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Women Leading The AI Industry: “I strongly believe that the more people who understand and engage with ML technology the less there is to fear.” with Alyssa Rochwerger and Tyler Gallagher

Education, education, education. To quote Thomas Jefferson “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” I strongly believe that the more people who understand and engage with ML technology the less there is to fear. (That’s my liberal arts and American studies […]


Education, education, education. To quote Thomas Jefferson “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” I strongly believe that the more people who understand and engage with ML technology the less there is to fear. (That’s my liberal arts and American studies background proving to be relevant in ML!)

As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alyssa Rochwerger, the VP of Product at Figure Eight, a high-quality training data platform for machine learning models. She joined Figure Eight after more than four years at IBM teaching IBM’s Watson to “see” and later focusing on expanding Watson to the world.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?

I’ve detailed a longer version of my foray into artificial intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) here but the short version is that I was looking to sink my teeth into a hard problem where I could impact meaningful change. Tara Lemmy, who I met serendipitously on a plane, asked me some pointed questions about what I wanted out of my career that led me to have the courage to seek out and stick with a hard problem. I’ve certainly gotten that in ML!

What lessons can others learn from your story?

Don’t shy away from embracing difficult and unsolved problems — it’s often where all the fun is! I also think it’s important not to be intimidated — for example I had no background in AI, ML or even computer science when I entered the field — but my product management experience allowed me to add value on projects and collaborate to achieve success. There are heaps of people who tell you it’s a requirement to have direct technical experience — however I disagree!

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

I’m most passionate about how to mitigate unwanted or unintended biases in ML resulting software. I’m incredibly proud of the progress in facial recognition that IBM made recently with their Diversity in Faces initiative, using the Figure Eight platform — and even more proud that they’ve open-sourced the data set.

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?

There are so many people I am incredibly grateful for who shared their time, expertise and mentorship with me. Many of the examples may seem small, but they are so meaningful to me. I’ve learned that great management is all about the small timely moments of listening, sharing tactical advice, giving constructive feedback or simply being a sounding board. These moments add up fast. So many folks have gone out of their way to teach, coach, and guide me. While I was at IBM, people like Matthew Hill and John Smith spent several hours whiteboarding with me about the fundamentals of computer vision when I was new to the team. Or when I got a big promotion to manage a team for the first time, Kareem Yusuf sat me down and gave me a 30-day plan for what were the most important items to tackle first. I’m grateful for candid coaching and feedback from Beth Smith on everything from market and product strategy to how to best engage with Japanese clients in a culturally appropriate way. I’ve been blessed to have learned early that feedback is the only way to get better, and I constantly seek it out from folks around me.

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

a. Ability to solve difficult problems

b. Pace of progress and change

c. Ability for a small group of people to create outsized change (I think a lot of the famous Margaret Mead quote — never more true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”)

d. The possibilities, even in the near term, or what forward thinking companies are doing with AI

e. AI’s breadth and reach — it enables people who can don’t have access to technology to reap the benefits

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

a. Not enough diversity in the practitioners of AI (racially, ethnically, religiously, socio-economically etc)

b. Not enough thoughtful and informed public discourse about the impact of this technology (key words being “thoughtful and informed”)

c. Ill-informed sensationalism

d. Pace of progress and change

e. Noise in the marketplace

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?

Any technology has the ability to harm and the ability to help humanity. It’s all about how you harness and control access. A mentor of mine put it a simpler way — you can kill someone with a knife, but you can also prepare meals to feed the homeless. The technology doesn’t scare me, it’s people who scare me.

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?

Education, education, education. To quote Thomas Jefferson “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” I strongly believe that the more people who understand and engage with ML technology the less there is to fear. (That’s my liberal arts and American studies background proving to be relevant in ML!)

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

I’m fortunate to have been a part of teams who have built and shipped technology that has made a true impact on the world we live in. Some achievements have been small, while others tremendous. Each help to progress us forward to a better life. To speak specifically about the work we do at Figure Eight, serving as their VP of Product, I believe that the success that our team shares can be found in our customers’ success. Our customers are using our data annotation platform to bring us closer to cures for diseases, help aid those affected by natural disasters, ensure that autonomous vehicles are safer each day and so much more.

I am also immensely proud to be able to use the skills I’ve learned professionally and get involved in my local community. I’m the co-president of the young leader board for Aim High, which focuses on education of at-risk youth in the greater Bay Area. It’s been wonderful to host career days, do mentoring, and support this wonderful organization.

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?

a. Internalize that your voice, perspective and opinion is needed. Desperately. Don’t second guess your right to be in the room with a seat at the table.

b. Speak up. It’s okay (and good) if you have a different opinion then a room full of men.

c. Create. Roll up your sleeves and get to work — there is a lot of BS (particularly men who are full of it) in the AI space — so rolling up your sleeves and doing real, often un-glamourous work is how you learn, how you build credibility, and how you can have the most impact.

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

I’ve been a proud volunteer with Girls Who Code, a great organization that encourages girls to pursue careers in technology. I think it starts early, but it is incumbent on everyone who plays a role in the process all the way from 6th grade through to recruiting to hire women and then managers to retain women in AI roles. There is work to be done at all levels. I don’t think it’s an accident that I count several women and non-white men as mentors. It’s also not an accident that with the privileged position of many job opportunities, I chose to accept a job at an AI company with a woman on the board, an exec team which was 30% women, and a working team that is 2/3 women. Diversity matters — and it attracts more diversity.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

I don’t have a favorite quote in particular, but I’m an avid reader. Particularly when I’m embarking on a new role or chapter, I read voraciously on the topic — I read books and essays on leadership and management, psychology, business, team dynamics, and biographies. I know that by learning from those who have come before I can more efficiently operate successfully in my own day-to-day. I recently listened to Michelle Obama’s Becoming, which I really enjoyed. I also re-read books for refreshers on a particular topic, for example, I recently re-read Crucial Conversations which has some very practical good advice.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

To steal from Michelle Obama: I’d educate women. When you educate women you lift up entire communities.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m not much of a tweeter — but I sometimes post on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sophiaalyssasimpson/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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