Interview: Beena Ammanath, VP of Data & Analytics at GE

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We interview leading women in STEM to learn more about how we can all work to make science and technology industries more inclusive. How can more women be encouraged to work in these fields? 

Beena Ammanath is Vice President of Data & Analytics at GE, and Board Director of ChickTech, a non-profit dedicated to increasing the number of women and girls pursuing technology-based careers, and retaining women already in STEM workforces. Read on for insights from Beena on near-future technological breakthroughs, ensuring diversity and equality in STEM, and advice on starting a career in tech.

What inspired you to begin your work in technology and science?
I am a Computer Scientist by training. I have always been good at Math and Science. What I love most about science is its ability to discover the truth about our world and to apply that truth to make our world a better place. The thing that is most interesting about science is that it is not static – it is continuously changing and there are new discoveries every day – I am always learning. So, the combination of having a natural ability to excel at math and science and being fascinated by its possibilities, motivated me to start down this path.

What do you find exciting about your current role?
In my current role, I am helping a large industrial company, GE, transform into a digital industrial company leveraging data, analytics and AI. It is amazing to be part of this journey. To give you a brief idea – GE is building the industrial internet platform. The industrial internet refers to a connected network of intelligent machines working smartly. The impact we can drive leveraging data, as 50 billion machines are expected to come online by the end of this decade is tremendous. In my role, I lead an amazing team of engineers, scientists and product managers to make sense of all that data, derive insights from it, and build products leveraging the insights that can be used not only by GE but any industrial company in the world.

Think about aircraft engines that manage their own maintenance – as we derive insights from all the data captured by jet engines, we are able to proactively predict way ahead of time when an engine might fail and prevent flight delays. Think about locomotives that are optimally tuned for fuel efficiency based on the wear and tear of its individual parts and the current weather conditions where it is being operated. Think of city lights that are smart enough to be just as bright as needed based on the people or objects around it. And think of software that connects doctors and patients across the globe through healthcare machines that is able to locate a similar medical case and provide information to drive the best cure.

These are just a few of the problems that I get to work on. It’s very exciting and the impact we can have on making human lives better is tremendous.

What areas of technology do you think will have the biggest breakthroughs in the next 5 years?
I think Artificial Intelligence will truly evolve in the next 5 years. Artificial Intelligence has had a major resurgence in recent years. If we look at the history of Artificial Intelligence, we can see the repeated cycle – it was at the forefront in the 80s too - it has been going through cycles of overpromise, investment, under delivery and investment reduction. However, this time around I think, the technology advancements, scale and attention being paid to Artificial Intelligence are much larger than before. The advances in big data technologies combined with cheap massively scalable infrastructure and storage is now helping us tremendously to tackle bigger and bolder problems in Artificial Intelligence.

I believe we are really just at the tip of the iceberg with Artificial Intelligence. In a few years, Artificial Intelligence will be so intertwined and pervasive within business operations that it may be impossible to do business without it. And fundamental business models of today are going to change, as Artificial Intelligence evolves. Today’s driverless cars are still in their early AI stage but it won’t be that long before drivers put their cars completely on autopilot. In a few years from now, Uber or Lyft will not need drivers but just idle cars.

There will be an impact to jobs too but I see it more as job roles changing, and not necessarily as job reduction. We are at the brink of huge changes in our daily lives that will be primarily driven by Artificial Intelligence.

What can we do to ensure gender equality in tech and science fields?
In my view, the gender gap needs to be really addressed at two levels – the pipeline issue and the retention issue.

The first one is really about removing the barriers around getting more girls to study STEM. Around 74 percent of girls in elementary schools express interest in STEM fields and computer science. But by the time they make decisions about what to study, the number reduces drastically. And just about 18 percent of women actually graduate with computer science degrees. We hear a lot about the pipeline issue and there is a lot of awareness about getting more girls to join STEM. There are a number of organizations like ChickTech, Girls Who Code, Girls Inc., working on addressing the pipeline gap. We need to support these and similar organizations, in every way we can.

We also need more awareness on the women who are already in STEM and how to retain them, which is the second aspect of the issue. If you look at the job statistics, even though women represent 47% of the workforce, only 12% of engineers are female. And it’s even worse at the top of the corporate world — only 5 percent of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women. That’s a huge issue. Increasing the pipeline of women in tech will not really compensate for their mid-career departure.

Unconscious biases exist at almost all tech organizations. I have experienced it at during different stages in my career. Women are leaving the tech industry in large numbers, due to hostile work environments and not because they don’t love to work in tech. In the real reason women quit tech study and many other surveys, it has become obvious that women leave the tech industry because ‘they’re treated unfairly; underpaid, less likely to be fast-tracked than their male colleagues, and unable to advance.’ Companies need to firstly acknowledge that there is a gender diversity issue and then do systemic changes within the organization to remove institutional bias, to develop, encourage and help women grow in an environment that is not very receptive to having women leaders.

Though for both scenarios above, two things are true, we need more female role models. We need more women executives who have survived and grown in this field to step out and share their stories – in an honest forthright manner, both the good and the bad, how they got past some of the challenges and the lessons learnt so that the newer generation does not have to feel lonely and overwhelmed. More importantly, we need the men in tech to step up and challenge every time they see sexist behavior or prejudice against their female peers or engineers.

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in technology?
This is really true for anybody just starting out in his or her careers. Pick a job that you are truly passionate about. This is a time when you can give it all – so, whether its statistics related, or artificial intelligence, or IoT – pick a domain space that excites you and gives you a sense of purpose. You can always learn new technologies; it’s how you use the technology to solve a problem that’s going to have the most impact on your career.

Be prepared to learn. If it’s your first job, there is a lot that you don’t know and can learn from the people who have a few years of experience. Learn as much as you can about the domain that you are working in. Be humble. You might have gone to the best college or been a lifetime A student, but get over it and come with a mindset to learn. Be open to feedback and act on it.

Be a team player. Remember that every successful initiative is a team effort and everybody in the team has a part to play. Show up early to meetings. Volunteer to take on tasks that give you an opportunity to learn and try different aspects of a project.

And do remember that there is no shortcut to success.

Check out our Women in Tech & Science series for more interviews.

Are you working in emerging areas of science and technology, or know of someone who is? Suggest women in STEM fields to speak at a RE•WORK event here.

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