Smart by design, human by choice

Intelligent Machines is a Bangladeshi startup that uses technology to streamline and improve customer operations. But it’s their unique work culture that sets them apart.

March 27, 2022, 12:50 p.m.

Last modification: March 27, 2022, 3:56 p.m.

Intelligent Machines is a Bangladeshi-owned and operated tech startup that uses AI models, among other CS (computing) based solutions. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Intelligent Machines is a Bangladeshi-owned and operated tech startup that uses AI models, among other CS (computing) based solutions. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

A tech company with almost no rules. People come and go as they please, or don’t come at all. There is an unlimited leave policy (just inform the superiors). Salaries are based solely on employee performance, not seniority or certifications.

Undergraduates are regularly hired into leadership positions with full-time salaries (by industry standards), while being allowed to work around their academic needs. All employees have access to detailed company financial reports.

Concepts like these conjure up images of a startup in a relatively more developed environment, except these are all facts about a Bangladeshi startup.

It all sounds too good to be true unless you get the chance to talk to the people who work there and experience how they work first hand, and we did.

Intelligent Machines is a Bangladeshi owned and operated tech startup that uses AI models, among other CS (computing) based solutions, to streamline and improve operations for their customers. Their customer base includes bKash, Unilever, British American Tobacco, Telenor and IDLC.

They have made $2.5 million in revenue over the past three years and have grown 185% in the past year alone. But what is more interesting than the statistics is the cultural engineering that allows it.

Founder and CEO Mohammad Oli Ahad is also proud of Intelligent Machines’ human resources: “We now have 19 team members from IBA, 14 from BUET and 9 from IUT, along with our other very capable talents. This talent density, we hope, shows a culture of non-control, thus modeling good leadership behavior, and low background control is attractive and helpful.”

What theyre doing

Intelligent Machines specializes in understanding their customers’ business and context, and finding solutions while using their machine learning expertise to create value for them.

An anecdote of Ahad facilitates understanding.

“bKash’s CFO, Moyeen bhai, told me in a phone call that he was very concerned about the value of all the promotional material (banners, posters, stickers, etc.) added versus the cost of making those.

And we asked him if he could provide us with pictures of those outlets and we would determine from the pictures whether the material was being used properly.”

So they got to work and created Biponon, an AI model that can accurately recognize if POS (point of sale) hardware is being used correctly. This means that bKash reps now only visit merchants when an issue is detected by AI with POS hardware, dramatically reducing workload and dramatically improving efficiency – 76% to be exact in this case.

Intelligent Machines specializes in understanding their customers’ businesses and their context. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Intelligent Machines specializes in understanding their customers' businesses and their context.  Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Intelligent Machines specializes in understanding their customers’ businesses and their context. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

This is just one example of the many ways smart machines are bringing significant changes to the way these conglomerates do things, boosting productivity and the effective use of research.

The intelligence of the “Machines”

People working at Intelligent Machines are exclusively referred to as “team members”, they are never referred to as “employees”. We are used to companies treating employees as mere assets who perform specific tasks, in a specific way, all the time.

But as the founder talks about the principles behind the journey of intelligent machines in the first place, it becomes clear that he’s committed to doing the exact opposite of treating people like machines.

“Among the many reasons why talented graduates leave the country as quickly as they can is that they feel that workplaces in our country do not properly reward or value their expertise and talent. We wanted to change that.” He is also concerned that domestic companies must seek such solutions beyond our borders.

“If you’re opening, say, a hospital or a cafe or any business today, you’ll try to find what software is being used overseas to strengthen or streamline processes in that industry and you’ll import that technology.

But we don’t think this is the right way to do things because a company operating in Bangladesh needs their system to cater to the Bangladeshi context. So, Bangladeshi talent serving the needs of Bangladeshi businesses is the perfect marriage between the two and that’s why it made sense for us to start this journey.”

People are kept at the forefront of everything intelligent machines do. It was evident in every interaction we had with them.

As Rafat, head of the Startup Journey team, recounts, “One of the first things I had to do was make recordings for this new project we were working on. It wasn’t even at all close to my job description, but I accepted.

I spent 10 hours at a senior staff member’s house recording, trying and failing, but he was always so sure I could do it, so confident in my abilities and so welcoming, that I didn’t never felt tired or that I wanted to give up”.

So how exactly do they do that? Is there mass hypnosis in the organization or is it just a carefully crafted culture of support, underpinned by empathy?

Do things

At Intelligent Machines, it doesn’t matter where or how the work is done, as long as it gets done. Team members are only responsible for fulfilling their responsibilities and not causing bottlenecks; how they get there is up to them.

We asked the employees what would happen if they disappeared and stopped coming to work one day and Rafi’s answer sums it up well: “The work would not stop, it would continue, the people I work with are completely at aware of what I’m working on at any given moment.

If I disappear, they could instantly start covering for me. As for my disappearance itself, I would eventually get a call from work, but it would be a call of concern, not a call to follow up on work or seek explanations for why work wasn’t done. “.

But why Intelligent Machines team members excel requires elaboration rather than the mere fact that they are supported.

Mr. Oli Ahad has a vivid vision of people in his heart on people involved in intelligent machines. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Mr. Oli Ahad has a vivid vision of people in his heart on people involved in intelligent machines.  Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Mr. Oli Ahad has a vivid vision of people in his heart on people involved in intelligent machines. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Intelligent Machines is no stranger to giving relatively new team members big responsibilities, as they did with intern Rahat leading the Startup Journey team.

Nazia, another intern, clarifies on this point: “Everything I do at Intelligent Machines is my responsibility. In most cases, I am solely responsible for it, and that gives you a real sense of belonging.”

Nazia continues on the subject of time off from work, “I could ask my supervisor on time off for a number of reasons. I could be taking an exam or it could be something as simple as having to attend a wedding. I I wouldn’t. Don’t hesitate to tell them the truth and I’ll be sure to hear no no.”

But we needed to hear that from a member of the Intelligent Machines team who didn’t know we were going to talk to them. So we tracked down Aniruddha Ganguly, a member of the Intelligent Machines team, who backed up the claims of unlimited time off and working on your own schedule: “I once took a paid vacation for two months because I had exams, nothing came of it.”

Mr. Oli Ahad has a vivid vision of people in his heart on people involved in intelligent machines. He says, “I want Intelligent Machines to be a school where people learn great values. I want you to want your best friend to be someone

Intelligent Machines, I want you to be happy if someone you know or are close to marries a member of the Intelligent Machines team.

I want Intelligent Machines employees to be the first to help in the event of an accident and get that person or those people to safety.”

Asked about the frequent mentions of IBA, BUET and IUT, he said: “When we recruit someone, we try to assess the strength of their basic knowledge. We have dedicated tests that our candidates pass. And we have seen that we frequently choose people from these institutions, because a good basic understanding of things is also what these institutions test.

Why then would a company risk losing so much control and giving up so many savings for its employees?

We asked someone who knows the company well but from afar. Mustafizur Khan, one of the people responsible for investing in smart machines and who has been an angel investor there, explains: “Oli and his team have actually studied how companies in places like Silicon Valley are doing well.

And they think that if you treat people that way, especially in an industry where the quality of your production depends on the productivity, creativity and talent of your engineers, it works better. I think that’s why they do it.” Intelligent Machines has a very rigorous recruitment process. They test a lot of things.

They have a separate assessment effort just to determine how well you fit into the culture. So they’re not just giving that kind of flexibility to anybody, they’re very considerate of who deserves it.”

Intelligent Machines places immense trust in its employees, which happens to be the very motivation of these team members. The sense of belonging only serves to ensure that they feel a personal connection to what they do. This mutual faith system then drives things forward at Intelligent Machines.

James G. Williams