Movers and Shakers: Siani Pearson, Senior Researcher, HP Labs Bristol

SianiPearsonBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Siani Pearson, now a principal research scientist at HP Labs Bristol, says she wishes she had had more confidence in herself when she was first starting her career. “I think I’d have been pleased to know I’d get as far as I have,” she explained. “Sometimes when you’re young, you question yourself. ‘Am I going to be successful? Am I going to make it?’”

Now 20 years into her career, over 100 papers and 60 patents later, she continued, “But if you continue pushing yourself, you will work at high levels. You never know if you’re going to like upper level work, and it is stressful. But it’s worth it.”

One of the reasons she has succeeded in her career, Pearson theorized, may be her dissatisfaction with the status quo – and she encouraged young professional women to continue setting the bar higher for themselves. “The more I did, the more I tried to reset my expectations for myself. I’ve never been satisfied.”

Career in Computing

Pearson studied math and philosophy at Oxford, specializing in logic, and then went on to earn a master’s degree and PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Her focus at the time was artificial intelligence, which propelled her to a job at HP Labs in March of 1994. Now, over 20 years later, her research has run the gamut from AI to the cloud, and her current focus is on privacy and security.

Most recently, she has delved into privacy and accountability with regards to the cloud. “My research is quite often changing areas,” she said. “And over the past fifteen years, I’ve moved toward security related topics.”

Pearson has published over 100 papers and has about 60 patents (so far), but she says what brings her the most pride is how she is helping to change the face of technology, which, in turn, is changing the way people do business and communicate with one another. “These products are making a difference,” she said.

“Today we are creating technology to help protect people’s privacy, like HP Privacy Advisor. It’s an automated tool that helps HP deal with the large volume of projects within the company,” Pearson explained. “The web-based decision making support system helps all of our employees worldwide manage privacy risk and compliance issues associated with their projects.”

“It has been acknowledged by regulators as being cutting-edge technology for helping the way organizations approach risk and compliance.”

Women in STEM

Pearson says one of the main challenges for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers has to do with the demands of parenting. “In terms of trying to be able to be a good parent, balanced with having a career – the challenges are different for everyone.”

For example, she said, your commitment to the company can come into question if you are unable to travel or if you move to a part time schedule. “It can be perceived badly in terms of your dedication. I did go part time to accommodate my children, and in the short term it may have been harmful. But not in the long term.”

The good news is that things are changing for the better, she said. “These days it’s not seen in the same light.”

She believes computing is a great area for women to begin their careers, in fact. “Women are in the minority here, but I don’t think that affects your opportunities. It does offer flexibility and the ability to work from home. Generally, the opportunities are very good.”

Moreover, computing careers enable women to flex their creativity. “It’s a very creative type of thing to be doing. You’re problem solving and making a difference in people’s lives. It’s very motivating.”

She added, “I talk to girls to come into the profession because it’s very suitable for women.”

In Her Personal Time

Pearson is a senior member of IEEE, a professional organization for people in technical fields, and the Cloud Security Alliance. Her husband is a geologist and their two children are 16 and 18. “I’m glad that I managed to have a career while bringing up my children,” she explained. “My husband is away a lot for work, and it put a bit more pressure on me. I’m very fortunate to have an extended family to help.”