Dr. Nisha Talagala: “Rising above the automation”

Rising above the automation. AI is not the only technology that is changing job roles. Automation of all forms is driving human jobs into roles that work collaboratively with tech, whether this means applying AI tools effectively, managing a fleet of robots or managing teams composed of humans leveraging intelligent software and robots performing automated […]

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Rising above the automation. AI is not the only technology that is changing job roles. Automation of all forms is driving human jobs into roles that work collaboratively with tech, whether this means applying AI tools effectively, managing a fleet of robots or managing teams composed of humans leveraging intelligent software and robots performing automated tasks. These jobs prioritize soft skills — communication, collaboration, strategic thinking, and problem-solving.
  • Employers are starting to appreciate the need to retrain their employees to work with robot hardware. As robotic automation advances, a wide range of robotics management training will become required for industries across the spectrum.

  • There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

    To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

    As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Nisha Talagala.

    Dr. Talagala is the CEO and founder of AIClub. A world that is bringing AI Literacy to K-12 students and individuals worldwide. Nisha has significant experience in introducing technologies like Artificial Intelligence to new learners from students to professionals. Previously, Nisha co-founded ParallelM which pioneered the MLOps practice of managing Machine Learning in production for enterprises — acquired by DataRobot. Nisha is a recognized leader in the operational machine learning space, having also driven the USENIX Operational ML Conference, the first industry/academic conference on production AI/ML. Nisha was previously a Fellow at SanDisk and Fellow/Lead Architect at Fusion-io, where she worked on innovation in non-volatile memory technologies and applications. Nisha has more than 20 years of expertise in enterprise software development, distributed systems, technical strategy, and product leadership. She has worked as technology lead for server flash at Intel — where she led server platform non-volatile memory technology development, storage-memory convergence, and partnerships. Prior to Intel, Nisha was the CTO of Gear6, where she designed and built clustered computing caches for high-performance I/O environments. Nisha earned her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley where she did research on clusters and distributed systems. Nisha holds 73 patents in distributed systems and software, over 25 refereed research publications, is a frequent speaker at industry and academic events, and is a contributing writer to Forbes and other publications.


    Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

    I am originally from Sri Lanka but lived on four continents (Asia, Africa, Europe, North America) before turning 18. I spent a year in London when I was 3 years old, and lived in Africa for about 6 years, and moved to the US with my parents when I was 14. I have lived here ever since. I studied computer science and moved to CA to get my Ph.D., met my spouse, and continued to work in CA. I have been heavily influenced by the different cultures I grew up in and by being a woman in a male-dominated field. Both have helped me be comfortable and hold my own in almost any environment. I was also heavily influenced by the UC Berkeley Ph.D. program that taught me to think for myself rather than just follow directions. Because of these experiences, I have followed a career path where I chose jobs that took me beyond my comfort zone, helped me learn new things, and where I felt passionate about the impact I was having.

    What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

    The next 10–15 years will see dramatic changes in work as we know it today. Here are some key areas I expect:

    • Change in build -vs.-buy decisions. Internet connectivity has made it possible to source many services (such as HR, marketing, software functionality, etc.) as a service. There is no longer the default view that every corporate function has to be done within. Employers will need to decide where their core investments are, and who to hire for those.
    • The role of data and AI/data science in virtually every aspect of a corporation’s function. AI is everywhere. From the software that screens resumés to detecting customer churn, to managing ad campaigns—employers will use much more AI in their organizations. This implies a need for broad-based AI Literacy among the future workforce. Employers will need to ensure training for their employees to become AI literate.
    • Robotic automation. We are already seeing robotic automation in everything from grocery checkout to medicine dispensation in hospitals. Employers will need to help human workers transition to new roles if their jobs are displaced by automation.
    • New education systems. Gone are the days of classic in-person school or university as the only means of learning, or night classes as the only means for working professionals to learn new skills. Online and self-paced learning enables employees to learn from anywhere, anything, and at their own pace. Employers will need to make such resources available to their employees to maintain hiring competitiveness.

    The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

    In the same way that everyone who takes up acting does not become a movie star, or every basketball player does not make it into the NBA, the tech billionaires without degrees are a very small fraction of the people without degrees — most of whom are nowhere near as successful. That said — the world of education is changing, and a classic 4-year degree is not always needed. What I look for in a candidate is whether they have proven themselves in previous initiatives they have undertaken and whether they demonstrate the core skills for the job and an ability and willingness to learn. For example, if I am hiring a software engineer and a candidate without a degree has an impressive github portfolio of open-source software that others have used, that weighs a lot more than a college degree would.

    So the key is — skills matter, but where you got the skill matters less. A degree from a respected college is a signal to hiring managers about skill, but it is no longer the only signal. For example — the Thiel Fellowship is another powerful signal. Many Thiel Fellows have gone on to impressive accomplishments. A great open-source portfolio or entrepreneurial venture is another signal Demonstrate that you can have an impact, in whatever way comes naturally to you. That is the key. It is not about whether you go to college or not. Just skipping college, or going to college will not get you there.

    Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment but employment that fits their talents and interests?

    I think networking is still the best way to get a job. Ultimately, if the hiring manager believes in you, whatever skills you currently have or do not have become less of an issue. Every new hire is a risk, and when they do not work out, both the company and the candidate have lost valuable time. Hiring someone that you have experience working within some context reduces the risk. I have found that hiring people that I personally know can learn, adapt and deliver, and giving them the time to come up to speed, has worked out very well.

    But how do you network if you are new to the working world? Fortunately, there are now many opportunities. There are meetups you can go to (virtually or physically), projects in nonprofit organizations that require volunteers, conferences, etc. You can write your own blog to get people to know what you can do and what you care about, start a youtube channel, etc. In today’s world of social media and connectivity, you should develop and refine your personal brand as early as you can.

    The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appear frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

    Any job that does not require complex decision-making is likely to be replaced by automation. This is the unfortunate truth. The best way to hedge your bets is (a) to develop deep skills which require advanced training — whether that is in college or by some other means — either is ok. (b) to develop soft skills such as people management, complex problem solving, etc. Finally © there are some jobs that for legal reasons cannot be outsourced to a computer — such as prescribing medicine. The AI can assist but it cannot be allowed to make the decision (at least till the law catches up!).

    Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

    I think it will continue — not 100% — but in some form. It is so cost-effective for corporations and convenient for employees. The last two years have shown, however, that limited in-person contact can cause increased stress, so I expect some amount of in-person work will be valuable and corporations will try to support that. The pandemic has also forced corporations to find online ways to replicate the kind of employee connections that previously occurred in person (such as Friday happy hours now done online!). We can expect these to continue.

    What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

    The most important societal change is recognizing and accepting that learning will now be an ongoing activity for a person’s entire career. The days where you got a degree, got a job and worked till retirement, are over. Workers now have to be constantly aware of new technologies, changes in the job market, and ensure that they are constantly updating their skills to stay competitive. In the software industry, this is already well accepted, but it will need to be in other industries also.

    What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

    I think the rapid changes in technology and remote vs hybrid vs in-person work, make job roles much more dynamic than they were previously. This places burdens on both employers and employees. Employers have to invest in employee training or face the costs and disruptions of hiring new employees and training them on the company’s processes. Employees have to accept that they need to continuously learn and invest in their skills.

    In this type of job market, it will also be important for employees to maintain their personal networks and personal brands. Tying themselves to one job or even one company is not practical. This may be difficult for employees to accept. On the employer front, it forces them to be more competitive in compensation, perks, and career advancement, to keep their most talented employees.

    Th COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

    The worldwide business disruption caused by COVID-19 was unprecedented in our lifetimes. None of the strategies described above for continuous learning or skills development would have helped — it is not reasonable to expect a person to develop new skills while they are worried about being unable to feed their families. The kind of safety net that provides several months of expenses for a job gap was unfortunately not enough for the pandemic. I wonder if there is anything short of government intervention that can help people in situations like this pandemic.

    Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

    I am actually very optimistic about the future of work. All these trends have some downside, and in the short term cause some discomfort to employers and employees alike. However, in the long term, it enables much more merit-based employment and gives employees the freedom and opportunity to define their own career trajectories and execute them. I think that is a very good thing.

    Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

    I think continuous learning and active career management is the key. This is easier said than done, however. I believe people need to be trained not just on the new skills but also on the skill of career management — how to ensure that they are keeping up with the developments in their field, how to think about, articulate, and execute their career trajectories, etc. These skills do not come naturally to everyone — it helps to learn how to do it.

    Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

    1. Location independence.
      The pandemic has shown us the viability (and limits!) of remote work effectiveness. While I doubt that all jobs that went remote out of necessity in 2019/2020 will stay purely that way — the experience has taught us that many jobs can be practically done from a remote context. We now have the infrastructure also in place to do this. Remote work has many benefits for employees — reduced commute time, better work/life balance, reduced traffic, etc. For employers, it can mean being able to hire workers across geographies, reduce office expenses, etc. Remote work is not a panacea and I do not expect that all companies will go fully remote. But I doubt we will go back to the pre-pandemic levels of in-person work. As a personal story — in my company — AIClub — we moved to remote work in March of 2019. We gave up our physical office lease in June 2019. Some members of the team relocated their homes during the pandemic. We are now considering options of a partial return to a physical workspace -maybe one day per week, with those who relocated working fully from home.
    2. Personal EntrepreneurshipClassic working models — where a person got a job and stayed with the company for life — are long gone. An employee now manages their own job trajectory. This requires “personal entrepreneurship”, a mixture of making strategic choices that advance your career, creating a personal brand, and maintaining professional ventures beyond the core job. It may even mean working part-time for several companies at the same time.
      The gig economy has changed the way people can look at jobs. Freelance work is now available in everything from taxi driving to video content creation. While some such jobs (like Uber drivers) are by necessity geographically focused — many can be done from anywhere in the world over the internet. For example — Fiverr allows companies to connect with workers for contract jobs in content generation. Varsity Tutors allow teachers to offer their services to students online. Through such services — workers can brand themselves as they choose to — and offer their services directly to customers.
      This is only one aspect of personal entrepreneurship. Even workers in more classic full-time positions can maintain a professional image and brand which they can use for anything from consulting roles to finding their next job. LinkedIn profiles are a great example of personal branding at work. Blogs are another.
    3. AI Literacy AI is impacting every industry and its impact goes beyond data scientists and computer scientists. AI is being integrated into tools as wide-ranging as medical diagnostics to hotel security to sales lead selection. It is not just data scientists who need to understand AI — it is everyone. For example — the ACLU recently sued the City of Detroit regarding a case of potential bias in Facial Recognition. Per their description, there were many issues but one alleged was the police officers’ lack of knowledge of the limits of facial recognition AIs. As another example, Self Driving cars create many open questions about how much the driver needs to understand the strengths and limitations of the technology to operate safely.
      AI literacy (the basic understanding of AI and the ability to work with AI-powered devices and products) will be a core requirement for the future workforce. Employers will need to ensure that their employees are trained to safely interact with AI-powered devices — to ensure best case return on investment and manage legal or other risks. At AIClub, we have been providing AI literacy training for individuals from K-12 students to professionals. We have found that basic AI literacy goes a long way to help individuals understand, apply and productively navigate the AI tech around them.
    4. Continued and Varied Learning. The rapid infusion of technology into every workplace necessitates continued learning. Gone are the days when a degree provided all of the skills needed for a job. A degree (or equivalent skills) is now just the starting point. This trend dovetails with the other trends listed here — as technologies like AI enter the workplace, and as increased automation changes what day-to-day tasks look like — continued learning becomes a necessity. As medical advances enable people to live longer, traditional retirement ages will change and people can expect to also work longer. Research shows that an average worker can expect to switch jobs 12 times in their lifetime.
      Employees should be prepared for lifelong learning to keep their skills up to date and stay competitive. In the absence of employers providing such learning opportunities, employees will need to acquire these skills on their own — as part of personal entrepreneurship.
    5. Rising above the automation. AI is not the only technology that is changing job roles. Automation of all forms is driving human jobs into roles that work collaboratively with tech, whether this means applying AI tools effectively, managing a fleet of robots or managing teams composed of humans leveraging intelligent software and robots performing automated tasks. These jobs prioritize soft skills — communication, collaboration, strategic thinking, and problem-solving.
      Employers are starting to appreciate the need to retrain their employees to work with robot hardware. As robotic automation advances, a wide range of robotics management training will become required for industries across the spectrum.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?

    “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan

    My experience has been that every time I took a job where I was outside my comfort zone, I ended up advancing my career and over time making more money and creating more opportunities for myself. I believe the greatest risk is stagnation. The time you spend doing that is time you will never get back.

    I like this quote because experience has shown me that we remember our successes and forget our failures. It’s not just others who forget our failures, we forget them ourselves. So the key is to try as many times as possible and as many growth opportunities as possible. Over time, odds are you will accumulate successes.

    We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

    Satya Nadella. His personal story and how it changed his approach to leadership have always inspired me.

    Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

    You can follow my work with AI for kids at http://corp.aiclub.world and my Forbes articles about AI. My LinkedIn Profile is also here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nisha-talagala-6a6b20/

    Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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