Wisdom From The Women Leading The AI Industry, with Varija Sriram Of Selector AI

An Interview With David Leichner

David Leichner, CMO at Cybellum
Published in Authority Magazine and shared by Medium

Don’t shy away from taking risks and making career pivots if it means pursuing your interest in AI. It might be a leap into the unknown, but it’s one worth taking.

As part of our series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Varija Sriram.

Varija Sriram has over a decade of experience as an engineer, engineering leader and is now the Head of Customer Solutions Engineering at Selector AI. Varija helped design and develop Selector’s patented natural language solution to facilitate the overall usability of the Selector platform. Varija holds a patent for Query Chains — A declarative approach for on-demand dashboarding.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with us the “backstory” of how you decided to pursue a career path in AI?

The decision to pursue a career in AI was sparked by my experiences as a network engineer at Juniper. I was astounded by the far-reaching impact of our work on the industry — our code powered massive data centers and facilitated global communication. However, I noticed a gap in the monitoring and visibility of these vast data centers. The complexity of their networks made them challenging to oversee effectively, presenting a perfect use case for AI.

When I learned about Selector and their vision, it seemed like the ideal opportunity for me. The position would allow me to leverage my networking expertise while exploring my interest in AI. I saw it as the perfect chance to contribute to solving networking challenges using AI.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

The importance of cultivating strong interpersonal relationships and connections throughout your career. It’s crucial to both seek guidance and reciprocate by mentoring others. I’ve been fortunate to form wonderful connections during my time at previous companies and with my current colleagues.

Don’t be intimidated by buzzwords like AI and ML. These technologies aim to solve problems that are quite relatable, regardless of your field of work. AI is the future — it’s rapidly permeating all aspects of our lives, from our mobiles and TVs to laptops. Embrace this exciting wave of technological advancement.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

At Selector, I’m proud of the advances my team continues to make in leveraging data science technologies such as NLP, machine learning, and AI to enhance network monitoring and observability.

We’ve been able to personify data centers, enabling them to participate in chat platforms like Slack or Teams. This concept is revolutionary. Much like how a human interacts in a Slack, Teams, or even WhatsApp chat, we’ve managed to give data centers and networking infrastructure a similar presence. We can now ask a data center about its current status or health or if it’s encountering any issues. This is a significant milestone.

Beyond integrating natural language parsing and chat functionality into our product, we’ve also made strides in pattern recognition, anomaly detection, and correlating different infrastructural issues to predict outages.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you get to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been fortunate with mentors, teachers, and professors who’ve significantly influenced my journey. Uma Chandrashekhar, the first mentor I had when I began my career as an intern, has been instrumental in my growth. Kannan Kothandaraman, the current CEO of Selector, provided me with the opportunity to lead teams within the company.

Nitin Kumar, our current CTO at Selector, offered me the technical freedom to explore, innovate, and build significant parts of our technology stack. Lastly, Surya Nimmagadda, Selector’s chief data scientist, has been a long-standing mentor whose guidance I greatly value.

On a personal level, I’m incredibly grateful for the unwavering support and encouragement from my family. My husband and children are my pillars of strength, providing the support I need to pursue my professional aspirations.

What are the 3 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?

The AI industry has gained significant momentum over the years, largely propelled by the rise of revolutionary technologies like ChatGPT. This impressive AI model from OpenAI has captured the world’s attention, marking a turning point in the field. Its ability to generate human-like text has not only demonstrated the immense potential of AI but also sparked widespread interest and excitement. The remarkable growth of ChatGPT, reaching 100 million monthly active users in just two months, underscores the transformative impact AI can have on various aspects of our lives. This ascent, coupled with the continuous innovation and problem-solving capabilities of AI, make this industry incredibly dynamic and exciting. Moreover, the ongoing discussions around ethical and responsible AI use add another layer of interest, further fueling my enthusiasm for this field.

What are 3 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

One challenge is dispelling the misconceptions surrounding AI — misconceptions largely fueled by Hollywood’s portrayal of AI. It’s crucial to present a more realistic picture of what AI can and cannot do, which is often quite different from what we see in movies.

Another concern is the potential regulatory actions on AI. While these are necessary to ensure ethical and responsible use, there’s a risk that they could stifle innovation. If we become overly reliant on AI to provide readily available solutions, it might curb our innate curiosity and impede creative problem-solving.

The impact of AI on education is another significant issue. It’s essential to incorporate AI education in schools and colleges to equip the younger generation with the skills needed for the future. However, it’s equally important to ensure that this doesn’t lead to an overdependence on AI, potentially undermining foundational learning. Striking the right balance will be critical as we navigate the growing influence of AI in our daily lives.

As you know, there’s an ongoing debate between two prominent scientists. Personified is a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position on this?

There’s a growing concern that students, especially those in college, are becoming overly reliant on AI and tools like ChatGPT for their assignments. This dependence may hinder their ability to think independently and grasp fundamental concepts, which are critical for intellectual growth and innovation.

If not regulated properly, such overdependence on AI could pose a significant risk. We need to educate the younger generation about the appropriate use of AI, ensuring they understand that it’s a tool to aid learning, not replace it. Striking the right balance between leveraging AI’s benefits and preserving human intellect and creativity is essential to prevent any problems.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there’s nothing to be concerned about?

There may be a need for regulatory measures to control the accessibility of AI tools like Alexa, ChatGPT, or Google Home. Perhaps creating profiles with limited access for children, similar to ‘kid profiles’, could be a viable solution. This would prevent children from being overly reliant on these tools and ensure they continue to learn fundamentals and foster their innovative thinking. The ease of getting answers from AI should not undermine the importance of independent thought and problem-solving.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

I’m actively involved in promoting women’s participation in technology. I’ve served as a mentor for Tech Women, an organization where I’ve had the privilege of guiding numerous young women from Middle Eastern countries who are interested in technology and related projects.

Moreover, I’ve dedicated time and energy to inspire young girls towards STEM fields. This has involved leading Code.org projects for Girl Scout activities and acting as a judge for various hackathons. It’s been rewarding to utilize my professional success as a platform to give back to the community and help pave the way for the next generation of women in tech.

As you know, there are not many women in your industry. Can you share 5 things that you would advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

First is continuous learning. This applies to everyone, regardless of their experience level. AI and ML are relatively new fields, and the unfamiliarity may deter some women from exploring these areas. But it’s crucial to embrace learning as a lifelong journey.

Second, don’t shy away from taking risks and making career pivots if it means pursuing your interest in AI. It might be a leap into the unknown, but it’s one worth taking.

Contributing to open-source projects can also be immensely beneficial; it provides a platform to apply your skills, learn from others, and make meaningful contributions.

Fourth, I highly recommend learning Python. Python is incredibly versatile and widely used in AI/ML, making it a valuable skill to acquire.

Finally, attend technical conferences for AI/ML, which will help to meet and network with others with similar interest in learning AI/ML.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women in the AI industry?

I suggest following women leaders in the AI industry on platforms like LinkedIn. Many of these women regularly share inspiring and informative posts and articles that can serve as a great source of motivation and knowledge.

Podcasts are another excellent resource. They provide an accessible way to familiarize yourself with AI and can help dispel any apprehensions about venturing into a new field.

Joining or even starting Lean In groups dedicated to AI could be another beneficial step. While I haven’t seen many of these yet, I believe they could play a key role in encouraging more women to explore the AI field.

Lastly, attending conferences like Grace Hopper can be incredibly helpful. I’ve found their sessions on new technologies, including AI, to be highly valuable. These conferences provide opportunities to hear leaders discuss various aspects of work, offering insights and motivation to propel your professional journey.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote,” and can you share a story of how that had relevance in your own life?

My parents instilled in me a valuable lesson, encapsulated in a Sanskrit saying that translates to “there is no substitute for hard work.” However, the key is to work hard without the sole intention of reaping benefits or monetary gains. If you put in the effort and passion, the results and rewards will naturally follow.

A personal example of this life lesson was my decision to leave Juniper, where I had spent a significant part of my career, to join Selector, an early-stage startup. It was a risk, but my focus wasn’t on the potential rewards. This principle has helped me stay grounded, concentrate on the task at hand, and remain undeterred by the prospect of good or bad outcomes.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would it be?

Mental health is important, and I believe it’s an often-overlooked issue for women in tech. These women face unique challenges as they strive to keep pace with ever-evolving technology, advance professionally, and manage their personal lives — homes, children, and physical fitness.

We need to reassure women that it’s okay to not have everything under control at all times and that they’re not alone in this journey. I believe a dedicated Lean In support group for tech moms would be a valuable resource and is something I feel strongly about creating.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.

About The Interviewer: David Leichner is a veteran of the Israeli high-tech industry with significant experience in the areas of cyber and security, enterprise software and communications. At Cybellum, a leading provider of Product Security Lifecycle Management, David is responsible for creating and executing the marketing strategy and managing the global marketing team that forms the foundation for Cybellum’s product and market penetration. Prior to Cybellum, David was CMO at SQream and VP Sales and Marketing at endpoint protection vendor, Cynet. David is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Jerusalem Technology College. He holds a BA in Information Systems Management and an MBA in International Business from the City University of New York.

Explore the Selector platform