News & Content: ITA Take Aways

Exec Spin: Education, Awareness & Chi-Tech Success

Thursday, May 31, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Gary Hotze
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Trisha Degg, VP, Talent & Programs, ITA 


At ITA, we believe in attracting and retaining the best talent to Chicago, and a big piece of what we do is creating programs that engage the tech community with the local universities to keep that talent here, so they’re not going out to the coasts. 

Education is crucial to our tech ecosystem’s success. Therefore, programs such as the recently-launched Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence program at Northwestern University and the pre-existing Master of Science in Information Technology program are cornerstones to bridging talent gaps in the workforce. For instance, in the MSIT program, the students have an average of seven years of prior work experience. After nearly a decade in the Chicago tech workforce, employees are increasingly finding that to advance, they must return to school to sharpen and hone the skillsets needed to compete and progress. There is a definitive need for these types of programs, and luckily they’re here in our backyard. Therefore, awareness is critical. Many companies and prospective students don’t know that they exist and utilizing new programs such as MSAI, they can advance and grow robust tech careers in Chicago, no need to flee to Silicon Valley.

The Chicago tech community being so B2B heavy is changing the way every single industry is doing business, but because it’s not the sexy and consumer-focused Facebooks and Pinterests of the world, it flies under the radar. For example, Chicago-based Trustwave is changing how cyber-security implementation while specializing in mobile security. If you own a mobile phone, you’re more than likely touching a piece of technology that Trustwave has transformed day-to-day. However, nobody knows that Trustwave is here despite being headquartered in downtown and employing hundreds!  Uptake is another example. Its harnessing industrial analytics to transform verticals such as agriculture, rail and mining implementing predictive algorithms and data. These data-driven efficiencies are changing industries across the board. Awareness is at the heart of the problem. 

In this regard, programs such as ITA’s Tech Challenge and Chicago NEXT’s Think Chicago bring hundreds of students to the city each year while growing awareness of Chicago’s tech sector strengths. Moreover, we know that the universities are doing their best to create programs that fit the talent need of the Chicago tech community. That’s why the launch of new programs such as MSAI at Northwestern are initiatives to bring attention and trumpet. Artificial intelligence will significantly shape the careers of the next decade, greatly subverting some while establishing many others. We invite you to learn more about this emergent program, further thoughts on awareness and the Chicago tech ecosystem as a whole in our Q&A with Kris Hammond, Chief Scientist and co-founder at Narrative Science and a professor of Computer Science at Northwestern University below. And, to find out how your company can get involved click here.


What is the MSAI program?


In the Fall of 2018, Northwestern is launching a Professional Master of Science in Artificial Intelligence (MSAI) aimed at educating and training students in the theory and practice of AI. Designed for students with existing degrees in CS and time in the workforce, the program will provide an annual target of 45 – 60 students with the knowledge and tools they need to design and develop AI systems. We have developed a five quarter targeted AI curriculum, including technical foundations of AI and issues inherent to its utilization, augmented by hands-on student experiences through industry internships, practicum projects and capstone projects. 


Our vision is to provide students with more than a theoretical understanding of the field and technologies. Our goal is to provide our graduates with the skills needed to integrate what they know into effective applications and products, enabling them to tackle unique challenges of bringing intelligent systems into human workflow.


Our objective is to provide MSAI students with technical and design skills that will allow them to architect and develop AI products of the future. On the purely technical side, students will have classes in machine learning, data analytics, and natural language processing as well as and training in the development of problem solving and decision-making systems based on statistical, logic and evidence-based reasoning. On the design side, they will also learn about human computer interaction (HCI), human cognitive behavior, and computational social science.


And why are you launching it now?


The MSAI program addresses three needs driven by student, industry, and academia:


  •  First and foremost, it addresses the huge demand from students for classes and deeper training in and utilization of AI.
  • Second, we are responding to the massive rise in industry demand for people with AI skills at all levels.
  • Finally, the MSAI program will provide focus for and clarification of a Northwestern-branded AI approach, uniquely combining analytics, symbolic reasoning, and human computer interaction.


In short, our program will address the pressing, persistent and growing demand for skilled AI thinkers, designers and developers, providing them a novel approach while defining clear Northwestern thought leadership in this increasingly crucial area.


How do you plan to engage the local tech community?


Our vision for MSAI is not confined to the academic. It requires interaction with technology companies defining much of today’s need for AI and more traditional industrial partners confronting problems that can be addressed with emerging AI technologies. We envision ongoing, continual engagement around:

  • Creating curriculum acknowledging current needs of high tech employers
  • Accessing problems we could integrate into classes and capstones
  • Using real-world data with all of its richness and problems
  • Establishing internship opportunities and “first look” access for employment recruiting
  • Integrating emerging tools and APIs without restriction, with the intent of integrating them into our curriculum


We see this as part of a broader plan to create more interactions between the tech community in Chicago and the Universities that are part of it. The goal is to create a Midwest eco-system in which ideas, people and projects freely flow between the commercial and academic community. This interaction will help us grow the technology and innovation environment in Chicago that we all want and help us to keep our talent in the City.


What are the long-term goals of the program?


MSAI’s vision is scoping the work beyond the academy into the worlds of use and impact. While our mission begins with education and research, we are moving towards a more focused, problem-centric approach. Our plan focuses on the use of professional skills in places not often found in academia, dramatically increasing the awareness of AI not only at Northwestern but also among our corporate supporters.


Our goals with regard to this initiative scope are beyond the training of the students within the program.  Though their needs are first and foremost, we want to use MSAI to establish Northwestern as the center for an integrated approach to AI.


Why Northwestern? And why Chicago?


Computer Science at Northwestern has always had a focus and strength in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. This initiative will allow us to attract additional resources to amplify the work we are already doing and define Northwestern as the premier global academic thought leader and resource for the future of AI. We seek visibility for AI and CS at the University and for the partners who support the mission. 


Chicago is primed for this expansion in that the real problems of AI, that is the problems confronted by business, are everywhere. The diversity of business and the diversity of needs that result make Chicago the perfect proving ground for AI solutions that are genuine and real. Focusing on real problems and real solutions is part of the DNA of what it means to innovate in Chicago


You mentioned that Chicago has the potential to be more “tech fabulous.” How and why do you envision this transformation?


Chicago has everything it needs to be a technology powerhouse. We have a huge range of businesses and thus business challenges, we have great Universities all around us, and a flow of talent that is second to none. But we haven’t done enough to harness these three elements into a true eco-system of that sustains ongoing technology innovation. 


Students leave for the coast because they don’t ever see the corporate innovation that surrounds them.


Chicago companies look to Stanford, MIT and CMU for talent because they do not have the access they need to see who is coming out of the Universities.


Technologists within the Universities are courting the big tech companies because they aren’t seeing the innovation that is already going on in the City.


Our goal is to make the connections that are needed for all three of the core stakeholders to see each other’s work and then work together.


What are the strengths and weaknesses of this local tech ecosystem?


The problem-centric approach to innovation is at the core of what makes the Chicago tech community strong. The no nonsense approach to development means that solutions are for real rather than imagined problems.


The downside of this is that tech in Chicago sometimes feels too practical. As a result, we sometimes lose talent to two coasts where a “free to fail” attitude seems less conservative and more attractive. 


With greater more interaction between Chicago companies and Universities, we hope to create an environment in which includes the somewhat riskier world of pure research at the Universities with the more practical world in which that research is moved into practice.


What can local tech companies do to better engage with local universities?


The next step is for the local tech community to reach into the Universities, not just Northwestern, to look for talent in the near term and  then build relationships for the long term that will help us build and sustain the eco-system we all want. The goal cannot just be near term wins but has to be focused on creating the lines of communication that will help us see the new ideas, new innovations, and new products that Chicago deserves to build. And in regards to Northwestern, they can start here.


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