over 200 of our engineers utilizing AI-assisted engineering solutions, such as GitHub Copilot, which acts as an AI-powered coding assistant. We began with an internal pilot program to understand the implications of adopting these tools, and the positive results led us to invest in wide-scale deployment.

By equipping our engineers with AI-assisted tooling, we aim to increase their efficiency, allowing them to focus on solving complex business problems while leveraging AI for more routine and repetitive tasks. This approach ensures that our workforce remains competitive and can dedicate their cognitive capabilities to high-value activities.

In this AI-centric landscape, skills such as adaptability, critical thinking, and the ability to effectively collaborate with AI systems will be invaluable. While AI will automate certain tasks, human expertise will remain crucial in areas such as problem-solving, creativity, and strategic decision-making.

What are the biggest challenges in upskilling your workforce for an AI-centric future?

Within our engineering teams, the adoption of AI tools has been relatively smooth, as engineers tend to embrace new technologies readily. However, two key challenges emerge:

Firstly, an internal challenge lies in navigating the rapidly evolving AI landscape and selecting the right tools and platforms to invest in. With numerous AI solutions emerging, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the most appropriate and future-proof options for our specific needs.

Secondly, a significant external challenge revolves around monetizing AI solutions, particularly LLMs, for our clients. While LLMs hold immense potential, there are concerns around their accuracy, potential biases, and the risk of “hallucinations” (generating incorrect or nonsensical information) when operating as black boxes on sensitive business processes.

Additionally, the integration of AI raises critical compliance and ethical considerations. As regulations like the EU AI Act emerge, ensuring data privacy, transparency, and accountability in AI systems becomes paramount. Companies must navigate these complexities to responsibly harness the power of AI while safeguarding against potential risks and liabilities.

As the AI technology landscape continues to evolve rapidly, we must stay ahead of the curve, continuously exploring new use cases and best practices. Maintaining a balance between innovation and responsible AI deployment will be crucial in upskilling our workforce and delivering value to our clients in an AI-centric future.

What ethical considerations does AI introduce into your industry, and how are you tackling these concerns?

Generative AI introduces several important ethical considerations into industries like marketing and advertising. A major concern is the potential for AI models to perpetuate and amplify biases present in their training data, leading to discriminatory or stereotypical outputs. For example, AI-generated ad images or copy could reinforce harmful gender stereotypes if the models are trained on biased, unrepresentative datasets associating certain traits or roles with particular genders.

There are also ethical risks around data privacy, as the personal information used to train these generative AI models raises questions about how that data is collected, stored, and utilized. Additionally, complex challenges arise around data ownership and attribution rights for AI-generated content that can be indistinguishable from human creations.

To tackle these ethical AI challenges in a responsible manner, we at Nortal are taking several key steps. First, we emphasize transparency by ensuring our AI models are explainable so users understand the factors influencing the generated outputs. Second, we implement human oversight and accountability measures so AI does not blindly replace human judgment, especially for high-stakes decisions where ethical considerations are paramount.

We also prioritize using diverse, representative training data to avoid biasing our models towards certain groups or perspectives. Robust data governance principles ensure data quality, security, privacy protection and regulatory compliance. Our Nortal Tark solution exemplifies this ethical approach — it leverages the power of multiple AI models like ChatGPT while keeping data privacy and security as top priorities through secure, customer-controlled deployment options.

Ultimately, by advocating for transparency, human oversight, diverse data, and stringent data governance, we are committed to developing generative AI capabilities that provide value to our customers without compromising ethical standards around bias, privacy, and accountability. Ethical, responsible, and inclusive AI is core to our mission.

What are your “Five Things You Need To Do, If AI Is Disrupting Your Industry”?

  1. Understand how AI impacts your industry and business: AI is a broad term encompassing various technologies like LLMs and traditional machine learning/data science approaches. It’s crucial to thoroughly understand how these different AI capabilities specifically impact and can be leveraged within your industry and business operations.
  2. Focus on one approach and start doing it — show results first to learn from it: Rather than trying to adopt every AI technology simultaneously, focus your efforts on one specific approach that aligns with your goals. Implement a pilot project or proof of concept to gain hands-on experience, learn from the process, and demonstrate tangible results before scaling further.
  3. Don’t tie your destiny to one vendor or technology: The AI landscape is rapidly evolving, with new vendors, tools, and technologies emerging frequently. Avoid becoming overly reliant on a single vendor or technology, as better options may surface. Maintain flexibility and an open mindset to adapt as the industry progresses.
  4. Be open to discarding existing solutions if better alternatives arise: When you start investing time and resources into AI implementations during this nascent phase of the industry, be prepared to potentially discard your work if superior alternatives become available. The technology stack is still relatively unstable, and just as cloud computing took years to consolidate around a few major players, the AI ecosystem may undergo significant shifts. Remain agile and willing to pivot to stay ahead of the curve. For example, while some companies are betting on proprietary offerings like OpenAI, others like Meta are open-sourcing powerful models like LLaMA-2, presenting compelling alternatives.
  5. Take data privacy, security, and ethical AI seriously: As AI becomes more integrated into critical business processes, it’s essential to prioritize data privacy, security, and ethical AI practices. Adhere to emerging regulations like the EU AI Act, ensuring transparency, accountability, and the responsible deployment of AI systems. Proactively address potential biases, risks, and ethical concerns to build trust and safeguard against unintended consequences.

What are the most common misconceptions about AI within your industry, and how do you address them?

One of the biggest misconceptions about AI is the unrealistic expectations surrounding LLMs. While LLMs like GPT represent impressive advancements, capable of processing text, voice, images, and video, they can be extremely expensive and resource-intensive to deploy effectively. Additionally, they often operate as opaque “black boxes,” limiting transparency and control.

It’s important to recognize that traditional AI approaches, such as machine learning and data science, can still be more suitable and cost-effective in certain use cases compared to the latest, “shiny” LLM models. These established techniques have proven their value across numerous industries and should not be overlooked in favor of emerging technologies simply due to the hype surrounding them.

We address these misconceptions by educating our clients and stakeholders on the strengths, limitations, and trade-offs of different AI approaches. While LLMs offer exciting possibilities, we emphasize that traditional AI still has its place, and the optimal solution often involves a judicious combination of technologies based on specific requirements and constraints.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One of my favorite life lesson quotes is:

“Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work.” — H.L. Hunt

As a CTO, I’m often faced with critical decisions where inaction can be detrimental. The quote reminds me to be proactive, make confident choices, and take responsibility for the outcomes, rather than hesitating or seeking approval from higher authorities to “cover my back.”

In the rapidly evolving world of technology, waiting for the perfect moment or seeking consensus can lead to missed opportunities and falling behind the curve. This quote has been particularly relevant in our adoption of AI technologies. When we recognized the potential of LLMs and RAG, we could have waited for the landscape to stabilize or for broader industry acceptance. Instead, we acted decisively, becoming early adopters and gaining a competitive advantage.

While every decision carries risks, paralysis by overanalysis can be equally perilous. This quote encourages me to trust my instincts, backed by research and experience, and take calculated risks when necessary. It’s a mindset that has served me well in navigating the complexities of technological transformation while ensuring our organization remains agile and adaptive.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As you’re steering the technology ship for Nortal, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

As the CTO of a global IT services organization like Nortal, one of my primary concerns is keeping our technology capabilities ahead of the curve. The rapid pace of innovation in our industry means that complacency can quickly lead to obsolescence.

To address this challenge, I’ve found that maintaining a mindset of continuous learning and adaptability is crucial. Rather than becoming overly invested in any one technology or approach, we must cultivate a culture of curiosity and open-mindedness within our organization. This mindset influences my daily decision-making process, as I prioritize initiatives that foster skills development, encourage experimentation, and promote cross-functional collaboration.

Additionally, I constantly emphasize the importance of acting decisively when opportunities arise, even in the face of uncertainty. As captured in my favorite quote, hesitation can be detrimental in our rapidly evolving industry. By instilling a sense of confidence and ownership in our teams, we can navigate the complexities of technological transformation while remaining agile and responsive to our clients’ needs.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Accelerating the development and global adoption of personalized medicine.

We are approaching an era where advanced technologies like Generative AI (GenAI) will enable the creation of personalized models for drug testing and development of highly effective cures tailored to each individual, minimizing side effects. The rising demand for computing power driven by GenAI is leading to more affordable hardware, which can expedite progress in personalized medicine.

My vision is a global SaaS platform that allows researchers and medical professionals worldwide to rapidly build detailed models of human organs, bodies, or specific individuals. This platform would then leverage algorithms and computing power to generate chemical formulas for personalized cures based on these models.

Imagine having tailored treatment plans for each patient considering their unique genetic makeup, medical history, and physiology. This could revolutionize healthcare, significantly improving outcomes and quality of life.

By making this technology accessible via the internet, we could democratize access to cutting-edge personalized medicine globally, ensuring no one is left behind due to geographic or economic barriers. Realizing this vision would exemplify leveraging new technologies for humanity’s greater good. It would unite researchers, medical professionals, technologists, and policymakers in pursuing effective, accessible, and personalized healthcare for all.

How can our readers further follow you online?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dragan-gajic-b9a49b7/?originalSubdomain=rs

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.