On Leadership, Mentorship, and Community: a Conversation with Allie Miller from AWSFeatured
I sat down with @alliekmiller, one of the leading women in AI, to get her advice for young, budding leaders. For the uninitiated, Allie was named Forbes and AI Summit’s AI Innovator of the Year and currently helps startups all over the world as AWS’s Head of Machine Learning Business Development for Startups and Venture Capital. Prior to Amazon, Allie was Lead Product Manager at IBM Watson and Head of Product at GoodLux Technology. Allie completed her MBA at Wharton and undergraduate degree at Dartmouth. While at Wharton, Allie founded the country’s largest AI student group. Allie is one of the most energetic yet thought-provoking people I have met in tech. In between laughter and engaging stories, she shared her concrete, actionable, and surprising advice on four areas: effective reflection, mentorship, leadership, and building communities and personal brands. (As a personal testament to her mentorship and spontaneity, she met my friend Sarah on the streets of San Francisco and took both of us out to dinner to answer all of our questions!) Effective Reflection During our dinner and this interview, I could see that the gears in Allie’s mind never stop turning. Seriously never. She is constantly problem-solving, connecting the dots, and digging deeper. Her methods of self-reflection only echo that; here are four things Allie says can help everyone improve on effective reflection and problem hunting. Keep a running document on advice you share that surprises and sticks with other people. We frequently take what we know for granted and believe that everyone else already holds these same understandings. We’re wrong. And in doing so, we often miss internalizing our most important insights and neglect to share some of our most valuable pieces of advice. By taking intentional note of what learnings resonate with others, you can better help more people with effective guidance and personally reflect on these takeaways to improve your own approaches. (Allie’s “worldview” is in Google Docs, plus a Google Doc for every big life experience and book she reads, so she can quickly share top takeaways with others.) Set aside regular time to write. Allie writes for ~3 hours each Sunday. Within this window, she writes in 25-minute increments with breaks in between each period. This is commonly referred to as the Pomodoro Technique. Write with a group. Group fitness classes or having a running buddy certainly helps with exercise motivation, inspiration, and accountability. Group writing can achieve similar outcomes. Go problem hunting. Visit Quora, Hacker News, and Facebook groups to identify what questions people are commonly asking. Learn from the responses and come up with your own solutions based on research and experiences. Create content or otherwise share advice addressing these common challenges. MentorshipAllie shared how important it is to mentor young leaders in order to build a more diverse future. Here are five key mentorship tips she relies on. Think of mentorship as a personal board of directors and have different mentors for different purposes. Figure out each mentor’s superpower and how they align with your needs and interests. Cover your key goals through a variety of mentors with diverse backgrounds and different skill sets. Allie, for example, has ~20 mentors both in and outside of AI. Be ready to capitalize on opportunities to connect with mentors. For example, when Allie met Adam Cheyer (founder of Siri and now one of her mentors) at a small VC event in the Bay Area, she confidently approached him with a deep understanding of his career and specific asks. Seize the moment when you get it (e.g., at a conference, meetup, or during an Instagram Live). Being gutsy makes you more likely to get a lucky break. Give generously to your mentors. Allie mentors many younger, Gen Z students who end up also helping her through shedding light on Zoomer trends, like slang terms and popular apps (“I finally understand what a VSCO girl is”). Ask your mentors what is the number 1 thing you can help with this month, quarter, or year, and deliver on that (“it can be as simple as paying it forward”). Ask what cannot be Googled. Take full advantage of your time with mentors and ask them questions they are uniquely positioned to answer rather than more fact-based, surface level questions that can be found through simple searches. Be sure to do your homework ahead of time. Understand the deeper needs of your mentees. A mentor is not a task monkey; they should think strategically for their mentees. For example, when one of Allie’s mentees asked her for a referral for a particular job, she took a step back to understand their goals and connected them with two other fitting opportunities as well. LeadershipI admire Allie’s progressive views on leadership and hope more innovators follow suit. Here are the two top pieces she shared (I especially love the second one!). Find leadership opportunities in everything you do. Too often we think leadership only exists in particular titles or levels of seniority, but in reality, we are all leaders and have all been “leading things” much longer than we think. For example, well before her leadership role at AWS, Allie launched the country’s largest AI student group and led product at a healthcare startup. Outside of work, Allie also says we have led in important but non-obvious ways. Time management is leadership of yourself; pitching an idea to your team is leadership of direction; convincing others to donate to an important cause is leadership of change. All of these experiences can start as early as grade school and make up the fabric of our lives. Lead with love and empathy. Get to know your team and what drives them, what they love to do outside of work, and what their dreams and ambitions are. Treating your teammates as more than just employees pays dividends in numerous ways. Allie, for example, gave her team the afternoon off to march for Black Lives Matter and was able to get 215+ people at Amazon, Google, IBM, and others to take the afternoon off as well. Building your brand and communityAllie has over half a million followers (and counting!) and attributes most of her community to one thing: “just help others”. Here are ways to start small and build your own brand, straight from the pro herself. Start small and grow gradually. When Allie was at Wharton, she realized the transformative impact AI had and could have on society. She made a Facebook post asking if anyone else was also interested in AI and would like to join a student group around the topic. Only 6 people responded, but Allie was not deterred. She made a dinner reservation for herself and these 6 people and asked them to come ready to discuss an AI-related news article. They had a lively discussion, and during the meeting, Allie announced the official formation of the group and asked for a co-president. Gradually, she grew from 7 to 50, to hundreds of students within eight schools at the University of Pennsylvania. Years later, it’s now a full curriculum at Wharton! Focus on your mission, not your role or title. Think of a 140-character phrase to summarize your core life mission. Write it on your walls, tell it to your friends, build a meetup around it--optimize your decision-making around this mission. Don’t just post, add value. By sharing content that genuinely helps others, readers will not only benefit but also tag their friends and bring other followers in as well, creating a sort of viral effect in spreading awareness and impact. In May, Allie created a “mega-doc”, an article with all of her LinkedIn posts organized by topic. Treat yourself like a startup. Doing so makes problem solving more natural and sets yourself up for success in the small (like a daily task) and the big (like your overall career path). Allie realized that the world of AI was missing a voice to speak to the importance of diversity and education, so she has taken that on in her career. Looking ahead, Allie is excited about the opportunity to increase accessibility in AI. Allie is always amazed and inspired seeing people who have never touched ML build a 90% accurate model in 3 days with the help of AWS tools. Web development and app development have both been made more accessible, and Allie is looking forward to seeing a similar trend in AI and ML. Along with technological accessibility, education access is crucial as well. The technology industry is in need of better storytellers to turn complex concepts into easily digestible learning modules. Keeping complex things complex only benefits a select few. With greater accessibility and by putting the tools of ML in the hands of every data scientist, more innovation can take place, and all people can take part in its advancement.