Before my time at CFO, I covered cryptocurrency at its height. I attended banking and fintech conferences all over the U.S. in 2021, and the talk around blockchain technology in these sectors was extensive. Companies claimed to have never-before-seen products that were powered by the blockchain, and cryptocurrency’s value as a disruptor in areas like payments and lending was being preached by highly motivated and intelligent individuals.
One thing I noticed, even back then, was the lack of conversation around people and how they can work alongside this technology. Blockchain sold itself as a system impenetrable to bad actors, a decentralized and autonomous way of managing information, and most importantly, as a space that, if leveraged correctly, could provide unprecedented amounts of automation. Even then, surrounded by thousands of cryptoheads in downtown Miami, I remember thinking: Is automation at all costs, regardless of the technology involved, a truly productive or sustainable value proposition?
Cut to two years later, and the search for the latest disruptor made by big tech is just as relevant. Crypto has lost its hype to ChatGPT, and all of the pieces of artificial intelligence that come with it. In my most recent travels to National Harbor, Maryland, for the Gartner CFO conference and Boston for the CFO Leadership Council conference, AI has been a serious talking point. So much so it hauntingly reminds me of my days when I was covering crypto.
At Gartner’s event, the message was clear: learn about AI or be left behind. At the CFO Leadership Council conference, while AI came up in many conversations, finance executives were much more focused on the people problems they face, as well as access to capital and rising business costs. The sense of urgency around AI displayed by Gartner’s leaders in National Harbor didn't echo in Boston.
As a reporter, I take notes, lots of them. If you see me at an event, my little blue book is my lifeline. Below are seven takeaways that caught my attention while covering both events.
1. Scoffs at AI
In the opening keynote at Gartner, vice president of research Dennis Gannon spoke about generative AI. When he expanded the impact of AI in corporate finance and the future of everyone’s jobs, the people next to me laughed out loud, sarcastically. It caught my attention, which made me look up to find shaking heads and rolling eyes around me. People of different backgrounds, ages, and industries seemed sick of hearing about AI before the event even started.
2. CFOs Are More Comfortable Around Each Other
In Boston at the CFO Leadership Council conference (attendance about 400 people), there were few individual attendees sequestered in far-away corners trying to get their normal daily work done. President Jack McCullough noted in his intro speech that people should avoid isolating themselves with outside work at the event. The audience listened.
There was a sense of authenticity in Boston, probably due to the smaller crowd and smaller event space. This was unique to events I have been to for CFO in the past. The volume of conversations, laughs, hugs, and a sense of wanting to be there was much more evident based on the interactions between finance leaders and conversations I had with fellow attendees.
3. No One Goes to be Sold
At both events, attendees spoke about the content being too sales-oriented. I noticed it, too, with speakers at both events pitching their products like a comedian plugging tour dates on a podcast. Leaders who speak on panels regularly need to find a way to balance their legitimate takes with a desire to leverage the space to talk about their products. Both events had this, but one CFO at the CFO Leadership Council’s event pushed their product so hard that I walked out of the room.
4. More Than a Traffic Light
A great analogy I heard this week is that finance needs to be more than just a traffic light to innovation. Being an approval gate for innovation, and not a contributor to it, is something that leaders at both events expressed concerns about. Whether through collaboration or using “moles” in the organization — a style that Wasabi Technologies CFO Michael Bayer has found success with — finance must be aware of the technology being discussed in the organization.
5. Rising Costs Are a Concern
CFOs are worried about rising healthcare costs. Many at both events called them unsustainable, citing a broken system that is difficult to work with. Conversations around AI’s impact here were incredibly insightful. AstraZeneca CFO Aradhana Sarin spoke about this extensively and how new technologies are making medical care better and more affordable.
Since her talk, my mind has been racing with the potential benefits AI could have in modern medicine. From the astronomical costs of labor in hospitals to the questionable billing practices and relationships with insurance companies, the pharmaceutical and medical industries are probably the ripest for innovation.
6. Curious but Not Yet Excited About AI
Currently, CFOs have more questions than answers about AI and its uses. But CFOs who aren't playing around with ChatGPT aren't going to be able to be in a position to understand how this stuff works when it comes time to innovate. According to leaders, CFOs who haven't gotten started with this stuff should at least embrace its use among their teams to see if anyone has any ideas on how it can bring value to the business.
7. The Value of Booths
Booths, some of the most lucrative areas for event hosts, are increasingly over the top. Private baristas, bartenders, and alcohol giveaways are interesting at best. As a leader, I would question the ability of my sales and marketing team if they told me they needed a masseuse at their booth to lure potential customers. Boosts should act as 3D commercials, boasting product demos and knowledgeable sales representatives. Two people sitting behind a stack of giveaway socks and collecting business cards in a fishbowl seems like a total waste of time and money.