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Ian Quah – Meet the Mentor

I currently work at Duality Technologies where we work on encrypted ML through Homomorphic Encryption. My research interests are Deep RL, encrypted ML, and biologically plausible deep learning.
Ian Quah

Software Engineer, Duality Technologies

Why did you decide to become a mentor?
I decided to become a mentor because I remember how difficult it was for me when I was looking to get into Machine Learning (especially as a new grad) and how lost I felt regarding where I saw my career going. In my search for mentorship, I reached out to various people throughout my journey; on some occasions, I got mentors, while in others, I got some very sound advice that I continue to reflect on to this day.

In some ways, I see mentorship as my way of giving back to the community and hopefully encouraging others to become mentors themselves (when they feel ready). I enjoy helping someone figure out what they want, both in the short and long term, and then identifying measurable progress to ensure they are on track.

I also enjoy knowing that I am helping someone find happiness and fulfillment in their career. I believe that because we spend so much time working, we should find work that makes us content (even happy, if we’re lucky). I often think about the concept of ikigai, and although it’s not always relevant to what my mentees want, I try to help them get as close as possible. In some way, helping my mentees brings me closer to my ikigai.

Somewhat selfishly, I also feel that the process of mentoring others helps better me. My mentors have shared stories about how they think they have grown in their personal lives and careers through the mentoring process.

What role did mentorship play in your past?

I think that mentorship has played a critical role in my past. For most of my youth, my mentors were teachers whom I latched on to, but later in life, my mentors became people I reached out to. As I answer this question, it's interesting to note how my being a mentee went from a passive activity to an active activity. Perhaps it's a sign that I now know better what I want from my life and career.

As cliche as it sounds, it's safe to say that I would not be where I am today without my mentors. One college mentor was a huge source of inspiration - he was more of a motivational speaker than anything else (even though I learned a lot from his class). It's funny that even though I went on to take classes with much more "prestigious" professors, his classes were the ones I look back on the most. Without him (and other factors), I would have felt much more lost in college and would not be on the path I am on today. Of all the professors I had, he's one of the two I still occasionally message and would go back to see.

In addition to being a mentee, I think being a mentor played a critical role in my past. Being a mentor made me want to step up to the challenge, making my growth process less about only my development but instead about the growth of my mentees. Through my mentees, I've seen many scenarios - bad bosses, bad situations, etc.- and I think that in helping my mentees get through those situations, I have also become a better person. I've become more compassionate, identified what it means to be a good leader, and determined how to be the person someone else might strive to be. I may not have been the mentor I want to be, but I think I know the path to get to that point (with some help from my mentors).

How did you get your career start?
I was on the job market for a long time at the start of my career. Most of my friends had jobs lined up by the end of senior year, but I was still in the process of looking. Unfortunately, the pressure was beginning to get to me. Given the nature of a job in tech, whether you’re a software engineer, researcher, etc., your role at the end of the day is to solve problems. If you’re unable to solve problems (or get past the interview step), you start to wonder if you’re smart enough or good enough to get the types of roles you’re interested in. Looking back, I wish I had a mentor during this time of my life; instead of focusing on the overarching goal, I was so focused on the minutiae that I always felt like I was spinning in circles.

Returning to the question, I started my career because I was referred to a job by a friend. He worked part-time at a startup and knew they needed a software engineer to help build their infrastructure. So, that friend referred me to the startup, and, to make a long story short, I got my break all because of a serendipitous trip to the Minnesota state fair. That chance event changed the entire course of my life.

How do you usually set up mentorships?
I tend to start a prospective mentorship by first meeting over video. My primary goal is to get to know the other person: to know if our personalities align, to understand their goals, and to know if the mentorship is worth our time.

In our next meeting (or that first meeting - depending on how long it lasts), we then discuss creating measurable progress indicators. For example, I often get vague goals like

I want to become a better software engineer


I want to become a machine learning engineer

These are fine goals in themselves, but we can’t use them to measure progress. And lots of “productivity hacks” have shown that being able to see measurable progress is beneficial in keeping motivation high. So, we take that vague goal and craft a series of indicators that we can use to identify progress towards their goal(s).

After we’ve settled on some indicators, we discuss timelines to hold them accountable. Then, I sync up with them at least every two weeks or once a month, depending on our schedules. All in all, I tend to be relatively hands-off unless I need to step in. The hands-off approach is a good model because it doesn’t create dependence and helps them feel comfortable and independent. In my opinion, the end goal of mentorship is to know that the mentee has graduated and no longer needs your help, and I think that independence and self-confidence are vital to that.

What’s been your favourite mentorship story so far?
One mentee sticks out in my mind because I ended up giving a (remote) talk at an event across the world through her. The attendance was relatively small as I spoke about esoteric Deep Learning topics involving the Biological Plausibility of deep learning, Spiking Neural Networks, and whether the brain could implement backpropagation. Nevertheless, the process gave me the confidence to sign up to speak at more events.

So, while many mentors will talk about how mentoring made them better people or how they got a lot out of it, I can point to a tangible outcome of my mentorship process.

What are you getting out of being a mentor?
The things I’ve gotten out of mentorship have been:

reminders to reflect on what I want out of my career a better understanding of whatever topic(s) I’m discussing

In discussing progress and career news with my mentees, I also reflect on what is happening in my career. As I answer their questions or give them advice, I also think about what my mentors would say to me in those situations. In that sense, my mentees remind me to heed my advice and think not just about the short term or the small things in front of my face. I believe that in mentoring different people and seeing their various problems, I also continue to receive mentorship from my mentors as I reflect on what advice they might give.

Another benefit of mentorship has been the process of questioning what I know. There is something to be said for the benefits of teaching someone a new topic: as I explain some machine learning concept to someone or try to build intuition, my mentees might ask why things are the way they are. My mentees and their questions force me to ponder various ideas I had previously taken for granted or accepted without questioning.

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