Feature Story

TechBeat Podcast S2 EP8: Talking inclusivity and product design with Maulie Dass

In this edition of TechBeat, Senior Director of Cisco Innovation Labs Maulie Dass shares her experiences growing up in a minority family and building technology at the intersection of innovation and inclusion.
Aug 24, 2021



Full transcript:

Maulie Dass (00:02):

Here I am in this, like one of the best jobs I've ever had in my life. Being 20 years in tech, where I get to see the intersection of innovation with inclusivity,

Liza Meak (00:16):

Inclusive innovation, it may sound like a buzz phrase, but it's one that's becoming more and more important in the tech industry.

Maulie Dass (00:23):

So the cool thing is, um, there, there has been progress. I think that this is just going to be, you know, um, our industry's life's work to some degree.

Liza Meak (00:35):

Hello and welcome to Cisco tech beat. I'm Liza Meak. I'm really excited to welcome Molly Dass. She's a senior director of Cisco innovation labs and she has given this issue a whole lot of thought, especially when it comes to product design and technology. Hey Molly, how are you?

Maulie Dass (00:51):

Thank you, Lisa. I'm well, thanks. How are you?

Liza Meak (00:54):

Good. I'm good. I love starting things when we start these podcasts from the beginning, but for you, it feels especially important because this passion around inclusivity really begins for you when you were growing up. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and growing up and why this is such an important matter for you?

Maulie Dass (01:16):

Yeah, I'm happy to. So I grew up, was born in Wisconsin. I grew up in Colorado for the majority of my childhood and quite, or my early adult years. I'm the only child to south Asian immigrant parents. My dad came here in the late sixties. My mom came here and for, you know, anyone who's born in the year, 2000 or beyond that's 1960s. And my mom came here in the early seventies and grew up in a pretty strict south Asian immigrant household. Um, there are many of us who have had the kind of dual identities or you're American by day, and like living your ancestry to the fullest and the evenings. Um, but a pretty strict household really focused on studies and things like that. And like the one thing growing up that I was very aware of was just how different I was that like, it wasn't just my skin color, but like then all of a sudden, like everything felt different. It's like, oh, I have glasses. I'm different. I have braces. I'm different. And I have short, weird hair I'm different, but I started to internalize essentially what was, um, kind of a form of racism that I guess I wasn't really aware of at the time. Um, but I became pretty aware of it going into high school and college and, um, in high school was where I became more racially politicized, uh, because you know, in ancient times in 1991, when I was a freshman in high school,

Liza Meak (02:38):

It's okay. I graduated high school in 91. So I still have you beat Molly. Oh,

Maulie Dass (02:43):

Well let's just say in like the coolest of times in life. Thank you very much.

Maulie Dass (02:43):


Maulie Dass (02:49):

I was a freshman in high school, so I was in ninth grade and, uh, at the time there was this uprising of the Klu Klux Klan across the U S and in Colorado. That was certainly the case. And what was really weird was the proximity that our high school had to the Klan because the, at that time, the, uh, uh, leader of the clan, um, uh, was, uh, alumni and an alumni of our high school, which is really weird. So he had graduated 10 years prior to, and we're starting to actually actively recruit, um, as were many other Klan chapters across the U S from your high school,

Liza Meak (03:29):

They were recruiting in your high school?

Maulie Dass (03:32):

Yeah. Actually recruiting within my high school, recruiting young kids, kind of like romanticizing the Neo Nazi movement. Um, and it was really weird because you could see visible signs of this. Um, it was kinda like methodical. There was a look and a feel. There was a language, there was a hairstyle, there were, um, shoes. So a lot of the students who were recruited to be a part of the clarity to be a part of the new Nazi movement would wear six hole doc Martins with red laces. Um, to this day, as cute as I think 6 hole doc Martins are, I will never wear them,

Maulie Dass (04:07):

They like totally ruined docks for me.

Liza Meak (04:10):

Like they turned It into a uniform, which is so scary. And for someone who, and for someone who is already internalizing who she is, how she looks different, how she feels different. And then to see this infiltration into your high school has to be like, it's kind of come at a crossroads. Okay, well, I can either run and hide from it or I can take action.

Maulie Dass (04:33):

Yeah. You're just processing and you're in fight or flight because this really did feel like terror. Um, anything think terrorists showed up in different ways. So, you know, one example is, um, you know, I would go to the Hindu temple, um, the actual ISKCON temple at the time and downtown Denver on Sunday evenings for, you know, weekly prayer with my family. And, uh, there were times when we would see Neo Nazis, you would recognize the six hole doc Martens with the red laces. And they'd be standing with their shoes on, which is super disrespectful at the the temple, which is like, yeah, like it's, uh, it was bad. So that was like one aspect. And it was just kind of intimidation, you know,

Liza Meak (05:13):

oh, that's awful.

Maulie Dass (05:36):

And then even, just kind of, again, going back to high school, this was my freshman year, um, as early as homecoming, but this is where we saw a ton of like fights break out between, um, you know, students being recruited to the clan provoking by way of like racial slurs to my black friends who were, you know, students at the high school. And, um, although I grew up in a really strict household and wasn't allowed to go to homecoming, my friends were both, you know, uh, of, of white and black and those that, those that were my black friends who attended homecoming, um, found their cars, you know, vandalized with swastikas on their windshields, like toilet paper all over. Like, this was just kind of a clear kind of case of again, what I would like to call terror and in a very methodical, very surgical, very prescriptive, very scary way. And so, and this was kind of like, oh, okay, so this is, this is happening. This is real. Now this is my, you know, fall of my freshman year in high school. And then shortly after that, um, you saw evidence of growth in membership of the clan, um, in Colorado because, uh, there was a formal Klan protest at the Denver Capitol against the observance of Martin Luther king day, I guess, ever since then, that has kind of formed, you know, kind of a baseline of opinions that like, okay, I'm different. I'm still important.

Liza Meak (06:38):

It's a lot Molly. Like, this is what you grew up to. This is your foundation. This has made you such this strong, fierce activist person who fights for what's right and for what's just in all things in your professional life, in your personal life and everything else, which is why having you on this podcast and getting this message out is so dang important.

Maulie Dass (07:07):

No, thank you. By the way, let's just keep it real. That kind of this experience that I've had is nothing compared to true terror that I think a lot of black Americans have faced, um, because of the Klan. And so I just wanna, I think that's really important to point out that like, like me just feeling this way is just a small glimpse into what is just terribly possible,

Liza Meak (07:32):

Right. The, the physical violence and everything else that has happened to the black community, not only in Aurora, Colorado, but all across the country. So yeah, that is an important to point out. But as someone who is an advocate and an ally and someone who is brown skin who looks very different from other people, it is still an important part to bring up.

Maulie Dass (07:58):

I think it's like kind of like one of the most, um, kind of influencing aspects of my past, I would say, um, kind of all of this just kind of culminates into my point of view that like, we should be bringing your whole selves everywhere. We should be included everywhere. Racism should not be tolerated. We should practice anti-racism, we should acknowledge that we have biases and we should forgive ourselves for those biases, but always kind of always work toward mitigating those biases and making sure that we're inclusive. So I think like in a fast forward to today, here I am in this, um, like one of the best jobs I've ever had in my life. Um, being 20 years in tech, where I get to see the intersection of innovation with inclusivity, explore what's possible from a design thinking perspective and this actually like work that we're doing, um, and kind kind of formulating on an ongoing basis on my team, which is how do we ensure that we don't have mismatches in product design?

Maulie Dass (09:01):

How do we ensure that when we have, um, you know, design thinking, uh, workshops, that we are bringing a diverse group of, you know, innovators to the table that we're being inclusive of thoughts, I get to be kind of in a role that thinks about all that stuff. I also have the privilege of partnering with a lot of our really smart engineering teams on AI and ML projects. And the one thing that I'm really proud about is that, you know, as I lead Cisco Innovation Labs, and we talk about innovation with our customers all the time, uh, we sit right alongside Cisco research and they're innovating and researching, or actually funding projects at universities focused on mitigating bias and hate speech. And, you know, social constructs like hashtag black Twitter. We're not only kind of trying to practice and live this, even though we may not be experts from an AI or ML model perspective. But now we also sit alongside like the, the squad of like, Hey, like really thinking about how to mitigate, uh, bias in AI models, which ultimately that bias is formed because humans are biased, human decisions, therefore are bias. If human decisions are the things that are actually informing what a model could look like, AI models have the risk of being biased as well, right?

Liza Meak (10:16):

I mean, everyone has a little bit of bias in them, just from their backgrounds, experiences, all of these things, but that's why you need this diverse and inclusive workforce and team and technologists and engineers, all of these different things, because as you're programming things, that's the way to make, you know, product designs better, AI, better, all of these different things. And so really quickly, before we dive into all of this, I also want to hear about how you got into tech as well. Were you always someone that was interested in technology and where you like back in your 1991 freshman year, were you a, was there even a coding club? Probably not in your high school, maybe there was, there wasn't in my high school.

Maulie Dass (11:03):

There totally was. Well, yeah. I mean, my high school was actually one of the first that actually had an internet server, uh, believe it or not. So, yeah, I was a part of the computer club ever since like eighth grade, it was fun cause we just played games, uh, just played games. And then I was a part of a, I took actually a AP coding class in high school and that's when I was like, well, this is fascinating. And this is really hard. And I got myself stuck in infinite loops over and over again. But uh, being able to take programming after that in college, cause I did major in electrical and computer engineering. Um, that really helped because I had this kind of tech foundation in high school. I had this comfort that, um, I think more or less women, frankly, you need to have, um, with not knowing what to do with computers, but trying to figure it out anyway.

Maulie Dass (11:54):

And um, yeah, that's kind of how I got into tech. And so since I have been in the tech industry ever since then, now for like 22 years, 22 years, and uh, I've done e-cig verification, engineering, hardware, engineering, sales, engineering, channel sales. Then I kind of fell in love with like this aspect of innovation and the art of the possible in terms of solving customer problems. Um, and yeah, now I'm in an innovation role where I get to still be obsessed with customer problems, but still be in an engineering organization where we can potentially bring those solutions to life

Liza Meak (12:33):

And the art of the possible what a great phrase. I love that. Like you can take that for so many different things, not only product design and innovation, but so many other things, but this is like, there can never be a better role for you. You did say earlier you have the best job in the world and for all of those reasons. And some of the things that I think we have to talk about too, is when it comes to product design, when it comes to inclusivity, we have to talk about some of the failures that are in some of these everyday things that we use that feels so unbelievable.

Maulie Dass (13:11):

It's funny. There's so many, and there's so many like, um, why don't we say products that are mismatched or exclude so many people on so many levels. Um, and we continue to do so. Like we didn't actually put intention and, you know, legislation and stuff to like make things more inclusive. But one, um, really simple example is, um, uh, in college lecture halls you'll see desks that are how like, you know, support for your elbow. But only if you're right-handed meaning that these lecture hall desks are made for right-handed people, but there really aren't any options for left-handed people. And you think about the implications of this for someone who is, you know, left-handed and is writing notes for one hour during lecture or worse, writing an exam in a lecture hall and doesn't have at any point in time for that hour, any place to rest their elbow, um, having a potentially impact our grade in that class, because you're not able to perform because you are not equipped with the same resources that your fellow students who happened to be right-handed are, which like you just think about that.

Maulie Dass (14:15):

And it's like, uh, like if, if I was left handed, I'd be furious. I'd just stop going to class. It's like, Hey, you know what, remote learning that's for me because I can put my elbow wherever I want, regardless of which hand I write like. Another example and this is like one that also infuriates me, um, is, uh, there'll like in the beginning when hand soap dispensers that were automated, uh, meaning that they could sense a hand underneath the dispenser and then dispense soap accordingly. Um, when those were first released, uh, they did not actually recognize the presence of dark skin or a hand with dark skin. And it's because technology there that was tested and then, you know, was it created by people who didn't have dark skin was also tested with people who did not have dark skin. Um, the, the technology of this relied on the fact that light would reflect off of white skin. And so therefore, if there was a reflection you would dispense soap, well, this doesn't happen if you have brown skin. So if you ever see someone with brown skin who like frantically waving their hand underneath the soap dispenser, please just take a moment, let them know it's not them, it's the tech. And, um, it's, it's the bias in that product. Uh, that's something that just like drives me nuts now

Liza Meak (15:25):

we know these things we can hopefully do better, right? Like from when it comes to product design,

Maulie Dass (15:33):

Whether you are creating a product that is, you know, kind of mechanical, like the soap dispenser or you're creating a product that is based on, you know, an artificial intelligence model or algorithm. I think the key thing to note there is that you're creating a product if it's just you. And you're just thinking about like something that would work for you by default, you are biased. Um, if it's like you and like, you know, your closest friends, that's likely still biased, meaning that it's likely going to be an exclusive product. I think there's just some things, um, too, that we're trying to keep in mind, like the first is, um, you have to have inclusion with diversity. You can't have one or the other, um, you forfeit creativity if you do that. So that's like one key thing. Um, you have to practice. It is the other piece. So we talk a lot about embedding inclusivity. It's one thing to say, but it's another to feel it, to feel it is to belong. And when you belong, you are going to contribute and you were going to care and you were going to feel just as accountable as everyone else in the room. And that's so important.

Liza Meak (16:41):

Can we pause on that for a second and like dive into that, because that is what is so important within all of this. Sometimes you think of like a diverse and inclusive workforce and there you're done, and the work is done if you have a certain percentage of people within a company, but it goes so far beyond that. When you go into the products, when you go into these meetings at each of these meetings, each of these brainstorming sessions, each of these testing sessions has a sense of belonging for everyone. And there is a little bit of everyone that brings who they are, their background, be it black, white, Indian, you know, Chinese, whatever it is, straight, gay, whatever it is. So they can be a voice for good change, right. In product design.

Maulie Dass (17:35):

Yeah. So like, there's this it's people process tools. If you embed inclusivity, like one of the things that we talk a lot about is inclusive naming or inclusive language and code. Um, when you see code words like master and slave, um, in code in software, these are, um, these are microaggressions in code and if you see them over and over again, um, if you are, you know, a person that lives the everyday privilege of being a white straight man in the United States, well then maybe like this just kind of, you just kind of forget about it and you move on, right? Because these microaggressions may not impact you, but like think of anyone else right, and think of like, you know, our black colleagues who have to sit there and look at like a slave, you know, slave you being used as a code word to describe certain instances and, and seeing that kind of every day, like you are embedding racism, essentially you're embedding microaggressions, but what if you could actually change inclusive language or you can change software and say, Hey, you know, instead of master and slave use primary and secondary, and let's actually incorporate like some automated capabilities, uh, when we're compiling just as much as I would get a security warning, um, you know, with my linter rules, I'm going to get, you know, inclusively warnings like, Hey, you're using these terms not so inclusive or, Hey, you may be wanting to think about swapping this term for that term.

Liza Meak (19:06):


Liza Meak (19:06):

Is a brilliant idea. Is that happening? Are those warnings going out? Has anyone started doing that because can we start on that like stat?

Maulie Dass (19:18):

Yes. And yes. And yes. Um, so The cool thing is there, there has been progress. I think that this is just going to be, you know, um, our industry's life's work to some degree. Um, but yes, uh, one example that we're doing, there are many instances of inclusive language at Cisco, and we are now creating a, essentially a cross-functional committee for lack of better words or virtual team by which we, you know, get together. We share best practices on inclusive naming. And then, you know, we really drive towards mitigating, um, mitigating these microaggressions and code, and it aligns with our social justice actions. Action, 12 being one focused on human rights, inclusive naming is a key part of that. But yes, from an automation and kind of rule checking perspective, one of the things that we started doing right away, and this is the benefit of open source, this is a benefit of infrastructure as code and the benefit of all things, cloud native, which is kind of the realm by which our innovation team lives in is we actually, you know, got a, linter like a rule checker basically from get hub it's called work.

Maulie Dass (20:22):

Um, because we're like, well, you know, if there's something that's already out there, like let's just use some, it's already open source let's, you know, put it in our environment. So that way we just have proactive checks while you know, every single, um, software developer is, you know, running in a test on their coach, compiling the code, checking the code so on and so forth. Like they actually get to see these roles too. And what's cool is that the minute we implemented it and like sparked this really interesting dialogue one, it was kind of boom, not confrontational, but like, Hey, what is this? And why am I getting these warnings? Why do I care? So you don't need a little bit of conversation that you had to have.

Liza Meak (20:57):

Well, it's so good. And it's so important. And for Cisco to be doing it, we're not the only tech company. Obviously that's doing this, but to actually take it seriously and take legitimate actions for it, a lot of companies may talk the talk, but they don't actually do the hard work to make important change. What does that say for you, for someone that has worked at Cisco for a long time, um, to kind of move forward and be proactive in this space?

Maulie Dass (21:31):

What it tells me is that like, you know, even if you work in a pretty traditional environment that I think change is possible and like, what, what matters is that you care and that you try? Um, so for us, it was like, all that happened like in our organization was I saw some, you know, updates go through, uh, they were kind of automated updates from our build environment. And they had kind of, they're referring to, you know, instances that had names of slave. And I had pinged our platform engineering team and I said, Hey, what's the opportunity for us to have this be more inclusive? And they were like, oh my God, ah, you know, like, and they were like, okay, we gotta do something. We gotta, you know, and they immediately, you know, this is again the benefit of automated environments, but just like they embraced trying it out.

Liza Meak (22:19):

Sometimes when people think of Cisco and the products that we have, they're like, well, that doesn't really affect Cisco. They do, you know, hardware, some software, we do security, we do collaboration. These are things that we're agnostic to it, but that's so not the case and bringing it up that inclusivity and diversity and product design is in the fabric of every single thing that you do regardless of what field you're in. Right. I, I think that those important point to hon in because some people will say, well, that doesn't, that doesn't really relate to the business that I do, but it really does.

Maulie Dass (23:01):

It totally does. And, um, it's like in a couple of ways. So we do have end-user products, like Webex is a great example of an end-user product that, um, strives evermore more, to be more inclusive. We see that in like the languages that we continuously try to support, we see that in, you know, the mental wellness that we're trying to incorporate, you know, with our partnership with thrive. For instance, we see, you know, our team has created all these different prototypes on like, how do we actually have a kind of listening engine in the back of Webex that will like coach you on inclusive behavior? Like there's different prototypes that we play with all the time because Webex ends up being an end user product, but that's not where it stops because the manifestation of where the realization or the solution, rather of products that are more infrastructure related, like think about a wifi access point.

Maulie Dass (23:52):

Here's a discussion that, you know, as one of the previous leaders, global leaders of our pride or LGBTQ plus organization at Cisco, um, one of the things that we were discussing last year, um, when the pandemic had just hit is okay, someday, we're going to go back into the office. What are the things that we should think about? And this is where this manifestation or the solution, and being aware of a demographic like LGBTQ plus people really came to light, which is number one, as we go to the office, can we actually have, um, can we be aware of social distancing? Um, but also be aware that, um, in the LGBTQ plus community, we might need social distancing because some of us might be immunocompromised. Um, the other is that, can we ensure that there is wifi for connected cameras outside? So that way we feel safe going to our cars at night and that like is relevant to many demographics, whether you're a woman, whether you are, um, a part of the pride community, um, so on and so forth. Um, also, you know, it's, you know, very relevant to anyone who is a person of color as well. And then the other piece is that, you know what, a lot of us have private conversations, not all of us are out at work. How do I have more, the audio privacy rooms? That's what we call them, right? Yes. But they're

Liza Meak (25:10):

Not private. Everyone can hear you. ,

Maulie Dass (25:14):

So like what do I need to do? Like put like eggshell cartons on the wall to like, make sure you can't hear me, you know, like, cause that's one option, but like maybe, maybe just actually make them truly private. Um, that's really meaningful. Um, otherwise I'm not going to come into the office, but like, this is the stuff that we did think about. So to your point, it is just because you don't have an end user product doesn't mean that your product would be, would be excluding people. The reality is a manifestation of that tech, the solutioning of it, um, is just as important. And so we think about that a lot too,

Liza Meak (25:50):

As we come out of this, like, and as we are able to be ourselves and get out, I want to know a little bit more about you and what some of the things that you, um, you know, when you're getting out and celebrating, going to a dance party, what's on your playlist. Can we talk about that? That was a hard transition, but

Maulie Dass (26:13):

I don't know you made it work. No, you

Maulie Dass (26:15):

Totally made it work. I was like, perfect. Um, yeah, there's this fun song called Jalebi Baby. That's like my summer jam. It's just something I play every day. Um, Jalebi is an Indian sweet, um, spelled J a L E B. I am spelling it. So that way all of y'all can like Google

Speaker 4 (26:32):

It, listen to it, to find

Maulie Dass (26:34):

It. And it's like, um, you know, it's the first time I've ever seen. It was just kind of growing up with like nineties R and B and hip hop, you know, and like wanting to be a fly girl while I'm secretly, you know, coding and computer class. Um, but I, you know, this is why you see like south Asian, you know, dancers in the background in a hip hop video. It's like really cool. Um, so that's like one fun song. Um, it's funny that, uh, we were talking about inclusive naming so much, but, um, cause I, we, Cisco is lucky to have Steven Augustus as, um, you know, uh, part of the immersion tech and incubation team. And he, um, uh, leads our open source initiative across Cisco. He's also the founder of inclusive naming. He is just, he's the founder of many things. He leads many things. He's very visible. Um, he's like the most famous person I know, I feel like, but he, uh, I was telling him this morning about how I had a whole bunch of Depeche mode songs in my head. I'm getting to my point. I swear.

Maulie Dass (27:36):

Um, I love Depeche mode songs. I think that they're fun to dance too. They're fun to sing to, but I, you know, um, there's a song called Personal Jesus and in my head I was like, you know, maybe that's not the most inclusive terminology. And so I was like, what would it, what the word be? Cause you know, just being aware of inclusive naming and it's like, you know, personal confidant, like your own personal confidant and it doesn't totally work, but like I can see it happening. So I was telling Steven that like he should make a karaoke video of like re

Speaker 3 (28:09):

Remix [inaudible] exclusive.

Liza Meak (28:13):

Yes. Instead of karaoke bars, there'll be, uh, inclusivity bars where you just like play like where you re insert different words for it.

Maulie Dass (28:23):

Yeah. It's like Madlibs, but like with inclusive language, um,

Liza Meak (28:26):

Oh my God. I think we have a new business model. I think. So

Maulie Dass (28:29):

That's a new innovation thing. Um, we'll take it to our incubator. Um, so yeah, that's, I guess those are the songs at the moment in my head or on my playlist.

Liza Meak (28:37):

Well, I'm going to, I'm going to for sure. Check it out and I have not yet, but I am going to, because I want to, I want to like get in your head as well, too. Like you have so much goodness in your head and you're laughing because you're thinking, no, you really do not want to be in my head. I'm guessing. You're thinking that

Maulie Dass (28:54):

It's terrifying here now. Don't do it.

Liza Meak (28:58):

All right. Well, uh, when we're not, when you're not innovating and figuring out the next iteration of karaoke bars or on WebEx calls, where, what will we find you doing most often? Um,

Maulie Dass (29:10):

Walking around my neighborhood. COVID has, uh, brought a silver lining in that sort of walking for function, like walking to the coffee shop or walking to the Bart station. I'm walking for joys. I like to walk around my neighborhood, walk for joy, walking in the fog, all that stuff, uh, in San Francisco.

Liza Meak (29:30):

Oh my goodness. This has been a phenomenal conversation and so important. And so enlightening. And I want people when they're coding to keep an eye out, for those words, that need to be changed, we can change it, change as possible, know better do better. All of those things. Right. Molly.

Maulie Dass (29:52):

Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's progress. Not perfection.

Liza Meak (29:56):

Exactly. Thank you so much for this. I really appreciate it. Such an important topic.

Maulie Dass (30:03):

All right. I appreciate your time. Thank you so much. This was fun.