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My Life in Tech: Q&A with Diana Stepner, Head of Future Technologies at Pearson

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InformIT (a part of Pearson) talks with Diana Stepner, the Head of Future Technologies at Pearson, about trends in the education and consumer spaces, her roles models, and the most exciting thing happening in tech right now.

InformIT: Can you tell us what you do as Head of Future Technologies at Pearson?

Diana Stepner: Future Technologies enables Pearson to be more open to innovation by providing a jump start into exploring and incorporating new technologies. What does that mean? I lead a global team which looks into the future and determines what technologies and developments are not yet mainstream but are likely to impact Pearson in the next six to twelve months. We subsequently work with 150 digital thought leaders in Pearson to build prototypes using these technologies. Upon completion we share the results (assets, lessons learned, code) with all of Pearson. By doing so, anyone in the business can have a jumpstart into exploring a new technology. Instead of recreating the wheel again and again across Pearson, individuals can leverage work done by the Future Technologies team to move ahead at a faster pace. We also provide an API platform for developers, internally and externally, at developer.pearson.com . It's a place where developers can explore and use Pearson's consumer-centric APIs for building new applications. 

InformIT: How did you end up in your current position? What has been your career path?

Diana: I grew up in Silicon Valley, specifically in Cupertino, where Apple is based. My entire background is in technology; it's what I grew up with and what I enjoy. I started off working for a customer relationship management (CRM) company, using web-based technology to identify and understand consumer data patterns. Over time the UI to the CRM tools became too difficult for end users to understand. I wanted to find out what could be done to fix the situation and moved into human computer interaction (HCI) and user experience. From there, software product management was a logical next step as I was able to represent the consumer and ensure they had the optimal product experience while working with technology. When mobile took off, I transitioned to a digital agency as I wanted to gain insight into as many emerging technologies as possible. I worked in strategy areas beyond the web, such as mobile, social, gaming, and digital out of home. I loved the future-facing element and was thrilled when the opportunity arose at Pearson to combine my product management and emerging media experience. 

InformIT: Pearson is in the business of helping people learn. How is technology playing a role in that? What role do you think technology will or should play in the future?

Diana: Technology is an enabler. Through technology people have the opportunity to learn anywhere, anytime. By using technology, individuals who may not have had access to learning materials previously can be reached. In addition, technology enables people to learn in an optimal way, in a way that is personalized to them. In the future, technology will no longer be treated in isolation. It will be a given; it will meld into the background and ensure optimal, adaptive experiences are provided.

InformIT: What technology trend in the last five years has taken you by surprise?

Diana: I thought augmented reality would be more prevalent. Being able to hold your phone over an image and learn more, to me that's a great opportunity. Yet the technology and business models have kept it on the fringe. I'll be interested to see what happens as Google Glass types of devices become more mainstream.

InformIT: If you could wave a magic wand and be able to provide one technological gadget, innovation, or idea to every classroom in the world, what would it be, and why?

Diana: Access to the internet. There are so many amazing resources available online. Every classroom in the world and every student in the world should have the opportunity to explore and learn, and the internet is the perfect conduit. 

InformIT: You’ve mentioned you are very interested in how consumers interact with technology, especially in the mobile/tablet space. What are some interesting trends you’ve seen in the education and consumer spaces?

Diana: I find the merger of the education and consumer space fascinating. People are starting to expect educational resources to look and behave the same way that consumer applications do. Individuals are growing up and being 'trained' by experiences originating from iPhones and Android devices. They are expecting their educational materials to follow the same paradigm as the apps and resources they use for fun, day-to-day. 

InformIT: What kind of advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Diana: Keep learning, keep exploring, keep listening. There are constantly new technologies and developments emerging. I enjoy learning about them, trying them out, discussing them with colleagues, listening to podcasts, and reading about what's happening. With the constant flow of information, I can form theories of what I think will happen next.

InformIT: What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in tech right now?

Diana: I really enjoy the immersive experiences on the web, the ability to dive in and explore a site, game, or application. On the flip side, I also like the simplicity we're seeing in applications--apps which perform a function in a very clear, understandable manner.  If you wrap it all up though, both the immersion and the simplicity are providing access to information. I love information and seeing what people can do by mashing up and combining resources. 

InformIT: Who have been your role models and why?

Diana: I'm a fan of internet entrepreneurs--people who have an idea and see it through to reality, a product, an app, a device. I truly admire them.

InformIT: What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

Diana: I like action, getting things done, moving forward, testing a theory, taking a risk. Others do things in a more structured way. Sometimes a balance between these two ways is best. Understanding that has been a valuable lesson.

InformIT: What is your greatest accomplishment?

Diana: Having the opportunity to lead amazing teams. Providing talented individuals with an opportunity to develop new skills, go beyond what they thought was their potential, and help them realize their dreams. 

InformIT: In this Huffington Post article, you said being a woman in tech is an advantage in that you can see things from many different points of view. Can you give a particular example of how this helps you in your current role?

Diana: I think more often women can see the human side of situations, perceive why someone may have said something or taken a specific action. I try to use this insight to help individuals get along, to work together more effectively, and to help see the best way to speak up when a difference of opinion arises. 

InformIT: Can you tell us a little bit about your latest projects?

Diana: There's a lot going on. We post write ups on the prototypes the Future Technologies produces on labs.pearson.com/prototypes . We're constantly introducing new APIs at developer.pearson.com. In February we announced the Pearson Catalyst for Education accelerator program. Updates, including the startups which were selected for this inaugural run, can be found at catalyst.pearson.com

InformIT: If someone wanted to learn more about human-technology interaction, which books or other resources would you suggest?

Diana: A List Apart is a valuable resource. Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things. Luke W's site . A member of my team also recommends Lean UX

InformIT: Are there any blogs or websites you recommend to women in tech?

Diana: I'm a fan of wim.co/ and Kelly Hoey's great work. There are a number of great groups on LinkedIn. I'd recommend exploring there and seeing which ones resonate as well. 

InformIT: What are your current favorite apps or web products?

Diana: I'm one of those people who is always installing and un-installing applications. Most recently, I have a Pebble watch which I've synced up to my Nexus 4 and Nexus 7 tablet. I also have an iPad Mini and spend time with Dots. I travel quite a bit, so I'm trying multiple weather apps: Yahoo! Weather, Weathertron, and Haze. The apps that are in constant use on my devices are those which serve a specific function and do so well: Pulse, Lyft (when I'm in SF), Hailo (in London), Google Maps, Foursquare, Soundhound, and Evernote. I'm also tracking Ninja Blocks and AlertMe as I'm a fan of the Internet of Things. 

InformIT: Where do you see technology going in the next ten years?

Diana: I think technology is going to become invisible. It will seep into the world around us and simply be present. We will stop thinking about technology in isolation or as an inhibitor. It will simply be. 

InformIT: What do you do for fun?

Diana: I run, walk, read and explore. I don't like sitting still. I like to be out and about, often listening to and exploring technology. 

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