Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS)



Eve Andersson Top International Academic, Executive, Author, Software Engineer, Accessibility Expert, Entrepreneur, ACM Practitioner Board Professional Development Committee Member

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Eve Andersson.

Eve AnderssonEve Andersson leads Accessibility Engineering at Google. Prior to joining Google, Eve was Senior Vice President of Academics at Neumont University. She also co-founded ArsDigita Corporation, an open-source software company that was acquired by Red Hat, and she was Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Universidad Galileo in Guatemala City.

Eve has co-authored two books: "Software Engineering for Internet Applications" (MIT Press, 2006) and "Early Adopter VoiceXML" (Wrox Press, 2001). She serves on the Professional Development Committee of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

She has Engineering degrees from Caltech and U.C. Berkeley and an MBA in Finance from Wharton. She is based in San Francisco; prior to this, she lived in Argentina, Guatemala, the UK, and various US cities. Her interests include travel, photography, the number Pi and working on her own software side projects.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Manager's Blog where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:54: What are some of the key events that shaped your life and drove your passion from an early age to your graduation from Caltech, Berkeley and Wharton?
"....I think I've always been a bit of an adventurer. Some of my first memories are of being a young child escaping from the house - and it wasn't because I wanted to escape from my parents - but rather that there was this whole world out there, this whole neighborhood that needed to be explored....I was also always a builder so perhaps I was born to be an engineer....I remember when my dad got our first MS DOS computer, I would write programs first in GW-Basic and later in QBasic....I think the thing that really changed the trajectory of my life was when my dad met my stepmom Joyce (who he married when I was twelve), and she was pretty strict and that was hard for me. She made me do chores and homework and we went through years of this intense battle of wills, but in the end what I really gained was self-discipline and I think this is what allowed me to harness that energy and curiosity that I always had and actually become productive. I get asked about passion and of course passion is really important, but it also takes discipline to be able to harness it...."

:04:09: You also spent time at Berkeley and Wharton; what were those experiences like?
"....I was a graduate student at Berkeley; I got a Masters in Mechanical Engineering....I took classes that were fun for me though, a lot of mathematics and some software related classes, numerical analysis was very good and I think useful for me later in life as well. Wharton was actually quite a bit later. Wharton was something that I did part-time while I was working full time, and I did that because I had started a company prior to that and I thought there were things that I could have done better and also to get insights into the business world that I needed to have...."

:05:36: You have such a wide and varied array of interests. I know you like to travel, you do photography and earlier you mentioned an interest in the number Pi. Can you talk more about those things and how they keep you motivated?
"....Travel goes back to what we talked about before when I said I always liked exploring and that's true to this day. I'm not sure how many countries I've been to now (over 50 for sure), and it's all about exploring and learning....Photography is something I've actually been weaning myself off of because I've had a few incidents. When I was in Argentina, I dropped my camera on the ground (it seemed fine but as I was getting on to the boat the camera stopped working), and I found that not having a working camera lessened my motivation to go to Antarctica. Going to Antarctica had been a dream for so long and to lose my motivation to go there because of my equipment maybe said something about my dependence on that equipment....Now most of the time I don't travel with my camera. I was just in South Korea two weeks ago and my only camera was on my cellphone. I used it to capture a few moments, but it didn't dominate my experience there and I think it helped me enjoy it more....I know that a lot of people have a favourite colour, some have a favourite song, I have a favorite number - I really like Pi. Pi has some very interesting properties; it's not just about circles...."

:10:31: You also have this abiding interest in software and software side projects. Can you go into more detail about that?
"....So going back to Pi....I decided I wanted to gain expertise in creating Android apps so I created an Android app that helps people memorize digits of Pi. It's called ElephantPi and it helps people learn digits....Another project that I worked on as a side project - my husband is an artist and he had gotten a lot of paint samples from the hardware store and we were kind of clustering them so that he could use them and make something out of them. I wrote this clustering algorithm to group the colours into different clusters and I could specify parameters. I found that the software was creating really beautiful clusters and my husband painted one of the designs that I created. I'd love to make a business out of that at some point. I think he and I have to figure out the right balance between algorithm element and human element....The most recent thing I've been playing with - I'd gotten Arduino (which is the microcontroller) a few weeks ago and I've been programming it and it's so much fun. It's combining hardware and software and I hadn't played with circuits for a long time...."

:15:10: What do you see as some of the top challenges in accessibility engineering and how do you propose they be solved?
"....Let me define accessibility because that word is used by different people for different things; in this context what I mean is making the world better for people with disabilities. I would divide the field of accessibility (the technological bit of it), into two parts. One is making the digital world accessible (websites, apps, etc.), and the other part is making the physical world accessible. In the digital world, I think a lot of the techniques have already been developed for making websites and mobile applications accessible and it's really about people who develop these applications putting these standards to use. I think there are unsolved problems...a lot of application developers aren't thinking about accessibility as much as I would like them to....Also how can we make interfaces that work for everybody? I mean for people who can't see or hear or who can't input in the way that you might expect or people with cognitive impairment....Another area full of interesting challenges is automated testing. I think with advances in things like natural language processing and machine learning, and even looking at statistics of applications and sites to see how other people are using them I think could allow a way to more automatically determine more than just using heuristics, but using machine learning to figure out if this is something that could work for everybody?....Another computer science problem (in terms of understanding the physical world) is in navigation. I think technologies in indoor navigation are getting a lot better and there are better ways now to determine one's position within a building...."

:23:33: What software problems continue to excite you?
"....Outside of accessibility, which does excite me a lot. I also really like data, so being able to make insights out of information. Not just to present and digest information and share that with decision-makers, but use machine learning to automatically make insights out of this data and even sometimes take action on it....Another interesting thing for me is personalization which is related to accessibility but is more broad. By personalization I mean changing user interfaces, changing what data is presented and how it's presented based on the person (the individual and their preferences), but also based on the situation that they are in....Another thing is wearables, especially the use of sensors sensing health data, sensing environmental data and doing things on behalf of the user. I think there is potential for completely changing I/O paradigms....Another thing that I touched on earlier is art (the intersection of art and engineering), and what can we do to create software that makes things that are beautiful and interesting for people and not just utilitarian, but something that can feed the mind as well...."

:26:25: What are your top recommended software development tips?
"....The first tip is to consider using the Cloud. There's no need in this day and age (most of the time) to set up your own servers and have to deal with security and reliability and all of these things yourself....The second thing is that you don't have to build everything yourself. You can look for libraries, there are APIs that do a lot of these things and save you so much time, and if you use APIs then whatever service you are connecting to there's a good chance that they are going to be continuing development on it, so you'll benefit from their development over time.....The next thing is to really think about what is the minimum launchable feature set. I'd say launch and interate (perfect gets in the way of creating a finished product)....The last tip I would give is spend that extra time thinking about interaction flow first, preferably including accessibility, before you start developing anything, even if it's a really simple app. Even for the very simplest app it's going to make such a huge payoff in terms of not having to rethink and redesign along the way...."

:29:03: As a successful entrepreneur, what are your top lessons?
"....First, try to enjoy every moment of it. It's going to be hard and all-consuming in most cases, but at the same time it's a huge learning experience regardless of whether you succeed or fail....Second, follow your passion, don't do something because you want to get rich quick. Do something because you are extremely passionate about it and want to put all of your energy into it....Third, really think hard about how much investment you need, especially in this day and age of Cloud computing, it might be less than you think. When you minimize the amount of investment that you get, it can help you in a few different ways. One is you are avoiding dilution; if you do make it big you are able to reap a lot more of the benefit. The second is control, when somebody invests and gives a lot of money to your company often it's in return for a lot of control.... The next piece of advice is to try to hire people who are smarter than you are. Always. Not just smarter, but also people who have diverse perspective and diverse backgrounds...."

:35:21: With your extensive background in academia, what are the challenges and opportunities in education?
"....I think some of the opportunities in education in computer science education (especially when it comes to teaching people who are going to become practitioners as opposed to researchers), are to teach concepts that are really relevant in today's world in software engineering. I think it's really important for software to be 'smart', the consumers expect it these days....Another thing people need to learn is personalization, the techniques involved in that, and of course machine learning is one piece of that puzzle. Another thing that is more important than ever is mobile and wearable technologies and I think curricula should focus on those. Also, enormous quantities of data are being generated every second and companies need software engineers who can work with that data and convert it to things that are useful, actionable, real information. It's really important for undergraduate computer science programs to actually include projects and other work that deals with some of these real world problems, data being one of them....The best software engineers aren't the ones who have the most expertise in a certain area, but they are the ones who are able to synthesize information from lots of different sources and employ their creativity to come up with a really good solution...."

:41:12: I'm fascinated by your response on this whole education paradigm shift that's occurring. There's Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and maybe people can take micro courses. Do you have to have a degree today? Can you just learn everything online and self-learn and go into specific areas and focus? Do you see all of this changing where people won't be sending their kids to college?
"....I think there is theory and then there is reality and I think in theory you probably don't need a college degree now. I really believe that you can learn so many things on your own. The reality is that a lot of employers are still looking for that credential, that stamp of approval as a first step in their filtering process, so I wouldn't recommend that most teenagers decide to skip college just yet - unless they've done something so spectacular on their own, developing a really amazing app with which they can showcase their knowledge, I think I would still recommend going to college....."

:48:51: Perhaps this deep learning, machine learning, AI movement which is rapidly exploding worldwide will change all these barriers that we see and maybe in the shorter term. Maybe part of this leveling is this machine intelligence out there that's going to be a personal assistant to everybody and allow seamless communication. What are your feelings about that? Do you think AI is going to be this leveler or do you think it will be a threat to humanity and to our species?
"....I don't think it will be a threat to humanity. I do think it will be a huge leveler and I agree it does make a lot of communication a lot easier already....I think because of machine learning we are getting a lot of information that is personalized to our interests: getting news stories, search results, social media feeds, even ads that are of greater interest to us, and I feel like this is going to continue and that this kind of personalization will understand what you are trying to do and accomplish it for you....In my opinion, machine learning is a wonderful thing and it's one of the most exciting things to come out of the computer science field recently...."

:53:02: As a notable book author, do you have any recommendations for other budding authors?
"....The first piece of advice I would give for an aspiring author is don't do it for the money....If you do want to write for the love of it then start by writing articles. Sometimes you don't realize how much you have to say and by writing specific articles or blog posts it really gets your thinking flowing. It's a lot easier if you think about specific things that you want to get across. Both of my books, by the way, were collaborations and that makes it so much easier to get started, and I think it's really important to collaborate with people who inspire you...The other thing is if you are considering writing a book, think about whether it's the best medium these days for getting out your message; is it really necessary to stick to a traditional publishing format? Can you show information in different ways to allow people to use it and feel it and experiment with it in a way they wouldn’t be able to with something that is essentially static? Don't start by thinking you want to write a book, start by thinking you want to convey this thing and then how do you best do that?...."

:57:02: You also sit on the Professional Development Committee (PDC) of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), can you talk more about that and what you hope to accomplish as a member of the PDC?
"....The Professional Development Committee is a standing committee of the ACM Practitioner Board and its goal is to provide lifelong learning opportunities for professionals, especially practitioners. My goal when I joined was to be able to use some of my perspective to help serve ACM members and others....I'm a really strong believer in lifelong learning and I'm a beneficiary of some of the resources myself so sitting on this committee is a way for me to help give back just a little bit...."

:57:57: What kind of value do those products and services and the ACM Learning Center, which is somewhat guided by the PDC, provide to the computing professionals?
"....It's a really great curated source of information. For example, Webinars....Tech Packs (these give you curated sets of resources)....There are courses available, e-books (huge library of e-books), videos, other resources and it's all designed to help practitioners to stay current and have access to state of the art research and trends in industry...."

:59:56: You are a top ranked engineer and you are also an executive. Based upon your global expertise what are your top predictions, trends in each of these areas: Cyber Security; Cloud Computing; Big Data and analytics; Mobility; Modeling & Simulation; Web technologies; Machine learning & AI; and Blue Sky – out of the box thinking?
"....:01:00:18: Cyber-Security:....There are so many interconnected systems and so much reliance now on individuals that our systems will be secure and not share our personal data. I think the trend unfortunately is that it's getting worse before it's getting better.....Some of the things I think will happen: I think we need to have an end to this system of using passwords to authenticate or maybe that can be one of several methods, I think we need some redundancy....Currently we have to rely on users to do best practices to avoid phishing etc., to avoid using the same password on multiple sites, to avoid having easily guessable passwords and relying on users is not the way to go. More and more people are coming online all the time and coming online on mobile devices. They are not going to sit through training on cyber-security, so we really have to come up with engineering solutions....

:01:03:54: Cloud Computing:....Cloud computing is one of my favorite things. I really feel like it's changing the world and also the nature of entrepreneurship. It allows people to create and focus on these new things and not focus so much on the hardware and infrastructure....It makes sense in terms of scale and elasticity; there is dynamic resource allocation so you don't have to necessarily know in advance exactly what resources you need. Security, reliability - it's great to let the experts work on those things as opposed to you having to secure your own server, which can be error prone if it's something that you don't have a lot of expertise in. And then cost as well. The trend I see is that there is more and more usage....Another trend is that cloud computing is becoming more valuable, more efficient, more able to do better real-time manipulations of documents. My prediction is that this is really going to allow a lot more people to engage in the information economy. You were talking earlier about people in developing nations who are going to have access to the internet that they didn't have access to before. Well cloud computing is going to give them a lot of opportunity for access to this part of the economy as well....

:01:07:44: Big Data and Analytics:....You are seeing more data collected and faster than ever before with the internet, with sensors, with devices. The variety of the data collected is also changing. Unstructured data like search queries or user generated content like tweets or blogs or videos. Data like this is now considered information....The velocity and volume of the data is only going to continue to increase, especially with the internet of things.....I think we are not going to see such a sharp divide in knowledge in what's in the online world versus what's in the offline world. I think it's going to become much more seamless and there will be a lot more automatic interpretation of data. We shouldn't have humans interpreting it as much as we do so we will have more detection of trends, making predictions, making decisions on our behalf. I really feel like we are moving from the information age to an intelligence age....

:01:12:25: Mobility:....I think we will see this convergence of devices and that's one type of device. Then we'll see this divergence of other types of devices that are even more interesting in some way. These wearables, tiny wearables on the body, in the body that are sensing things. Maybe devices with minimal user interface where I can speak to it and I get answers and I don't have to pull anything out of my pocket....What I really want is brain-computer interaction, but I don't think that's going to become efficient any time soon so I might have to wait a little while for that one....

:01:15:45: Modeling & Simulation:....I think modeling and simulation are extremely important and that they will become more efficient and easier over time because of Moore's Law. These are really computationally intensive tasks so I do think it's going to become more useful, especially over time....

:01:17:28: Web Technologies:..... Over time HTML got richer, we started putting in a lot more user interface components and not letting the browser do the rendering, putting in a lot more Javascript and we started using AJAX to start making interfaces dynamic so automatically refreshing, updating and responding to the user, which is wonderful. It's a wonderful change, but it's a completely different paradigm and it has changed the nature of HTML from what it was originally created to be....One trend that I see now is that the concept of a page is less important. Webpages still exist but sometimes when I visit webpages it feels anachronistic. We don't expect webpages, we expect web applications and they should be responsive to us....

:01:22:02: Machine Learning and AI:....I think this existence of these huge datasets is really accelerating our ability to automatically understand things, to automatically generate knowledge out of information....

:01:25:03: Blue Sky - out of the box thinking:....There are so many potential areas, but one that I think is especially exciting is biotechnology. That would include things like sensors on the body. We are seeing more sensors on the body, we will have early warning systems of the health problems that we might encounter...."

:01:27:20: Can you share one or more stories of "impossible" challenges you were able to master?
"....You know actually I really don't believe in the word 'impossible'. Okay, you can't violate the laws of physics, but in terms of setting goals and reaching them I think there's a path, you might not know it, but there is one....The thing that was hardest for me was when I moved to Argentina on a one year assignment. I had a one year assignment in a field that was not anything I had done before, in a language which was not one I had mastered, in a country in which I had not lived before and was somewhat unfamiliar with the culture, in a team that I had not worked with before, in a department which I was not a part of and had very few connections with. I think I had changed too many variables at the same time.....This kind of experience, even if it's difficult to go through, you do learn so much and you are able to take your skills and reuse them. When I went back into more engineering-focused groups I was actually able to use a lot of those skills that I had gained during that one year's time, and in fact I did end up managing a Latin American engineering team after that so it all kind of fits together nicely. You are able to take lessons from anything you do, regardless of how disconnected they seem and apply them to any number of problems...."

:01:33:22: What are some good resources that you would recommend that can save people time?
"....I think online courses are an amazing source of information so I think for any manager in the technological field it's absolutely essential to keep up-to-date and always be learning about the advances in technology even though it's not clear that they are going to be immediately useful....In terms of understanding and acting within your organization, at least for my own personal work, I find that I need to do a lot of influencing and negotiation internally whenever you are trying to drive change, which is something I am trying to do. Stuart Diamond (who is a Wharton professor) wrote a really good book on negotiation, and I think it's really valuable reading for everybody even if you are not in a client facing role, even if you are in an internally facing role....In terms of third party relationships, don't forget about how people outside of your organization can help achieve some of your goals and you can help them as well. There are possibilities for university collaboration, for industry collaboration, with organizations, standards bodies. In my field which is accessibility, advocacy organizations are able to connect you with the real users, and whenever you are designing software you want to make sure you have a really deep understanding of the users and not a theoretical understanding, and so these external connections can also help you to do a better job and make more of an impact...."

:01:38:22: Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials? [See and the Global Industry Council,]
"....I do agree that these are important things, everything that you just mentioned, public accountability, quality, ethics are extremely important. I think there are areas where we really need to have strict quality control standards (such as aviation, banking, healthcare). People need to be held accountable for things like these data breaches. But I think with any kind of credentialing system, the devil is going to be in the details and I want to make sure we don't put up additional barriers to innovation....I think that a lot of issues with software occur at the organizational level rather than at the individual level and how priorities are set and how timelines are made, how individual contributors are rewarded. If we are going to look at something like this we really have to make sure that we are rewarding the right things, we're not stopping innovation or putting up any kind of barrier to innovation but that we are producing the kind of outcomes that we need...."

:01:40:36: I'm going to offer you some options here: You can share a story (something that happened in your travels or during your extensive speaking in your work), or you can talk about one particular broader challenge that is facing us that you think should be addressed, or you can ask yourself one or two questions that you think I should have asked and then provide the answers.
"....I'm going to ask two questions: 'What would you do if you didn’t have a day job?'.... 'Who would I like you (Stephen) to interview next?'...."

:01:44:06: Eve, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.