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TrailblazersI Am Generation T: Stephanie Lee Sy

I Am Generation T: Stephanie Lee Sy

I Am Generation T: Stephanie Lee Sy
By Melissa Twigg
May 10, 2019
The AI innovator behind Thinking Machines on good luck, bad advice and using AI to identify poverty and fight climate change

I am Generation T is a series of quick-fire Q&As with some of the extraordinary individuals on the Generation T List.

Stephanie Lee Sy is a remarkably difficult woman to interview. Ask her a question and each point she raises is so damn interesting, it leads you down another rabbit hole of discussion.

Sy, 30, is the founder and CEO of Thinking Machines, one of the most respected data science agencies in the Philippines. The company builds AI systems and aims to educate and elevate Filipinos in an industry that is set to dominate global tech. But her real hope is to find ways that AI can make us all happier, healthier and more relaxed. We talk to Sy about the future of AI, professional ambitions and her big Bitcoin regret.

What was your biggest 'A-ha' moment in life?  
As a child, I always loved maths. I’m terrible at memorisation and always enjoyed how you can take formulas and do anything with them. That love of maths has got me far. My career has been rewarding because it’s very future-facing, and I’m constantly discovering new things; tech is the one field that is very science fiction orientated

Who’s your hero?  
I’m not inspired by people as much as ideas and the discovery of newness, and even the high of failing terribly and then succeeding. That’s my source of inspiration.

Where do you want to be in 10 years?
I have no idea and that’s so exciting. I started my career in tech roughly 10 years ago, and it has changed so much since then. In fact it’s incredible how much the world has transformed—I watched Sex and the City the other day and I was amazed by how different life was back then. Every generation says that, but tech is a huge disruptor and I would say most of the societal changes of the last 10 years have been because of tech. If I had to guess, I would say the next 10 will be about climate change. The thing I’m most excited to see is how tech and policy can work together to save our environment.

What’s your ultimate professional ambition?  
I have two. My team builds models to predict poverty in hard-to-get-to rural areas to figure out every month what the situation on the ground is. I would love to use that technology for climate change. I do believe the urgency of climate issues underlies everything. My second ambition is to build a world-class Filipino company. The Philippines has a reputation for being a great place to outsource work, but South Korea went from manufacturing products to becoming a global powerhouse, and I want to create that in the Philippines.

What do you want to be remembered for?
Both of the above. And if I train up several generations of world-class data scientists, and they can remember me for what I did, that would be fantastic.

If you could go out for a drink with anyone in the world—alive or dead, real or fictional—who would it be?
I want to sit down with one of the tech CEOs—Mark Zuckerberg or Susan Wojcicki [the CEO of YouTube] for example—and ask them how they think their platforms need to change and how much ownership and responsibility they think they have over what appears on them. It’s such an important conversation.  

Any productivity hacks you swear by?
I’m a heavy keyboard user, and the only way I can respond to all email and content and code and all the miscellaneous things I have to do each day is by moving as fast as I can think. For me, that means keyboard shortcuts. I also pay for an email tool, Superhuman, which makes answering emails so much faster.

What are the habits of successful people?
I’ve met a lot of successful people and everyone was so unique, but I think all of them really care about their work, whatever it may be. They understand it and care on an emotional level, and that comes through in the quality and the way they handle whoever it is that’s working for them—be it artists or software experts.

On 12 September 2018 at United Nations Headquarters, (L-R) Education Activist Hannah Godefa, Wired Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson and CEO and lead Data Scientist of Thinking Machine Data Science Stephanie Sy during a special focus session on innovating for children and young people at the Second Regular Session of the 2018 UNICEF Executive Board.The 2018 Second Regular Session of the UNICEF Executive Board is held from 12-14 September 2018 and includes a special focus session on innovating for children
Sy during a special focus session on innovating for children and young people at the Second Regular Session of the 2018 UNICEF board

What was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?
I think it’s been a lot of stumbling into things. I truly believe luck it is a huge factor—you’ve just got to survive long enough to get lucky.

How do you deal with failure?
There have definitely been times we almost died, but we have the tenacity to be honest when something isn’t going well, and understanding why and let it go, or change radically. In other words, we fail fast. I want to tell people that when things aren’t working, change the approach immediately. Accept failure is a normal part of the innovation process—it’s part of life and change, and it’s also ok to cry about it. I want to tell more guys that: it’s fine to feel bad when something doesn’t work out. It’s an honest, normal emotion.  

What’s the next disruptor in your industry going to be?
A new type of neural network model. It has existed since the '80s, and we’re seeing a huge renaissance in it. I’m also excited about how data is going to change the way we build models. I’m not talking about phones or laptops, but about products like Alexa and drones and self-driving cars.

Sy was part of the Gen.T delegation to Breakthrough Prize 2019—the "Oscars of science"
Sy was part of the Gen.T delegation to Breakthrough Prize 2019—the "Oscars of science"

If I had an extra hour in my day I would…
Probably read a bit more. I love books and Kindle was a game changer for me. I read a lot of biographies, generally either non-fiction or science fiction.

What advice would you give a younger you?
That passion isn’t found or immediately obvious; you have to go and cultivate it. I went to university in the US, and people there think if you’re not enjoying your first job, it’s a disaster, but passion comes from understanding a field and getting good at your job. Give it time.

The best advice I ever got was
Like I said above, survive long enough to get lucky. I think about that quote so much.

And the worst is……
Oh I’ve had so much awful advice over the years. Startups are such a hit and miss thing. If you’ve successfully sold a company, it doesn’t mean you’re that good, you often just got lucky. There are all these people with huge egos who don’t even know that much. They had a decent product that caught on and they sold early, and as a result they give terrible management advice.

Any regrets?
Oh, definitely that I should have mined some Bitcoin in college—oh man, that was an error. Other than that, not really. Everything I’ve done has led me to this path, even the failures, so I can’t really point to anything professionally. Except the fact that I should never have worked with people who looked impressive on paper but gave me a bad gut feeling. Always, always trust your gut.

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TrailblazersI Am Generation TStephanie Lee SyAIManilaPhilippinestech

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