Introducing Prof Didar Zowghi, who this year joins CSIRO’s Data61 to work on Software Engineering for AI, and AI diversity and inclusiveness.
A leader in human-centric technology design and a renowned information technology educator, Professor Zowghi shares her career journey and highlights, goals for her new role, AI insights, and advice on pursuing a career in tech.
Help advance Australia’s digital competitiveness when you join CSIRO’s Data61, the data and digital science arm of the national science agency. Discover the opportunities here.
Let’s start at the very beginning, what led you to choose a career in tech?
I grew up with an acute sense of curiosity to learn how things were engineered to work. That lead me to have a strong passion for engineering and I took my curiosity out on electrical appliances at home to learn how to pull them apart and put them back together.
After completing high school in Iran where I majored in mathematics and sciences, I went to England for further education.
Luckily, the college I entered to complete my A Levels was offering a computer science course. Having been fascinated by calculators as a child, naturally I was curious to know how computers work, so I studied mathematics and computer science for A Levels.
I loved the analytical and problem-solving aspects of computing. I also found the creative process of writing and running a computer program very exciting. I saw great potential for what computers could do to revolutionise our life and work.
I completed my BSc (Hons) in computer science at the University of Essex and was offered a graduate role in Honeywell Information Systems as a programmer, and later moved to analysis, design, and software project management.
When I came to Australia, I completed my MSc in Computer Science and PhD in Software Engineering at Macquarie University that helped me transition my career into academia. The rest is history!
You’ve had a huge career working across industry and academia. What have been your personal career highlights so far?
Highlights of my career in industry were mainly about building innovative systems from scratch and witnessing end-user satisfaction when high quality software was designed and delivered to support humans in their daily work and activities. Highlights of my 20+ years of academic career across three Sydney universities, as well as adjunct and visiting professors in many universities around the world are too many to mention.
To summarise: teaching and transferring knowledge to thousands of students, supervising many PhD and Masters research students, conducting impactful research in many fields of computing, collaborating with other academics and industry across the world to make positive impacts in my field, receiving highly competitive research grants (eg, from ARC), taking on many leadership roles to contribute to the strategic directions of academia, publishing 200+ research papers in prestigious conferences and journals, co-authoring with 90+ scholars from 30+ countries and receiving numerous citations and recognition from many scholars world-wide.
One of the important highlights of my academic career was attending graduation ceremonies to celebrate the achievements of my students with their friends and families. Throughout my academic life, I have also mentored and supported many colleagues in their teaching, research, and career aspirations.
So, celebrating my mentee’s promotions and successes is another memorable highlight of my career. I have always been an advocate for gender equality, especially in STEM. I actively led and supported many initiatives for women and am proud of how far we have come in the last 2 decades in attracting more female students in STEM and empowering women in their Tech career paths.
From the extensive work experience with many highlights that I am proud of two stand out for me on a personal level and reflect the heights of my passion for my field and research community: 1. Promotion to full professor in a male dominated field and 2. Receiving Lifetime Service award from IEEE for my contribution to the Requirements Engineering research community.
2022 will see you in a brand-new role. What attracted you to CSIRO’s Data61?
I was supported by CSIRO scholarships for both my MSc and PhD. This is now an excellent opportunity for me to give back by joining an amazing team of researchers and practitioners and to forge ahead in supporting the national AI initiatives utilising my skill set and expertise.
My research track record is well aligned with Data61’s research and I feel that I can make significant contributions and offer my research leadership and passion for diversity and inclusion to CSIRO that supported me in building my knowledge and skills early in my career journey.
What are the five key things you want to achieve (short or long term)?
I am a serendipitous researcher who has a strong track record in conducting and leading multidisciplinary and collaborative research. I would like to collaborate with as many CSIRO and Data61 researchers as possible and to produce impactful research that solves real world problems aligned with national priorities.
I want to contribute to understanding, defining, and creating awareness of what Responsible and Ethical AI is, and conceive fresh ideas for new strategic and industry directions on how to achieve responsible AI in practice.
Long term, I would like to develop a strong team of researchers and to provide scientific leadership and mentorship to my team, my colleagues and research students.
The importance of diversity and inclusion is core to my personal beliefs and part of my role at Data61 is to (Co-) Lead the inclusion and diversity initiative in Data61, CSIRO or other national AI programs and centres.
I would like to build strong and collegial relationship with my colleagues at CSIRO Data61 that is grounded in respect, kindness, and mutual understanding of the goals that we want to achieve together both short term and long term.
What do you want people to know about Artificial Intelligence and responsible technology?
It is paramount that people develop a reasonable understanding of what defines AI and what current AI systems can and cannot do. It is also important for people to understand the inherent biases built into AI systems mainly because of a lack of diversity and inclusion.
Perhaps the most important issues to resolve are, what we can do to ensure that AI technology is developed and used responsibly, that is aligned with universal human values, principles, and that it will contribute positively to the well-being of humans and the environment.
You're an active supporter of diversity and inclusion in tech. There's still plenty of work to be done in the industry to create a balanced and well represented workforce to ensure the creation of accessible and successful innovations, services and products. What are the three things you'd like to see happen in the next 1-3 years to get closer towards this goal?
There is so much to do in the diversity and inclusion space, both within the workforce and in the design, development and use of the systems we build to support the workforce. The decision on the national priorities for the next 3 years must be considered with great care involving inclusive consultation and direct involvement of diverse stakeholders. At CSIRO Data61 we can start with the following:
- Enhance organisational culture through specialised training (eg. Indigenous cultural awareness, gender and racial sensitivities, disability awareness, LGBTI+ etc).
- Increase the diversity and inclusion focus in the recruitment process (eg, design special templates and guidelines for hiring and develop clear and transparent processes that will include diversity and inclusion initiatives explicitly embedded in them).
- Develop solutions, products and services that help us increase our connection to diverse and inclusive workforces and stakeholders. It is paramount that the AI systems we build do not discriminate and exhibit any form of prejudice and bias. We must design, develop, and evolve our social and technical constructs to ensure responsibility and trust for the systems.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in tech?
In the current technological environment, to use a cricket term, we need more all-rounders, i.e., those who are good at different skills. My advice is to acquire as many skills as you possibly can - not only hard technical knowledge but also social, interpersonal, group work, and communication skills.
Working in Tech is so exciting and creative, so embrace your creativity and be bold in articulating your fresh ideas to those who are interested and ready to listen. Define your goals, be determined to achieve them but remain open-minded enough to change them if needed. Do not be afraid of working hard and do not allow any barriers you face to define you.
Find mentors you can trust to guide you and pay it forward to others whenever you can. I have been fortunate to have had wonderful mentors throughout my career that helped me get to this point which is why I am passionate about the importance of mentoring.