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Marie Hagman of Zillow: “The pace of discovery and innovation is accelerating across the board, it’s important to keep up and stay relevant”

The value of early positive role models and making Computer Science part of standard curriculum is really important. I love the work Code.org is doing on this front. Always keep learning is another important lesson. Regardless of your industry or area of expertise, the pace of discovery and innovation is accelerating across the board, it’s […]


The value of early positive role models and making Computer Science part of standard curriculum is really important. I love the work Code.org is doing on this front. Always keep learning is another important lesson. Regardless of your industry or area of expertise, the pace of discovery and innovation is accelerating across the board, it’s important to keep up and stay relevant.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Marie Hagman. Marie is the Director of Product for the Artificial Intelligence division at Zillow Group, using deep learning, machine learning, natural language processing and computer vision to simplify the home buying process. She leads the teams that are constantly improving the Zestimate (Zillow’s AI-powered home value estimate), personalizing the home shopping experience for consumers and connecting them to real estate professionals, creating 3D home tours from photos taken with a phone, and much more. Marie has worked on search technologies and knowledge graphs for over a decade at Microsoft, Facebook, Uber, and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and holds a degree in computer science from the University of Texas at Austin.


Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

As a young person I was always good at math and I loved building things. I took a computer science class my senior year of high school and it really clicked for me. My high school CS teacher was a woman and my mom has a Master’s degree in CS and worked in tech so I had positive female role models in the field. I was headed for University of Texas which has a great CS program so all of those factors influenced how I chose my major. During my career I’ve always optimized for learning and paid attention to trends in the industry. I was working on developer tools at Microsoft when I got my first smartphone in 2005 (pre-iPhone, it was a Windows Mobile 5 HTC candy bar phone with t9). I could see that having the internet in your pocket was going to be the future and I wanted to learn more about mobile technologies so I moved to the Mobile Division. After 4 years in mobile I learned that the power of devices is in the services they connect to so I went to learn about search, geospatial, and machine learning in the Bing organization. Working on Local Search is how I got interested in big data and knowledge graphs which inspired my move to Facebook. When I evaluate a new opportunity I think about what will I learn that will enable me to have an impact in the future based on emerging trends and technologies.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

The value of early positive role models and making Computer Science part of standard curriculum is really important. I love the work Code.org is doing on this front. Always keep learning is another important lesson. Regardless of your industry or area of expertise, the pace of discovery and innovation is accelerating across the board, it’s important to keep up and stay relevant.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

At Zillow we’re using machine learning to match consumers with the best agent for their needs. This project is compelling because of the massive benefits realized on both sides, for the consumers and the agents. We’ve shown that this significantly increases the likelihood a home shopper will successfully buy a home.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mom, aside from being a great role model, was also a big help along the way. I still remember getting my first CS assignment in college and it was big and daunting, I wasn’t sure where to start. My mom taught me how to take a big complex problem and break it down into manageable chunks. I still use this lesson in methodical problem solving every day.

What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?

1.Proliferation of applying ML to many new areas spurring progress and innovation.

2. Improved accuracy of medical diagnosis.

3. Increased safety of automobile travel.

4. Democratizing AI and making it easier for more people to use it as a tool (without needing a PhD).

5. Context-awareness making many products better and more enjoyable to use.

What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

1.Perpetuating bias via algorithms, for example AI being used to unfairly keep people in jail.

2. Privacy protection in the race to collect as much data as possible for training algorithms and AI used for constant surveillance.

3. Creating echo chambers when algorithms learn people and only show similar points of view.

4. Large scale job loss generated by the advancement of AI/technology.

5. Over-exuberance and overestimating the power, potential, and pace of progress of AI as a tool.

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

Throughout history people have always used new technology to do amazing things, and also to inflict suffering on others. Nuclear energy and atomic bombs. The role social media played during the Arab Spring to help people politically organize, to its role today in spreading misinformation. I’m an optimist and think the benefits will far outweigh the risks. We need to keep advancing technology, while at the same time put safety measures in place and move more quickly to create and update public policy to help mitigate those risks.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

I don’t think we can or should try to assure people there’s nothing to worry about. People should be informed of the risks and be vigilant. We have systems in place to protect society from bad actors, including law enforcement, the judicial system, and public policy, and we should have leaders in those arenas that are informed and prioritize protecting against threats AI poses. Public policy is often so slow to catch up to technology.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

1.Optimize for learning, look for opportunities that enable you to learn new things and new ways of doing things. Keep pace with the industry.

2. Regularly push yourself out of your comfort zone, don’t let yourself get too comfortable.

3. Deliberately cultivate a group of trusted advisors that can give you alternative perspectives.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?

I think we need more men to strongly advocate for women in AI and to better understand the impact of systemic issues affecting women. Every man in technology and AI should make it his job to make a woman successful.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/mariehagman/

Thank you so much for joining us!

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