Priya Lakhani is an entrepreneur who has founded a food business, a social enterprise, and now leads CENTURY Tech, a company developing the latest artificial intelligence and big data technology to understand how the brain learns. Here, Priya speaks to APM ahead of her keynote presentation at the Power of Projects virtual conference on Monday 7 June.
What inspired you to set up CENTURY Tech in 2014?
I became interested in education when I had my daughter in 2010. I thought how do we tackle problems in education with literacy and numeracy, because if we don’t solve them then we have this huge issue. A major challenge, whether you were in a top-performing school or the most challenged school, was the one-size-fits-all delivery of education. Every teacher wants to and tries to differentiate for every student, but it is very difficult to do. Teacher workload is immense. They spend most of their time doing what they didn’t sign up to do, which is marking, assessing and planning, and less time with the student on targeted interventions. So, I went away and did lots of research, and from speaking to people, I had the idea that we could use AI technology combined with what we understand about how we learn and how we deliver education.
I already knew about learning science because I lectured on law when I was a barrister in the evenings. I became really interested in it and I did a couple of online degrees in AI, machine learning, deep learning and neural networks. After a couple of years I came up with the idea that if we could build a machine, a platform that was powered by true artificial intelligence, combine it with neuroscience, what we know about memory function, retaining information, how we can apply skills, and combine it with learning science in how we deliver education, then when a child logs on it learns how you learn and presents content to you. The platform works out why you are struggling in any given area, and is able to bring up the right content to fix the problem rather than a child sitting at home with a textbook being really stuck.
I presented the idea to some members of government through an advisory board which I was on and they were extremely receptive, and said if we wanted to develop it, we could go through procurement. I thought that was a terrible idea, but it was then suggested that we build it ourselves which is what we did.
How has the pandemic impacted the way you work?
It has been a challenge but obviously it accelerated online learning and we had demand from all sorts of clients – we grew 400 per cent in terms of numbers of users.
The pandemic changed every single team within the company from marketing and communications to technology. Our tech team work immensely hard in scaling up our servers and our back end rapidly to ensure that, with a massive increase in users, the platform would be steady and hold up. In terms of product, people started using it differently, so our head of products had to get their head around that.
In terms of our partners, they quite rightly became more demanding about areas of the platform they suddenly wanted developed. Our project managers had to adapt very quickly during a really challenging time and with everybody working from home. It was a really difficult year in so many circumstances, but it was a year of opportunity for online education. Now, as things are settling down, the challenges are that we want to ensure that access is not an issue, and that where there has been lost learning that this technology is available to students. There is going to be ongoing discussion over the next few years in how we can use CENTURY to try and help those students who lost a fair amount of their learning last year.
With the accelerated use of new technology and AI, how will project professionals need to adapt to ensure the successful delivery of future projects?
The most important thing is that every person must understand this technology. Every company is a technology company, so it is up to everybody to understand it. If you don’t, you can’t fully think about the challenges posed by the technology, and where there is further opportunity.
In your role as a project manager, you might be executing something that someone else has come up with in the team, but it is a really good idea to be able to understand the technology so that you can think of other areas where it might be applied to make the customer even happier. If you don’t understand it, you can’t possibly do that. It’s about understanding the technology because it will be applied at some point within a project you will do.
What project are you currently working on?
We have publishers, universities and higher education institutions that are implementing our back-end automated intelligence engine into their systems. These are really big projects and they’re global, so it’s easier in some sense to get those projects done during the pandemic because everyone is used to working online. I think prior to this, we would have been flying back and forth. It is interesting how the pandemic has accelerated work in that sense. We’re growing rapidly in that area so any online learning that needs to take place, people are looking at AI, and CENTURY is the first port of call.
What are the most important trends that will influence the way projects are managed in the future?
It’s very difficult to talk about trends at the moment because of the pandemic. It feels very much that everything has been turned upside down and we don’t really know the lay of the land and what things are going to look like.
Every project manager would have learnt a lot and had to adapt in the past year because their typical practices and processes would have changed. If you were used to your usual waterfall methods, you would have to suddenly be really agile. There would have been those who had been used to agile project management that suddenly had a customer who wanted certainty for everything. The last year has taught us that we just need to adapt to any situation that is thrown at us, and there are some project managers who have used it as an opportunity to enjoy the ability to change. The pandemic has proven that technology has been crucial in getting through the last year, so just don’t take your finger off the pulse – make sure you understand it because it’s crucial to everyone’s role!
What project beyond your work has inspired you the most?
The 2012 London Olympics. It was just incredible and I was fortunate enough to go and see a fair amount. It was just Britain at its best. It was an inspiring time and to see all that talent up on stage was amazing. The entire project looked really smooth, but I bet it wasn’t behind the scenes! It blew my mind.
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