Preety Kumar of Deque Systems: “Bite off what you can chew”

Many people have spent years trying to define leadership. I don’t know what style I fit into. For me, leadership means being able to listen. Listen to employees, customers, the markets and also data. Then after listening and absorbing, take action. You may fail and failure is far better than inaction. Learn from your mistakes […]

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Many people have spent years trying to define leadership. I don’t know what style I fit into. For me, leadership means being able to listen. Listen to employees, customers, the markets and also data. Then after listening and absorbing, take action. You may fail and failure is far better than inaction. Learn from your mistakes and try something else.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Preety Kumar.

Preety is the CEO of Deque Systems. She founded Deque (pronounced dee-cue) in 1999 with the vision of unifying Web access, both from the user and the technology perspective. Under Preety’s leadership, Deque has grown to be the trusted leader in digital accessibility. Offering tools, training and services to organizations around the world, Deque’s mission is Digital Equality — making the web and all digital assets accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

She collaborated with the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative and is a nominated member of the Accessibility Forum’s Strategic Management Council: a GSA sponsored group with representatives from the IT industry, academia, government agencies and disabled user groups that fosters information accessibility through mutual cooperation. She has served on the Boards of many organizations. Currently, she is also the acting Product Manager for Deque’s latest offering, a SaaS product called axe DevTools Pro, intended to help developers meet accessibility requirements with no prerequisite knowledge of detailed accessibility guidelines (WCAG).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was hired to write the web standards of a state government agency trying to build its site during the web’s early days. It was my first customer. The CIO at the agency was a remarkable woman — the kind of leader you’d want leading a public agency. She had heard of this “Section 508” thing (which we now know as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law that requires the federal government to provide access to its information and communication technology to people with disabilities) and wanted me to look into that, while creating the first style guide for its web presence.

This early exposure to Section 508 reignited a spark in me, a spark my mother had first lit in me as a child. My mother was another remarkable woman with very high ethical standards and a level of compassion I don’t think I’ve seen in many others. She used to take me to the “Blind School” in India to volunteer and as a young child, I remember wondering: Why is candle-making the only thing being taught at this school?

This concept of Digital Inclusion really struck a nerve. The idea of excluding a population from the web — where I see all of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would be met — was fundamentally at odds with my sense of equality. Then, being a technologist, from day one, I had the attitude that 100% automation toward this end is possible. Surely I could write software to automatically find and fix any issues introduced into digital content to ensure accessibility for all, right? While my colleagues and I at Deque are getting closer and closer to that goal, it has taken 20 years to understand how to do this with a high degree of accuracy.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

A few years after we started, I hired an accessibility testing subject matter expert. It’s important to know for this story, that this person is blind, and after working side-by-side with this colleague, traveling, and doing demos with her, I came to understand that disability does not define a person. As we often did, we were sitting together in a business prospect’s conference room about to give a presentation. Our demo usually involved showing the obstacles that improperly coded websites can present to someone who is blind using a screen reader. This followed by demonstrating our tool to show how easily we can test to catch those issues and help developers prevent and fix them.

We started our “dog and pony” show and just two minutes into our presentation, this lady, who was the most senior person in the room, said “Can you shut that thing down, it is irritating,” referring to my colleague’s screen reader. Here we are, in a demonstration with the express purpose of demonstrating digital accessibility issues, showcasing a screen reader user attempting to illustrate “live” issues and we get that response. I was shocked at the insensitivity of this woman. My blind colleague however immediately smiled and politely said “Sure ma’am. For you it is an irritant, for me it is required.” I knew then that we had a long battle of education ahead of us.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Being an entrepreneur is an adventure and I think Churchill said “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” This particular incident happened four years into my accessibility journey. My company had the best HTML testing tool on the market, as far as coverage was concerned. It had been validated by Dr. Jim Thatcher, the ultimate expert in the field. So I turned my attention to the PDF accessibility problem, which at the time was the most challenging one in our field. With my usual zest, I attacked this problem with great confidence.

At that time, the latest PDF format specification was version 1.2 and it didn’t yet have any semantic information baked into this document type. This is a crucial requirement to enable assistive technology to interact with the document. So I went to work on building the best PDF to XML/HTML converter. My end goal would be to make inaccessible PDFs accessible in a different format. I was both confident and ignorant of how complex this problem really was and, maybe because of that, I succeeded in launching a product called “Undoc for PDF” in 2005. I remember talking to the PDF accessibility product manager at a government event in 2006 and shortly after that received an invitation to meet with the PDF Product Manager at Adobe Headquarters. My now expanded executive team and I walked into the conference room at Adobe to meet with the Senior Product Manager of Adobe Acrobat. After two hours of intense discussions, that executive looked at me and said “You are a threat to Adobe Acrobat.”

I walked out of the meeting wondering; What is he talking about? We are six people in all and Adobe is a 6 billion dollars company! Something like six or nine months later, I think, Adobe released the PDF spec version 1.3 with a tagged tree structure that had all the semantics needed for accessibility — very similar to the mapping of PDF structures to HTML specs that was done in our Undoc for PDF. That was funny, but it taught me a lot: Never think you cannot, with fewer resources, disrupt an incumbent.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I hope we are making a social impact every day. Deque sells tools, services and training to help organizations ensure their digital content is accessible to all. So every time we help an organization make their content available to more people, we’re having an impact. If you’re new to the subject, I highly recommend watching this brief explanation.

One specific example where I’m proud we made a difference was for the 2020 general election. We heard from our own employees, many of whom have disabilities, that their requests for mail-in ballots were inaccessible. We saw this problem extended across nearly every state and county. Everyone at Deque rallied to organize an effort to make the mail-in ballot PDF application forms accessible. We then contacted every state, or county, to make the election officials aware of our effort and offered them the accessible PDFs at no charge. Many states accepted our offer, implementing the more accessible version and lowering the barrier to entry. This was a great feeling for all Deque folks involved. I think if you stay true to your mission, ours being Digital Equality, you are bound to move the needle, especially so when you’ve surrounded yourself with like-minded individuals striving for a common good.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We offer Deque University Scholarships to people with disabilities. This means that folks with disabilities can get free access to this course catalog to hone their skills as an accessibility subject matter expert, setting them up for a career in accessibility testing. I have received dozens of emails, calls and have been approached at events with scholarship recipients describing how they were able to get well-paying jobs in the field of accessibility solely because of access to the Deque University Scholarship. In fact, in the last note I read, one individual ended years of unemployment with a job at Google, and has since continued to advance their career and move onward and upward.

We also conduct training sessions in collaboration with Black Girls Code, to teach young girls of color between the ages of 10 and 17, who want a career in this emerging field that has an immense shortage of skilled talent, to get the necessary knowledge and tools to make a start.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

One — understand that diversity and inclusion is not a fad: Black Lives Matter one year, LGBTQ another year, and People with Disabilities may be the next hot topic. It is a way of thinking and being. Not something you try on for size or tackle as a one-off project.

Two — the Internet provides many essential services and has become a way of life. Prejudice against a population of society on the Internet is not acceptable. We have to think of the impact on society when a segment of the population is going unheard, otherwise it will be to the detriment of us all.

Three — technology is available to make the Internet accessible. It won’t slow you down and it won’t cost much if you do it right. There is a great upside and not too much downside to making websites and mobile applications accessible. Large corporations and government should use their respective buying power to propagate this as a normal expectation of being in business. Like security, like privacy.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Many people have spent years trying to define leadership. I don’t know what style I fit into. For me, leadership means being able to listen. Listen to employees, customers, the markets and also data. Then after listening and absorbing, take action. You may fail and failure is far better than inaction. Learn from your mistakes and try something else.

For example, we started off building a product that would catch as many accessibility defects as possible. That resulted in a tool with a very high noise-to-signal ratio and caused development teams to not trust the results. We learned from that mistake and went on to create axe-core with a zero false-positive manifesto. We open-sourced axe-core, and because of that Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Salesforce, and others adopted our rules rather than build their own.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story for each.

I’ve been fortunate to have several great counselors in my life, though these five ideas would have been very useful in my early years:

It is ok to pursue your dream.

Bite off what you can chew.

Trust your intuition and instincts.

Get a good mentor.

Sleep on it.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Digital Equality should be a fundamental human right, just like access to physical spaces has become; think of how prevalent curb cuts, ramps and special parking spaces are. People with disabilities come in all shapes and sizes and all of us will have a disability at some point in life. See people for who they are on the inside. Asian, Black, White, LGBTQ or PwDs (People with Disabilities) — we all want basic liberties, to be heard, and seen for who we really are.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite is “Face your fears.” Actually, someone said this to me a very different way — “Grab that fear in the pit of your stomach and rip it out — place it in front of you. Confront it.” I’m not sure of a time when this is not relevant.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a sit-down with Elif Shafak, the noted author, storyteller and womens’ rights advocate. Her insights into the value of diverse thought resonate with me deeply.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Preety Kumar on Twitter:

Preety Kumar on Linkedin:

Catch Preety’s latest talk on the Future of Accessibility and axe Updates (registration required):

Deque Systems on Twitter:

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