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[Women in Tech] At Microsoft, Prerana Nayak works on technologies that touch millions of lives

Rekha Balakrishnan
posted on 11th June 2018
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As Principal Program Manager in Artificial Intelligence, Prerana works on Bing making shopping experiences more successful.

Is India a great place for women in tech? A recent research by the Open University places India above the UK when it comes to the number of women in specialist IT roles. The study, in partnership with Nasscom, of IT professionals and middle management from companies in the UK and India, found 35 percent of people with specialist technology roles in India are women, compared to the 17 percent in the UK.

In an interview with YourStory, Monica Aggarwal, Vice President, IBM Systems, said that India is a great place for a woman in technology. “The social fabric of the country is changing and hence focusing on education, financial inclusion and legal frameworks will go a long way in closing the gender gap and increasing the GDP. Today, parents encourage their daughters to take up science and math, whether it is in rural or urban India.”

Among this growing number is Prerana Nayak, Principal Program Manager in Artificial Intelligence at Microsoft. She works on Bing making shopping experiences more successful.

Previously, Prerana has been responsible for the Health and Fitness channel on MSN. She was also the driver for the video player all across MSN, including third-party partnerships to enable content, across several geographies.

In an interview with YourStory, Prerana talks about her role in Microsoft, challenges faced by women in tech, and how AI is changing lives.

YourStory: Can you tell us about your journey in Microsoft so far? How have you made an impact?

Prerana Nayak: In Microsoft, I have been part of various consumer products like MSN and now Bing. I am the Product Lead for Shopping as a segment on Bing. We drive delightful user experiences in this segment that chase impressive targets on market reach as well as revenue. Last year, we shipped a Shopping vertical in the US which brings products from all shopping websites under one roof – convenience to the end user with an experience that is immersive yet search-oriented. This was very well received by our users and advertisers alike, thereby creating substantial business impact. Before joining Bing I was part of MSN where I worked on the Health and Fitness vertical, video players, and the Microsoft band too.

You seldom get a chance to work on technologies that touch millions of people and make a difference in their lives. Microsoft provides that opportunity and I value that a lot.

YS: Do you think women in technology in India are a rare breed?

PN: Yes and no. The landscape is changing but we have a lot more to do. Personally, I believe mindset is the biggest challenge. Several stereotypical mindset issues affect women and their families alike.

If you observe, a lot of this can be self-inflicted. But it actually has a lot to do with the conditioning from societal norms. When societal pressure is high, what’s needed is a little nudge saying, “You can do it – and do it on your own terms without compromising on family responsibilities.” Mentors and role models play a huge role in providing this little nudge of converting pessimism to optimism, fear to confidence. I have benefitted from this nudge on several occasions of highs and lows in my life.

YS: What more can be done to attract women to careers in technology?

PN: Aspiring women should look for a company that cares about making a difference in society. At Microsoft, we have several such initiatives. One of them that contributes towards the growth of professional women in the technology industry is the Women Think Next programme. This programme brings together professional women from advertising and marketing, sales, finance, technology and research, services, and more. With a focus of bringing people together, it helps build connections, giving professionals the opportunity to learn from one another while ultimately supporting members to further achieve their professional goals.

YS: With the help of technology, how can women better their lives?

PN: Technology can better lives of not just women but all humanity at large. Having spent my entire career in the technology space, I think I take technology for granted; it’s an essential part of life. For example, it does not occur to me how I would collaborate with people across continents and time zones or how I would manage if I had a personal commitment at the same time as an important engagement in office. Technology makes it possible to have life without lines.

YS: How important is mentorship and training for women in tech?

PN: Mentorship for women in tech is one of the strongest drivers on the journey to increasing the number of women in tech. I have benefitted a lot from mentors at various points in life, and not just in my career. At Microsoft, we run the WISE mentoring programme for third-year engineering girls. I am a founding mentor in this programme. It’s a 10-month programme with a set curriculum that is structured to condition their mindset while adding tangible bullets to their resumes. In the process, we prepare them to take charge of their careers and lives. We have had great success year on year with this programme. We are now running a mentor-of-mentors programme that actually encourages mentors to run their offline mentoring rings with our curriculum thereby growing the ripple effect.

YS: Have you faced the glass ceiling?

PN: I think as you grow in your careers, there are things you need to unlearn, and then learn new things. This is not women-specific though. Unlearning is not easy too. In my experience, on most occasions, when I questioned why things were not working like they did before, I realised I had reached an inflection point where I had to change the way I did it. This meant conscious unlearning and learning.

YS: What are the challenges women face in technology and how can they overcome them?

PN: One of the bigger challenges I see is not in women joining a technology workforce, but continuing to stay in it, i.e., longevity of their careers. Women don’t need to do anything special for domain expertise – the route is exactly the same for men and women. The only difference I have seen in women is that they always keep the option to quit their careers in their minds.

For women who have the aptitude for technology, reach out, find your mentors, find your role models to give you a nudge when you need it most, rule out the option of quitting careers, aspire for growth, and you’ll make your own little contribution to equalise gender diversity. If more and more women were to think like this, we would accelerate as a society.

YS: How is Artificial Intelligence changing life, as we know today?

PN: AI will uplift several aspects of our lives and it will be so seamless, we will take it for granted. Often, we don’t even bother to figure if we are using AI.

For example, school students are asking digital assistants to help with school projects – had we imagined that 5-10 years ago? We always assume that when we are looking up something on the web, the website will perfectly understand what’s on our mind.

Understanding what’s on your mind is intelligence and it’s here already; we don’t realise it when we use it. But as people in technology, we know what it takes to build that. We are headed towards an ecosystem where reality is getting augmented, programmes are talking our language, and even having a personality. I often ask college students how they feel about building software that has a personality and that they, as software engineers, can program or code into it. I love the expression on their faces when I ask that question. If you can imagine that expression – that really tells you how AI is changing lives.

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