After leaving AlixPartners in 2014, former consultant Audrey Leung transitioned into AI and UX research for companies including Google and Facebook. In this interview with Angela Zutavern, AlixPartners Managing Director and member of the Women’s Empowerment Matters (WE Matters) Tech group, Audrey discusses how she made the jump to the tech industry, the San Francisco startup scene, and the importance of increasing diversity in AI.
Angela: First of all, thank you so much for doing this. We love hearing about what our alumni have been up to. So, here’s my first question. You were a member of the Financial Advisory Services Practice at AlixPartners. How has that role in financial consulting helped you in your current work?
Audrey: In consulting and at AlixPartners, the work was about being flexible and adaptable, depending on client needs. It’s important to move quickly and adapt to new situations, since technology is constantly evolving.
At many of the companies I’ve worked for, I’d work across the company on different products simultaneously. It was similar to how I worked at AlixPartners, where I would need to learn about a new industry or product in a matter of weeks or even days. So that experience has really helped me when I’ve needed to ramp up on the different products or features I’d work on, from AI developer tools to social media newsfeeds to new product experiences.
Angela: Sounds like you’ve had a lot of cool jobs. Let’s talk about how you got there. You left AlixPartners in 2014 to study UX research and design at UC Berkeley. What was the catalyst for that career change?
Audrey: Living in San Francisco and being at the epicenter of technology innovation, I couldn't help but become curious about the startup scene. At that time, MOOCs, or massive online courses, were gaining traction, and I took a technology ventures class through Stanford. During this course, I teamed up with a few other people on a venture concept, and after the course, we decided to apply to a part-time startup accelerator called The Founder Institute.
As I worked on this side project, I realized the importance of user experience, which led me to take an online class on human-computer interaction. The course involved some aspects of psychology, which I double majored in as an undergrad. While exploring entrepreneurship, I realized that being a UX researcher or designer would also allow me to directly impact products, and I decided to get a more formalized education in the field by applying to various graduate programs.
Angela: It’s great how your role brings together different pieces of your background, but what were some of the challenges that you needed to overcome in changing fields?
Audrey: The biggest challenge was figuring out how to rebrand myself, and how to tell my story. In my program, there were a lot of other career changers, which helped to create a supportive and low-stakes environment to learn and grow. I mainly adopted the beginner’s mindset and soaked up all the knowledge I could.
Angela: I want to dig a little deeper into how you successfully changed your personal brand, because I think it’s something a lot of people struggle with. Is there anything that you found particularly helpful in changing how people saw you?
Audrey: A lot of companies are willing to give you a chance if you had a project or a portfolio, so for me, it was all about getting opportunities or experiences that gave me something to showcase whether that was a presentation or prototype. This also helped me explore my own interests.
Through those different projects, I was able to tell a story of what I was interested in and how that developed over time, which increased my credibility.
Angela: That’s great advice, particularly in the context of increasing diversity in the AI field. From your perspective, how should we think about increasing gender and racial diversity in the AI sector or tech generally?
Audrey: It’s really important in AI to have a breadth of representation and diversity to ensure that the model you’re working on isn’t skewed and is accurate and equitable for all different types of people.
Angela: Right, and then I also think about the project teams who are doing the work because we want diversity in the project teams to increase creativity and innovation. Have you found that to be the case as well?
Audrey: Definitely. I’ve worked on teams with people from all different backgrounds and cultures, which often leads to having different perspectives on how to improve the product we’re working on.
As a user researcher, we will often facilitate brainstorming workshops and having teammates that think divergently really helps to broaden the scope of ideas that we come up with.
Angela: So, we’ve talked about some of the many different applications of AI. It’s such a broad area, but what advice would you give to someone starting out in the field?
Audrey: First of all, it’s important to have an overall understanding of different applications, capabilities, and limitations around AI. You should also learn the basic vocabulary around the technology and the different tradeoffs that you have to consider when building a model. I would encourage people to experiment and build their own models using the different open source tools that are out there as well.
It’s a good idea to understand the strengths and skills that you already bring to the table and how you can translate your experience. I think a lot of people already have skills, whether it is in engineering, design, research, or business, that they can apply to the AI space.
Angela: That’s a great point, because I do think it can be an intimidating field for some people to enter, but once you’re in, there are so many different directions you can take.
Audrey: Yes, AI is also already being applied in a lot of different ways, so if you already have an expertise in a certain field, you could learn about how AI applies in that area.
Angela: It's so interesting that a lot of people don’t question the common use of AI in our personal lives, like recommendation engines or voice assistants, but when you start talking about AI in the business world, it’s just not quite there yet.
Audrey: Yeah, that is interesting, because there's a lot of potential for it to get more traction.
Angela: That’s a good transition to my last question. What gets you most excited about the future of our field?
Audrey: One area that I’m excited about is natural language processing, especially applied to voice assistants and content understanding. And I’m excited by how AI can bridge communication barriers and allow for more cross-cultural understanding.
The second use case is reducing human error and improving efficiency. I think there’s potential for machines to take on certain tedious or routine tasks that humans are prone to making mistakes in, which would then free up our minds for problems that require more judgment or critical thinking. I’m interested to see how this will all play out and what tasks can be delegated to AI versus what are better suited for humans.
Angela: And also how humans and AI can collaborate, right?
Audrey: Yes, definitely.
In recognition of Women’s History Month, AlixPartners is sharing stories of how the women of AlixPartners have championed their colleagues and challenged the status quo throughout their careers.
Click here for more information about our D&I initiatives, WE Matters, and our other ERGs.