March 25, 2016 | Written by: Jeff Bertolucci
Categorized: Trends and Profiles
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“Disruptive” is a term that gets bandied about a lot in the tech industry. Every startup du jour slaps the label on their product or service, even when what they’re offering isn’t all that innovative or groundbreaking.
But when your technology is truly disruptive—when it has the potential to change society for the better—it can inspire passion, like the passion that drives IBM Watson Life engineer Reah Miyara every day.
Miyara, 24, focuses on developing consumer-facing applications based on Watson’s advanced machine learning and natural language processing platform. “There’s a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm about where Watson is heading,” says Miyara. “After all, we’re at the forefront of machines that learn on their own.”
Golden Bear in the Big Apple
Before joining IBM at the Watson Life Manhattan headquarters in June 2015, the southern California native held a number of high-profile internships, including stints at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at financial/tax software giant Intuit.
With a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley, Miyara found himself in high demand right out of college. He fielded more than a few job offers from tech and financial firms, including Goldman Sachs in New York City. It was there he discovered Watson.
“I was in New York and went to a startup conference,” says Miyara. “IBM Watson was there, and I took an on-the-spot interview. They invited me back the following week. When I came in to see the office and what they were doing, I was just so intrigued.”
The offers from the finance sector may have been more lucrative, but the Watson mission had Miyara hooked.
Swim, Then Scrum
A typical day for the engineer starts with a few laps in the pool “to get the brain flowing,” says Miyara. After responding to email and pings for a half-hour, the Watson Life team meets at 9:30 for a 15-minute scrum session.
“We talk about what we did yesterday, what we’re doing today,” he says, “and if we have any blockers—anything that’s impeding our progress towards our goal.”
Other meetings may follow on a variety of topics, from software architecture and design discussions to face-to-face sessions with “sponsor users,” who provide critical feedback on alphas and pre-beta apps. It’s part of a creation process that’s “very client- and consumer-focused,” he says.
Golf and Froyo
Though, post-morning session, team members generally work individually or break off into smaller groups, there’s virtually no such thing as a day of cubicle-bound isolation.
“It’s a very cool, hip environment,” says Miyara. “When I need to come up with a solution—or I need a break—I’ll grab our golf putter and start putting. We have a couple of wedges in the office too.”
And then there’s that greatest collaborative tool of all: frozen yogurt.
“Often, probably more frequently than we should, we go off in the middle of the day for froyo,” says Miyara. “Or we just move around and communicate with everybody.”
While there’s no formal structure as to when and where the geographically dispersed Watson teams interact, they do so often. “We’re very active on Slack and GitHub—any of these technologies that can keep us in each others’ lives on a moment-by-moment basis,” he says. “It’s pretty phenomenal.”
Miyara’s official workday ends at 5 p.m., but he often spends at least an hour in the evening taking an online machine learning or artificial intelligence course from Pluralsight, MIT or Stanford. “We’re so passionate about these projects, we’ll spend extra hours on weekends or nights studying outside resources and materials,” he says.
These passion projects include applications like cognitive cooking assistant Chef Watson. “By breaking down chemical compounds and various ingredients,” Miyara says, “Watson can recommend different types of foods that you wouldn’t imagine go well together.”
In fact, Chef Watson’s culinary recommendations may surprise you—in a good way. “Based on our machine-learning algorithms, they’re very palatable and complement one another,” says Miyara “This specific focus on cooking is just an example of how we target the consumer.”
That focus on the consumer is what Miyara loves most about his work.
“If you had to ask somebody what they do at IBM, it would take them a good 45 minutes to explain it,” he says. “But the Watson Life team gets to say, ‘We build applications for you…and your mother…and everybody you know on Facebook.’ We’re trying to empower people on a daily basis, so that’s really amazing.”
Interested in joining the IBM Watson team?