Behind the Code: Meet Sean Sodha

A typical day on the job for IBMer Sean Sodha consists of…well, let’s just say that there’s no such thing as a typical day.

Only a year into his role as product manager for Watson Natural Language Understanding, Sean describes his job as one where he is constantly problem-solving and being challenged every day in learning how AI is changing the world, one industry at a time. Learn how he leverages his engineering background in our latest edition of Behind the Code.

Tell us a little about your educational background. What was your major and how did you decide on your line of work? How did you work towards that goal during your college career?

Growing up, I always enjoyed science and math classes, having gravitated towards those courses out of sheer curiosity. On top of that, I come from an engineering family, so I was naturally inclined to study some form of engineering in college.

I chose to pursue an Electrical Engineering degree at Purdue University and minor in Mathematics. The curriculum was pretty intense, but it taught me the foundation of problem-solving. Towards the middle of senior year, I realized I wanted to apply for a job that balanced technology with customer-facing aspects – that balance was really important to me. I was passionate about solving big, real-world problems, so I began looking into roles that weren’t strictly technical such as product management or consulting.

Around this time, there was a lot of buzz around Data Analytics and the pressing need for “reading the data” out there. As petabytes of data are accumulated each day, someone had to learn how to read the data, make sense of it and subsequently execute business decisions based on that data. I started looking into other academic programs that focused on this area and gained admission to Cornell University’s Master of Engineering program for Operations Research and Information Engineering. In that year, I learned a tremendous amount about creating machine learning models, finding deep insights in messy data, creating complex simulations and extracting trends from time series data. After the first cycle of recruiting, I was fortunate enough to be selected for the next class of product managers at IBM.

What did your journey to IBM look like? What made you decide on this company?

I was constantly hearing about Watson from social media, sporting events and other sources. I wanted to check out what all the hype was about. After reading about the technology, I realized that the platform aligned very closely with the types of problems I wanted to solve in my first job out of school. I wanted to apply myself in a rich, nurturing environment to solve real-world problems and from simply browsing the Watson homepage, it seemed like the technology was doing just that. I was standing in line one day at the IBM Career Fair at Cornell and after conversing with an IBM representative, I knew product management at IBM was exactly what I wanted to do.

What is your role at Watson? What does a typical day entail?

I am both a technical and a go-to-market product manager for IBM’s Watson Natural Language Understanding (NLU) offering. A product manager is essential to the success and growth of a product because they serve as the bridge between customer needs and developers. They create the vision and roadmap of the product, based off of customer/market demand and competition, and execute with the developers. So, my role allows me to focus on both technical and non-technical aspects of the service.

One thing I love about my role as a product manager is how multifaceted it is. A typical day could entail back to back meetings where each one requires a different hat to wear. In one meeting, I could be talking to the marketing team about an upcoming campaign. In the next, I could be on a scrum call with developers discussing updates for upcoming product features. Another meeting could involve discussing the product’s roadmap/vision for the next quarter. Yet another can involve a customer interview and learning about more creative applications of NLU. I could then take some time to catch up on work like creating content for sales, writing a new blog post or chatting with a developer about how something works.

As you can imagine, the day goes by pretty quickly when I’m applying myself through different lenses.

Can you explain what Natural Language Understanding/Natural Language Processing is in layman’s terms?

Natural language processing (NLP) is the parsing and semantic interpretation of text, allowing computers to learn, analyze, and understand human language. IBM’s Watson Natural Language Understanding (NLU) is IBM’s natural language processing platform. Through easy-to-use API calls, a user can take a sentence, paragraph, document, article, paper, etc. and extract key information from the text such as important entities, keywords, sentiment, categories, concepts, etc.

What do you think is valuable about this kind of technology in the real world?

Literally every single industry keeps some textual data. As that textual database grows, people will need a reliable platform to automatically extract the key information from that data. After many interviews I have had with customers, it’s crazy to hear what creative use cases people are able to come up with, from advertisement optimization and call center efficiency to skin care product recommendations and social media analytics.

What’s something you wish you’d known before starting the job?

Don’t be afraid to ask really simple questions. Take that grace period to ask the important questions like “Why do we do this?”, “How does this work?”, “Why don’t we try something like this?” At some point in the future, people will start asking you questions that you will have to know the answers too.

Understand the history of the product or service you are working on. History teaches great lessons and it’s important to know what worked and what did not work for the product in the past.

What are some of the highlights you’ve experienced in this role?

I would say two things: It’s a blessing to be surrounded by some of the smartest people in the industry and learn from them every day. Having that valuable network of people to reach out to for anything is extremely useful, and its taught me so much about what it means to run a product successfully and efficiently. I have had great managers, mentors and colleagues teach me something every day and I am really lucky to have started my career in such a nurturing environment.

Owning a portion of the service and having responsibility over its success is nerve-wracking but also extremely rewarding. Seeing something all the way through and watching customers rave about it brings its own sense of accomplishment.

What advice would you share with those who are in your shoes from five years ago?

If you want to work in the tech industry, it always helps to have a little bit of a STEM background. Developing that problem-solving mentality helps and once you go through a few STEM courses, most concepts going forward will be super easy to grasp and understand.

Expose yourself to different fields of study. Stay curious and expand your horizons! One thing I regret not doing enough of is taking courses outside of the engineering curriculum. Take an art course or a marketing course or even a geology course!

This goes without saying but stay up to date on industry news. Learn what new technology can solve which problem, how it is applied, where you can learn more about it.

Apply yourself to a cause or project early on. This will help develop that customer aspect of product management. Listen to what the customer wants, apply yourself to creating an MVP, receive feedback, and iterate. Going through this cycle will give you great introduction to product management!