A tech company with almost no rules. People come and go as they please, or not come at all. There is an unlimited leave policy (line managers need only be informed). Salaries are based solely on employee performance, not tenure or certifications.
Undergraduates are routinely hired into leadership positions with full-time salaries (by industry standards), while they are allowed to work around their academic needs. All employees have access to extensive financial reports of the company.
Concepts like these bring to mind images of a startup in a relatively more developed environment, except, these are all facts about a Bangladeshi startup.
Everything about it seems too good to be true unless one gets a chance to talk to the people working there and experience how they work first-hand, and we did.
Intelligent Machines is a tech startup owned and operated by Bangladeshis that uses AI models, among other CS (computer science) based solutions, to streamline and improve the operations of their clients. Their clientele includes bKash, Unilever, British American Tobacco, Telenor and IDLC.
They earned $2.5 million in revenue in the last three years and grew by 185 per cent in the last year alone. But what's more interesting than the statistics is the cultural engineering that enables it.
The founder and CEO Mohammad Oli Ahad is also proud of Intelligent Machines' human resources, "We now have 19 team members from the IBA, 14 from BUET and 9 from IUT, along with our other highly capable talents. This talent density, we hope, shows a culture of no control, thus modelling the right behaviour by leaders, and low-monitoring at the back-end is appealing and helpful."
What they do
Intelligent Machines specialises in understanding their client's businesses and their context, and finding solutions while employing their machine learning expertise to create value for them.
An anecdote by Ahad makes things easier to understand.
"The Finance director for bKash, Moyeen bhai, told me during a phone call that he was very concerned about the value of all the promotional material (banners, posters, stickers, etc.) was adding with respect to how much it costs to make those.
And we asked him if he could get us pictures of these points of sale and we'd determine from the pictures if the material was being correctly used."
So they got to work and made Biponon, an AI model that can accurately recognise whether the POS (point of sale) material is being used properly. This means representatives from bKash now only go to the merchants when there is an issue detected by the AI with the POS material, slashing workload and boosting efficiency notably - 76 per cent to be exact in this case.
This is just one example of the several ways in which Intelligent Machines brings meaningful changes to the way these conglomerates do things, spurring productivity and the efficient use of research.
The intelligence of the "Machines"
People working at Intelligent Machines are exclusively called 'Team Members', they are never referred to as "employees". We are accustomed to companies treating employees like simple assets that perform specific tasks, in a specific way, constantly.
But as the founder talks about the principles behind starting the journey of Intelligent Machines in the first place, it becomes clear that achieving the exact opposite of treating people like machines is what he set out to do.
"Among the many reasons for talented graduates leaving the country as fast as they can, is 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 about domestic companies having to look across our borders for such solutions.
"If you open, say, a hospital or a coffee shop or any business today, you will try to find what software is being used abroad to empower or streamline processes in this industry and you'll import that technology.
But we don't think that's the right way to do things, because a business that operates in Bangladesh, needs its system to cater to the Bangladeshi context. So, Bangladeshi talent meeting the needs of Bangladeshi businesses is the perfect marriage between the two and that is why it made sense for us to start this journey".
People are kept at the forefront of everything Intelligent Machines does. It was apparent in every interaction we had with them.
As Rafat, leading the Startup Journey team recounts, "One of the first things I had to do was to make recordings for this new project we were working on. This wasn't even anywhere near my job description, but I went along.
I spent 10 hours at a senior team member's home making recordings, trying and failing, but he was always so sure that I could do it, so confident in my abilities and so welcoming, that I never felt tired or wanted to give up".
So exactly how do they do this? Is there mass hypnosis going on in the organisation or is it just a carefully engineered culture of support, backed up by empathy?
Getting things done
At Intelligent Machines, it does not matter where the work is being done or how, as long as it is getting done. Team members are accountable only for fulfilling their responsibilities and not causing bottlenecks; how they achieve that is up to them.
We asked employees what would happen if they disappeared and stopped coming to work one day and Rafi's answer summarises that aptly: "Work wouldn't stop, it would go on, people I work with are completely up to date on 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 looking for explanations for why the work wasn't done".
But why Intelligent Machines' team members excel requires elaboration rather than just the fact that they are cared for.
All in good faith
Intelligent Machines is no stranger to giving relatively new team members big responsibilities like they did with Rahat, an intern, being given the responsibility to lead the Startup Journey team.
Nazia, another intern, elaborates on this point, "Everything I do at Intelligent Machines is my responsibility. In most cases, I alone am accountable for it, and that gives you a real sense of ownership."
Nazia continues on the topic about time off of work, "I could ask for leave from my supervisor for any number of reasons. I could have an exam or it could be something as simple as me needing to attend a wedding. I wouldn't hesitate to tell them the truth and I'd be sure I won't hear a no."
But we needed to hear this from an Intelligent Machines team member who did not know we were going to talk to them. So we tracked down Aniruddha Ganguly, a team member at Intelligent Machines, who confirmed the claims of unlimited leave and working in your own schedule, "I once took a two month paid leave because I had exams, nothing came as a consequence."
M Oli Ahad holds a vivid vision of people in his heart about the people involved with 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 from
Intelligent Machines, I want you to be happy if someone you know or someone you're close to is getting married to an Intelligent Machines team member.
I want Intelligent Machines' employees to be the first ones to help in case of an accident and get that person or those people to safety".
When asked about the frequent mentions of IBA, BUET and IUT, he had this to say, "When we recruit someone, we try to look into how strong their foundational knowledge is. We have dedicated tests our applicants take. And we saw that we were frequently choosing people from these institutions because a good foundational grasp on things is what these institutions test, as well."
Getting what you give in return
Why then, would a company risk losing so much control and forgo so many savings, for its employees?
We asked someone who knows the company well but from a distance. Mustafizur Khan, one of the people responsible for bringing investment to Intelligent Machines and having been an angel investor in it explains, "Oli and his team actually studied how companies in places like Silicon Valley do well.
And they believe that if you treat people this way, especially in an industry where the quality of your output depends on how productive, creative and talented your engineers are, it just 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 evaluation effort just to determine how well you fit the culture. So, they aren't just giving anyone this kind of flexibility, they're very particular about who deserves it."
Intelligent Machines puts an immense amount of trust in its employees, which happens to be the very thing that drives these team members. The sense of belonging only serves to make sure they feel a personal attachment to what they are doing. This reciprocative system of faith then keeps things going at Intelligent Machines.