August 29, 2019

Do I know you?

Pauliina Alanen tells us about AI, fronting a cover band, Silicon Valley and Bollywood tunes.
Pauliina Alanen tells us about AI, fronting a cover band, Silicon Valley and Bollywood tunes.
Julia Bushueva

Pauliina Alanen has ventured a long way from her social science studies to become a tech professional, making a pit stop in Silicon Valley on the road to her current post at Finnish artificial intelligence company Silo.AI.

To balance her studies in social and political science, Alanen dipped into the tech scene during her student years and ended up working for Jolla – the Nokia offshoot – as an assistant. Back then, she felt like blushing when telling people she worked in the tech scene, as it was so new and exciting to her. However, at Jolla she found a fertile environment and culture to learn the ropes of the scene, which helped her to realise every tech-head’s dream: move to California and work at a startup in Silicon Valley.

After nearly two years, she returned to Finland to tap into one of the leading trends in the field – artificial intelligence – whilst working for one of its leading proponents in the Nordics: Silo.AI.

Having seen the pros and cons of two different working cultures in Finland and the US, Alanen appreciates the potential for mutual learning between the two cultures – a 10:30 am traditional Finnish lunch, anyone? According to her, how we work in the future has a lot to do with companies realising the value in continuous learning and the motivation of individuals to stay on top of the learning curve.

An ample example of such progress herself, Alanen is a firm believer in adapting to and embracing change at work and in society in general. Perhaps this is why she also finds the time to contribute to the non-profit Startuplifers programme, which connects Nordic talent with San Francisco-based startups.

With great work comes great play, and Alanen knows how to get down on her downtime as a vocalist and synth player in her cover band Woro. Maybe her band plays her guilty pleasure music, which she shares with us below.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in working in tech, but – like you – may not have the business or IT education usually associated with the scene?

I’d say that first you have to think about what you want to do: do you want to write code and get your hands on the technical aspects, or do you want to work around making the product or service, in business, communications or people operations?

Secondly, you should tailor your skills according to the needs of the company and acquire some so-called hard skills, like search engine optimisation or proficiency in digital tools such as Adobe.

Starting out, I remember I wasn’t that comfortable saying that I work in the technology industry because my education was from people studies rather than engineering studies. So thirdly, you have to have some courage to explore tech companies and discover that also other skills than engineering are needed in the industry – all companies are tech companies nowadays.

What do you see as the major differences between the more traditional working life skills and the future skills needed to cope in a more complex and globalised world?

There are a lot of technology tools that help you out in your work, so being open to new things and progress is one thing. I don’t expect to do the same tasks in five years in the same way as I do now. Technological progress is not stopping anytime soon, so accepting and embracing change is important. This is related to continuous learning, which companies, especially in Silicon Valley, have understood is crucial for their businesses.

At Silo.AI, we have a programme called Learning lab that provides soft and hard skills training, which are carried out by our fellow colleagues. So, if you’re good at back-end development and our engineers feel they need support in those skills, then you prepare a course related to it. All course ideas come from our employees and sometimes, if needed, we also use external help for the courses. This way the company and the individual both win and stay on top of the fast-moving industry.

So, you have to keep learning, even if you don’t want to. It’s a requirement in today’s working life to keep up with the change and to be able to take advantage of tools and apps that will make your work easier and more efficient.

How would you compare working life in Finland and Silicon Valley?

In the Finnish high-trust society, flexibility, remote work and holidays are the key distinguishing features in my view. Remote working is a very Finnish working-life feature. There’s remote work in Silicon Valley, but, depending on the company, it might not be as flexible and not taken as given.

Long holidays are of course another thing. Perhaps in the States, holidays could be thought of more as, and given more credit as, a time to recover from work, not just as the time when you’re not working. It’s important for employees’ wellbeing that they are given a chance to recover.

In San Francisco, there’s a thing called unlimited paid time off, which basically means you’re paid the same monthly salary but are free to take time off. But in an environment like Silicon Valley, it becomes a question of having the nerve to take time off. In Finland, your holidays are defined by law and you write down the dates you’re taking your annual leave.

In Silicon Valley, it’s more ad hoc.

What could Silicon Valley teach Finland, then?

Definitely continuous learning as a part of the company culture. Silicon Valley exports a lot of this kind of leadership culture and entrepreneur culture in general, which many companies, perhaps especially in the tech industry in Finland, have taken up. At Better Doctors (Alanen’s US employer, a health tech startup), for example, our founders used their networks to bring in top-notch speakers, not necessarily for a specific issue or subject, but to inspire and instil in us an idea of what the company was about and what we as a whole were there to do.

You could also go to conferences, buy books for the company library and educate yourself on company time for a certain amount. Another thing is that your colleagues introduce you to external people. The informal “you gotta meet this person” is an awesome part of the culture through which you expand your own professional networks and competences. But connecting with people and collaborating, especially in an informal way, is something we could have more of here in Finland.

Finns traditionally love to take their lunch pretty early, sometimes as early as 10:30 am. What would be your pitch for non-Finnish colleagues to grab a bite to eat at this time?

You gotta eat when there’s light left outside!

Inclusivity was a major theme at last year’s Slush startup conference. What could be done more in the tech world with regards to inclusivity now and in the future?

I think we’re headed in a good direction, although the pace of change could be faster. Slush has done a good job with promoting inclusivity, like doing a 50-50 split in speaker gender. Working at the conference last year, I know it takes some more work to find women speakers in tech, but if you’re prepared to put in the work and willing to prioritise it, it can surely be done. There are a lot of good initiatives like Inklusiiv in Finland and global initiatives like Google’s Women Techmakers.

A perhaps related challenge I’ve been thinking about is avoiding an adversarial situation where people are pitted against each other. I think minorities need role models and seeing someone from a social group you affiliate with encourages you to aim higher and succeed.

Let’s go beyond the current hype of artificial intelligence. What is really happening in the industry, where are we most likely to see the next big step and what will the next big step look like?

While there has been a lot of advancement in the field, the real-life applications of AI that actually match what a company already has are challenging. An AI solution should integrate into existing ways of working, including the people, technologies and organisational culture.

Companies struggle to build systemic business transformation that starts from the strategic work their board of directors is doing.

What should your average worker do to better understand AI and his or her future in a society that is estimated to change drastically over the coming decades?

Anyone can benefit from understanding better what machine learning can help with. Almost all of us are affected by algorithms every day, and it’s important that everyone understand how they work and what type of data they eat. The only way to avoid biased and discriminating technology is to educate people to understand and have enough people from different backgrounds creating and impacting these technologies. One concrete thing to do is the Elements of AI course.

How is Finland as a nation fit for developing successful AI solutions and companies?

Finland has a lot of tech savvy and well-educated people with the best internet connections in the world. Our society is based on trust and open dialogue, with very little corruption. Finland is a great place to test things, make them work and then scale that globally.

Some of the greatest advancements of AI are born here, including the Turku-NLP group whose language parser beat Stanford and the likes last year.

Finland has transformed from an agrarian society through the golden Nokia days to a hotspot for all things digital today, all at a relatively fast pace. What is the next big story for Finland, where are we headed?

It’s extraordinary to think of our grandparents – the society they lived in and the living standards of those days compared to today. Having had a company like peak-Nokia in Finland is just astounding. My mum worked for the company for 20 years, and my current company Silo.AI was co-founded and is now being chaired by an ex-Nokia leader – I mean, all roads lead to Nokia here.

What’s next is a tough question, because it’s hard to foresee big changes as they’re occurring. What I would like to see is Finland and the Nordic nations standing out as forerunners in work-life balance and equality. As the standard of living rises, it should be met with a parallel rise in equality, and I’d love to see companies realise the value in equal opportunities – the role equality plays in enhancing productivity and continuous learning.

Of course, this would need to be coupled with structural changes in society, like how parental leave is supported, for example. In this regard, the Nordics are already quite unique, but perhaps we don’t always understand the one-of-a-kindness of it. I mean, try telling an American colleague that you’re gonna take the year off to stay home with your baby! It would sound quite extraordinary, since I heard that even companies like Facebook offer up to only a few months of leave and typically only for mothers.

What’s your guilty pleasure song or artist?

Don’t tell anyone, but I listen to a lot of Bollywood and Arabic radio hits.

What would be your choice for the cheesiest motivational quote?

Just do it.

Text: Samuli Ojala

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