Sunish Gupta, SDM ’12, joins Christopher Reichert, MOT ’04, to share how his diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa in 2001, as well as his background in technology and engineering, served as his motivation to focus his work on enhancing the design and implementation of assistive technologies for all disabilities.
MIT alumni are invited to email Sunish for a complimentary accessibility consultation for their company’s website or app, including a 30-minute Simple Experience Evaluation for Disabilities (SEED).
Sloanies Talking with Sloanies is a conversational podcast with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Google, and Spotify.
Christopher Reichert: Welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies, a candid conversation with alumni and faculty about the MIT Sloan experience and how it influences what they're doing today.
So what does it mean to be a Sloanie? Over the course of this podcast, you'll hear from guests who are making a difference in their community, including our own very important one here at MIT Sloan.
Hi, welcome to Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. My name is Christopher Reichert, I'm your host, and my guest today is Sunish Gupta. Welcome, Sunish.
Sunish Gupta: Hello, Christopher. How are you doing?
Christopher Reichert: Excellent, excellent. How are you? So Sunish is currently a principal product manager, or recently a principal product manager of accessibility, at Amazon. He's a 2012 graduate of Sloan from the System Design and Management program, SDM's we call it, so sdm.mit.edu if you want to look that up. At Amazon, he led their CS accessibility strategy for global customers and associates.
Sunish has also won numerous awards, and we're going to get into his past work and what he's doing right now. But among them, while at MIT, Sunish was part of a winning team called Getting Around at the Reality Virtually Hackathon through the MIT Media Lab. He also won an award for McKinsey in 2011 for a management consulting case assessment, an MIT public service grant for Easy Alliance, which we'll cover in a little bit. He has a Computer Science National Scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind, and a first prize in the Robotics Competition. And I also know Sunish from his work on the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium annual event near and dear to my heart. So welcome again, Sunish.
Sunish Gupta: Thank you.
Christopher Reichert: Where should we begin? Let's talk about your work most recently with Amazon, and then we can go back and then go forward.
Sunish Gupta: Yeah, so I joined Amazon about a couple of years ago, and I was looking into how we can help these corporations strategize and create a team, put infrastructure together so that accessibility could be integrated into their processes. That means whether they are customer facing or employee facing, you want to make sure all the user interfaces are accessible to different disabilities. And I had advised, before coming to Amazon, even actually while I was at MIT, I had advised the chief accessibility officers of IBM and Microsoft. And it seems a very literally new topic. A lot of people are not exposed to how to do accessible design.
But at Amazon, there was similar challenges on how to approach it. So first step was to bring awareness. So I created some training, awareness training in accessibility for various roles, including customer service associates, as well as the technical teams, which is I'll get to it. It's more important because that's where we want to focus on how a company like Amazon, which has been spread across the world, in the U.S. as well. They have, of course, one of the widest footprints, both in terms of employees, as well as customer access. So we want to make sure that they have a robust system, which can scale and as well it sustains over a long time.
So, these three aspects of it, the robustness, the sustainability, as well as easy to scale, those are the three attributes I was really focusing on to make sure that an accessibility program stays put, as well as grows as the company evolves and as it advances to other products and other interfaces.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, and I think it's very difficult for people who don't have a disability, whether it's... there's many different types of disabilities, but it's very difficult to appreciate the challenges that even the smallest crack in the sidewalk, so to speak, can present for people who do have disabilities. I guess if you've ever sprained your ankle or broken your leg or anything like that, that's kind of a taste of what might be the daily distance for someone with disabilities. So tell us about your journey to the work you're doing now.
Sunish Gupta: Sure, absolutely. I was, in fact, I became blind later in my life. I was working in Silicon Valley. I already had a master's in microelectronics and engineering, and had been working with one of the top Silicon Valley companies, Lam Research and Applied Materials, Texas Instruments.
So, by the time I became blind, I already was way into my career, advancing my career from technical towards management roles. And it suddenly kind of, I had to change gears and start shifting and seeing what I can do because the job I was doing earlier, I was no longer able to do. And this was due to a condition, eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the retina cells to not grow as quickly as in a normal eye. So I had to kind of think what I can do, how I can contribute towards also building some products, because a lot of the assistive technology—and I'm talking about this is in October of 2001—at that time technology was fairly new, at the same time, the computers were a pretty dominant way of doing business, and there were some technologies available for the blind. But from my point of view, having a background in technology and electronic engineering and seeing what could be possible, I thought there could be more possible.
And that's what kind of motivated me to kind of say, "Okay, how can we build some better technologies, better systems, more user-friendly systems for people with disabilities, and not just for blindness?" But I took on the challenge and I worked with actually another pioneer, futurist entrepreneur, Ray Kurzweil. He's actually a graduate of MIT, 1968. And we developed the world's first portable reading machine for the blind.
So that was kind of the beginning of the journey where then I made my mission that yes, I want to now focus on developing better technologies not just for blind people, but across disabilities, and take advantage of these platforms, these systems, these capabilities and technology available and proliferate and we take advantage of that. Not just as users, but also as technology developers, as managers, as designers, we work in different companies. You want to make sure that those people are aware of such things, because one surprising statistics I'll give you, Christopher, there are about a billion people worldwide who are disabled, okay.
Christopher Reichert: Wow, wow.
Sunish Gupta: We need to make sure that they get access to systems, especially now we are in the pandemic or post-pandemic phase, where they know we expect them to work, to do things. They also want to participate in all walks of life from work, play, entertainment, shopping. How can we make sure that they do that? And especially graduates from MIT Sloan, who are spread across so many different leadership positions across different companies, different continents, they play such a vital role in infusing this kind of thinking.
Christopher Reichert: So, if I could talk about your disability. How would you describe it? And at what age did the retinitis pigmentosa first start affecting you?
Sunish Gupta: So, it started at age, when I was in 2001, at age 32. I was already in my mid-professional career and I had settled down in the West Coast. But then, of course, a lot of things happened on the family side of things and then I had to kind of make a decision, "Okay, what should I do with my career?" I do want to focus on something which will bring impact, as well as I will be able to utilize what I can do best.
Christopher Reichert: And so was it something that... I had a friend, well, a friend of my brother's actually who also has some retinitis pigmentosa, and from memory, for him, it was a process of 10 or 15 years. Was it similar for you?
Sunish Gupta: Exactly. So it's a gradual loss of vision. And so there's a remarkable difference of the kind of vision I had way back in 2002, 2001, and it just sort of declined. So first, I will lose some capabilities. So let's say initially I was unable to read unless it's a large size font. But I knew that I might lose vision further down. So I wanted to prepare myself in learning non-visual techniques more because I knew that would be eventually, maybe it will take 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, nobody knows that. But I wanted to focus more on, "Okay, how can I make sure I have those skills, which are transient, even if I lose all sight." And so today, I have some light perception, but I cannot distinguish between different colored lights or something like that. And it's basically just like looking through a foggy bottom glass door kind of thing.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, it's hard to fathom. And thanks for that description because it's hard for anyone who doesn't have that to kind of really understand the parameters of it.
So, you were working in Silicon Valley, you came from a background as a physicist and you were in electrical engineering. You kind of worked in electric engineering. And so you started experiencing this disability. Take us from there, how you evolve to thinking about what's next in my career and how do I best position myself for my career?
Sunish Gupta: So, I was looking at the various technologies and working with Ray Kurzweil was, I learned a lot of great things from him, both as an entrepreneur, as well as a technologist, as a creator.
Christopher Reichert: And how'd you get to touch with him by the way, because that's not-
Sunish Gupta: How did I-
Christopher Reichert: You make it sound so casual, "I just called Bill Gates and started chatting."
Sunish Gupta: Yep. So the way I got in touch with him, I was looking to learn more how technology was being done at various levels, and I got in touch with this consumer organization called the National Federation of the Blind, and they got me in touch with Ray Kurzweil, who was looking to develop such a capability, because in those days, as you know, there were no smart phones. This is 2001-2002 timeframe, I'm talking about. But 2004, we really kicked off the project. But at that time, the best cameras you could buy were portable ones, five megapixels. But we put together a combination combining a PDA, which is called a personal digital assistant. Those will be the best high-tech gadgets.
Christopher Reichert: Which one did you use? Was it like a Compaq, one of those Compaq type ones or-
Sunish Gupta: Yes, one of those Compaq ones. It's kind of a PalmPilot. You can understand that type.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, right, right.
Sunish Gupta: And we sandwiched it with a digital camera. And then we made it so that anybody, whether you're an eight year old or an 80 year old grandmother who is losing sight, they could touch a one button operation and it will take a picture and could do everything, automatically convert to OCR, do text to speech, and start talking in 30 seconds.
Christopher Reichert: So this basically is the equivalent of a small paperback book with like a DSL or an SLR camera, is it?
Sunish Gupta: Yep.
Christopher Reichert: Or something similar to that attached to it?
Sunish Gupta: Right.
Christopher Reichert: So, by now, you're marrying something that's like a small pocket book with basic functionality, which is hard to comprehend today in our days of-
Sunish Gupta: Smartphones.
Christopher Reichert: Smartphones with so much power. So that was version one? And would you call that a minimal viable product?
Sunish Gupta: So, it was, and it was pretty fairly successful. You could now go to any event, I could walk into any meeting and I could go through my mail very quickly. I can be in a hotel room and see what's lying around and what paperwork is there. So things like that I could, instead of bringing the... scanners were there, of course. But at that time, we wanted to make sure we could be portable. We could be taking the machine with us as opposed to going to the machine.
So that opened up new doors. But now we transferred the same technology. It's in the guts of the app in the iPhone and Android. So it has similar capabilities. But of course, there are always... it's so fast now that it basically now does it instant. It does have capability, that converting and start talking pretty much instantly.
But those were the days when we depended on a lot of paper and material lying around us. Today, we are basically 100% digital. So now we have to think differently on how we can make our apps, for example, make more workable. The operating systems of today, whether they are in Apple, Microsoft, they all have the inherent capabilities to take advantage of assistive technologies. So I use a technology called screen readers and these technologies will work very well if the app designers and the website designers would take more careful consideration of these accessibility features. And that's where the biggest gap is now these days and that's what motivated me to come to MIT to explore more, see how I can learn, and make sure organizations, the largest corporations or even medium sized companies, how they can take advantage and make it part of the process.
Christopher Reichert: So, let's talk about how you chose MIT. You said you were looking around at graduate schools. And how did you settle on the System Design and Management course?
Sunish Gupta: So, I went to one of the information sessions. I spoke to many folks over there who had just graduated or who were still in the program. Based on what it looked like, because accessibility is not just a technology problem, it's not just because the trend doesn't exist. Technology exists. Even today, technology exists. But how do you make sure it proliferates across the organization? How do you make sure that it sustains? How do you make sure that even if it is the technology may be somewhat not so intuitive for many people, how do you make sure it becomes part of the habit for product managers, for designers and developers, and what we call as born accessible products or born accessible interfaces.
So that's where I think I saw that for such a complex challenge, the System Design Management program was probably the only program I saw that it fit exactly my need. And I'm glad that I really got so many good things out of the program, but also not just within SDM, but as you know MIT is such a multidisciplinary institute and being registered, can take courses in... I took courses in CSAIL and a lot of the courses are also part of the MBA program. I took some, in fact, courses, two courses in the Harvard Business School also as part of the process. So it was very multifaceted. I customized the program as per my need, and that's what everybody does. There's, of course, a core set of courses, but then you go on to do those advanced courses, which you think will benefit you the most.
Christopher Reichert: Absolutely. The ecosystem is fantastic. Is there a course that you remember that you were glad you took or that you wish you took? Either one?
Sunish Gupta: So, I'm glad I took, there's a course offered by Bill Aulet and he's one of the most popular professors at MIT.
Christopher Reichert: His name comes up a lot in this podcast!
Sunish Gupta: Yep, yep, and he wrote a fantastic book also, Disciplined Entrepreneurship. So New Enterprises was his course. That was a fantastic course. And then there was some, these, of course, the hardcore entrepreneur courses, but then there were these soft side of things where a lot of the courses were user-based innovation and there was some courses in human resources and leadership. Comes to my mind.
So, courses and those interactions, those were so good. At the same time, the courses were very interactive, and the interaction and learning from others in the classroom, that, nothing can be replaced. So the professors were very much enabling that and making sure that cross learning happens.
Christopher Reichert: I know that you're working now with Easy Alliance. Tell us about what Easy Alliance is.
Sunish Gupta: Sure. So Easy Alliance, I kicked off this initiative and now organization in 2007. And I wanted to kind of solve some of the long-term challenges, which no organization, whether you are just for profits, or we wanted to focus some of the long-term challenges in accessibility. So that's what we took on and I've been working on a lot of the projects through that one with some leading organizations, including the World Bank, some of the universities and colleges in the Boston area, some companies in the Boston area. And I did some consulting engagements with Microsoft way back in 2011 and 2012.
So we were looking into some of the long-term challenges. One of the first ones we tackled was how can we measure accessibility? Because if we can't measure, we can't manage. So we have to make sure that we are able to measure it. And as you know, the user experience itself is not easy to measure. But there are ways to measure the success of the accessibility experience by the user who are disabled. So we created a model and then we are employing that on our daily practice, as well as we have applied for it to be a part of IEEE standard, just like wifi is a standard, 802.11n. So we have applied for a standard. It's called P2843 now.
But we want to make sure that it proliferates, as well as there's some common way to compare apples-to-apples comparison. Say you buy an app on the app store. How do you know if this app works better for the blind or the hard of hearing or physically challenged? There is no way to tell. You can barely have one rating, which is a one to five rating, and that's just a consumer rating.
Christopher Reichert: It's pretty bad.
Sunish Gupta: Right, so I think we want to go down, a couple of levels down. How do I know if I'm buying X, Y, Z product will work for me? Your grandmother is, let's say, hard of hearing. Your grandfather is, let's say, not able to see very well. They may or may not be even legally blind. That doesn't matter. But the fact is that they do have these special needs. But how do you make sure if you're buying, let's say, a washing machine, how can you make sure that that's accessible to both of these people? You're not going to buy two sets of washing machines, one's for your grandmother, one's for your grandfather.
Christopher Reichert: Absolutely.
Sunish Gupta: So, things like that, I think there's a huge gap still. And I've been heavily involved with some of the organizations, even the Consumer Technology Association and the Consumer Technology Society, which holds the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas every year. So we have been working with them also to kind of infuse such thinking to the industry across, as well as to different companies.
Christopher Reichert: Does the American Disability Act, does that give teeth to the initiative to build in these sorts of technologies from the beginning?
Sunish Gupta: It does. It does and even though it was signed in 1990 by President George Bush, the ADA law, even though the internet technically did not exist at the time, although HTML and SCTP protocol existed. ADA law does apply to digital interfaces also. So a lot of the recent regulations by the government or by the cultural links, they have been done in using, applying the ADA law to the digital properties also.
But I just want to give one word of caution. A lot of people tend to focus, make disability accessibility a very regulatory framework, give it a more regulation focus or they become more legally focused. "Okay, what can we do to stay compliant, right?"
Christopher Reichert: Right, right. That's a minimum standard, right?
Sunish Gupta: Exactly. And I think it's very important to focus that if you just step away back and look at the broader picture, that how can I serve this one billion people worldwide, not just as a good thing to do... of course, it's a great thing to do to offer them services, what you offer to anybody else. But also you're losing business. You're losing a talent in your company if you're not focusing on that spectrum of disabilities, whether they have autism or whether they have blindness or hard of hearing, and they may have even multiple limitations, they may not be even legally disabled, as I said.
But focusing on the user experience makes more sense—if you do your job right, if you do your design right. I think you'll have a win-win situation as opposed to just falling purely from a compliance and legal perspective.
Christopher Reichert: Right.
Sunish Gupta: So that's what I think I want to focus on through Easy Alliance is to help these companies, whether they're small, medium sized companies, to look from a different perspective, understand they don't have enough resources as the big corporations may do have, but how can we guide them better so that they can learn it?
Christopher Reichert: So, I think it'd be safe to say that you're an ambitious person, between reaching out and engaging with someone as famous as Ray Kurzweil to applying to and getting into Sloan to working Amazon and now with your Easy Alliance and lecturing at Northeastern. What's your motivating energy for your next challenge? And what is that?
Sunish Gupta: Even now, this pandemic has forced to think in new ways. And that's what kind of propelled me to think of how we can make this better and the need is far more now than ever. And I want to focus on a specific industry a little bit more, in the healthcare industry. That needs quite a good uplift.
And I look at different industry verticals and look at them from a perspective, "Okay, where are these gaps? And where we are missing out." Because we kind of tend to sometimes stay away from being human centric. We become sometimes too much technology centric or too much focused towards achieving certain numbers. But if we keep our focus on achieving the best user experience, the best service you could offer, the best things, combination of what the technology could offer and taking advantage of the human performance also. Because 15 years ago, if I would have handed you that smartphone, you would not know much how to do. But now it's very acceptable to do things on the smartphone. There are, of course, even today, if I give a smartphone to, let's say, my 90 year old grandfather, they may not know what exactly to do. What I'm trying to focus is how can you make sure that the designs are intuitive, they are easy to use? Those are the attributes, what we should focus on more. How can they get the task done in just as a pleasing and delightful way as anybody else?
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, it is so true. I have a 95 year old father. I hand him my phone to look at photographs and within a couple of seconds, it's somewhere else. I don't know what he did, but... so there's even with the advances over the last, what, 14 years or so, since the iPhone was released, there's still a ways to go, absolutely, with a broad set of accessibility, whether it's imposed, as it has been on you, or just from people who aren't familiar with this object that's made of glass and is rectangular.
Sunish Gupta: Exactly.
Christopher Reichert: There's a sort of intuitiveness, I guess, that's still, I would agree, missing. That's come a long way, but it's still not completely intuitive, for sure. So there's a bit of work to do. So what's your next challenge? Is Easy Alliance the vehicle for you?
Sunish Gupta: Yeah, so Easy Alliance, I would like to focus on and get certain projects on going this summer and I want to kind of partner with some key organizations where we can make the biggest difference, because still, I would say in terms of educating our engineers and even at the best schools in the country, they don't have a mandatory curriculum in accessibility.
So even when our developers come out of even at MIT... in fact, I'll tell you when I was, in 2011, I was advising to kickstart a course in assistive technology called Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology as part of CSAIL. And I was the advisor for the course to the professor. We devised the curriculum. It's a very successful course even today. So courses such as those give a great grounding on how to develop special technologies, dedicated technologies for the disabled.
But what I'm trying to focus is, how can we make sure the mainstream technologies, they are designed for all disabilities? And as I mentioned earlier, operating systems, those things, capabilities are already there. But at this point, how can you make sure that when developers and designers, architects, they come out of different schools, they know how to bring it to the organization, to the team, and infuse that design practice, which becomes part of the habit.
And that's what's the challenge, I want to see how we can proliferate that. Even though I was teaching at Northeastern, at Tufts University, we developed some novel courses over there in accessibility and accessible design, both in computer science, as well as in the UX design arena. The challenge is how do we scale this up? Unless we make this mandatory, unless we make this part of the core curriculum, it's not going to happen. So I want to look into some of those challenges, how we can work with some of the leading institutions, then they can make sure it's part of the accreditation of the institute or university. That would be something which I'm going to look forward to.
Christopher Reichert: Yeah, and have that sort of design thinking built in from the ground up as opposed to add it on later.
Sunish Gupta: Exactly, yep.
Christopher Reichert: So, any parting advice for prospective Sloan students?
Sunish Gupta: Absolutely, yeah. This is the best time to be entering MIT or Sloan. What they should be looking into is, even if you come from a specific industry or a specific company and you have a specific, don't think about just only your discipline, because MIT is such a multidisciplinary place, you should seek out, number one, how can I combine what I've learned and I combine with other disciplines or what I see advances in other disciplines happening, whether it's in biology and physics and computer science and AI machine learning, whatever. Just develop those skills, develop how to learn fast, and how you can combine to bring something, create something novel, create something which nobody has thought about before. That's what I think MIT has the best things to offer, whether being as part of Sloan or doing any other program.
And so, think out of the box, think not just in your company, in your own focused area, but across the ecosystem, how can I solve long-term challenges? Where do I perceive my industry will be in 10, 15 years, what kind of challenges they'll be facing? Looking that little bit of the future, I think will make you better prepared, even when you leave Sloan, and you will be in a leading position to learn anything new and grasp quickly and keep moving along.
Christopher Reichert: Excellent. Well, on that note, thanks very much, Sunish Gupta, for joining us here on Sloanies Talking with Sloanies. And yeah, I think that's a great goal to make sure you include the one billion people with a disability in whatever you're doing.
Sunish Gupta: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Christopher Reichert: Thanks for your time.
Sunish Gupta: Thank you so much. Thanks Christopher. My pleasure.
Christopher Reichert: Great to talk to you.
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