Elizabeth SpearsMy career so far mirrors the evolution of the tech industry as a whole. I started at a company working on early machine learning and natural language processing.

This was before the industry realized that data could be its most valuable asset. By the time this realization became commonplace,  businesses had already accumulated more data than they could effectively manage on their own. That shift drew me to Big Data processing and analytics for several years. Smart machines began creating more Big Data than ever, and the Internet of Things (IoT) industry started to rapidly expand.

While I was working in IoT, both hardware and AI framework technologies experienced huge advancements. More customers wanted AI solutions to analyze and interpret their loads of noisy IoT data to make smart data even smarter. Always thinking  about product-market fit, like a true product person, I anticipated shifts in customer needs as technology evolved. This background and experience has come together to today. Now, I’m leading the product and marketing of vision AI solutions enabling customers to put their visual data to work in new ways that transform their businesses.

As the Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Plainsight, I support the creation of vision AI solutions that make every step of the computer vision life cycle faster, easier, and more inclusive. Our goal is to deliver solutions that help forward-thinking businesses realize the untapped potential of their visual data, while lowering the barrier to entry for creating and deploying production-ready vision AI models. The combination of our platform and services delivers the breadth of integrated features and valuable insights as well as the quick  value generation that customers need today.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

My career choices have typically been about creating flexibility and options for myself rather than planning for a very specific path or goal. I’ve always been very team oriented and my sights have usually been set on surrounding myself with like-minded, goal-oriented people. I enjoy fostering this team dynamic while striving to work in specific areas or projects where I can bring value.

As I’ve moved from position to position, I have tended to work with people that I have worked with before. Building up trust and a common working language takes time, but once you’re working from a common decision-making framework, everything becomes that much more effortless.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Of course; we work in startups, and even when they do well, there are always hurdles. That’s especially true when building a business from scratch. You’re always keenly aware of your runway and how critical any single deal could be to the future of the company.

I don’t really have a magic formula for overcoming challenges. I just prioritize the work that needs to be done, stay focused on the next task or solution I can create, and try to identify places where the team can iterate on processes so things work a little better the next time around.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

The parts of my career that I personally consider my biggest achievements are usually tied to the challenges I’ve worked hardest to overcome. Building a new company, for instance, can be daunting but there are specific elements of that journey that I personally find very exciting. When I’m really able to push myself over a new hurdle where I’ve maybe not been tested before, the victory is sweeter, so to speak, than racking up traditional “on-paper” accolades.

One area where I’ve really had to jump out of my comfort zone has been taking on an outward-facing, spokesperson role for my company. I first played this role when I worked at a startup incubator early in my career. I had to go from a heads-down mindset when helping execute on strategy to building a community and thought leadership platform for others to follow. Being in the spotlight isn’t something that I’m naturally comfortable with, but successfully bringing that expertise to a public platform is an experience I’ve been very proud to tackle and improve on.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Being more concerned about the larger business goal, our team, and how we can achieve things together has always been a key factor in my success.

In that same vein, I recognize that valuable input and advice can come from almost anyone. In my experience, I’ve always had the most unlikely mentors. Knowing that you can learn from almost anybody and seeing what you can accomplish as a team will always broaden your team’s possibilities. You never want to operate with blinders on or assume you know better in every situation.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Just jump in. AI is like any other industry. It takes a little time to learn the lingo and specific subject matter, but there’s nothing magical about the technology itself. Computer vision in particular is filled with neuroscience analogies and the methods for teaching a machine learning model are often very similar to how children are taught new concepts. So the AI industry is not as inaccessible or as technically esoteric as it may seem.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

What I’ve seen make a difference is a culture where it’s foundational that everyone is treated with respect and the focus of the team is to accomplish goals together. When that’s the focus, I find that talented people have to be valued because we’re all depending on each other, as opposed to operating with individual success in mind.

Individuals have to be able to express unique thoughts and ideas in their own unique ways. People communicate differently and everyone needs to have the patience and tolerance to hear the content of ideas regardless of how they might be delivered. Create a culture of high professional standards where any activities that don’t meet the mark are actively discouraged by everyone on the team. In tech, we are working with so many different types of people and communication styles—neurotypical and not—and the key is to treat everyone as individuals and find out how they work best to help them thrive.

What do you think companies can do to support the progress of the careers of women working in technology?

Getting more women in AI is a similar challenge to getting women in technical roles more generally. I think we need to create and foster interest early in education and then ease the way into tech companies themselves. Everyone in a position to recognize and encourage interest and talent should make a concerted effort to do so.

There are currently only 21 percent of women working in tech. If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

If I had a magic wand, I would use it for something a bit different, because we need to look at inequality on a macro level, not just within a single industry. To start, I’d increase pay for critical roles that are grossly underpaid for the value they bring to society.

For example, teachers: It is inexcusable that we don’t adequately pay the people educating our population. The next generation is going to be faced with major world-changing problems that we need to equip them to solve. It only makes sense that we’d invest in the teachers who empower  students with this critical information and prepare them to address individual and societal challenges.

I also think this will help to solve the “women in tech” ratio. When you have intelligent, high achieving teachers that are properly incentivized and resourced, you will keep the female role models in STEM education that can more effectively start to curb the early female STEM dropout effect.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I personally try to stay plugged into the voices within the AI space, male or female. It’s helpful to stay in lockstep with your industry and I’m fortunate to work in one where the voices are loud and plentiful. There is no lack of great podcasts out there—the AI in Action podcast, for instance, is one that’s featured Plainsight in the past, along with ClickAI where I’ve guested twice to discuss AI Ethics. But staying well informed around how your peers—and even prospects—speak about your tech is one good source of input to make sure your priorities are where they need to be.