“Put yourself out there and try new things, even if you are not sure where it leads”, With Douglas Brown and Dr. Amy Wang of Cogniac

Put yourself out there and try new things, even if you are not sure where it leads. What I have learned is that we often take our own failures or stagnations very seriously and think the whole world views it the same way as we do. That is not true. Take your time to find […]

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Put yourself out there and try new things, even if you are not sure where it leads. What I have learned is that we often take our own failures or stagnations very seriously and think the whole world views it the same way as we do. That is not true. Take your time to find what you are truly best at, and apply yourself more to it. Even in shrinking or declining sectors there will always be some growth. If that’s not you or your company, then it might be worth looking at what others are doing. Take inspiration and make it relevant for your customers and prospects.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Amy Wang, Co-founder and VP of Systems, Cogniac, a startup enterprise-class AI image and video analysis company based out of San Jose, California.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in a small town in China. I studied hard to get into the top university in China and then a top graduate school in the US. I received my master’s degree in engineering in one year and then PhD in three years. After graduation, I worked in a small elite R&D group in Symbol Technologies, learning many new things and working on many interesting projects. Even though most people perceived I had a successful career, I didn’t feel any fulfillment and was not sure what I was good at. That is, until I joined Ruckus Wireless in 2006 and met the co-founders Bill and Victor. Working closely with them to design an easy-to-use product from otherwise complex technology, I saw beauty in simplicity. I realized that I came to life when I saw brilliance in action and saw my own work had a real impact on people. I jumped on the opportunity to work with Bill again to build Cogniac. I joke that my mission in life is to harness Bill’s genius to make the world a better place. At Cogniac, we simplify deep learning and make it work in real world applications. On this journey, we saw how our system enables our customers’ workers. Whenever I hear that wow factor — “Wow, look at this defect [Cogniac] found!” — I feel the excitement. That is priceless, that is what is driving me to do whatever it takes to make Cogniac successful, because success of Cogniac makes our customers successful.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

At Cogniac, we apply deep learning and computer vision to real world problems. Over the years, I am amazed at how far the intelligence of the system has developed. It not just recognizes different people but the tiniest detail on imagery that genuinely saves lives. We started the journey by building an application to recognize each of our employees from a camera installed near the entrance. We were able to train the system to do a pretty good job, I was pleasantly surprised by the state of the art technology that it can recognize us even though we change clothes, hair style, and the things we carry from time to time. One weekend, I brought my 3 year-old daughter to work. As she entered the door, our system flagged her as me. I was so excited: “Wow, AI can predict she is like me!” But then a few minutes later, my co-founder Bill and his 3 year-old daughter came into the office, our system flagged his daughter as me too! I wasn’t sure I wanted to laugh or cry :-). Of course, we were able to train our system to correct the mistakes.

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?

I definitely made a lot of mistakes and most of them are not funny at all :-(. Thinking about funniest mistakes, what came to my mind are the wrong predictions made by the deep learning models. Many of them are hilarious. For example, we had one application that detects rodents, like mouses and rats. The model predicted a computer mouse as a rodent! That is really funny.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

My co-founder Bill and I are both from technical backgrounds. The hardest times we had were some of the tough business decisions we had to make. But I don’t think we ever came to a point considering giving up. The questions have always been how fast to grow and how to grow faster. I highly recommend Ben Horowitz’s book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”. When things get tough, I always go back to read that book. It makes me realize the tough things I am facing are not that bad at all :-).

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?

I have come a long way from being a small town girl in China to becoming a co-founder of a company that I believe will change the world. I have been very fortunate to have many people help me grow along the way. Besides my co-founder Bill who obviously played an important part in this journey, I would say I always have a “thing” for people good at teaching. I tend to gravitate towards people who can explain things well, who can crystalize ideas. Maybe this is because a few good teachers in my life propelled my life significantly. My math teacher in high school made me fall in love with math. My PhD advisor made me want to be a humble person even with great achievements. My mentors at work who accept my challenging questions and convince me with their ideas helped me to realize my potential. And serendipitously, my best friends are teachers.

Additionally, I would love to think that I’ve been able to support others in their journeys. As I said before, much of my drive comes from seeing other people’s success from something that we have created. This desire to support others also inspires me.

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

I often tell people, especially young people, “find what you are best at, and apply yourself more to it.” It is not easy to find what you are truly best at. One way is to notice what you can do effortlessly. Very often, you might not realize that is a talent of yours because you think that if it is easy, it must not be important. I realized this at some point in my life. When people ask me what I do, I say I am an engineer. I often get this awe from people, “Wow, you must be very smart, engineering is so hard!”. I always reply, “No, engineering is very easy. I became an engineer because I am not good at math.” I wanted to be a mathematician when I was growing up, but my parents tricked me to apply to the best engineering school. I wasn’t very happy in the beginning, and I took some serious math classes in the math department, and didn’t do very well. I always thought of myself as a failure until one day I realized I am a pretty good technologist :-).

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Cogniac enables businesses to benefit from an easy to use industrial AI platform that is underpinned by the latest advances in deep learning and computer vision. Our platform improves our customers’ business performance by enabling their workers to deliver super human level performance for their visual inspection tasks, and enabling their business leaders to gain visibility into their business assets.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Let me borrow one of our customers’ comments: “I have never seen anything like this before!”. That is from one of very experienced machine vision integrators. They worked with us to deploy the Cogniac System to inspect each of these 7-by-10 foot parts that are rolling off the production line every 4 seconds, looking for defects as small as 3mm. We deployed 25 high resolution GigE Vision cameras to capture a snapshot of the part and defect very small defects like splits and dents. One day the plant manager was on the production line and saw a part indicated to be defective by the Cogniac system. He looked very hard at the part for a few minutes, felt along the entire flange but couldn’t find anything. He went to our system and saw the highlighted defect and then went back to the part. Lo and behold, there is a small split that is easily missed by human operators. The plant manager was very excited to see how the Cogniac System could make his employees so much better at their jobs. For him, it was the perfect blend of technology and humanity, working together to deliver more safety, quality and efficiency. I’m sure he can now sleep better at night!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

AI at the edge is the Holy Grail of IoT. The integration of AI into business processes relies on the ability to use the software where you actually need it. This means that your AI system can work on production lines, in fields, on rail tracks, in the sky, underground etc. What we’re doing at Cogniac (now and in the coming months) is enabling that dream to become a reality. We have made significant improvements on our edge devices being deployed at customer sites to process images in real time for some really critical applications. We believe that Cogniac’s Edgeflow (our edge device offering) is a seismic shift in the industry that we’re really proud of. We believe that, much like the iPhone changed people’s individual productivity, Cogniac’s Edgeflow is going to improve the performance of workers to a whole new level.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I am never satisfied with any status quo for anything :-). I think we can definitely benefit from more diversity in tech. I am very happy that Cogniac has a very diversified group of people, gender-wise, race-wise, background-wise. But I don’t think this is common yet. Many people and groups are working hard to change the status quo. We are part of SAP.iO Foundry program which focuses on supporting minority and female founders. AI fields are very conscious about encouraging more women to join the discipline. I am happy there are many prominent female figures in AI. I hope they set good examples to attract more female AI practitioners. Actually I am very hopeful that with platforms like Cogniac’s that makes deep learning easy, intuitive and very visual, we can help to attract more women to the industry. I am very proud two thirds of our field solution engineers are women!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I think one of the biggest challenges is still work/life balance. Women very often still shoulder larger responsibilities in raising kids which nowadays is becoming more and more demanding job. I wish I could have a solution or suggestions to help the situation. Maybe someday someone will make an emotion-aware nanny robot that actually works in the real world :-).

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Put yourself out there and try new things, even if you are not sure where it leads. What I have learned is that we often take our own failures or stagnations very seriously and think the whole world views it the same way as we do. That is not true. Take your time to find what you are truly best at, and apply yourself more to it. Even in shrinking or declining sectors there will always be some growth. If that’s not you or your company, then it might be worth looking at what others are doing. Take inspiration and make it relevant for your customers and prospects.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Hire the right people!

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Cogniac’s product is an industrial AI platform. Our targeted sectors are automotive, manufacturing, industrial and government. Initially, we worked with many innovation groups at large companies that are looking for newest technologies and hottest startups to bring them into their company. There was a lot of excitement, but the end results are more misses than hits. Our customer growth started to happen after we managed to reach the operations people responsible for running efficient manufacturing plants. We are certainly seeing customers nervous of spending money speculatively, particularly across sectors that have been hit hard by COVID-19. We have found that good case studies are critical to new customer adoption. If they can see how someone else implemented it successfully, then so can they — it reduces the perception of risk and increases the chance of a sale. We are also ramping up our effort to reach a broader audience now we have some successful use cases. For example, we are rolling out programs to reach out to machine vision engineers to let them experience our platform first-hand to see how it can make their lives so much easier. Maybe we can attract more women to become machine vision engineers, too :-).

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Simplicity. Ease of use and understandability of a system is critical for customer uptake and user experience.

Cogniac developed a very easy-to-use platform for industrial customers to automate visual inspection tasks powered by deep learning. Our system can ingest images from cameras automatically; We have an intuitive interface for the users to create their own workflows; We have a powerful AI-assisted labeling system to allow domain experts to annotate the most meaningful images. Our system automatically and continuously trains models using hyperparameter optimization. Finally, we completely automate the delivery of the best models to the edge devices. Our edge devices can handle mission critical tasks reliably, with scale. The system is developed and enhanced, driven by actual customer applications.

Our guiding principle is to make it simple and make it work. That is how we give our customers the best experience.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

We are at the very beginning of adopting AI in real world business applications. My experience is that once customers experience the benefit of Cogniac’s system, they almost become addicted to it since there are so many more applications or places they can apply it to in order to improve their business efficiency. My advice would be to build a scalable platform and work closely with customers to make sure they apply the solution properly in the first place.

Fundamentally, it is about constantly striving to add value for the customer. Continuing to innovate, create new products, come up with new ideas together — all of this helps to secure long-term customers.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

We all know that it takes a rock star technology team AND exceptional business team to work together to create a VERY successful tech company. The question is how to make it happen. I tend to look at it from the lens of my family. Let’s say the tech team and business team got married to make a baby. Here are the 5 things I learned to make the marriage work:

First of all, there has to be chemistry, passion and love between us before walking down the aisle. When we interviewed the CEO position for Cogniac, it very much feels like dating (I think many founders agree). It is very difficult to capture the qualifications on paper and qualify someone from their resumes, but you can feel it when it is right. We were very lucky to find a match in Chuck Myers after a long search (don’t judge based on his look :)).

Secondly, the marriage has to be a true partnership, working together instead of pointing fingers at each other. Starting a company, making something out of nothing is a rocky process, full of uncertainties, ups and downs. We have to be in this together, for better or worse. Inevitably, we run into situations where we are in danger of losing a deal. Instead of focusing on shortcomings of product, or details of business negotiations, we work together to come up with creative solutions to satisfy the business needs of customers.

Thirdly, we have to share the same value system in terms of what kind of kid we want to raise. If one team wants to make the world a better place and the other team wants to make the most profit, I won’t say it’s never possible to align the two, but the chances are near zero. We at Cogniac, all of us are here to make an impact on the world, to bring AI to every business, to enable humans to achieve superhuman performance in everything they do. That is our north star for every decision we make.

Next, communication is the key. Chuck calls people all the time at all hours. This Christmas is the first one Chuck is with us, let’s see whether he can put down his phone…

Finally, we need to present a united front to the grandparents and in-laws (board members, advisors :)), keep an open mind to listen to their advice, and be firm about the values we care about. Have your parents told you that your kids need to study engineering (or law or medicine…) in order to have a better life? We at Cogniac choose to focus on building an industrial AI platform to enable our customers and partners to apply AI to their businesses in the best way they see fit. We chose not to be a complete vertical solution for one industry. I believe that choice has paid off so we can make a bigger impact on the world.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. 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. 🙂

I have been fortunate enough to have many great teachers and mentors. I think after I retire (if ever), I would like to start an effort to foster great teachers. I know just the right person to help me (my best friend Jamie Gao).

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I don’t particularly admire any one person greatly. I think everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some made more contributions to the world and some achieved more. But that doesn’t mean they are more admirable than a mom who worked hard to raise her kids to have a better life. I may learn more from the mom than the great achievers. If I were to pick someone to have lunch or breakfast, I would say Elon Musk. My 7-year-old daughter wants to invent flying cars to solve the traffic problem, since she is stuck in traffic a lot (it is a long drive between home and school since she was 2 years old). I told her Elon Musk has a company making cars (we are a Tesla household) and another company making rockets. If she can combine the best of both, she might be able to make a great flying car. She has been bugging me for a while that she needs to talk to Elon Musk :-).

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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