Hard Problems

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Several months ago I was serendipitously seated next to Tara Lemmey on a flight home from London to San Francisco. Somewhere over the Atlantic we got to talking about technology, career paths, management, and life. When I asked for her advice on my own next steps, she offered me a guiding principle which has stuck with me ever since.

“Go solve the hard problems,” she said, “everything else will sort itself out.”

Certainly there is no shortage of “hard problems” in our world, but it has been trickier than I imaged to find one to help “solve”. I started to have a series of discussions with everyone and anyone from whom I could steal advice. I was looking for hard problems that resonated with me and a specific opportunity that aligned my passions, skill sets, and career aspirations. I came up with a list: Healthcare, energy, government, education.

San Francisco has a hot job market and is hiring product managers like gangbusters. I’m both lucky and privileged enough to have obtained a skill set and network that afforded me many choices when it came to a next career move. Unfortunately, few of the obvious job opportunities fell into the “hard problem” bucket. Many of my mentors or advisers, who so generously lent me career advice, were encouraging me to pay my dues, gain more experience, or in some way seek prestigious titles or financially sound roles on traditional career paths.

Against all of this well meaning and sound advice, I found myself creating reasons to turn down director titles, lucrative stock options, or opportunities at red-hot-sexy startups. Who am I? I feel crazy! Who am I to turn this down? Has my ego gotten out of control? My boyfriend can attest to many a stressful evening debating details with myself, fighting impostor syndrome, and becoming pre-occupied with trying to understand why I was uncomfortable accepting these opportunities. Certainly I have plenty to learn about people and general management–and these were great ways for me to accelerate that growth. Despite my best efforts to understand the “why”, I was left with the simple gut feeling that something wasn’t clicking. The opportunities were getting easier and easier to turn down. I kept thinking that I didn’t want to spend my life just optimizing bottom lines for large fortune 500 companies.

I wanted to be on a team solving a “hard problem.” Tara’s advice kept banging around in my head. These weren’t hard problems.

With some persistence and luck, I was offered an opportunity in the Watson division at IBM. Consistently, the advice I was getting was some version of “Watson is occasionally a really great career accelerator, but also an uncertain vortex where it’s very hard to be successful and many get chewed up and spit out – I don’t want that to happen to you”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement to accept the position. A lateral move to a team where I had no connections. No one to say “Oh yeah – I know them – they are great.”

Something in my voice had changed when I talked about the Watson job with friends and family. My eyes glimmered with the potential of the technology, and the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and help shape the market. Maybe this was a hard problem.

“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on!” Sheryl Sandberg

Last week, on my first day getting up to speed, I joined a roadmap meeting for what was about to become my product–Watson Vision. “Holy crap I’m out of my league!” is all I was thinking. The team members’ resumes humbled me with their long list of accomplishments and contributions to the cognitive computing, image recognition, and artificial intelligence communities. I continued thinking to myself “I’m supposed to be figuring out the strategy, technical priorities, and business model? I barely understand how it works.”

I have a lot to learn.

“Watson” technology is named for IBM’s founder, Thomas J Watson. Watson encouraged his team to “go ahead and make mistakes, make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success–on the far side of failure.” I, am going to make mistakes as I take on this new challenge–but what day one taught me, was that in no uncertain terms – I found a hard problem.

While I have no idea how to solve this hard problem, I’m delighted and excited to be privileged enough to be tasked with figuring it out. Which of the world’s problems can we solve with this technology? How do we build, package, and sell cognitive image recognition technology to sectors like healthcare, retail, aerospace, finance, and security? Facial recognition has many applications: it creepily impinges on privacy; it powerfully detects cancer diagnoses automatically; and importantly drives insights from weather patterns.

There seems to be no limit to how cognitive vision technology could impact different industries and everyday lives. Balancing privacy interests, helping shape near term product offerings, and navigating executional realities is going to keep me busy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could automatically diagnose abnormalities in x-rays, instantly find lost ships and aircraft, and unite families when disaster strikes?

Hard problems? You bet! Thanks, Tara–I think I found one.

I’ve decided to jump on the rocket ship and see if I can lend a hand.

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