Talking diversity and innovation with Avast's Daria Loi

Emma McGowan 29 Sep 2021

Read up as we speak with Daria about what excites her about this work and the factors necessary to truly drive innovation 

Daria Loi’s life has been anything but conventional. A lifelong lover of learning new things, Daria started her career in her homeland of Italy as an architect and industrial designer. But when she got into a PhD program in Australia, she uprooted with the plans to stay for a couple years until she got her degree.

Ten years later and that PhD program had evolved into a professorial role that focused on a combination of traditional design and what we today call user experience.

“My closest community and preferred practice is participatory design,” Daria says. “It’s a design practice, rooted in Scandinavia’s work with trade unions, that focuses on active involvement of all stakeholders in the design process, to ensure outcomes meet their needs.”

Her next big move was enabled by a phone call with an anthropologist who was working at US tech-giant Intel Corporation. Daria was curious — why would a company like Intel need an anthropologist? She started asking questions, and ended up with a suggestion to apply for a job. 

“I initially didn’t want to apply,” Daria says. "Back then, my perspective on the US was quite ignorant and the prospect of living here was not at the top of my aspirations. Also, I was not a fan of the idea of working in a large corporation.” 

Despite her concerns about the United States and her lack of desire for working for a corporation, the job description was intriguing enough to pique Daria’s interest. So she applied, thinking that at the very least she’d get a “field trip” to Portland out of it. 

That “field trip” turned into a job offer and Daria accepted, thinking it would give her a chance to learn new things that she could take back to her students in Melbourne. She ended up staying at Intel for 14 years, as an individual contributor as well as building up teams to innovate in diverse businesses, from smart TV to client computing and artificial intelligence.” 

“I felt fulfilled, but at the same time bored — it felt too comfortable,” Daria says. “There was little left for me to learn and grow into that felt appealing.”

Wanting to make a real difference in the world, Daria joined Mozilla, where she spent two years working for the Chief R&D office, then the COO and finally the Chief New Products Officer. When the pandemic hit, things changed – she eventually decided to take a break from work for a little while and went back to Italy to spend some time with family while thinking about next steps.

Luckily for us, her next step ended up being her joining Avast as the Head of Innovation. We spoke with Daria about what excites her about this work and the factors necessary to truly drive innovation. 

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Avast: Why did you decide to start working in cybersecurity after a career that was more focused on hardware and software development?

Daria Loi: When I think about cybersecurity, I think about all of the complex issues that we're facing right now. We've realized, particularly in the last few years, how complex our digital lives’ safety and privacy are and how embedded in social, cultural, and political dynamics they can be. So it’s an incredibly multilayered landscape — not as straightforward as it used to be. It’s no longer about, you know, “Oh, you got a virus on your machine.” It’s way more complex, challenging, and fascinating than that. 

And because of these social, cultural, and political dimensions, cybersecurity matters become very exciting for people like me, because that's where a strong understanding of people becomes central and a necessary condition for game changing product development. Product development should always include and be based on a clear understanding of how people use and relate to these technologies — their behaviors, expectations, their dreams, their aspirations. The more complex the territory, the more you need to invest in that understanding — cybersecurity is a wonderful playground in that regard.

I think this is the right moment to be really impactful in this field and, in a way, to advance humanity in a direction that I feel is better than the one that we've experienced the last few years. I'm a bit of a dreamer, as you can see.

AV: And why Avast?

DL: One thing that I've learned in my career is how important it is to have the right manager. By right manager I mean someone who is prepared to be a visionary; prepared to take risks and promote big ideas; who asks the right questions and is open to listen to diverse perspectives; and someone that respects people's competencies and trusts expert input. So there are certain characteristics that I look for in a leader and I saw those in Michal (Pechoucek, Avast CTO).

Also, I am interested in being part of an organization where I can become a better version of who I am, by learning with and through others. I love learning and I see infinite opportunities for that to happen with and through the incredible, talented team I just joined.

AV: Let’s talk more about innovation. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, but how does a company actually innovate?

DL: I believe that innovation should always be grounded in and leverage diverse types of data: user data, market data, technology data, trends and forecast data. Impactful innovation is usually at the intersection of those diverse data points.

Ironically, many believe that innovation is a solitary activity conducted by a super talented human that wears a black turtleneck and can produce revolutionary ideas thanks to their genius. But that's not how innovation works at all. It is not a solitary activity, but a team one. And the output is built on the top of actual data, trends, trajectories, and hypotheses. You look at signals, search for and make sense of patterns, and leverage what you see to craft hypotheses of possible future scenarios and products. 

At a very high level, you then utilize a very user-centric approach — you leverage design tools and techniques to visualize and prototype hypotheses; you conduct quantitative and qualitative research to test ideas with stakeholders; and you keep iterating through design and testing loops till you have an actual product. 

Now the key problem is understanding which scenarios and ideas are worth investing in. Innovation is also about clustering, prioritizing and killing ideas. People are often reluctant to let go of their beautiful baby idea, because, you know, it's so beautiful and I worked so hard. But you need to learn how to let go and move on, especially when data tells you so or when you do not have any data to substantiate an idea’s validity. Innovation requires the ability to focus on what matters as well as cut, throw away, fail fast and move forward. 

AV: I know another area of interest for you is the diversity and inclusion space. Can you talk a little bit about that?

DL: So, for me, diversity is across many vectors: genders, ethnicity, race, culture, linguistic background, age, experience. That's the type of team that I intend to build. As I'm hiring new people, I know that there are such things as, for instance, women that happen not to be Caucasian. They exist — how about that! It is possible to find diverse people that inhabit diverse segments. 

Building a diverse team across diverse sectors is hard work. Where you search for instance makes a massive difference and often asks for organizational shifts. For instance, in the past I tried to assemble a team in Portland Oregon, where I live. However, and sadly, Portland has a dominantly white population when compared with places like Los Angeles, Chicago, the Bay area or New York. This implies that the local talent pool is dominantly white. Also, not everyone fancies the idea of relocating. So, it was hard to attract as much diverse talent as I wished to. 

But then Covid-19 hit and we all realized that we don't need everybody in the same place all the time. We’ve got this beautiful thing called technology that enables us to be functional from different places. I started focusing my search across diverse geographies and was finally capable of reaching a diverse talent pool. Of course that requires shifts in how, when and where you work, the tools you use and the processes to get work done. That is in my opinion a worthy investment, as it enables the creation of successful teams.  

One of the less traditional vectors that I'm going to double down on at Avast is linguistic background and country of origin, as our company could improve from that standpoint. 

I believe that diverse social, cultural and linguistic perspectives contribute to a team’s success. It’s important in general and for user-centered innovation in particular, where the ability to see, understand and tackle a problem or opportunity from diverse viewpoints is key to ensuring that the voice of all stakeholders is carefully understood and considered throughout the process. A socially, culturally and linguistically diverse team is more likely to create an output that reflects global needs, wants, aspirations and expectations. 

If you’re interested in being a part of Daria’s team at Avast, please take a look at the openings on our careers page.

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