How Uncertainty Can Push You Forward

Anuradha Gali : Business Intelligence Engineering Leader at Uber

Sponsored by Serendipity & Square circle

Photography : @maria_boguslav

Photography : @maria_boguslav

I lead the Business Insights team at Uber. We build predictive analytics to forecast supply and demand and drive key insights into short term and long term strategies that are critical to the success of the company. I strongly believe that periods of uncertainty, doubt and the need to make decisions when you don’t have enough information provide the greatest opportunity to learn, to step out of your comfort zone and grow to the next level in your career trajectory. As I look back at my journey, I could identify a few junctures that provided me such opportunities and helped shape my career.

The first was at school, in trying to figure out what my future career would be. The options seemed daunting: Engineering, Medicine, Law, Accounting etc and there was no dearth of advisers. While I was always interested in sciences, those were also the hardest subjects to master. Instead of taking up one of the easier alternates, I decided to double down and understand the difficult concepts in math, physics, and chemistry before deciding the path forward. My hard work paid off. I was able to understand the problems we were working on well enough to tutor my peers after school. Not only was I happy to help those who needed it, teaching others also increased my mastery of the material and made me more confident. This fueled my passion for the maths and sciences, and I then went on to do my bachelor’s in India in Electronics and Communications Engineering. As one of the few women in my class, it was difficult to be vocal, to raise my hand to ask or answer questions. Because of my earlier success through hard work, I applied myself to learning the material and pushed myself to speak up. In time, my classmates came to respect me a great deal for my pluckiness.

After my bachelor’s, I moved to Chicago to complete a master’s degree at the University of Illinois. I started off grad school in Electrical Engineering as a natural follow-up to my undergrad degree. It was here that I was exposed to Computer Science courses and I came to see software as having far more power to change the world. I faced the question: should I follow my current, less risky path or switch my major to C.S. and face the hard work of retooling myself? I decided to invest more of time into C.S. courses, learn more, talk to alumni and professors to understand the pros and cons. Ultimately, this option excited me the most and I decided to switch my major to Computer Science though it took me more time and effort to graduate.

The next transition was taking my current job at Uber. I deeply enjoyed building customer-facing products through my stints at companies like Shutterfly and Groupon.  I had settled into this role and the career growth seemed predictable. It was at this time machine learning was being discussed in publications and starting to get deployed for selected use cases. Is it real, and if so, what are the implications for software? I decided to find out for myself by reading widely and discussing with my contacts. Based on my research, I was convinced that this is a transformative phase and the value indeed was shifting to machine learning and the insights it can provide for long term success. I decided once more to step into this uncharted territory and accepted the position at Uber working on business insights though it looked like a step back at that time. As we now see the broad applicability of machine learning, I am glad I made the right call.

What does the future hold for me? How can I contribute back to the community? These are some of the questions I am currently grappling with. I have worked with Girls Who Code, Technovation Challenge, TheClubSV(Women’s Leadership Incubator) and lead ERGs(Employee Resource Group) at the companies I work to help young girls learn more about STEM and women who are already in Tech to grow in their career. I am passionate about helping girls around the world receive better access to education because I feel like a quality education is an answer to many problems underprivileged communities face. Though it’s early to pick a specific avenue, I know I want to work in the nonprofit sector addressing some of these issues. I want to be able to look back at my life and know I’ve made a difference.

I sincerely hope that my journey and the learnings help others who are daunted by the uncertainty and doubts facing them. I would say, “Take this as an opportunity, explore the options, learn and step out of your comfort zone and see where it takes you”. Good Luck in your journey!