[Techie Tuesday] From a reluctant engineer to building a next-generation contact centre platform at Intuit India: Hima Kurian’s journey
In this week’s Techie Tuesday, we feature Hima Kurian, Staff Software Engineer at Intuit, who is using new-age technologies to transform Intuit’s journey of connecting people to experts.
Journalism, medical sciences, and an MBA — these were just some of the career options that Hima Kurian had her eyes on but never ended up taking. For a girl who would end up being an integral part of the technical team of a global company like Intuit, Hima was least interested in pursuing engineering.
In fact, she took up the course only because she was quite sure of ending up with a decent job given how well the Indian IT sector was performing back in the early 2000s.
“The other reason was that it gave me an opportunity to escape to Bengaluru and live the quintessential college experience,” laughs Hima.
A native of Kerala, Hima’s father was in the armed forces, so her family was always shuttling between cities. After completing her schooling, she joined an engineering course at BMS Institute of Technology and Management in 2005.
Looking back, Hima says that her initial lack of interest in computers and programming was largely because the curriculum taught in most schools was still very rudimentary.
Even when it came to choosing a stream, Hima went with software engineering because she felt that “fields like electronics or mechanical engineering weren’t exactly her cup of tea”. However, once she started pursuing the course, she was determined to give it her best, ultimately, graduating with top scores and landing a job with Cognizant in 2009.
Discovering new passions
“I was still very confused and even considered exploring opportunities in journalism or doing an MBA. I was doing well, or at least my manager felt so. He selected me from a large team to do a very sought-after course in Malaysia. It was a product-specific training on interactive intelligence,” recounts Hima.
The two-week training turned out to be very exhaustive as it tested the candidates' mettle.
"I never thought I could grasp so much and finish my certification as it was very tough, but it helped me build my confidence and polished my profile," she says. Hima returned to India more confident and determined to prove herself in her field.
Her efforts reaped rich rewards as they landed her good projects and pointed her in the right direction. "I even got an opportunity to work with Cognizant’s US team for a year, where I worked directly with customers. I felt I was finally doing justice to my job and the experience was very enriching," she says.
Ask her what she likes most about coding, she says it’s the ability to solve the same problem in a million ways. “For example, you can solve a problem by writing 10 lines of code today, tomorrow you realise that it can be done in just five lines and then three. The more you learn, the more optimised codes you write,” she adds.
Armed with determination and confidence
After enjoying the grind for five years at Cognizant, Hima joined Intuit India as a senior software engineer to explore new opportunities. She started working with Intuit’s contact centre domain that builds omnichannel experiences for the company’s customers.
"Anybody who purchases QuickBooks or Turbotax would need support. So, when you want to file your taxes and need help, you could either search for the information online, or connect with experts to get the information. I was creating collaboration tools that helped our customers connect with experts like chartered accountants (or CPAs) and agents," Hima explains.
Describing her journey at Intuit, Hima says that back then, the company was still using a legacy system and she was a part of a team of just three people.
"Over the next two years, we shifted from the legacy-based system and built a next-generation contact centre at Intuit. It was a great learning experience and I was working on a plan to understand our target system and the way forward," she says.
The task mandated that Hima collaborate with product managers from across the globe which brought along a lot of exposure.
"At the end of my second year, we had started with a massive migration to a next-generation contact centre powered by Amazon Connect. It was rewarding to know that I was a part of the team that had built such a massive system from scratch," says a beaming Hima.
Secret behind her success
Talking about the reasons behind the successful migration, Hima says her team doubled down to find out what their legacy systems lacked. The team reached out to multiple stakeholders to understand their pain points and tried to solve them with solutions that leveraged the latest tools and technologies.
"For instance, earlier we would provide a primitive voice experience where the caller is asked to press a few buttons for tasks like choosing a language or going to the menu. We moved from that to an artificial intelligence-based smart recognition engine. We offered a conversational experience where the system is able to gauge the caller's tone, intent and the reason why they might be calling. I am proud of being a part of a team that built this voice bot experience," Hima explains.
The move also helped the company cut down costs as it limited the need for agent intervention and improved response time for queries.
Making smarter decisions with artificial intelligence
Hima’s work involves working on automatic speech recognition (ASR) and natural language understanding (NLU) for speech bots. She believes that the future belongs to AI/ML and it is impossible for businesses to ignore its potential. "My team and I work very closely with the data science team to build the right AI/ML models."
"In the industry I work in, you run the risk of frustrating the customer if you don't have the right answer or know the right questions to ask. A lot centres around knowing who your customer is, and I feel AI/ML has the potential to alleviate their problems."
Sharing more details, Hima explains for every customer call that comes in, her team tries understanding the customer pain point and intent.
“We collaborate with the data science team to identify the profile of the customer, so that we can resolve their queries faster, more efficiently and in real time,” she adds
These profiles include details like the products being used by them and their past grievances. These tasks are possible because of a system that is powered by an AI modelling tool and knows the intent behind the customer's call.
"Such information helps us ask the right questions while leveraging AI-driven tools. There are several new features that the technology is helping us with. For instance, if a customer encounters a problem while filing taxes and they reach out to us, we use predictive analysis to identify their grievance,” she says.
What aids her growth journey is a culture of continuous innovation and testing new ideas at Intuit. “As the company is very aggressive in exploring new technologies, you have to continuously upskill yourself.”
Building for the future
In her current role, Hima is involved in making informed decisions about design and architecture at scale. “It’s challenging as you have to guide a team, while constantly upskilling yourself and delivering the best to our customer,” she says. She is building a new team that is developing digital assistant bots which can help answer customer queries the right way.
Looking back at her journey, if she has one piece of advice for other techies, it is to find something that they love to solve with innovation. "Use your strength and technology to grab the biggest problem and go after it. You will love your journey!"
Hima is also a member of Intuit India's Tech Culture Community that aims to build the company as a tech brand internally and externally.
“While everyone knows that Intuit is a great place to work, not many people know the kind of tech brand we are. As part of these initiatives, we work on extensively promoting inner source and open source. We also launched several initiatives around other fields like patent awareness.”
Over the years, Hima's North Star metric has been “Your customer doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
“On a lighter note, the inner journalist in me still lives on. The only difference is that apart from just identifying and reporting the problem, I am solving it too by building delightful customer solutions powered by technology,” she quips.
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