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‘Humility and resilience are the two qualities that give Indian-origin CEOs an edge over others’

Apeejay Pitampura alumnus Pranav Punjabi, who works with Facebook’s Data Infrastructure team in Seattle, says the rise of artificial intelligence may magnify the ability to use personal information in ways that can intrude on privacy interests

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Apeejay School Pitampura alumnus Pranav Punjabi works as a Technical Product Manager in Facebook’s Data Infrastructure team in Seattle. After pursuing a Bachelors in Computer Science from Purdue University in the United States, Pranav has mastered the nuances of the consumer and enterprise software industry, with a sharp focus on privacy and artificial intelligence (AI). In a wide-ranging interview, he discusses, among other things, his fond memories of studying at Apeejay School, Pitampura, the increasing importance of machine learning and artificial intelligence in our lives and the privacy issues that emerge from this, his plans of launching a start-up some day and the need to protect individuals against adverse effects of AI, without unduly restricting AI development or ensnaring privacy regulations in complex geopolitical crosshairs. Edited excerpts:

Congratulations on making it to some of the world’s best companies working on the cutting edge of technology such as Microsoft and Facebook. Did studying Computer Science degree from Purdue University equip you for your foray into the world of technology?

 I am a strong believer in the notion that college degrees are not a recipe for success for breaking into most industries, including technology. Most knowledge needed to break into tech is now freely available to almost anyone with an internet connection. What Purdue’s CS programme did provide, was the structure and the environment to persevere in the midst of an unknown ambiguous set of worlds, that not only helped me discover if I would fit well in this industry, but also helped forge connections with like-minded people who have been allies throughout my career so far.

Please elaborate upon your experience of working at Microsoft in Seattle, United States?

 Microsoft was my launch-pad into the tech industry as a Product Manager. I started off, without much choice, in the world of data privacy and telemetry collection. It was clearly evident that privacy isn’t the coolest place to be in the tech industry. However the potential impact privacy has on building consumer trust and easing geopolitical tensions, is able to make or break companies. 

 Privacy has been a relatively new discussion in tech circles, and the last 7-10 years have seen the most evolution in infrastructure being built to support privacy as a core pillar of building software. When I started at Microsoft, this was a fairly ambiguous space and we were facing an influx of global regulations from the EU, Brazil and India. With the processes and resources that a company like Microsoft can offer, it gave me a pretty good foundation to base my work on and navigate through this space. Within the first couple years, I was successfully contributing to building privacy tools for Microsoft’s consumer segment and also catering to EU regulators. 

 The four years I spent at Microsoft were critical in introducing me to the realities of consumer and enterprise software industry and helped me build great connections that have been crucial in my journey so far. 

What is your current job profile at Facebook? 

 I work as a Technical Product Manager in Facebook’s Data Infrastructure team. The programme I am currently leading is to evolve our data systems to be privacy conscious and allow users to be more in control of their data. With the changing landscape around data collection and usage, it is increasingly important to build systems that are responsive to user needs and resilient to privacy regulations across the world.

How do you view data science, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and at what stage of refinement are they at, at present? 

The answer to this question could be a complete book by itself (and there probably are a few). Since my primary focus is around user privacy, I’ll take that pivot to reflect on this a bit. 

The impact of big data collection is generally interpreted by 3 “Vs”: volume, variety, and velocity. High volume results in more powerful and granular analysis. Increased variety enables new inferences and predictions. And velocity facilitates analysis as well as sharing in real time. With increasingly ubiquitous use of the internet, Volume, Variety, and Velocity of information about every facet of our lives has expanded and made privacy a widely discussed topic in the global public policy circles.

Introducing AI/ML to the mix will likely accelerate this trend. Much of the most privacy-sensitive data analysis today – such as search algorithms, recommendation engines, and ad-tech networks – are driven by machine learning and decisions by algorithms. As artificial intelligence evolves, it will magnify the ability to use personal information in ways that can intrude on privacy interests by raising analysis of personal information to new levels of power and speed.

Being in an industry that relies on personal information to provide relevant tailored content to its users, it is increasingly evident that there is a strong need to protect individuals against adverse effects of AI, without unduly restricting AI development or ensnaring privacy regulations in complex geopolitical crosshairs. 

While we are at a stage today, that most of our curated content is indisputably being generated by AI/ML systems, we are still a long way from addressing the risk of privacy intrusion and algorithmic discrimination in an accountable fashion. The path forward involves building tech that allows for Transparency, Explainability, and Auditing.

Are you inspired by the rise of Indian-origin CEOs in business, particularly in the United States such as Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Parag Agarwal and Leena Nair? What gives desi techies an edge over others, according to you?

It is inspiring to see so many leaders of Indian origin playing a significant role in the tech business and in society. The heritage, social norms, ethical values, and belief systems are all a common starting point between them and thousands of first-generation immigrants fuelling the industry. It definitely provides a great relatability factor, allows us to dream big, and aspire to be leaders in an industry that was burgeoning only a few decades ago. But it’s what we do with the opportunities presented to us that makes the difference.  

There can be a couple of reasons why we see Indian techies rising to the top. 

Resilience:  In a country of over a billion people, most of whom are hampered by rampant corruption, poor infrastructure, and limited opportunities, it takes a lot to simply survive. Now if you somehow make it across the world and into the employment of a top tech company, you’ve almost certainly already developed extreme resilience and entrepreneurialism, both qualities that will set you up to rise in the company.  

Humility:  Any immigrant (including myself) will tell you that moving to a new country is humbling. Zero knowledge of local customs and how to get things done leads to constant confrontations of your limitations. On top of that, you no longer can use the identity markers you used as shortcuts to present yourself at home. All you have are your actions and trustworthiness to define yourself. Overcoming all these obstacles, leave you a little more open minded, and a little less snobbish. Great qualities for a future CEO.

Now of course, India isn’t the only country that produces citizens rich in these qualities. But combine that with the number of people coming out of a country of some 1.4 billion people, and it suddenly seems less surprising. It’s a pure numbers game.  

What are your memories of the time you spent at Apeejay School, Pitampura? Any faculty members that you remember in particular?

 I do carry a lot of pleasant memories back from my days at Apeejay. It’s almost difficult to imagine where I am right now, without the right building blocks provided by this school. The collective exposure provided by inter-school debates and programming competitions seems to be all piecing together to put me exactly right where I am – the juncture of software development and championing the customer voice to build the right products. 

The early nudge to get interested in computers definitely came from Mrs. Shama Mahajan during primary school. If there was any class I looked forward to all week, it was hers. 

The passion for computer science was later re-instilled by Mr. Pankaj Ahuja through his C++ programming lectures.   

My two biggest champions throughout the school life, were Mrs. Renu Nagpal and Mrs. Savita Panhotra. While Renu Ma’am provided an early foundation to get comfortable with public speaking and honing my stage presence, Savita Ma’am vouched for me throughout and provided ample opportunities to help me grow. I found two very strong mentors in them, and still cherish the time I got to spend in their presence. 

Did you pick up any life lessons that helped you in your career? 

Very early in my career, I learned that too much structure and rigidity, doesn’t leave room for serendipity. Often, we are marred by calendarising our lives to an extent that there is not enough space for boredom or self-reflection – and boredom is very critical to innovation. 

 Personally, it has always helped me to step back from time to time and allow myself to recalibrate, and in the process be better able to produce results. 

Please share your future career plans?

 Although I have found my niche in building privacy-aware data and ML products within big tech, it’s too hard to say where I plan to head next. I have always wanted to venture out in the start-up world and build something from the ground up. There is also an underlying aspiration that this could be in the health care tech space, which allows me to map to a bigger mission that creates tangible social impact.

 However, this requires a great amount of risk tolerance. We’ll have to wait and see how things shape up from here

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected] He tweets @Aasheesh74

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