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Lana Yarosh

Ever wonder what someone with a background in design, computer science and psychology chooses as a career? If you’re Lana Yarosh, you become a researcher at AT&T Labs, of course.

Lana decided to pursue computer science because she loved it. “The thing I loved about it was the ability it had to change people’s lives, but in order to make a change, you have to understand people. That’s where psychology comes in. The design is just the tool that I use to think about how to make something better.”

As a recent hire at the Labs she uses these skills to design new communications technology to find new ways to connect families over long distances. We recently had a chance to sit down with Lana and talk about her work at AT&T Labs and the interesting background she brings to the table.

The way I get to a good idea is I go through a lot of bad ideas. I literally sit down with a piece of paper and I will sketch out 150 ideas for something. Sometimes the idea that’s good is number 80 on the list.

What have been your first impressions of working at AT&T in the Labs?
Oh I love it! It has been really exciting. The thing that’s most exciting to me is the conversations that happen in the hallway. You just walk down the hall and suddenly there will be a group of people standing there, talking animatedly about some new project new idea or new technology that they are thinking about.

What inspired you to want to work in this field as a kid?
I don’t think I knew I was going to be this as a kid. Like a lot of kids, I had about fifty different things I wanted to do when I grew up, and I didn’t know which one I would settle on. When I got to college, I really started exploring computer science, and I saw the benefit of helping people’s lives. It’s really a way that I saw for making a change in the world.

Tell us about some of the projects you’ve been working on.
Most of the projects I work on deal with communication in the home. Before I came here, I was working on a system called the “Share Table,” which is meant to connect parents and children who live apart. You actually get closer to kids by doing things together, and the “Share Table” makes it easy to initiate interaction.

All you have to do to call the other family member is open the doors. In addition to face-to-face video, it has a table-top space with a camera and a projector above you. Anything that you do over the table-top gets captured by the cameras, sent to the other table and projected on top and vice-versa.

I saw families use this for so many things – reading a book at bedtime, playing games, or helping with homework. If you have a worksheet that you got at school, you put it on the table. Both of us can see it, both of us can write on it.

And now at AT&T, I am bringing that expertise to the table. I know a lot about how families communicate, especially about how to make communication engaging with children. I can bring that to the table in the work environment as well. After all, adults and children really want the same thing. They want communication to be fun.

How do you apply psychology in your current position?
Psychology gives me the methods to understand if the technology that I made worked. Was it something that brought positive change in people’s lives, or was it just something lies around the house that they didn’t really use?

“The thing I loved about it {computer science} was the ability it had to change people’s lives. But in order to make a change, you have to understand people.”

How would you say your work is making an impact?
If you look at ARO, it helps developers build better applications with longer battery life and better performance, so that clearly benefits our customers. With the GS Tool, we are feeding performance data to our operations team that helps them to fix issues quicker and to be smarter about what to fix, so that also directly impacts the customer experience.

Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born in Moscow, Russia. Both my parents were grad students; they actually met at Moscow University. My mom was working on her Ph.D. in organic chemistry and my dad was working on his Ph.D. in oceanography. We lived in Russia for a while. My father did his post-doc in Hungary, and then got invited to be a researcher in the United States, and he brought my mom and me over.

Is there anyone who has been a role model for you?
My mom has been a big role model for me. She has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, which was almost unheard of as a woman in the Soviet Union. She’s been a big inspiration for me because I really feel like she’s done it all. She has the science, she has a family and she’s a really good influence in my life.

How do you define innovation?
I really believe that anybody can be innovative and anybody can contribute to the innovation of the company. This is a great place to believe that, because I think AT&T does this well. We have this thing called TIP (The Innovation Pipeline) which lets anybody contribute a great idea to the company.

Sketching is a way of articulating an idea because you are forced to make it specific. You can’t just think “well some magic is going to happen and people are going to communicate, and it’s going to be great.” You actually have to think about what’s going to happen. Is somebody going to call, and another person is going to answer?

Or is there going to be an ambient system that shows people when somebody is available to talk. Is there going to be video involved or is it going to be audio only? The sketch forces you to think about the specifics of that idea and determine early on if it’s going to work.

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