Executive Profile: Alibaba CEO and Chairman, Daniel Zhang
On his first Singles’ Day since taking over as both CEO and Chairman of retail colossus Alibaba, Gigabit Magazine takes a look at Daniel Zhang, who brings a milder, more even tempered leadership technique to the house that Jack Ma built.
Happy Singles’ Day, everyone. What originated as a tongue-in-cheek holiday, that saw students at Nanjing University in the 1990s hold blind date parties and gather together to celebrate being single, has become the biggest retail event in the world.
Last year, the event saw Alibaba net $30.8bn over the course of 24 hours. Today, sales crashed past the $1bn mark in the space of one minute and eight seconds, and in the first nine hours, shoppers spent more than $22.6bn, up 25% over 2018.
In contrast, Amazon’s Prime Day revenues this year are estimated to have netted no more than $7.16bn, and Cyber Monday 2018 only generated revenues of $7.9bn. Singles’ Day this year will likely more than double the combined earnings of the two biggest Western eCommerce events, with more than 500mn people expected to participate - an increase of 100mn over 2018.
Zhang was a part of the team that commercialised 11/11, turning it into the biggest online and in-person shopping day in the world. After taking on the role of CEO in 2015, Ma handed the role of Chairman to Zhang in September 2019, completing a leadership transition that has been years in the making.
Born in Shanghai in 1972, Zhang’s father was reportedly an accountant, although no confirmed sources can identify the 47 year-old executive’s parents. He attended the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, where he received a bachelor’s in accounting. His early career saw him sidestep careers in accounting and as an auditor, landing as the CFO of online gaming company Shanda Interactive. He joined the Alibaba Group in 2007, serving as CFO, then COO of TaoBao Marketplace.
Today, Zhang is the first person to hold the joint title of Chairman and CEO of Alibaba since Ma’s departure, and comparisons between the two are common.
“Where Jack was the bold visionary and organisation builder, Daniel is more of the shrewd strategist and operator. Climb into the ring with either and you will probably get knocked out,” said Jeffrey Towson, a business professor at Beijing University, in an interview with WIRED.
Going forward, Zhang’s strategy for Alibaba is rooted in a lesson he learned during his near miss at an accounting career. While he was interviewing at Barings Bank following his graduation from university, a single trader lost more than $1bn and took the 233-year-old institution under, Bloomberg reported in an exclusive interview with Zhang. During a brief stint as an auditor at the Chinese affiliate of Arthur Andersen, Zhang was working in the satellite office when the company went down in connection with the Enron accounting-fraud scandal.
Zhang’s takeaway is understandable: everything is temporary, and entire institutions can vansh overnight.
“Every business has a life cycle,” he said during his interview with Bloomberg. “If we don’t kill our existing business, someone else will. So I’d rather see our own new businesses kill our existing business.”
This new business is reportedly going to revolve around groceries. Sources report that Zhang has spent the last few months in an underground garage with a small team, working to launch a startup inside Alibaba that combines elements of a grocery store, a restaurant, and a delivery app, using robotics and facial recognition to speed up logistics and payment.
The success of the 2019 Singles’ Day is paramount to Alibaba and Zhang, as the company is looking to maintain growth amid a slowing Chinese economy, a Sino-American trade war, and widespread unrest in Hong Kong.
"Over the years, we've seen consumers become more diverse and younger. Each generation of consumers needs their own peers to serve them," Zhang said in a post on Alibaba's blog. "I think this young team is the future."
How AWS helps NASCAR delight its fans
AWS needs no introduction to readers of Technology Magazine but we rarely get an opportunity to look closely at how it serves the sports sector. All major sports draw in a huge supporter base that they want to nurture and support. Technology is the key to every major sports organization and enabling this is the driving force for AWS, says Matt Hurst, Head of Global Sports Marketing and Communications for AWS. “In sports, as in every industry, machine learning and artificial intelligence and high performance computing are helping to usher in the next wave of technical sports innovation.”
AWS approaches sports in three principal areas. “The first is unlocking data’s potential: leagues and teams hold vast amounts of data and AWS is enabling them to analyze that data at scale and make better, more informed decisions. The second is engaging and delighting fans: with AWS fans are getting deeper insights through visually compelling on-screen graphics and interactive Second Screen experiences. And the third is rapidly improving sports performance: leagues and teams are using AWS to innovate like never before.”
Among the many global brands that partner with AWS are Germany's Bundesliga, the NFL, F1, the NHL, the PGA Tour and of course NASCAR. NASCAR has worked with AWS on its digital transformation (migrating it's 18 petabyte video archive containing 70 years of historical footage to AWS), to optimize its cloud data center operations and to enable its global brand expansion. AWS Media Services powers the NASCAR Drive mobile app, delivering broadcast-quality content for more than 80 million fans worldwide. The platform, including AWS Elemental MediaLive and AWS Elemental MediaStore, helps NASCAR provide fans instant access to the driver’s view of the race track during races, augmented by audio and a continually updated leaderboard. “And NASCAR will use our flagship machine learning service Amazon SageMaker to train deep learning models to enhance metadata and video analytics.”
Using AWS artificial intelligence and machine learning, NASCAR aims to deliver even more fan experiences that they'd never have anticipated. “Just imagine a race between Dale Earnhardt Sr and Dale Jr at Talladega! There's a bright future, and we're looking forward to working with NASCAR, helping them tap into AWS technology to continue to digitally transform, innovate and create even more fan experiences.”
Just as AWS is helping NASCAR bridge that historical gap between the legacy architecture and new technology, more customers are using AWS for machine learning than any other provider. As an example, who would have thought five years ago that NFL would be using ML to predict and prevent injury to its players? Since 2017, the league has utilized AWS as its official cloud and ML provider for the NFL Next Gen Stats (NGS) platform, which provides real-time location data, speed, and acceleration for every player during every play on every inch of the field. “One of the most potentially revolutionary components of the NFL-AWS partnership,” says Matt Hurst, “is the development of the 'Digital Athlete,' a computer simulation model that can be used to replicate infinite scenarios within the game environment—including variations by position and environmental factors, emphasizing the league's commitment to player safety.”