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Taking a Leap of Faith: My Career Path

Personal Growth
Career Path

2 September, 2021

Pratibha Shambhangoudar
Pratibha Shambhangoudar

Secretary at AnitaB.org AI committee, Cofounder/Ex CTO at ADV, Engineering leader at Target

Pratibha Shambhangoudar, Senior Software Engineering Manager (emip) at Target, tells of her determination and courage to venture into different fields and make the most of the existing opportunities.

Problem

After graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering (CSE) degree in India, I started my career at Accenture, a company that provided me with some top-of-the-line opportunities. I was sent to Sweden, where I had a chance to work with Swedish clients, some of whom were industry leaders. After some time working on consultant projects began to feel tiresome. I wanted to create products from scratch and have ownership over what I would create. From that moment, I knew that my career would not be the linear one, but one of twists and turns, where my aspirations and willingness to take a leap of faith would take me to the most unimaginable place.

Actions taken

I started searching for opportunities and luckily ended up with HP Labs, which was a turning point in my career. When I joined the team, I was still largely inexperienced and didn’t know much about the work itself.

I knew what domains or areas I would be interested in but didn’t know how to channel my career. When I was asked what I was looking for besides technical challenges, nothing other than visiting different countries and working with people from different cultures came to mind. As it turned out, that was not an option, but I was offered to present in international conferences if I did well in my day-to-day work.

I put in all my effort, and the results were soon noticeable. I was working in the emerging market section on a product that would allow connectivity without the Internet in developing countries. That was when smartphones were just becoming popular, but most people in developing countries were still using low-end phones. We provided an SMS and voice interface for people to access the web without connecting to the Internet. For example, if I would like to know the weather forecast, book a trip or read a horoscope, I would click on a widget called tasklet that would be installed on my phone. What I did -- and those were the early days of cloud computing -- was to enable that desktop app as a cloud service. I was an implementation partner for the paper presented in the US and traveled with the team for a conference. Following the positive reception, it was presented later in multiple international conferences.

At that point, after working intensively with researchers, I felt how hungry I was for learning. Unlike well-defined engineering problems, my work with researchers was constantly probing into the unknown. I felt that I didn’t get a chance to tackle all areas of computer science, particularly research, and wanted to learn more. At that point, ML and AI felt like something I wanted to pursue further. I went to the University of Pittsburgh to do my Master’s and worked on transfer rule learning and biomarkers discovery research that would identify cancer occurrence in patients. I also worked on developing a classifier for identifying drug-drug interaction (DDI’s) using NLP. During my Master’s, I took all sorts of courses: geospatial information processing, data analytics, research in NLP and ML to help me better understand what I wanted to do later in life.

I started to apply for roles involving work in ML and NLP, but in 2015 most of those roles required a Ph.D. or significant experience, and I had none. I somewhat gave up on that since I had to pay off my student loan and went to work as an Engineering leader in a large company. In parallel, I was learning about AI. I presented an idea in the XPrize competition-solving world’s grand challenges, which was exceedingly well received. The professor at CMU liked my idea and I worked with him to pivot it into a startup product-Automated video discovery. I stopped doing it before it reached a funding phase and went to work as an independent consultant.

I also got an opportunity to expand my knowledge in my consultant roles. For example, I got to do more research into NLP products for banking customers’ needs at WellsFargo. Furthermore, I got the opportunity to be on the AnitaB AI committee and bring more diverse people to the AI field. Things have never been linear, let alone easy, but I had a chance to learn and grow by experiencing different fields.

Lessons learned

  • I was constantly challenging myself and enjoying venturing into different fields that I knew a little about. Many engineers tend to stick with one domain even if that is not something they are passionate about. I need to be motivated to do my job, and I am not afraid to take a leap of faith and jump into a new domain.
  • My career path had its cultural aspect too. I started my Master’s later in my career when most women in India either decide or are forced to settle down. I faced a lot of challenges from my family, who initially disapproved of my choices but, fortunately, my parents aren’t that conservative. Also, I am introverted and shy, but women-led communities helped me connect better through LinkedIn and network with like-minded professionals.
  • Find the balance between going deeper into one field and going broader. You have to define your direction for yourselves. I wanted to go deeper into research, but I realized that research doesn’t have a multiplier effect, which made me pivot to a leadership domain. Ask yourself, Do you want to work in one company or industry or explore more? At this point in my life, I feel that breadth is more important than depth, but it may not always be the case.
  • I kept learning even when I had to do something different for a living. Keep your hunger for knowledge alive. I had to pay for my student loan, but I never gave up. I had my ups and downs. I was disappointed not to get a job in AI after my Master’s and to work in a consulting role due to my visa situation initially. But those unfavorable circumstances helped me adapt. I had to learn new domains and new technologies every couple of months. In most cases, it felt organic; many opportunities happened at the right time, building one on the other.

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