A Data Science and AI expert reveals why women must be at the table in the exciting male-dominated AI field.
Because International Women’s Day should just as well be every day, Avast is proud to have worked with the San Francisco Chronicle to feature one of its very own in the special insert "Women in Computing," highlighting exceptional women in technology. The following is a Q&A session with Deepali Garg, a data scientist and AI expert at Avast.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you first became interested in Data Science as a career path. I am a Senior Data Scientist at Avast in the AI (artificial intelligence) and Network Security group. I build machine learning algorithms that are the basis for solutions to protect smart homes from cyberattacks. I’ve always known that I wanted to work in the technology field. I graduated from MIT with an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science major, and I love what I do.
What has your experience been like working in AI? Exhilarating! It’s a very active field – new research and findings every day and still more to discover! AI impacts every aspect of life, from better medical diagnosis to shopping online. It is the smart way companies get things done at scale. It’s thrilling ... and it places a huge responsibility on the AI community's shoulders.
Why do you think it's important to encourage women to pursue a career in this area? Stephen Hawking said superintelligent AI will be very good at accomplishing its goals, but if those goals aren't aligned with ours, there will be trouble. AI models are based on data and on algorithms that researchers create. If these are consciously or unconsciously biased, then those biases will be built into the systems that we create. It is critical for women to be a part of the AI community and to drive the progress, lest we be surrounded by AI systems that either reinforce biases or are useful only to the very narrow demographic that builds it.
What do you think are some of the challenges with being a woman in tech? Are there any you have encountered? I have been in countless meetings and on numerous teams where I was the only woman. The demographic in most tech companies is too skewed towards men. Young women engineers are left without role models to take cues from. Gender imbalance creates a culture where women simply don't 'fit-in' – from lunchroom banter to team camaraderie. But most damaging are the unconscious biases that question women's abilities and that creep into casual interactions and comments. In this field, women have to be extra confident, they have to speak up and advocate for themselves.
Do you think the industry is changing as far as attracting and retaining more women in this field? I am heartened by companies like Avast that are invested in attracting and retaining women in technology. Half the population is left untapped when we don't include women. To build systems, inclusion is imperative.
Who is someone that is a role model to you and inspires you? Women like Grace Hopper and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I salute Reshma Saujani's work in founding Girls Who Code. I admire Indira Nooyi's grit that earned her the CEO title at PepsiCo.
Do you think mentorship for women in tech is valuable? Absolutely! I have benefitted enormously from mentors and mentees. Mentorship provides women space to ideate who they can be – to reinforce that they can overcome hurdles and come out shining on the other side.
How has working for Avast helped you grow and develop professionally? Avast’s culture encourages innovation and experimentation, exposing me to many new ideas that I likely wouldn’t have learned so quickly otherwise. Avast is active in the community and strives to foster an environment that is inclusive and respectful. Avast is working actively to encourage young girls to pursue a career in technology and I am so proud to be a part of this effort.
What excites you about the future of technology? What we’re creating is touching people's lives in an unparalleled way. It’s bringing medical care to remote regions of the world; addressing criminal justice system biases by using algorithms that are more equitable; it is optimizing crop production to address food shortages. Technology will be integrated into our environment more and more seamlessly, which makes it even more important to get it right now. It will free us from mundane tasks and give us an opportunity to work on even bigger ideas.
What advice would you offer to young women interested in this kind of career? Follow your dreams. This industry might not be the easiest path, but you can overcome hurdles. With passion, all else falls into place. Women like me are waiting for you and we’d be honored to serve as your mentor. STEM careers need you – your perspective, knowledge and expertise.
This interview was also published in the San Francisco Chronicle's Women in Computing insert.