Encourage risk taking and own your team’s failures: Teams fail to innovate if they are scared of failure. As a leader, you should own the failure and encourage the team to digest, learn, and move on. Encourage your teams to take well-calculated risks because they can achieve a moment of crowning glory if a high-risk project pays off and is highly successful.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewingMeeta Dash.
Meeta is a passionate, customer-obsessed product leader with a track record of strategizing, building and launching innovative products that solve real business problems.
As VP Product at Appen she is building a machine learning data annotation platform focused on Computer Vision, Autonomous Vehicles, Conversational AI and NLP. Prior to Appen, Meeta held several product leadership roles in Cisco Systems, Tokbox/Telefonica and Computer Associates with a focus on AI, Chatbots, Voice/Video and Data Analytics. She has an MBA Degree from UC Davis and engineering degree from National Institute of Technology, India.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ihave always been intrigued to find out the “why” in all things that transpire. When I studied engineering or spent a number of years writing code for mission critical applications, I subconsciously ignored the “why” and focused on the “how.” Going to business school and learning the ropes of product management gave me a fresh perspective on customers. I started realizing why people choose to buy or shun a particular product. Customer empathy, understanding the gaps in the market, prioritizing value over features, learning from your competitors (both successes and failures), and most importantly, having a vision — this all encouraged me to invest exponentially to become a top product manager.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When I joined my present company, an irony hit us. We were providing our customers with a machine learning platform to make their systems and processes smart. However, the “training” data that was being created for our algorithms was all done by people….tens of thousands of people every day. Stunning, right? There was no way we could scale. Think about humanly training an algorithm to accurately identify every individual object in video clips, with each clip running for hundreds of seconds and made up of thousands of frames.
In talking to my engineering team, it was a slam dunk when we realized we should be using our own solution by applying machine learning to train data for our machine learning platform. And guess what? After two years of sweat equity, this innovative idea is now the industry norm. We saved our customers money and gained efficiency and scale we had only dreamed of. We now provide ML-assisted annotation of data to all our crowd workforce. This reinforced my belief in “seeing the forest for the trees” and focusing on the “why” first.
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?
It’s certainly painful but funny, for sure. In my very first product prototype, we built a voice assistant — one that could call others on your behalf from a VOIP phone or a conference room device… think about making conference rooms as smart as your smartphone! We set up a demo for our internal team, and five minutes into the demo, one of our top execs stepped into the room and wanted to try it out for himself. He called out the voice assistant and asked it to call himself. This could have worked, but he had a super long last name and a non-native English one, so the assistant ended up calling someone else in the company — someone super high up, who wasn’t supposed to be called randomly. We failed spectacularly, but we walked away with some lessons learned. We instantly recognized that machine learning platforms have bias, just like people — bias with accent, bias with language, bias with understanding cultures, etc.
It was life changing for me, honestly. I spent the next few years of my career researching how prevalent bias is in machines and coming up with innovative solutions on how to prevent it. Also, I always optimistically caution customers now to not assume AI is the silver bullet, and that it has weaknesses that we as a society need to train it to overcome.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
AI is taking over the world of software. The entire industry is talking about the next evolution of machine learning and how to make it faster, more intelligent, rolling out the newest algorithms on the block, etc.
However, at Appen, we think differently. We believe to make AI successful in the real world, people need to play an equal part. We call this “Human in the Loop.” The AI system you build is as good or bad as the data you have trained it on. Bad data or data that is not representative of diversity and cultures can lead your AI system to learn the wrong lessons, setup failed expectations, and even worse, make unfair decisions. With a combination of an unbiased technology platform, diverse pool of highly skilled global crowd, and sophisticated quality control processes, we at Appen help confidently deploy AI solutions for real businesses.
What makes me really proud is our leadership on crowd wellness and spearheading the Crowd Code of Ethics initiative to build better AI. Appen promotes fair pay, inclusivity, and well-being for the global workforce who help create data for the AI systems.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am super excited to be working on a project called Smart Labeling, which lets machines automatically pre-label (i.e. annotate) data from the text, image, audio or video snippet being analyzed. This makes life super easy for crowd workers who can now just focus on correcting the incorrect labels instead of painfully labeling hundreds of thousands of images.
We are also building data pipelines and tools to accelerate automotive AI learning. Smart cars and self-driving technologies make decisions with millions of data points from camera, radar and LiDAR sensors. However, the sensor data is not super intuitive. LiDAR, as an example, is a 3-dimensional data structure with clusters of points. We are building an intuitive annotation tool that can consume data from multiple sensors and teach these smart machines how to react to specific road conditions. Our biggest goal right now is to process this 3-dimensional data in matter of seconds vs. minutes. When lives are at stake, you need to make decisions in real time!
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Although we have come a long way in acknowledging that we have gaps and encouraging more women to take up careers in STEM, it’s just not enough. We still have staggering gaps when it comes to women pursuing STEM education, choosing engineering or scientific careers in the field, and more importantly, taking up leadership roles.
In my view, there are two critical phases of life where a career path can get set or reset: once during the formative years of high school and then once again during mid-career. We need to encourage girls to explore STEM fields as highly fulfilling career options during the high school years while they are just starting to think about their life ahead. The responsibility is on schools, parents, and businesses to step up and provide exposure through real-life mentors, role models, and internship opportunities.
In their mid-career phase, a lot of women drop from the workforce or take up non-technical roles in the fear of not being able to balance a demanding career and family obligations. Women should be strongly supported via child care programs, flexible work hours, and mentored to grow into technical leadership roles. Corporations need to make conscious efforts for diversity not just during the hiring process, but also during organic growth of employees in their firm. At Appen, we run high potential programs that encourage more women to organically grow into various leadership roles and take over the mantle from the current batch of leaders at the appropriate time.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Gender stereotyping and the perception that women are less technical. Additionally, in many tech roles, the work environment is not super conducive for women to excel. There are teams where strongly opinionated individual players are encouraged, which is very different from women’s working styles who often seek more collaboration and alignment. Women being underrepresented in technical teams aggravates this problem even more. One challenge that I have personally faced is being petite and having a softer tone of voice, which is often perceived as weakness.
In my view, every individual, especially every woman, has a role to play to bring change. Acknowledging and talking about diversity and inclusion at all levels in the company is a key first step to change the status quo. We need to build more awareness to change the perception and the work environment.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Myth 1: “Women are not great coders.”
I was a top-level mainframe programmer and then a core Java developer for several years working on large mission critical projects. As a product manager, I have worked with some of the smartest women engineers who continue to amaze me with their work ethics and attention to details. This myth, in my honest opinion, is busted aloud.
Myth 2: “Women are not fit for tech start-ups as they cannot work long hours.”
I want to highlight two hidden biases here. First of all, it’s not about working hard, it’s about working smart and showing results. Secondly, with limited resources, it’s even more imperative for start-ups to make hard choices, react quickly to market needs and work as a team. Along with technical expertise, women typically excel in making tough priority calls, building collaborative work culture and having high emotional intelligence, which helps start-ups to thrive well. Another myth down the drain!
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t shy away from taking difficult decisions: As a leader, often times you have to make difficult decisions and align your peers and teams around your vision. Make well-informed decisions, but most importantly, trust your intuition and believe in yourself.
- Empower your teams: The leader is as good as their team. Hence, build a very well-rounded team, and trust and empower them. Mentor them to make independent decisions, but once they do so, learn to trust them.
- Instill a sense of urgency: Businesses today are moving faster, and market needs are evolving rapidly. Having a sense of urgency and driving faster business outcomes can help you to be a successful leader and help your team grow and thrive.
- Communicate, communicate, and communicate: I can’t stress enough on the power of communication. A lot of workplace conflicts happen because people don’t share a similar perspective, and you will be amazed how many times two people come out of a meeting with completely different understanding of the goals. As a leader, it’s your job to be crystal clear with your team on goals, strategies, and tactics, and align everyone towards those goals. You can never communicate enough.
- Encourage risk taking and own your team’s failures: Teams fail to innovate if they are scared of failure. As a leader, you should own the failure and encourage the team to digest, learn, and move on. Encourage your teams to take well-calculated risks because they can achieve a moment of crowning glory if a high-risk project pays off and is highly successful.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
First, build an environment of trust. Next, see to it that you empower your team members to do their jobs independently. Invest in their professional and personal growth, and make them feel needed.
But most importantly, be a servant leader. Trust them to make decisions and provide necessary support and guidance along the way. I motivate my team by asking them to drive, but always remind them to count on me as a pillar of support. True leaders lead from the back and let their team shine. In my opinion, this advice holds true for all leaders.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
You cannot be a single point of failure for the team, especially when you are scaling and building a large organization. It’s imperative that you invest in building strong leaders in your team to whom you can confidently delegate responsibilities. Once you have designated leaders, do learn to trust their decisions and fully empower them. Be there to support and vouch for them when they need you, unblock barriers and continue to guide and coach your leaders for success.
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 had the opportunity to work with some incredible leaders, peers, and teams. Each of them has contributed and helped me in their unique way.
On a personal front, my mother has always been a constant source of inspiration and support for me. In the midst of my career, I made a bold decision to leave my full-time job and go to school to get a business degree. With a one-year-old baby, it was a tough decision for many reasons, but I got a lot of support and help from my mom. She encouraged me to follow my passion and not shy away from diving into the unknown.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am really proud to build a platform that helps create ethical AI products. I am incredibly excited to enable customers who are using AI to detect early signs of cancer, predict natural disasters, plan rescue operations, and much more. AI products today are built to make critical decisions, and bias is a growing problem. At Appen, I am building methodologies and an automated platform to reduce “bias” in machine learning, and create a training data strategy that incorporates diversity, thus changing the fundamental workings.
I am passionate about mentoring and sharing my real-world learnings so more women and underrepresented groups can feel comfortable to join the artificial intelligence/product space. I also have taught several courses on AI and product management.
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 would start a movement to encourage clean energy usage and reduce environmental pollution with the help of AI. Marine life is being destroyed, species are getting extinct, and we are putting everyone’s health at risk with increasing pollution levels. AI can play a big role in optimizing manufacturing, modernizing farming, and building low energy/smart homes.
For example, on factory floors, machine learning can be used to recommend optimal temperature and chemical combinations to reduce carbon footprint and maximize energy efficiency. Another idea is in smart farming where AI is used to precisely spray pesticides only on weeds, saving tons of pesticide wastage and land pollution.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” ― Charles R. Swindoll
I don’t like to ponder over spilt milk or challenging situations that are beyond my control, but rather plan for how to make the best of the current situation and move forward.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a crisis that none of us could predict. In these challenging times, we should focus on building more resilient business processes, digital operations, and a remote team culture that will help us survive now and scale in the future with the new norm. I just get fascinated by the hidden opportunities behind every challenge that comes my way.
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.
Melinda Gates has been a great source of inspiration for me. The initiatives that she has been driving around health access and education for girls across the globe is really commendable. Born and brought up in a country where I have seen extreme gender in-equality, advocating for girls’ rights is a topic very close to my heart.