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How One IBMer is Building Watson and Inspiring Passion in Technology for Future Generations

Ritika Gunnar has come a long way in her career at IBM, playing an integral role in evolving the technology. She began as a software developer for the company, but her endless enthusiasm for data and AI enabled her to inevitably progress to her position today as VP, Head of Product for Watson Data and AI. Ritika enables organizations to transform with Watson by helping drive the full promise of data and artificial intelligence.

ritika gunnar

What inspired you to pursue a career in technology? How were you introduced to a career in tech?

I actually started out with an interest in everything else but technology. I was interested in Spanish and foreign languages and linguistics. I was interested in mathematics. But then, I really got to thinking about how I could have a pervasive effect in the world and in the market. Technology has that intersection point of being able to affect every single type of career that’s out there and every type of domain that’s out there. That’s when I transitioned to moving into computer science.

Where did you start out at IBM?

People have asked me why I have such a long career here at IBM. It’s because I have been able to have a deep background and multiple different functional area, and different domain areas. I started out in systems management, moved to data, moved to analytics, moved to artificial intelligence and there I’ve done engineering, support, technical sales, sales, offering management.

To be able to have the ability to be able to start in a particular place but then to be able to expand my knowledge either in a different domain, in a different product area, in a different functional area, has been invaluable. You learn from every single move you make. And I’ve been able to do that within IBM fairly successfully and that knowledge that had from the past has been extremely helpful for those next roles in building a pretty strong foundation.

Are there any projects either related to tech, or unrelated, that you’re working on outside of IBM, or that you’re passionate about?

I have a huge passion for education and what it means to really have everyone be able to have an equal opportunity to education and to infuse technology into education at a very early age. In Austin, I worked at a non-profit board called Beehive, to be able to help them with being able to have a safe place for after school with non-profit technologies… I think to be able to engage children in a way that’s very compelling for them is a very difficult thing to do. And sometimes the mechanisms that you use in the classroom are very hard to kind of grasp the attention of children to be able to like to learn a particular thing, whether that be very simple like addition or subtraction or another thing.

If you weren’t in technology, what job do you think you would be doing?

I would be an entrepreneur. I have always felt the burning desire to take new ideas and to be able to see whether those new ideas will work or not work, and how to scale those out. I feel like it’s one of the things I’ve been able to do in my career in IBM and if I were to do something outside it would definitely be how I could create new things, put them out on the market and see how they do.

What advice you have for young people, especially girls, who are interested in careers technology?

First of all, you have to be persistent. You have to have grit and determination, that this is something that is fundamental and foundational and that if and when you fail, because you will fail, you have to figure out how to pick yourself up.

I think the second thing is the support system, everybody has a support system. You probably need a stronger one. I feel like I was lucky to have a stronger one.

And the third is, even with that persistence and grit to continue, you have to know that that will never stop. You have to always have that hunger, that hunger has to come from within. And you have to feel like you want to get up every day and do what you’re doing.

In terms of learning, just when you started out and you were a good developer and even now as an executive, where do you look for learning opportunities?

I think learning is a continuous thing. People so often think that you get a degree and then you’re done. And that’s what you need to know. Especially in the field of technology, and more so in the field of artificial intelligence, it’s important to have continuous learning. And it’s not going to come from the standard sources of taking a course or going to school. That hunger and knowledge will actually come from many different places. There may be some that come from courses, so I personally have taken online courses to be able to learn foundations and new technologies that I’m starting to have to be part of.

Women, in general, have the tendency to not believe that they’re good enough for things that maybe their counterparts would feel like they’re extremely well qualified for. On paper, it may even look like the female is more qualified. I went to in a female leadership class where they said if you had a female who was applying for the same job and only had one of the 10 criteria – or probably had five to 10 criteria – compared to a male who only like one or two of the 10 criteria. The male would say they’re well qualified and they would go apply and the female wouldn’t. Sometimes you have to really push yourselves. You have to really push yourself to really understand and get yourself in areas that you’re not comfortable and be ok with.

What’s the thing about AI that people have misconceptions about that that you want to dispel?

That AI is going to take people’s jobs – I think that’s the biggest misconception. It’s not about AI replacing people. It’s about AI augmenting the decisions that people make, to make them better. To make them more optimized and to really impact our productivity as a society. And so, that’s something that I often hear of, you know if I go implement this AI, well you know, so and so’s job, or this particular industry or this particular domain may be gone. And I think that I do believe that AI has the ability to create value, to be able to create more jobs in fact and to be able to just have a more productive optimized society as a whole.

Is there a certain AI use case, or impact, that gets you most excited or that you have a personal passion for? Or something that you feel it’s going to do in the next few years that you feel most excited about?

I think it’s the excitement of what AI will do that we don’t know right now. AI will invent a whole new set of job roles. Just as people are worried that AI may take away jobs, I actually firmly believe AI will create a whole new set of different types of roles that just do not exist today.

My daughter, when I’m working at home, will inevitably always come and ask me what I’m doing. What is Watson doing? The topic at dinner is always is, “Okay, can you make Watson do this? Can you make Watson do that?” That’s a common question.

When I think about what my children will do when they grow up, it’s more than likely their role is not been defined yet. I think that’s pretty empowering. It’s pretty exciting to be in a field that has that kind of an impact.

Any professional opinion on just the issue of ethics? About how we need to at some level make our AI a little bit more moral.

Ethics in AI is such an important topic and will continue to be an important topic. Just as anything major from a technology standpoint has the ability to do extreme good, has the ability to do the opposite. And the ability to put it in the hands, so it’s used for the power of good is a really important thing.

We have to be able to take that seriously. I think the ability to be able to have trust and transparency of an AI, is a thing that we take to heart at IBM.

And then what we do within our Watson groups, that is actually some of the foundational things that we’re actually working on right now. Within our new products, in terms of how we help users with trust and transparency of the AI that’s running in their enterprise organizations. And how do we then help them with progressing AI in a very ethical way for the good of society.

I do think that IBM has to be outspoken about that. And we as an organization have to play a major role in that. You’ll see that as a foundation in a lot of the product capabilities that we have coming out.

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