Entering and staying resilient in an innovating industry: Women tech leaders on opportunities in AI, ML sector

Women Tech Leaders' Opportunities
People Matters | February 11, 2022 | Women Tech Leaders’ Opportunities

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have seen immense growth in the last decade, and women tech leaders say the sector has a lot for women if they seize the opportunity.

It is critical that girls receive the education they deserve and are aware of the opportunities available in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

That is the goal of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, observed on February 11, which strives to highlight and educate people about the importance of women in science, not only as beneficiaries but also as change agents, especially in light of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development goals.

Previously, women were not sure about career growth in the STEM industries for myriad reasons – family support, work-life balance, and most importantly, the confidence to lead and achieve professional success. Now, this situation is changing, thanks to more and more companies evolving to provide flexible working conditions, introducing supportive and career-defining policies and initiatives, and building a cultural foundation where every employee can bring their whole self to work.

People Matters spoke to women tech leaders in the industry about the opportunities that exist for women in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) which has seen immense growth in the last decade.

Evolving AI & ML Space

Significant technological advances and innovation over the past decade have undoubtedly changed the way people live, work, and interact with each other. However, a lot more than just technology has evolved over the last two years due to the pandemic.

The pandemic era has forced organisations to move into an innovation mindset and have disrupted long-lasting, tested, and preferred business models for most organisations, while increasing the technology adoption rate by almost 5X.

One of the technologies that has gained popularity in recent years and seems to have profound future implications is AI.

“Today, most organisations generate consumer benefits and business value by leveraging 70 to 80% AI-led operations and creating AI-infused products and applications. Businesses are now reimagining their operations via a human-AI collaboration,” says Saraswati Kadel, Associate Director, CSS Corp Innovation Labs.

“The AI space has seen immense growth in the last decade – which is also the span of my career in the industry. When I first began, AI was just a research field surrounded by buzz from academia and select quarters of industry. I was always intrigued by AI and experiencing its growth and implementation across domains has been exhilarating,” adds Shraddha Surana, global data community lead, lead data scientist at Thoughtworks.

She says that today, AI concepts are extensively accessible via online courses that increase awareness and build the emerging tech’s global community.

“Take for instance, the boom in Artificial Neural Networks (or Deep Learning). Factors contributing to AI’s explosion include an increase in compute power, technological development, open-source contributions and an awareness of AI’s impact on social and economic life,” she adds.

What women in tech contribute to the sector?

Industry leaders say the tech industry is fast-paced and women have definitely brought empathy and diverse thought to the work culture, where there is a form of realism in how they view and work with other people.

“In my career, I have had the opportunity to witness women around me grow to be extraordinarily confident, improving their craft, and having a deep understanding of business. I’ve seen them take bold steps, and get out of their comfort zone, network with peers, and experiment to deliver awesome results for customers, without the fear of being wrong,” says Radhika Kannan, staff technical program manager, Intuit AI.

“Intuit is leading by example with internal communities (TechWomen@Intuit  and Intuit Women Network) and tech programmes focused on apprenticeship, mentorship and coaching, resources and tools for continuous learning, returnship, and through initiatives aimed at increasing the number of girls interested in technology at an early age, making sure female representation continues to grow within the industry,” she adds.

Opportunities in AI and ML in the next 5-10 years

In today’s world, AI and ML capabilities are in high demand across industries. From robots cleaning the house, serving at restaurants, chatbots, to self-driving cars, these applications of artificial intelligence can be seen in our day-to-day lives, and they are only set to increase.

These emerging technologies have also opened up doors to ample AI career opportunities.

“We are already witnessing an increased demand for data engineers, research scientists, AI engineers, AI data analysts, Business Intelligence developers and so on,” says Kadel of CSS Corp.

A major AI-area of interest has been Machine Learning (ML), thanks to its success in various fields.

Surana expects to see more focus and development in the areas of AI that help address the limitations of ML and Deep Learning – along the lines of explainability, robustness, and small data.

“We are seeing some traction with few-shot learning and meta learning. There is also a growing focus on data governance that emphasises on the identification of biases in models – especially those that will drastically impact people. This makes areas like reasoning and explainability that much more important in the near future,” she adds.

Kannan believes the next decade will see more opportunities for machine learning engineers, cloud architects, business intelligence developers, and data engineers.  “At Intuit, we are on the lookout for top talent, with capabilities in artificial intelligence/machine learning, data science, cloud, open source, and natural language understanding (NLU),” she adds.

However, with the adoption of new tech, issues related to privacy and data transparency continue to be a challenge.

Shephali Sharma, associate vice president – IT transformation services, and CRM, Birlasoft says to mitigate any ethical complications and risks related to this, the role of an ethics leader for new-age technologies will be in demand, with increased ethical business practices being sacrosanct.

How to stay resilient in a fast-paced tech industry?

In today’s digital world, new technologies and business use-cases are being developed all the time, and businesses are looking for ways to incorporate emerging technologies into their operations.

Kadel says to stay resilient, it is imperative to have an adaptive and flexible attitude, both at the personal level and at the professional level.

“Businesses were forced to move to a work from home model overnight. I am happy to share that CSS Corp was one of the first IT services companies to move to a 100% WFH model. While the organisation was supportive, I have also had to make adjustments to my day-to-day schedule. Over time, I have worked out the most appropriate work model that balances out my personal and professional commitments,” she says.

To keep pace with such fast-paced development, what has worked for Surana of Thoughtworks is nurturing strong core fundamentals and deep diving into the fundamentals of new algorithms. “Once the fundamentals are clear, I find any new algorithm much easier to grasp, understand and use,” she says.