Huayan Amy Wang is a world-class technologist and the co-founder and VP Systems at Cogniac, a provider of an enterprise-class software system for automating visual inspection tasks. Prior to Cogniac, Dr. Wang was the Wireless System Performance Lead at Ruckus Wireless, where she applied advanced machine learning algorithms such as reinforcement learning in wireless communications.
Dr. Wang also worked as VP of Technology for Mela Networks; a startup focused on wireless sensor technologies and researcher in Symbol Technologies’ R&D department. She received a B.E. degree from Tsinghua University, M.S., and a Ph.D. degree from Columbia University.
This self-described Tiger Mom (to everyone except her 7-year-old daughter, although she disagrees) is known for asking a lot of questions. Appropriately, her Chinese name is Wang Hua Yan – making her initials WHY. This was our opportunity to turn the tables on Amy in this interview and ask not only “why”, but what, how, and when.
What first drew you to engineering/electronics? When did you first know you wanted to be involved in engineering/electronics as a profession?
I have been asked this question a few times over my career, and it has always been quite hard to define a particular moment where it clicked. I had a pretty unremarkable childhood in many ways, but there were important moments that changed the course of my life. No one’s journey is a straight line (it would be boring if it were!), and I guess I’m a testament to that. When I was younger, I wanted to pursue math thanks to a brilliant teacher in high school, but I ended up accepting a place at the best engineering school in China for my undergraduate studies. In my eyes, I became an engineer because I wasn’t good enough at math… but I have become a technologist because I love realizing the potential of engineering, electronics, and math combined.
Were there any influential engineers (women or men) who helped shape your decision to get involved? If so, who and why?
Bill Kish, my co-founder at Cogniac, has been a very close friend and inspiration throughout the time we have known each other (first at Ruckus and now Cogniac), for close to two decades.
I have worked with many brilliant engineers and researchers throughout my life, but Bill is uniquely gifted with great intuitions for navigating complex real-world issues. It is interesting that when confronted with difficult questions that are new to him, he often starts his sentence with “My sense is that…”. Those “senses” led to a great product at Ruckus that rocked the WiFi world and to an even greater AI platform at Cogniac that will lead the way for the next industrial revolution powered by AI.
Cogniac platform is built over the years based on real-world customer use cases. Its natural, intuitive interface allows domain experts to build workflows that they are familiar with seamlessly backed by the latest deep learning technologies. Its architecture supports effortless scalability and reliability. If you use our system, it is pretty clear that it works the way it should. We certainly didn’t have that on day one. The process to make it that way was an amazing journey. Over time I realized that Bill is one of few true ‘first principles thinkers’ that mastered many mental models of the world, with a particular emphasis on building products. I didn’t work with Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. Personally, I think Bill, with a keen sense of user experience and relentless drive to make something great, is a kind, humble version of them combined. And yes, nice geniuses do exist, and it is great to work with them :-).
Give us an example of your involvement in – a design project, a product launch, the development of a new technology, or the adoption of a new technology or process. How did you better your team, if applicable?
Being able to create and implement a new technology is one of the most exciting things an engineer can be involved in, in my opinion. I realized when I was at Ruckus that my professional ‘role’ is to enable brilliant people to be at their best—whether by asking the right questions, collaborating on solutions, or other things. At Cogniac, Bill and I are changing the manufacturing landscape. Our AI visual inspection software is creating opportunities for companies to give their workers superhuman capabilities. By using Cogniac to inspect products and flag errors or defects to human workers, we are fundamentally shifting the role of the human to be one of a subject matter expert working with technology, not simply left exposed by the lack of technological support. This new process is a seismic shift for most companies (especially in the manufacturing industries), and by working together with field solutions engineers, account managers, and some of the most brilliant technical minds I have ever worked with, we are helping customers adapt. How I helped in all this? I’m not entirely sure, but I like to think that my teamwork and motivation to succeed allows my colleagues and staff to see that if you believe in something hard enough, there are no hurdles that we cannot overcome.
Describe your biggest engineering <technical> challenge. How did you conquer it or resolve it, or what was the outcome?
One of my proudest accomplishments is the delivery of Edgeflow (our edge device offering), which I believe will create a seismic shift in the industry.
AI at the edge is the Holy Grail of IoT. The integration of AI into business processes relies on the ability to use the software where you actually need it. This means that your AI system can work on production lines, in fields, on rail tracks, in the sky, underground, etc.
However, it is a huge challenge to make the edge devices easy to use, reliable, and scalable. We came up with a brilliant architecture and design that is rooted in the principles of immutability. And we gradually built out the interfaces to be exactly right (which minimizes friction).
The amazing thing is that I started out with minimal knowledge about low-level hardware and software components. But I was able to build out the system step by step, guided by the core principles. I couldn’t believe what we accomplished.
I am very excited about our Edgeflow products. I believe that, much like the iPhone changed people’s individual productivity, Cogniac’s Edgeflow will improve the performance of workers to a whole new level.
In your opinion, what more can be done to promote greater participation of young women in engineering today?
First, I believe that the greater diversity we have in the technology industry, the more we will all benefit—gender, race, nationality, background, etc. They all help us to understand the world from a different perspective, and that can only make us better.
Second (and to answer your question!), it’s a journey, and there’s no doubt that engineering is currently a male-dominated environment. Throughout my career, I have seen more and more women take leadership roles in engineering, technology, and AI. I read somewhere: “If you can’t see it, you can’t believe it”—maybe that’s the case for women in tech. More role models (and publications like this) will shine a light on women who are succeeding in the engineering space, and that can only be a good thing. Cogniac is part of the SAP.iO Foundry program based out of New York, for example, which focuses on supporting minority and female founders in technology, so that’s a great initiative to be a part of.
What kind of perspective do you think women can bring to engineering that might be different than men?
It’s really hard to say, and I think one of the dangers of speaking about men vs. women in the workplace is slipping into generalizations. Some men have a great deal of emotional intelligence, and some don’t, likewise with women. I think research has shown that women have the ability to multitask very effectively, and certainly, women display great empathy. In my opinion, these are some of the qualities that women possess in the workplace, and adding any of these to your team will strengthen it, without question.
Can you give some thought to how those new to engineering can develop confidence in the workplace and avoid mistakes? What checks and balances would you use to make sure that you don’t make mistakes, in general?
I think it’s impossible not to make mistakes in life and in business. It’s a cliché, but we always have to learn from them and improve how we make decisions in the future. I believe that looking back and retrospectively qualifying decisions as good or bad is really unfair as we only ever make decisions based on the information we have at that time. I guess that’s why I work in machine learning/computer vision, as we are able to feed an algorithm with more and more information every time it is used, so it constantly makes better decisions!
Surround yourself with good people. If you are an entrepreneur, make sure you really hire the right people for your company—think about the team you are trying to build and find the pieces of the puzzle that fit.
Many of my ‘mentors’ throughout my career have been teachers—either professionally or in the way they work—and this has helped me to either avoid mistakes or (perhaps more importantly) understand what to learn from the mistakes I do make.
What barriers do women face in today’s engineering world, if any?
I think the biggest challenge women face today in engineering is still work/life balance. Perhaps that’s consistent across many industries, but certainly, I feel that it is true in engineering. Raising children is becoming a more and more demanding job, and life is all about compromise and balance. Unfortunately, women have to make tough decisions in life, and prioritizing work over family life is a tough thing to do.
Like I said before, I really believe that young women are inspired by female role models that they can see and can aspire to be like. We all need to keep working on increasing the visibility of successful women in engineering (something you’re doing a great job at!) to inspire the next generation coming through. We are very proud at Cogniac that two-thirds of our field solutions engineers are women. We also have a very diverse workforce at Cogniac with many different nationalities, backgrounds, and so on. I think this openness to diversity encourages women at Cogniac that it is a safe and inclusive place to work. I think companies need to continue to foster that sort of environment because it’s no secret that most women perform better in different work situations than men.
Talk about your leadership skills. What lessons have you learned thus far over the course of your career?
I have learned that you cannot stop learning. You can do this in so many ways throughout the course of your career, but it is critical that you don’t stand still.
I have always pushed myself (and to many people, it doesn’t come naturally) to try new things, even if you are not sure where it will end. Like I mentioned earlier, my life hasn’t been a straight line between school and where I am today. Without those diversions along the way, I don’t think I would be the person I am proud to be today. All of these experiences help me be a better leader, colleague, friend, and mom.
Even as a leader, you have to enjoy what you do, and, for me, I have always focused first on what I am good at and use that ability and confidence to support my learning in areas where I can improve. There are loads of other traits that are helpful in leadership, including empathy, decisiveness, and ambition, but the self-motivation to succeed and learn will often be a leader’s biggest strength.
What career advice would you give to your younger self?
I wish I had known the concept of mental models earlier. I have been a straight-A student throughout my life, and I have learned a lot of things from different people in different places. At one point, I was taking 5 Coursera courses at the same time, ranging from quantum computing to finance. But I forgot most of them since I am not using them after the class. After observing my co-founder Bill Kish over the years, I realized that my knowledge is more like piecemeals. What I am lacking is the “latticework of mental models” as Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner advocated. I highly recommend everyone to research mental models and learn to build and apply them in their lives.