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Sowmya Sharath, Senior Architect, Digital Innovation team, IBS Software, Cochin, India

Sowmya Sharath, Senior Architect, Digital Innovation team, IBS Software, Cochin, India

Hello Sowmya, tell us about your role

I'm a Senior Architect, part of the Digital Innovation team in the Consulting and Digital Transformation business. We look at how we can utilise upcoming digital technologies to create solutions for the travel industry.

I'm particularly focused on Natural Language Processing (NLP); it's a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) that enables computers to understand human language, in text or voice form. It's found in applications such as Google Assistant, Alexa and chatbots.

What do you enjoy about your work? 

Learning about new technologies and understanding how humans think are two things that create a buzz for me. Humans are complicated on so many different levels, so finding the intersection with technology is fascinating. It's something I will keep learning all my life! 😊

Tell us about your career 

I started as a software intern and I've had roles in established companies as well as startups, the common thread being a focus on innovation. Through my work in tech, I've had a unique perspective on changing consumer habits such as the shift from DVD rental to online streaming and the rise of the mobile era. When I was a software engineer at Blockbuster, it was so exciting to integrate the first live stream player on our website.

What are your observations about innovation over this time?

It comes down to the pace of change and a wider acceptance of innovation. Today's consumers are very pro-innovation and are looking for changes, which forces us to innovate more often. We also have advanced technologies like cloud, which help us to take ideas to market much faster.

What appealed about a role at IBS Software? 

I joined IBS Software in 2017 after my maternity break; what appealed was that I could combine my passions for learning new tech, programming, and innovation. Right now, the tech industry is undergoing a paradigm shift with AI and I'm glad that I can be a part of this change. We are building teams around technologies that are rapidly evolving; I'm enjoying every bit!

What did you study? 

I did my undergrad at BITS Pilani. During my first year, my Dad unexpectedly passed away and at the same time, I was diagnosed with diabetes. My life changed completely; it was a stressful time for my family. I found great comfort in the magical world of Harry Potter and discovering object-oriented programming. At the time, I didn't have a personal computer, so I used the college lab; it became my second home at Pilani.

College throwback: Sowmya’s computer lab

How did you get into computer science? 

Even though my college degree was non-STEM, I took computer science courses as electives and earned a CS specialisation, which helped me get placed in the software industry. Years later, I did a Master's in Software Systems.

What was your childhood ambition?

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher! I had a little foldable blackboard at home with a pointer and I pretended to teach my imaginary students. I still love teaching. But now the class is not imaginary, my six-year-old son Nandan has many questions, and he reminds me how little I know about this world 😊

What was your first experience with STEM?

It was at school; I grew up in a small town near Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, in the southernmost tip of India. I had a wonderful set of teachers who were passionate about teaching and instilled in me a love for STEM, in particular my computer science teacher Ms Merlin. We only had five or so computers for a class of 70 students. So, to decide who would work on the computer, she would set us a problem and we had to write the algorithm of the program on paper. We were only allowed to use the computer if we got it right!

Ms Merlin taught me the art of writing efficient, smart programs and to this day, I often write on paper before typing in the computer.

Sowmya with her schoolteachers…they were all women :-)

Who are the people who have shaped your career?

My parents have had the biggest influence on me. We were two girls and my father always insisted that we needed to learn, work and be independent. Even though he's not with me today, I keep a huge stack of letters that he wrote to me during my college days; he still shapes my career through these letters.

Are there any females in tech that you admire? 

Digital technology and especially AI, has grown at an unprecedented rate and there are many women who are at the centre of this digital revolution. I'm a big fan of Ines Montani, a developer, and co-founder of Explosion.ai – a software company specialising in tools and libraries for NLP. While you will find many women as business leaders, the developer community is predominantly made up of men. I love the way she combines her passion for programming, linguistics, and blogging.

How do you encourage other women in your field and beyond? 

Through IBS Software, I'm mentoring women from an engineering college in Kerala which offers a Master's degree in Computational Linguistics, a specialisation of NLP. We've provided internships to these students, many of whom are young mothers looking for the right opening to get back to work.

I'm also involved with Tinkerhub Foundation which mentors engineering students in upcoming technologies. We held a hackathon and the shortlisted students were offered internships at IBS Software.

What are some of the career challenges you've experienced as a woman?

The work-life balance, especially as a mother. But I am very grateful to have a very strong support system in my husband and my in-laws, they are there to take care of our family.

Another challenge was getting back to work after a couple of career breaks for maternity and health reasons. I'm glad to see that today, we have support for women trying to resume their careers like IBS Software's 'Back from Break' program. I think these initiatives really go a long way.

What career advice would you give to the next generation?

The next few decades are going to be ground-breaking for digital technologies; we need to constantly learn, unlearn, and adapt as technology evolves. It might seem difficult at times, but I believe in the end it is all about grit and resilience. So, find a way to love what you do and never give up, Whatever It Takes.

My dream destination is… 

Svalbard, Norway, close to the North Pole. It has a population of about 3,000 people and it's a place where humans and nature co-exist. I'm not sure when I'll get to visit, but ever since I read about this place, I've wanted to go.

I'm currently reading …

Trying not to try: Ancient China, Modern Science and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland. I first listened to a Google Talk by him and wanted to explore a bit more. The book is really well written; he discusses four major schools of Chinese philosophy and I found similarities between Indian (Hindu) and Chinese thinking. I can see a lot of parallels between our countries, it's helped me to gain a deeper appreciation of Asian philosophy.

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