Kathy Brown: Driving AI Supremacy to Develop Next-Gen Customer-Centric Products

Kathy Brown

Uber’s mission is to create opportunity through movement. The company started in 2009 to provide customers access to a ride at the touch of a button. Today, more than 15 billion trips later, Uber is building products to get people closer to where they want to be. By changing how people, food, and things move through cities, Uber is a platform that opens up the world to new possibilities. Kathy Brown serves as the Head of the Cognitive Computing Platform at Uber Technologies. She is leading the research, development, and deployment of AI technologies to power next-generation surfaces in voice and chat. Prior to Uber, she served as Chief Data Scientist and VP of the Cognitive Computing Center at 247.ai, leading a cross-geo team of over 200 engineers and scientists in the development of big data and omnichannel predictive technologies in the areas of AI, NLP, online predictive sales, and personalization. Kathy’s work has been featured in the book “Design of Multimodal Mobile Interfaces.” Kathy received her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Davis. She started her career at Lockheed Martin as a Researcher and Principal Investigator on Government Contract R&D programs dealing with the development of new surveillance technologies. After that, she joined Nuance Communications, where she rose to the position of Director of Product Solutions. The team she managed received numerous industry awards and was responsible for the launch of numerous groundbreaking products.  

Growth Through Continuous Learning

The most significant achievement that has shaped Kathy’s journey to becoming a technology leader occurred very early in her career. She pushed herself to pursue an advanced degree in engineering. After she finished her Masters, she earned a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She admits it was tough as she had to work very hard, but the worst thing about the struggle was the feelings of isolation and uncertainty as she was one of only a handful of women in her class. She kept doubting herself and wondered if she didn’t belong there. Kathy says, “I don’t know the number of times I told myself that I was crazy.  It’s only now that I realize the significance that experience had on my life and career.” During those years, Kathy discovered her  passion for new technology, doing research, and creating innovative solutions. She transformed herself from doubting to gaining confidence  and belonging in the program, competing right alongside the men. “Of course, I didn’t get to that transformation by myself. I had an awesome male mentor who was my thesis advisor, Dr. Ralph Algazi. Dr. Algazi never wavered in his resolve to get me to graduate, and he gave me the confidence and support to see me through,” she adds.  

Balancing Hardships to Encourage Excellence

Kathy doesn’t deny that her career in tech leadership has been full of primal challenges.  Even today, she observes the jaw drops from men when they see the three letters “Ph.D.” after her name, followed by their interrogation of what her degree could possibly be in. Kathy then notices an even bigger jaw drop when she informs them it’s in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Sometimes she even has to politely endure comments like, “You gotta be kidding me.” One of the worst moments during the course of her career occurred  when she had to deliver a technical presentation at a senior leadership meeting in a small start-up company that included one man who had publicly admonished women for attempting to compete in technical fields. As he explained, women just don’t have the aptitude. At that point, Kathy felt confident enough that she actually enjoyed the challenge of presenting in front of him. In fact, she recalls delivering most of the talk directly to him. In the end, he shook her hand and congratulated her for executing a good job. Kathy reveals that there are still men in the industry, even at higher levels, who hold some very primitive views on women. She has found it emotionally destructive for a woman to ignore and not acknowledge her anger and frustration when she needs to deal with those views. Instead, Kathy suggests that women must acknowledge their anger and turn it into action plans for how they can deliver an even bigger impact.  

Adopting Transformational Leadership

Kathy believes that transformational leaders must be willing to take risks, adapt quickly, and not be afraid of failure. Throughout her career, Kathy had to undertake risks, pursue, experiment, and launch new products and technologies. She achieved success in her initiatives by constantly assessing the risk and making quick decisions when she needed to course-correct. “No transformation is capable of being planned perfectly at initiation, so agility and nimbleness are key,” she admits. Through that strategy, Kathy considers herself fortunate to be at the heart of some key advances in the industry.  

Incorporating Innovative Mindset Amid Challenging Times

As per Kathy, innovation has been a driving force in Uber. The company is all about raising the bar on the technology and features it offers to customers in today’s rapidly-changing world. In 2020, Uber illustrated this by investing in and expediting its delivery products when the world shut down, because delivering meals to the home was more important than ever. It also meant quickly building new technology to verify that both riders and drivers wore face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the community safe and healthy. When it comes to safety, Kathy asserts that the job is never done, and at Uber, the team is constantly looking to do more to make our communities safer.  

Drawing Relevant Insights from Disruptive Technologies

Disruptive technologies such as AI and Deep Learning are at the core of emerging products across countless industries today, from transportation to social media and education. Being a leader in this industry is exciting and opens up immense opportunities for innovation.   However, amid the excitement, Kathy warns that one must exercise caution and be cognizant of the risks of AI, especially in privacy and human rights. The world needs strong leaders in this space who can innovate while responsibly assessing the risk vs. benefits tradeoff.  

Unlocking Future Opportunities

Kathy affirms Uber to have been at the forefront and the leader of the gig economy since it was founded in 2009. The company has achieved this position through its strong culture and commitment to invest in innovative technologies. Its engineering, science, and R&D teams are staffed with outstanding talent and innovate daily. With their thirst for knowledge and cutting-edge technology, Uber will continue to dominate this market and expand to offer new products and services that carry us into the future. Kathy is incredibly excited to be a part of the technology revolution that Uber is leading and be in a company that empowers her to bring her full self and talents to work every day. “In the area of Cognitive Computing, we have made significant advances this year and have even more exciting technology innovations planned for 2021.  Stay Tune!” she reveals.  

Wisdom for Leaders of Tomorrow

Kathy strongly recommends that budding female leaders should shape their careers through building knowledge. Nothing is more profound in technology than being an expert in one’s field of discipline. Any lack of confidence is always remedied with knowledge. She recommends to take courses in the free time, pursue an advanced degree, spend free time reading journals and articles in one’s area of expertise, and acquire a penchant for wanting to learn about all innovations across all industries. She emphasizes that one must stretch oneself daily to learn. Also, with knowledge comes the confidence to make strong decisions, take risks, and achieve success. Further, Kathy points out that it is critical that the emerging female leader find a mentor.  According to her, it is essential that the mentor has in-depth knowledge and experience in technology and industry culture, and it’s ok if the person is male. She encourages budding leaders to be honest with the mentor and be willing to take their advice even during the most insecure, darkest moments.

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