Don’t limit yourself. If someone else can do it, you can do it, too.
Don’t get comfortable. If doing well is easy, it’s time to challenge yourself.
Over the years, these two principles have guided Columbia University PhD student Adji Dieng in her career in AI and machine learning. Dieng, who was a Microsoft Research intern in 2016 and 2017, shared this advice and described her journey from Senegal to Columbia University on a Dean’s Fellowship during a recent panel on women in AI at Deep Learning Indaba 2019. She was joined on stage by Kathleen Siminyu, co-founder of Nairobi Women in Machine Learning & Data Science; Tempest van Schaik, an entrepreneur and healthcare ML engineer in Microsoft; and Grace Mutung’u of Kenya ICT Action Network. They’re amazing women doing great work in machine learning and AI—and we need more of them in the field. The problem in AI is not a shortage of talent, but a shortage of representation.
As the Grace Hopper Celebration, an event that brings together women in tech, gets underway this week, I’m proud to share some of our recent activities in diversity and inclusion in AI and ML. I had the pleasure of participating in the Indaba African Women in AI Evening panel, as well as on a panel about inclusivity in the workplace at the fourth Conference of Research Software Engineering (RSE), with several colleagues. Like Deep Learning Indaba, the RSE conference has made encouraging and supporting diversity a large part of its mission.
Women in AI
Deep Learning Indaba, held this year in Nairobi, Kenya, aims to empower Africans to take the lead in advancing the use of machine learning and AI to solve real-world problems. In its third year, the conference was bigger than ever with around 700 attendees representing universities, companies, and nonprofits from across the continent. It was particularly exciting, as this year, Microsoft opened its first engineering development centers in Africa, one in Lagos, Nigeria, and another in Nairobi.
Microsoft Principal Researcher Danielle Belgrave has been on the Indaba’s advisory board since the beginning, and Microsoft participation in the Indaba has been steadily increasing.
Tempest van Schaik, who has been a driving force for Microsoft participation in the Indaba, said, “As a South African and a woman in AI, I’m extremely proud that Microsoft has been part of the Indaba from the beginning. After a packed house last year, I was excited that we could again host the women in AI event. I wanted to put together a panel to show female attendees the opportunities available in the field and connect them with other women pursuing similar career paths.”
During the panel, Dieng, Siminyu, van Schaik, Mutung’u, and I discussed how our journeys were motivated by different things: curiosity, rebellion (when told we couldn’t or shouldn’t do something), a drive to overcome challenges, and a desire to continuously grow.
We discussed professional development and how important and incredibly technical glue work—leadership, strategic planning, and other skills necessary to keep a team moving forward—can go unrecognized, as performance metrics in organizations may not always reward such efforts. This resonated with many in the audience.
Siminyu, a member of the Deep Learning Indaba leadership, shared how she automated the work she didn’t want to do. All panelists mentioned having a crucial mentor or supporter. I discussed my mantra: Don’t let your environment drive your career, but instead, define your environment by your career. Van Schaik encouraged everyone to believe in themselves and go after opportunity. “You’ll never land your dream job or school place if you don’t apply for it,” she said. She also described how adaptability, creativity, and resilience rather than top grades enable you to carve your own career path. Mutung’u highlighted the importance of technologists helping to shape policies.
Our panel was very open, honest, and moving at times, especially when we discussed the unique social pressures that only women in developing countries face. The discussion helped break barriers and open people’s minds to the challenges underrepresented groups face.
-Power your curiosity
-Grow and go beyond stereotype
-Get a mentor
-Don’t let the environment drive your career
-Go outside the comfort zone#IndabaWiAI #DLIndaba2019 #SautiYetu pic.twitter.com/EYNz37w7MC
— DataScienceNigeria (@DataScienceNIG) August 27, 2019
At the Indaba, I saw a group of women and men eager to learn, collaborate, and effect real-world change. Few engineering conferences bring people to tears; I saw tears of joy, gratitude, and hope. The Indaba is not a conference—it’s a movement. Ignore this movement at your own peril.
Concrete ways to build an inclusive workplace
At the RSE conference in Birmingham, England, which celebrated the community that builds research software, I moderated “Mentoring and Inclusivity: Concrete Ways to Build an Inclusive Workplace” with Microsoft Research Software Engineer Camilla Longden. One of the most popular sessions, it featured Michael Croucher, developer advocate, Numerical Algorithms Group; Miranda Mowbray, University of Bristol lecturer; Tania Allard, RSE conference diversity and accessibility chair, Microsoft; and Andrew Fitzgibbon, Research Theme Lead, Microsoft.
We discussed how finding and recruiting the best candidates from the most diverse communities takes hard work, and the panelists shared advice for building more diverse teams: Actively seek out people you want to see represented, encourage qualified candidates to apply, read lots of CVs, and deliberately connect with first-time conference presenters, who may be less confident and who may know fewer people in the field.
Creating an inclusive workplace and culture that will attract top talent was also top of mind for everyone. Key actionable ideas from the session included:
- providing a platform or creating space and opportunity for less vocal people to speak in meetings;
- championing the voices of others by highlighting ideas that may have been overlooked and giving those people credit for their points;
- finding value in people’s different experiences, strengths, perspectives, and work and communications styles;
- listening carefully with the goal to understand rather than to respond and acknowledging the insights shared; and
- suspending fast judgment if you have a strong reaction to someone or if someone has a strong reaction to you—pause and ask yourself why.
Being an ally
It was interesting to hear attendees at both events, on different continents, asking how to be a better ally. In particular, at the Indaba, there was a question from the audience regarding how to decide when to help, as sometimes a well-meaning intention to be an ally can be perceived as an intervention. This sparked a thought-provoking discussion, and we worked with example situations and concluded that any action that still allows a person to retain the ability to make decisions for themselves is acceptable. For example, volunteering people for things, underrepresented groups in particular, without having checked with them first causes discomfort, whereas mentioning the opportunity to them garners a positive response because they can decide whether to take up the opportunity or not. Other actionable ideas included:
- calling out noninclusive behavior and working to resolve it;
- mentioning opportunities to everyone, not just those you think may be interested; and
- creating choices for people, not making decisions for them.
The panels at both the Indaba and the RSE conference reiterated the importance of managers providing meaningful and actionable feedback to ensure equal growth opportunities.
Diversity & Inclusion at Microsoft
When I walk into work every morning, I feel proud to be a member of the Microsoft team. People here genuinely care about diversity and inclusion and strive to improve our understanding of these important areas. No one is perfect, but we’re committed to learning and growing. Microsoft has comprehensive guidelines and policies for employee conduct when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and these factors inform everything we do. At Microsoft, we believe inclusion is about creating an experience for others that makes them feel valued, respected, and welcome. We think of an ally as a person who makes an intentional decision to understand, empathize, and act in support of others. Anyone can be an ally.
Being part of Microsoft and being able to contribute to and participate in both events with such talented, thoughtful, and inspiring people has been a fulfilling experience. It underscores how important it is to work together to build better environments where each one of us can thrive and be our authentic selves. Renowned space scientist and BBC presenter Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock summed this up nicely in her keynote at the RSE conference: “Have a crazy dream. Be bold. Aim high. Love every second.”