3 Questions with a Tech Lady:
Allison Schneider of IBM Watson and x.ai
Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes
Hi Allison! Can you tell us a little about your work in AI?
I recently left IBM Watson where I was working with startups that were building off of our platform of Watson APIs. I loved working with startups so much that I decided I wanted to join one! I am now working at x.ai where I am doing sales and go to market strategy. x.ai makes an AI personal assistant, “Amy Ingram,” who schedules meetings for you. I love being in the AI space because it is such uncharted territory. It was an incredible learning experience to be at a massive company like IBM and to be a part of the first team tasked with commercializing the Watson technology and bringing it to market. I’m thrilled to now have a completely different experience at a much smaller company that is building their own AI technology and launching in the market this fall. I joined x.ai because I think that it is an amazing example of people using AI for good. We’re democratizing the personal assistant using AI so that every person (regardless of age, role, or company) can hand over the tedious and time-consuming task of scheduling meetings.
What’s the most valuable transferrable skill you’ve acquired and how would you suggest other women work on developing their experience with this skill?
I think that one of the most valuable skills that I learned throughout my transition was the art of networking. Pretty immediately after starting my job search, I realized that dropping my resume into a black box on the internet wasn’t going to lead me to my dream role. Instead, I made a list of all of the companies that inspired me and that I wanted to work for, whether they had roles open or not. Through my own network and the networks of kind friends and acquaintances, I set up a lot of informational meetings and interviews- and by a lot, I mean over 100 coffee dates (side note, I don’t even drink coffee).
At first, it was uncomfortable to ask people for their time and for help but what I found is that the vast majority of people genuinely do want to connect, and it was networking that eventually led me to my new role, a role that didn’t even exist. I met the Co-Founder & COO of x.ai at a breakfast panel discussion on AI and he was kind enough to introduce me to the CEO. When I met with the CEO for the first time, I told him that I loved their product, believed in what they were doing, and wanted to be a part of the team to take it to market. I’m happy to be able to say that it worked out!
But whether you are actively looking for a new job or not, becoming a good networker is so valuable. I would suggest that everyone make it a priority to set up at least one informal networking event per week. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy- just offer to buy someone a cup of coffee (or tea in my case) and ask if they will let you pick their brain. Think about what you have to offer them in return, maybe you have specific skills or experiences or contacts that may be able to help them down the road as well. Or take advantage of different events in your city. I try to go to meet ups, panels, and speaking engagements by myself because it forces me to talk to new people that I probably wouldn’t otherwise meet. It is awesome to find a job through networking but you also just end up meeting amazing people that end up becoming friends as well.
What is an aspect of the AI field that is most exciting?
I think that there is a lot of skepticism and anxiety around the topic for a couple of reasons, the first of which being that AI hasn’t always been portrayed positively in the media (Skynet, anyone?). I think another contributing factor is that people fear what they don’t understand. The best way that I have heard others describe AI is that there are things that people are really good at (think: common sense, creativity, compassion) and then there are things that AI systems excel at, like natural language, machine learning, and eliminating bias. It is up to us to create systems that bring together the best of what humans and AI have to offer.
I personally love that this is still an emerging field because that means that those of us who work in the space have a really unique opportunity to define artificial intelligence technologies and what they are going to mean to the world that we live in. What is most exciting to me is the responsibility that we have as humans to set the parameters for using AI ethically. Right now especially, there is lot of conversation around Bots (which create personalized one-to-one interactions through messaging and can use artificial intelligence) and how people should interact with them. Does a person have the right to know that they are talking to a bot versus a human? Should there be some sort of code of ethics in place? Should these systems be held to the same moral compass standards as humans? I don’t think that we have concrete answers to any of these questions just yet but to me, the uncertainty is the fun part.
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