Interviews

Liberty IT’s Gillian Armstrong discusses the ethical impact of tech and the future

  • Photo: Gillian Armstrong, Solutions Engineer at Liberty IT

    Gillian Armstrong was recently awarded AWS (Amazon Web Services) Machine Learning Hero status at AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas and co-organised ServerlessDays Belfast, a tech community event at the start of 2020.

    Gillian is a Solutions Engineer at Liberty IT. Put simply, she works across a number of teams, both hands-on and also to help set direction to ensure they are moving forward with the right technical choices, as well as keeping aligned and knowledgesharing with the rest of the company. Liberty IT is the technology arm of Liberty Mutual Insurance. Gillian joined the company as a fresh graduate 15 years ago, after studying Electronic and Software Engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast.

    She had no idea what she wanted to do as a teenager, and told Sync NI: “My school didn't offer any computing at all - apart from word processing! I didn't know anyone that worked in software, and so I had no idea really what the job entailed. I just knew that I really liked practical problem-solving, so engineering seemed like a good fit. Then my careers teacher said, “You should look at these computer things!” I wasn’t fully bought in, but I did decide to do a degree with some software engineering content. When I got to Queen’s and started doing programming for the first time, I really preferred it to electronic engineering, and so I pivoted towards a career in software quite naturally. I haven’t looked back since.”

    I asked Gillian exactly what “AWS hero status” meant. She said it is “a sort of designation, that Amazon Web Services awards to people who are very active in the global tech community, and whose knowledge-sharing and passion they feel has had a real influence. There's 14 Machine Learning Heroes across the world, but there’s lots of different types of heroes. I think it's exciting because it's not awarded for something you’ve built yourself, but rather for your contribution to making other people better.”

    When speaking to Gillian, it was very apparent that she has a caring, philanthropic world view. She clearly wants to help people and uses her tech career and knowledge to do so, adding: “I've benefited so much from other people out there who have shared their experiences online or given talks. I think every developer has. So being able to contribute back into the community by helping organise conferences (like AI NI or Serverlessdays), by going and speaking at conferences or meet ups or by writing blogs; I think is so important because when the community gets better, everybody gets better.”

    She told us about ServerlessDays Belfast, which is a conference for the tech community run by local volunteers; “Serverless is the future of software development. We brought speakers from around the world who are really key in the serverless community. We had speakers from Germany, England and all over the US, standing in a sold out conference in Belfast talking to local developers. It’s generated a lot of excitement and interest. We hope this will inspire a whole bunch of new people to start upskilling in serverless, which I think is really important.”

    One of the things Gillian is really proud of working on in Liberty IT is the employee digital assistant; “I worked for a number of years on a team that was building employee-focused solutions, to try and help productivity, and make employees’ lives a little bit easier. We worked on a number of tools and then we worked up to a Chatbot. I was on a really small team and we hadn't used the cloud or artificial intelligence before, so it was all brand new. We were then able to take our learnings and present them at conferences in the US and across Europe. That product was so useful to our own employees that has now been spun off into a start-up within Liberty called ‘Workgrid’. Teams are based in Belfast and the US now and they are selling the Chatbot to other companies so their employees can get the same benefits as we have.”

    This is where her passion for ethical and human-centred AI design comes into play, and understanding how AI is changing the paradigms of human-computer interaction. She continued: “Ethics are important in every job. But as we're moving into areas such as artificial intelligence and cloud development, it starts to become even more important. Anybody, anywhere, sitting in a coffee shop or in their bedroom can build huge systems, they can use machine learning, they can have this massive impact on people around the world; so I think it's really important that we start thinking and talking about these things. It’s not good enough for a developer to say “this is what I was told to do.” I think every developer needs to be considering what they’re building and what its impact on society is.

    “That can even be in relation to how we're building things affecting the environment. For example, one of the things about serverless is that when your application is not being used, it's not running, so it's not using any electricity. Previously servers would have been running and using electricity all the time. That’s important if you're committed to alleviating climate change. There are trade-offs in everything you build, but we need to make sure we are making mindful choices.”

    “Working with the chatbot and conversational AI is particularly interesting, because as you start to talk to computers, you have this more human experience and more of a connection with them. That can be used in really powerful ways, but also could be misused. For instance, there are chatbots out there that are being used to help users who may quite isolated, neurodiverse or could be struggling with mental health. These chatbots give them someone to talk to and can give some advice. A chatbot can be available 24/7 and never gets tired of listening to you. But while this can be really positive, what we want to make sure is that we're using this to augment and not replace other forms of mental health care; it’s a help but not a solution to all.”

    If you are thinking about a career in tech – particularly if you’re a young female, Gillian provided some advice on ensuring you value your own impact: “Although it's easy to not feel confident and to look at other people and think they know everything, you should realise that you’ve got a contribution to make that no one else can, and you do know things that others don't know. It definitely can feel intimidating at times - in my degree I think there only 10% were females on the electrical engineering side and maybe 30% on the computer science side. But as you move up throughout your career, it gets easier, because you gain lots of life experience, meet different people and realise your own personal contributions really do matter.”

    This article first appeared in the Women in Tech special edition of the Sync NI magazine. You can download a FREE copy here.

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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