Each month at WonderCoders, we meet a woman in IT, get some tips from her and find out more about her superpower.
Hi Marisa! Tell us about what you do and who you are.
Since I really don’t want to copy my LinkedIn “about me” section, I’d say: I do things that are fun, meaningful and give me opportunities to grow and create an impact, whether as the captain of the volleyball team or during my first job as a make-up artist, or my current job as a researcher, where I investigate the huge topic of AI from a humanities perspective. So, obviously I’m a researcher, but I’m also a mother of two toddlers, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a volleyball player, a friend, a soft (not bra-burning!) feminist, an idealist, a collaborator, a semi-professional Sherpa (I love hiking in the Swiss Alps and therefore have to carry my kids on my back!).
How long have you been in tech?
I started working at scip ag, a cybersecurity and technology company in Zurich, in 2017. I’m part of the Titanium Research Department, led by Marc Ruef. My prior jobs have somehow always been related to “digital topics”; for instance, at the university where I held a previous position, I created the online learning platform and coached lecturers on how to make use of the advantages of online or blended learning.
How did you get into tech?
I’ve never been that interested in technology per se, but I’ve always been fascinated by the impact it has on peoples’ lives. For example, how it changes the way teachers teach, or how we communicate on social media. When I was working at the university, I had a seminar about digital teaching trends. We were all very excited about the upcoming presentation by IBM, where we were shown how their Artificial Intelligence, Watson, defeated the World Championship in the TV show Jeopardy! What hit me most in this very moment was the fear I saw in peoples’ eyes and the tense atmosphere in the room. The teachers were so worried about their future and would their jobs and all they lived and worked for be replaced by some AI?. This was the day when I decided I wanted to do something about this. I wanted to understand these fears, this bizarre fascination. And further down the road, when I realized the big impact AI will have, I wanted to know what my roles and responsibilities were in shaping our society in this AI era.
You have a Master of Arts (M.A.), Psychology of Excellence in Business and Education from the beginning. Was it a big step to go from that to where you are today?
Yes. But it wasn’t one big step, rather many small steps, one at a time. My professional path is everything but a straight line, yet I’ve always followed my passions and focused on things that truly bring me joy, and with the supportive guidance from the DrivenWoman network, I was finally able to allow myself to dream big and put things into action right away.
How has your journey in tech been?
Nothing other than smooth. I’ve expected everything from mobbing to sexism or condescension. But truth be told, I’ve only received support and encouragement, especially from my company, but also from external engagements. Yes, in many cases I may be there to fill in the “woman” quota, and it feels awkward at times, but I’m confident that I’ve delivered and performed every time. I think now is the best time for women to pursue a career in the tech environment if you are passionate, ambitious and willing to collaborate.
What are your daily activities?
Networking, reading, writing, public speaking.
Could you share some of the challenges you’ve faced as a ***researcher in AI with a humanities background?
*** Are you a woman in tech? Please share your challenges?
The biggest challenge I’m facing is interdisciplinarity. I, as a psychologist, have a totally different perspective than my boss, who’s an IT expert. It’s very challenging to find a common ground, a common vision because often, we’re not even aware of how different our perceptions are. Another challenge for me is the great attention and hype around the topic and the many influencers, enthusiasts and evangelists, etc. that are out there; I often fail to see what lies behind and catch myself thinking that people simply want to adopt AI as a facade for themselves or their companies, just to jump on the boat and to be “famous”.
How did you overcome them?
I collaborate as much as possible and have a supportive mindset. I lean back and think how everyone is on a mission, and in the end, I believe that we’re all simply doing things that serve our need for connection. So, I focus on facts and values, and what lies beneath these overstatements, fears, and resistance. It’s basically empathy for myself and for others.
What’s your aspiration in your tech journey?
I envision a future where my kids and all others are safe and protected. I believe that technology can advance—but alongside human values: Progress—through people first. I have that strange feeling I can do something to shape our future, that this AI thing doesn’t get out of control. I believe we need four important pillars to create a healthy co-existence between man and machine: interdisciplinarity, integration, diversity, and open science.
Please share with our readers why they should get a career in tech!
First of all, we have to define what “career” means. Is it money? Fame? Meaning? Raising strong children? If you are passionate about technology, no matter in which way, of course then go for it. Also, if you have that inner calling to create an impact on our society: now is your time, especially as a woman. Of course, there are exceptions, but today, for example in Switzerland, women are massively supported, and we can use this to our advantage so that our kids and future generations don’t have to worry about this anymore; in their future, there will be no organizations encouraging women to get in to tech, because they won’t be needed anymore.
Any tips or advice for them? Women?
- Join female networks for as long as they exist
- Get clear about what is important in your life: what are your passions? What does career mean to you?
- Get going: be active and step up for your dreams: dream big, but small steps every day
- If you want to have a career use social media like LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. to accelerate it—Be visible
- Read, write and teach as much as you can and never stop learning
- Motivate and support others, be a role model and inspire!
Could you give us some ideas on how we can overcome the diversity gap in tech?
I joined the network Women in AI and quickly became the ambassador for Switzerland because I believe our greatest feminine power lies in our capacity to collaborate and grow through synthesis and support. Concretely, I think Women in AI particularly, is a great step to get females on stage at conferences for example. But there’s still a lot to be done and this is only one piece of the puzzle. Everyone can do some little things and contribute, whether by organizing robotics classes for girls or whatever. There are many initiatives, I think we are on a good path here.
Do you currently practice computer programming and what is your preferred programming language?
No—but if anyone would like to teach me, that would be awesome 😊
What are your visions for AI in the future and what are your greatest concerns?
My greatest concerns are (1) the political situation, which also includes the use of lethal autonomous weapons in warfare, and that (2) we are moving towards a do-or-die relationship with AI, which fosters resistance and irrational behaviors. I am also concerned by the way we’re slowly getting used to AI in our daily lives, like with Alexa, smart homes etc., which may be leading us to forget to ask ourselves if this is really what we want and to lose a sense of healthy skepticism. All in all, I think we massively have to change the tone of the conversation, move away from the feelings of threat and fear, and go towards facts, vision, and motives.
Do you know a woman in tech? Can you nominate our next WonderCoder** for our next feature?
Beth, an NLU specialist in Australia. She’s amazing. Smart collaborator and a good heart.