Interviews That Inspire: Beena Ammanath

Marian Cook

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Beena is an award-winning, senior digital transformation leader with extensive global experience in artificial intelligence (AI), big data, data science, and IoT. She is the global vice president for big data, AI, and innovation at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise.

Before that position, she was the vice president of innovation and data sciences at GE. She is also the founder and CEO of the nonprofit, Humans For AI. She has co-authored the book AI Transforming Business.

A well-recognized thought leader and keynote speaker in the industry, Beena also serves on the industrial advisory board at California Polytechnic State University and is a board advisor to Predii and iguazio.

Beena has been honored several times for her contribution to tech and her philanthropic efforts. Her awards include the San Francisco Business Times' Most Influential Women in Bay Area, WITI's Women In Technology Hall of Fame, National Diversity Council's Top 50 Multicultural Leaders in Tech, CIO.com and Drexel University's Analytics 50 Innovator, Forbes's Top Eight Female Analytics Experts, and the Women Super Achiever Award from World Women's Leadership Congress.

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Twitter: @beena_ammanath

You have an incredible career crossing many industries. As you think about where you have been and where you are going, what commonalities are among your career choices?

I grew through the technology ranks, from programming, architecture, technical leadership, project leadership, to management. I have worked across several domains and industries: telecom, financial, retail, marketing, e-commerce, industrial, and the IoT. This work was not a conscious decision but driven by a keen and consistent need to keep learning about different domains, different industries, and different cultures.

Another common thread throughout my career is staying focused on the data space. Data is one space that has changed so much over the past 25 years, from transactional databases to business intelligence to big data, and now AI. It is fascinating to see how the field is evolving and how data is applied in vastly different areas to drive better business outcomes every day.

Did any particular event or experience change your career trajectory?

There have been quite a few. Life always has lots of twists and turns with loads of fascinating people along the way, who have inspired me to take on challenges I had not considered. I would never have imagined my career path 25 years ago and definitely would not have been able to detail a master plan. The path and plan evolved as my life evolved.

For me, becoming a mother was an event that not only gave me tremendous, personal joy but also made me rethink my career trajectory. I was in a leadership position at a thriving, financial organization. But since I wanted to be super-mom, I decided to take a step back to an individual contributor role, in more of a hands-on architect role with well-defined tasks.

Switching roles was one of the best decisions I made—no doubt about that. Personally, I got to spend more time with my sons, and professionally, it couldn't have been better timing. My switch was when big data technology was just entering the market. Being hands-on meant I learned and used the new technology. I would never have been able to if I had continued in the senior management role trajectory.

When I was studying computer science, the programming languages used were the ones like Pascal, Fortran, assembly, C, dBase, FoxPro, and such technologies, which are obsolete now. Java was introduced after I graduated, and Hadoop came in almost a decade later. So, to really dive deep into this new construct of technology at that time was perfect.

However, when I was ready to get back into leadership roles after a few years, it was difficult to come back into the same level of leadership. I was expected to traverse the same career path all over again, from architect to technical lead to program lead to management. That's when I realized how unequipped our companies are to accept women who return to work after a career break—and I hadn't even stopped working completely.

Becoming a mom didn't mean I lost my leadership abilities and experience. In fact, it made me a better leader. The opportunity to go deep into technology during my career "step-back" gave me the unique, technical chops to have intense discussions with engineers and scientists as fluently as interacting with CEOs and business leaders.

Companies are not yet doing enough to support women who might need to take career breaks and then rejoin the workforce. There are a few programs being tried out, but they're still in their initial stages.

What are you learning now? What do you recommend others learn?

I am a continual learner. Being in the technology space, the ability to keep learning is crucial. Being curious by nature means choosing opportunities where I can learn.

Every career move I have made has been grounded in the fact that the next position presented a larger learning opportunity.

I use several channels to keep learning. I have always been a voracious reader. At any time, I am in the middle of at least four books. Besides that, engaging with other thought leaders in person or on social media, taking on new challenges at work, and meeting other lifelong learners are all opportunities to learn and grow.

I am fascinated by the crypto-currency space, including the technology that enables it, blockchain. We are seeing blockchain evolve rapidly from a startup idea to an established technology. Blockchain has done so in a tiny fraction of the time compared to the internet or even mobile technology. This could disrupt how we do business.

I have always been fascinated by AI. It's a natural extension of the common data thread throughout my career.

Having lived through the AI winter, it's amazing to watch things we could only dream about in the 80s and 90s become true in our own lifetimes. I am optimistic about AI and understand how much we still must do to leverage its true potential.

My advice would be to learn constantly about topics that interest you and stretch your thinking. I am biased, but I would recommend learning about AI. No matter what your job is today, AI is going to have some impact on it.

Staying on top of tech trends and learning is easier than ever with the internet and social media. Read books. Read articles about topics you are interested in. Follow influencers who are thought leaders in your areas of interest on social media.

How do you determine if someone has leadership potential?

To even be considered for leadership, you must assume the prerequisites are already there: integrity, honesty, humility, confidence, transparency, positivity, decisiveness, focus, and the ability to deliver results.

A good leader encompasses a few additional qualities: passion, emotional intelligence, and being able to stand up for the team.

Good leaders are passionate about their mission and the work they do. They can inspire a team to do the impossible. Their passion enables strong teams to come together to deliver stretch outcomes.

People gravitate to leaders who will coach and mentor them to success. A leader's goal is to own the development of the people they lead and make their team members shine.

Good leaders will defend their team and take criticism when things don't go well but share the glory when things do.

The ability to build a loyal, committed, engaged, passionate team is not something every leader can do.

You founded Humans for AI. Talk about that.

Humans for AI is a registered non-profit with over 150 volunteers. Our mission is to democratize AI and empower every human with an understanding of AI while increasing diversity in tech with AI. The goal is to demystify AI in all its complexity and give access to everyone.

I want to educate and create a community from all industries and walks of life to have a voice in how AI will be phased into their lives and professions. These people will be the future product managers and product designers for the AI products in their domains.

I believe that through honest conversation, education, and inclusion, we can enable the workforce of the future. The workforce should be AI-savvy and have a unique opportunity to make the future workforce as diverse as the real world.

How did the idea for Humans for AI come about?

I am passionate about increasing the number of women and minorities in technology. With every technology wave, new jobs have been created. We missed the boat on the internet and mobile as an opportunity to champion diversity and inclusion.

New jobs and roles were created, like app development, and there was a shortage of talent. That could have been filled with more women and minorities had we looked more broadly and proactively trained women and minorities for these new roles. Without a proactive push, the opportunity for growing, diverse talent was never realized.

I see a similar wave of new roles evolving with AI. We will soon need domain experts, like lawyers and nurses, as product managers for AI products in their domains. For AI's own growth and to prevent biases within the algorithms, we will need diversity of thoughts, backgrounds, and professions to build better intelligence.

Do you have any other advice?

I have seen a lot of us hold ourselves back due to perceived fears. Use your voice and step out in public to share your knowledge, wisdom, and stories. There is always a chance that somebody is facing the same situation you did, and you will inspire them.

Although I was afraid of public speaking, I did it. Public persona and external exposure brought me internal credibility.

Always be open to new challenges. Don't wait for that opportunity that fits perfectly with your experience and is exactly as you had envisioned. Grab those opportunities that make you uncomfortable and seem like a stretch. That's the only way to grow. And then give those opportunities your all. Life is too short to do anything half-heartedly.

Marian Cook is a writer for WITI.

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