#InterviewSeries @ Web Summit | Ida Svenonius
The #InterviewSeries is a collection of intimate discussions with people who identify as a woman or non-binary in the technical & digital spaces.
Back in November I took the #InterviewSeries to the Web Summit in Lisbon, I was fortunate enough to speak to some incredible women in technology and digital. First up is the lovely Ida. We chatted about AI and how it doesn't mean the world is going to be taken over by robots, identity, how as women we #ViolateExpections when we succeed and much much more!
Where did it all start? How did you get into the industry?
It's been a long journey and it hasn’t gone in any straight line. When I first started working professionally, I was 15. I was in the film industry and I ran with the dream of film. I was working as a director and then eventually I got into the tech side, working in post-production as a "colourist". I was basically doing Photoshop for the movies, altering light and colour to shift the mood of images.
What were you using to do that?
It was a software called DaVinci Resolve, it's one of those industry-specific ones. So within the film realm, I ventured into tech a bit. I realised I liked working with digital technology. Then eventually, I must have been 19, I just realised that film wasn't my passion anymore. I fell out of love with it, which I found really hard as it had been my dream for so long. I'd also dropped out of high school because I wanted to work full-time in film.
I went back to high school and I figured, "If I'm doing this, I'm going to do it properly." I went to this really intense social science school in Sweden where I grew up. From there, I was encouraged to apply to the UK to study at uni. Then I went and did an interdisciplinary degree, which was part of me realising that maybe I had multiple interests. Maybe it's not going to be this one thing. I did politics, international relations, sociology, and social anthropology all at the same time in my first year.
They're my favourite subjects. Where did you study?
Right, it was so good. At Cambridge.
Yes, it was incredible. I'll tell you that degree changed my life. It really did. I figured “Anthropology is my thing.” Then from there, I went to a careers event really randomly in spring of third year. It was about local start-ups, and I met these people who just seemed really cool. I asked them, "Where are you from? What do you do?" They said, "Well, we're a company called OKRA, OKRA Technologies. We just started. We're a start-up. We're working with AI. We have big dreams."
They were making huge statements about the impact their technology would have like, "We're going to end human intuition. Because AI assisted decision-making would resolve that for us," as an anthropologist I was like, "What?! What does this mean?" I wasn't sure whether I agreed with that. I just found it really intriguing. I told them, "I used to be a filmmaker. I am an anthropologist" They said, "Well, that's fine. We want diversity. We want to be as good as we can be and probably, you'll add a lot of things that we don't know already." So, I said "yeah, sure" and I started working for OKRA.
"It drains your energy, trying to people-please. Obviously, you want to be empathetic, and caring, and kind, but as soon as you stand up for something, even if it is the tiniest thing, people are going to criticise you, which I think is okay."
That's amazing. It was just that spontaneous.
It was a good feeling. My career has mostly just been me following my instincts as they come up, like going for what my interests are. I feel very lucky as a person to have been able to do that.
What keeps you going now?
For some reason, there's a tipping point right now in the general attitude towards AI and the extent to which AI is being adopted. Because I'm leading on marketing and communications, I pay a lot of attention to narratives. In general, I found that the dialogue is shifting, suddenly it's about what AI can actually do and the benefits it can bring. Not only what it can do in the future but what it is doing right now.
At the start of the year, there were only two people in the business. It wasn't funded. Now, we're in November, we've gone from two people to 15 people. We're fully funded and generating revenue. This all happened within the scope of less than a year, which is mad. There is a lot to be attributed to the people working here who I think do an amazing job. At the same time, there's also something big happening in the world out there that's enabled this to be the case.
How do you use technology yourself? Are you online all the time?
I'm a millennial so, yes. Obviously, in my personal life, there's just so much technology everywhere, everything from instant messaging to Instagram and so on. Also, in my work, especially on the communications side, there's so much to be done with analytics.
I work with website and social media analytics, using different kinds of data-driven metrics about how we're performing. That's the main way I use technology.
In terms of analytics, I guess for somebody coming into the industry, those words can seem quite daunting. How did you learn? What were the best resources? Can you teach yourself?
Absolutely. I just started experimenting. Google was a great help. I found when you hear the word 'analytics', it's easy to think it’s just about maths. I would actually say you don’t always need maths, which is a good thing because I didn’t do that well in it in school!
With analytics, what you get is a bunch of data points about things. The only thing you need to do is to make them mean something by putting them into context. For example, if you have a website and you want to know whether public interest is increasing, you would look at one data point and compare the past to now. The only math you need for that is to be able to compare the two figures.
There are all kinds of tutorials. I’m hopefully never going to stop using tutorials, because there's always something new to learn and I think the most valuable asset is having a mindset where you can be open with yourself about the fact that you don't know everything. As long as you have search engines you're alright, because there will always be someone out there who can help you. I've also found that if you can muster up the courage to try and ask for a mentor that really helps, I've seen some statistics that say if you've got a mentor, you're much more likely to stay in the industry.
"I think the most valuable asset is having a mindset where you can be open with yourself about the fact that you don't know everything"
Yeah, I've definitely heard that too. As a woman in our field, do you think you've faced any challenges that a man may not face?
That's a really good question. It probably needs to be split into two. As a woman, I think certain things are internalised as a result of the way our society is structured. Some challenges might be inside of me, in the way I think about things, and other challenges might be external in terms of how the people treat me. To me, those are separate.
Externally, I haven't had much resistance to my face, at least. As far as I know, I haven't actually been actively stopped for being a woman. That said, you can never be sure. Internally, I have a tendency to argue with and doubt myself. For example, in a negotiation, I often say to myself "I only deserve so much" and end up leaving with less, because it's just so easy to get into the trap of accepting something too early. I recently came across some research which said women have a higher tendency of "thinking ahead" and lowering their bar before they go in, which men didn't do. There's constantly that internal monologue, which I guess is actually a good sign of being reasonable, but we should also know that we are allowed to stand up for ourselves with as much confidence as we can. I think this is such a good topic to discuss with a mentor, especially if your mentor is a woman.
I completely agree with the point about it being a two-part question. I will split up that question in the future. I like that. I've interviewed a number of women who say "I don’t face any challenges", but then mention a number of points that might not be so obvious. Sometimes I think the subtleties have more of an impact, I don't know.
I would also add that it's hard to know where this negative special treatment comes from. If you're a man and you're young, for example, you have little experience, which means people might not be listening to you in a meeting because you're young and inexperienced. If you're a young woman and someone doesn't listen to you, it's hard to tell whether it's because you're young and inexperienced or because you're a woman.
What has been your biggest challenge then? I think you touched upon like that transition from film. I’m interested in that.
Yes, changing industries was really hard. Everyone I meet professionally are representing some professional identity, and I think it's easy sometimes to over-identify with what you do. In a networking situation, the first question I get in there is like, what do you do? If you get that often enough over a lifetime, you just hear yourself associating so clearly with what you do all the time. I had that with film because I was a film director in my teenage years and that's when my identity was properly forming.
This whole thing of over-identifying with your work can sometimes be difficult. To try and overcome this, I thought that maybe I should identify with my strengths instead. I thought to myself “what skills am I using in the film world that I can use in this other world?” That made me feel better because I wasn't throwing anything away, I had developed all these skills that l could re-apply in other ways. That shift in mindset has been great. Who knows? Maybe I won't stay in tech forever either, but I'm developing skills that'll serve me in my next life.
It's the way you've got to be now, I think unless you're going into a career like law or medicine you have to be able to jump ship at any point.
Yeah, and I've seen people who are doctors who say, “I don't love medicine anymore,” and they freak out. That’s how I felt, too. So even in those kinds of jobs, maybe the specific job title or specific company or industry shouldn't define you.
Exactly, you're yourself, your own person. I very much used to say "I am a researcher", whereas, I now try and say "I do research". I think you're right, I don't think you should embody your job title too much, else you end up having an identity crisis.
It's a challenge for sure because everyone is telling you that you should be identifying with it. It's a hard narrative to work against. I think that's been one of my biggest challenges.
Sure, thank you. With regards to technology and digital, what's going to be our biggest challenge to success? Or what's going to block us from doing great things?
The narrative issue with AI is my biggest challenge in my work, when it's all "robots, doomsday, everyone is dying, the world will be obliterated all because robots are taking over the world". That discourse is just so misleading. It's a big challenge but it is changing so I'm optimistic.
Yes, or uninformed and sometimes unbalanced news. AI is not the same as a robot. AI is maths. It's a mathematical model for how a software could teach itself to do something. That's it. That level of artificial intelligence is everywhere anyway, for example recommending films on Netflix or finishing our sentences in Google. It's already there, but we aren't talking about it enough.
For some reason, whenever we come across a big idea, we're tempted to talk about how things will go badly. Part of my job is trying to shift that narrative, not because it's unimportant to talk about ethics - it's absolutely vital - but because we need to hear the potential too. If we don't, positive, human-centric AI developers will run out of steam. At the same time, if you look at how the internet started, to me, AI is similar to that level of technology, it will be everywhere. It's about who does it first, and who does it best and eventually, everyone will have it. When we were going to go into the 2000s, people were afraid that maybe everything would explode. We have a tendency to be really risk-averse. So for me, I think the biggest barrier is not actually technical because the tech is there. We have the tech to do amazing things. OKRA's mission is to save and improve human lives with artificial intelligence in healthcare and we’re already doing that. The trouble is actually managing people's emotions around it rather than developing the tech, which is interesting.
"The narrative issue is the biggest challenge, it's the biggest barrier but it is changing so I'm optimistic."
Ida Svenonius on AI and the challenges the industry faces
Yes, for sure. That’s amazing insight. I wonder if we need more people in tech and digital who have a background in social anthropology to have that kind of critical thinking.
When I first went to do social anthropology, a lot of people would say "that's a waste of time”. It might be a British thing (and even more a Swedish thing, where I grew up), it was very much like “what job are you going to get from that?” At one point I even said that myself, but my supervisor set me straight. Now the tech world is craving people that have critical thinking skills. You can't think about sustainability and responsibility unless you're critically aware and okay with being wrong. I don’t know if you feel this way, but anthropology taught me it’s okay to be wrong. It's not like, “here's the truth. Here’s the tech let’s move on.” Someone needs to be responsible for thinking about where it's going and not just how it's impacting people's business baselines but how it's impacting their feelings, and how sustainable it is. So actually, it's entirely possible to get into tech without technical experience. It's actually beneficial. In our office, we are so much stronger for being diverse.
100%. How do you avoid burn-out? What keeps you going?
When I was in the film industry, I had this one time where I worked 72 hours in a row. It got to the point where I started to ruin what I had done in the beginning because I wasn't even seeing it clearly anymore. The lesson I drew from that was that it's not about the hours you put in, it's really not, it’s about how efficient and effective you are. Now I pay close attention to working hours. I started practicing this when I was studying too, because that's another situation where you could always keep going.
When I find myself in situations where I could just keep going, I stop and have cut-off time. I now cut off at five unless there's something really crucial. I wouldn't go to midnight or anything like that anymore. Lunch is also an hour that really counts. I’m grateful that I’m now evaluated on my outputs rather than the hours I put in.
The flip side of this is that sometimes you need to step up and demonstrate what you're achieving, to show that the cut-off time is working. If you're working under someone, even if it’s a CEO or a board or whatever, you need to tell them what you’ve done, because they can’t always see all the work that you’ve put in and all of the returns on that. If I’m ever staying late I’ll text my boss and say, “staying late now, because I’m trying to fix this”. Then at least he knows. Sometimes I have that internal barrier because I don't want to be that person who’s like, “look at me,” but I’ve been trying to get over that because I can only be recognised for the work I do if it’s seen.
"If you're working under someone, even if it’s a CEO or a board or whatever, you need to tell them what you’ve done, because they can’t always see all the work that you’ve put in and all of the success you’ve achieved." Ida Svenonius
Yes, 100%. I think it's important to realise your time is precious.
Exactly, you have to make that clear. It can be uncomfortable sometimes because it depends what type of relationship you have with the people you need to talk to. In some cases, I've found it difficult, not least when you can see on their faces that they're uninterested. That’s another age-old life lesson: not everyone is going to like you. And as soon as you start standing up for something and standing up for yourself, it’s inevitable. I think it drains your energy as well, trying to people-please. Obviously, you want to be empathetic, and caring, and kind, but as soon as you stand up for something, even if it is the tiniest thing, people are going to criticise you, which I think is okay.
I agree, the only thing we can do is be true to ourselves.
When I'm being criticised and pressured, I get a lot of men telling me to just “ignore it” but that’s not always possible and that’s not the approach I want to take. I try to out-think myself to find better ways of conceptualising what's happening, and build from a level of awareness, so I can learn. And actually, the more I work on myself the less important that external validation becomes. If I can disassociate these things from being personal, I can focus on my performance. It’s not me who’s on display here, this the work I'm doing. I'm trying to separate that.
You’ve also got to consider that sometimes people might just be threatened by you, which is just another confirmation that you're doing an awesome job. Sadly, especially as women, and I hate this, I think it’s going to happen more because we're not necessarily expected to succeed - we're violating expectations when we do well.
Violating expectations. I like that. That’s definitely deserves an hashtag.
My whole life is like #ViolatingExpectations.