[Techie Tuesday] From dropping out of IIT Bombay to building human-centric thinking in AI, the story of Augnito’s CPO
American psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” For healthtech company Augnito’s Chief Product Officer, Spriha Biswas, it was the former that dictated every step of her career as a techie.
Two generations of Spriha’s family had worked at Tata Steel. Born and brought up in Tatanagar (Jamshedpur), Spriha had never had a dull moment in her school years, as she constantly strived to keep learning.
Sample this - at 13, she got a chance to meet Ratan Tata for winning an international essay competition. At 15, she began to code, and built a Minesweeper version in Java. And all along, Spriha made sure to hone her creative side as well, as she trained in Fine Arts, won over 150 competitions in painting, debates and essays, and was invited to the Rashtrapati Bhawan to meet the Vice President of India.
Spriha Biswas with Ratan Tata for winning JRD QV Award for children
In 2015, when she got into IIT Bombay to pursue Metallurgical Engineering & Material Sciences, little did she know that the college would go on to impact her in other ways.
Ever the consummate learner, at IIT, she taught herself how to code in multiple languages, and went about building all sorts of applications.
In two years, she went on to code for about ~ 20 different applications for startups including a fitness app to track body movements using Kinect, and an app for India’s first digital microscope, Cilika. She also built and sold a feedback app to a club in the city.
Spriha Biswas with ex-Vice President of India, Mr. Hamid Ansari
But then, in 2017, just before she was to begin her third year at the prestigious institute, Spriha dropped out of IIT.
“Dropping out is common in the west, but in India, degrees are still important as they provide you with a safety net. But at some point, I was able to convince my parents that it's not a rash but a rational decision,” Spriha tells YourStory.
From then to now, with Spriha leading the product portfolio at Augnito as Chief Product Officer, has been a journey wrought with happy coincidences and simply following one’s passion.
Augnito is an AI-based speech to text tool to help doctors maintain accurate medical records in a much faster way. Her area of expertise is Human Factors in AI or Human Centric thinking in AI. She believes that AI is a medium, and one needs to be able to find real problems to solve with this powerful technology while analysing where Voice AI can create the maximum impact across the continuum of care.
“My approach to building Voice AI for healthcare is to always have the clinician and the context in which they are going to use the product at the core of all the decision making. And it’s not a one size fits all solution,” she adds.
The age of 15 was significant in more ways than one for Spriha. She had got a computer for the first time ever, and soon after, began to learn gaming and coding.
“Coding for me is pure joy. I enjoy successfully debugging those nasty RunTime errors after multiple attempts, solving complex algorithmic problems or even making a button click for the first time,” shared Spriha in one of her LinkedIn posts.
Also, during a small internship at the time, she came across the story of J.N. Tata and all the leaders who built Tata over the years, and this inspired her immensely.
“Having grown in Tatanagar listening to all the inspirational stories, somewhere I had a profound impression, so I wanted to build something on my own,” shares Spriha.
Leadership challenge 2011
The decision to drop out
Spriha further shares that within a few months of starting college, she was certain that she did not want to pursue metallurgy. However, being part of an ecosystem that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation at IIT Bombay, helped her to begin working on her coding skills.
She started her venture in the first year itself - an Android app development company to enable rapid prototyping and early release of apps for startups, which she called, Skill Booting .
“In just two years, I was financially independent, was building products and getting unconventional opportunities to experience things, which would not have been possible to carry through if I was continuing at college. So I dropped out!” she exclaims.
After dropping out, Spriha started working full time as a design researcher with BRND Studio. Here, she got first-hand exposure to design thinking. “Human-centred design thinking revolves around how you really build products because at the end of the day, technology is only a medium. What we need to build is a smooth experience for the end users, who are unaware how many tech jargons and codes are deployed behind the application they are using,” she explains.
During her three years at BRND Studio, Spriha got a very solid foundation using behavioural and usability studies to understand deeper human computer interactions, working with technology in the remotest areas, and building applications for someone who is using a smartphone for the first time in their life, among other interesting projects.
Building India’s first AI speech to text tool for doctors
While working at BRND Studio, Spriha connected with the team of Augnito, a company that was leading product development for India’s first voice AI for doctors. Althought she initially worked as a partner from BRND Studio, the Augnito founders soon realised that she could play a better role coming on to the board full time.
“That seemed like a perfect opportunity to take my learnings around a human centric approach and bring it to the heart of AI,” she says.
At Augnito, the aim was to develop a very accurate clinical speech recognition solution, which could understand medical jargons, and do transcripts for doctors, helping them save time during consultations.
“I regularly work with doctors, engineers, and designers, to make sure we are building the right experience at the end. It's not the same as building a voice AI like Alexa, because in the healthcare space, you have a lot of responsibility and there is no room for error,” she adds.
She further shares that a popular perception is that technology means engineering.
“I mostly see that design, behaviour and psychology aren't necessarily associated with technology, but these are actually triggering technology when we work in the field. Human factors are what leads to the next set of development. It's not the other way around because at the end of the day, you are trying to call and you've been to solve for that. So design thinking and human-computer interaction, voice AI, these are some very nuanced concepts,”she adds.
Spriha Biswas with Augnito team in Mathura
Advice to techies
For Spriha, the word techie personifies someone who is filling any gap or solving any problem with the use of technology. She feels this need not mandate an educational degree, but a techie should have gained experience and learnt to build a better solution for an existing problem.
“As a techie, one must spend time with people who they are solving problems for. It really ends up giving a lot of insight that one would otherwise not get,” she adds.
As a woman techie, she also believes that the journey of women is different from men in any profession. Not because there is any direct discrimination, but because, over the years, the system has been built in a way that women tend to get left out.
As an example, she shares how she finds it difficult to voice her opinion in front of leaders who have been in the industry for many more years than her. According to Spriha, the ecosystem should be built such that leaders are aware, and give these micro-opportunities to women to help them voice their opinions in a male-dominated setting.
“Although there is a gradual change in the environment, what people can do in the meantime is to be more sensitive. Accept the fact that there is a difference, and the problem needs to be addressed. In the long run, things will become better only if we have equal representation on the board table with high representation of women leaders to look up to,” she concludes.
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