Holly Weaver and Raminder Dhiman chat live during the pandemic of 2020 about India, Engineering and solving problems with AI.
Name: Raminder Dhiman
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
Hometown: Patiala, Punjab, India
Position: Senior Product Manager at Cognistx
Alma Mater: Duquesne University
Holly: First off can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
Raminder: Yeah, definitely. So, I am a Senior Product Manager at Cognistx and I really like building new products, talking to the customers, trying to understand the business problems, and once we get to know the problems in detail, I really like the process of product discovery where we are trying to find out the features and how we can actually solve all the business problems. That adds business value to the customers.
Also, there's a very interesting process in the whole product journey, which is prioritization and roadmap, which helps us to release the product features with possible timelines. And, of course, there are multiple cross-functional team management talking to the data science team, engineering team, designing the front-end of the product, releasing the product. All of these cross-functional communications… I really like all of this stuff.
I was born and raised in my hometown Patiala, and I wanted to be an engineer for a long time. I am a mechanical engineer, and after my Engineering, I went for my MBA. I was working for three years in India in Mumbai, and then I moved to the U.S.A. for my masters.
Tell me about Mumbai. What’s it like to live there?
Mumbai is a very, very cool city. Undoubtedly, I’ll say it is the best city in India to live, because it involves all the aspects that you want. There are a lot of growth opportunities along with a lot of food options. As a North Indian, I really like North Indian food, and when you move a little bit South or West in India, the food options are not really that great for Northern people, but Mumbai has everything.
It’s great to live in Mumbai. There’s so much diversity in Mumbai. People from all places live there and also from some other countries. When you’re working there, you get to interact with people with different backgrounds and you understand different perspectives.
You said you wanted to be an engineer growing up… what attracted you toward that profession?
When I was a kid, I really liked toy cars and toys with moving parts, which were more like mechanical stuff, and I used to break them a lot - intentionally sometimes as well as to understand how these things move. What are the connections between different parts? And that actually was fascinating to me.
When I was in high school, I started researching what are the things that I can actually do? That particular mechanical interest was still there. When I started studying physics in my middle school and all the concepts of force, friction, speed… those things were extremely interesting to me. These concepts of physics actually increased my interest to study engineering. It was more toward mechanical or electronics, rather than computers. So, I researched a little bit more and I finally decided that, you know, “I want to be a mechanical engineer and I want to look and understand all the factors of force and how machines work and how we can optimize them and how we can keep on improving them.”
Now, is that what you studied at Duquesne University?
No, this is something that I studied back in India in my very first undergrad, which was Mechanical Engineering. I studied all of those things over there.
What was the most important thing you took from that side of engineering into what you’re doing today at Cognistx?
I think I would say the perspective to look at multiple angles of different things before making a decision. You have to really explore because solving any issue in any mechanical problem, you need to first understand the problem, the root cause. You know, that is the biggest thing. What is happening? Why is it happening? And then, you come up with various options to solve that problem, and then you implement the solution.
So, that is the exact same process we use at Cognistx as well. And in product management, as well. The very beginning part is understanding the problem. So, the perspective is more of what I took from engineering and we are implementing it over here.
When you were studying at Duquesne, were there any extracurricular activities you were involved with?
Yes, I was Student Ambassador of Masters of Information Systems Management, and my job was to work with all the international applicants. I helped the international students who are in their home country and want to know more things about the school in order to make a decision. These are the challenges I faced when I was applying to schools back in India, back from my home country, so you have a lot of questions regarding the university, regarding the program…. How is it to live over there? What are the future plans? And all of the various services that the school offers. So I understand their problem, and I used to get on weekly calls with them to see if they have any questions and how I could help them. There were some people who were already in Pittsburgh and they wanted to explore the university, so I used to schedule some meetings with them. They’d visit the campus, I’d help them understand what’s happening, what are the courses, what are the options and you know, various opportunities to learn and explore.
Are there any charities that you’re passionate about?
So, not any specific charity, but there are a lot of Facebook events where you can donate. Back in Mumbai as well I donated some amounts to organizations that support children who don’t have the resources to study.
So, are you passionate about helping children?
Yeah, definitely. This is something I learned from my dad. My parents do some charity work and they are also more inclined toward giving education to underprivileged kids. So, speaking to them, I asked “Why education? Why not food or clothes or just giving cash to people?” So, he explained that whenever you educate a particular child, you are not just giving them a temporary solution, you’re enabling them to earn their livelihood for their whole life, rather than some temporary fix of cash or food or clothes. So, I’m always in for donating to underprivileged kids who want to study but don’t have the resources to do that.
That’s great. We need people in the world to step in and help someone else who will affect generations to come.
Exactly. They will not have a quick fix solution, but they will have the resources and tools to keep earning for their entire life, and that fixes the whole family, not just one person. So, I think that’s the best way to help a person.
How has COVID impacted you?
COVID has not impacted me at a very large scale. The main thing is that five days of the week you are working, so my main concern was I hoped that doesn’t impact our product deliveries to the customer or have any impact on the customer. So that is not happening because we are all good and achieving the delivery milestones.
COVID actually helped me to become a little bit more efficient, because when I’m at home I’m just continually working. There are less things to deviate from the work, so I think that nothing has negatively impacted me. Some things are positive. One thing I can say is that I like to go out on weekends. That we cannot do, so that is something a little bit bothering, but that’s still fine and it’s not a huge thing.
What clubs did you used to go to?
Mainly we used to go to… there are not a lot of clubs in Pittsburgh… one of the majors is Cavo. I used to go to Cavo a lot. Whenever we are going to a club, we go to Cavo. There are a lot of bars I like to explore. There are always new bars. You know, Lawrenceville has got a lot of new bars coming up and also Shadyside and other places have new places coming up all the time.
So, probably one or a couple of times in a month, I hit the club.
So, what kind of music do you listen to?
It depends on the mood, honestly. It’s like, you know, Indian, mostly Indian, and then in Indian, as well, there’s a little Punjabi in the music. And then, I like Maroon, Postmalone, Charlie Puth.
Whatever is going on these days, I like that music. I go to Spotify, it’s like “Today’s Top Hits.” They have good customized playlists on Spotify.
What’s your favorite rap song?
I’m a little bit old, so I used to like Linkin Park a lot. I still listen to Linkin Park sometimes these days as well. For around more than 20 years their songs have been there. I’ll say I like Linkin Park. There’s this new guy Khalid. I like that guy as well.
What’s a good Indian song?
There are a lot. A lot. There’s this new - not new artist - but, he’s been around for like 5 years now - his name is Badshah. His music is good.
What else would you like our readers to know about you?
I’ve recently acquired a new hobby, hiking. For the past 6 or 7 months, I’ve been into hiking a lot. I like to get out of the city into the woods and spend some time on the weekend in the woods away from traffic and people and everything else, and I have started exploring a lot of parks nearby me. There, I can just walk for some time and there is no traffic, no pollution, no noise and I can be just straightforward sometimes. So, yeah, that is something new I’ve acquired and I’m really liking it. I’m really into it.
How do you see the future of AI?
That’s a complicated question. I think the future of AI is definitely great. There are a lot of things… a lot of things... we can achieve from AI. There is absolutely huge amounts of data that is present there that a lot of companies own, but are not sure how to use that. I believe this phase of this decade we are into, this is more like you know understanding and realizing there is so much power in data, that we can do, but we all are trying to figure out how we can use that data to generate business value. I can see Big Data as a huge potential where, you know, companies are trying to make sense out of their data. We can untangle this complication. Store the data in a meaningful way and extract some statistics. Know your customers more and how we can benefit those customers by knowing them. So, this part is extremely important and it’s having a lot of potential and I believe in the next five years we’ll be seeing a lot of advancements in this case.
Also, the Big Data part is just one domain of AI. There are so many things that people are doing that we can do. For example, another thing that I’m really looking forward to is self-driving cars, which is amazing. It can make roads so much safer. It can make travel so much more efficient and because travel is one of the problems that humanity is not able to solve, even though we can reach different planets, you know, we have reached the moon - but, we are not able to solve this basic problem of travel. Even in cities like San Francisco, which is one of the most advanced technological cities in the world, travel is still an issue.
Commute to work and back home, you spend an hour… Why is that? Why are we not able to solve that problem? I mean, I think that is something that I’m looking forward to and that will be solved in I believe 5-10 years for sure.
So, how can companies that use AI now, for instance, Spotify, create more value for their shareholders with AI?
So, let’s talk about the data-oriented approach first. So, when I talk about what a lot of data companies can use, which can create so much value for their customers or users, I’ll take an example of Spotify, because I am a regular user and I believe there are a lot of people. Spotify came up with the feature which was “discover” or “discovered for you.” It contains songs that match with your customized historical listened songs that you have never heard.
What I also feel is, I want to listen to new songs. Everybody wants to listen to new things and they don't want to listen to the same songs everyday. But, every person has a unique genre, or what kind of songs they want to listen to. So, they actually tap into the historical data of each and every user and they made a lot of sense out of that, and then they came up with this list of “discover weekly,” which is customized for each and every user, was an instant hit and streamed around 1.5 billion times in the first 6 months. They still have the same package, the user is still paying the same money, but they are getting more features, which is so much value delivered to them.
So, there are companies doing it. You look at Tesla and Uber. These guys are going crazy into self-driving cars. Tesla - all the users - whenever I talk to Tesla owners - they say they will never ever go back to a regular car. If some user is saying this particular thing after using your product, it means you have delivered the value. And, this is a huge thing. Most often I hear users saying the self driving option is extremely helpful on long drives, and the whole driving experience itself is much better and efficient. These are some of the ways companies are using AI to deliver value to their customers.
Understanding the customer at a much deeper level than they’ve done ever.
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