From Russia to South Africa to Australia; then computer science to ship scheduling to Google to GippsTech – you quickly learn that Dr Elena Kelareva knows a thing or two regarding logistics – both in her life and career. Gippslandia was fortunate to sit with Elena and be enlightened on her journey, the many projects the former Google Maps Product Manager is undertaking in Gippsland and the importance of overcoming “diversity debt”.
Elena, we understand that you migrated to Australia at a young age. Please provide some insight into migrating to Australia, and how you became interested in computer science?
I migrated to Australia when I was 9 years old. My family initially moved from Russia to South Africa, then moved to Hobart a year and a half later. So I was in Russia during the fall of the Soviet Union and in South Africa at the end of Apartheid, but I had no idea of the significance of those events at the time. I remember kids asking me whether my parents were going to vote for (Boris) Yeltsin or (Mikhail) Gorbachev. I had no idea who either of them was and only a vague idea of what voting meant. My memory of these events was very much from a child’s point of view — lots of details that only got connected together to form a big picture understanding years later.
I first became interested in computers because my Mum was a Software Developer. Some of my earliest memories were of playing games on the computers in her office. When I was in primary school she used to make custom games for my sister and I. It was so cool to be able to play games with personalised elements, like drawings that my Mum or I had made in Paint! She showed me some simple programming in Visual Basic, and I started experimenting with making little games myself. Then our computer died, we didn’t install Visual Basic on the new one, and I moved on to other interests.
In my final year of high school, I had to choose one more subject, and my Mum suggested computer science. I basically chose it on a whim, but I really fell in love with it. It was one of the most creative subjects I’d done in high school, alongside art and creative writing. Anything I could imagine I could make into reality. Creativity and the ability to realise my imagination is still one of the things I love most about software development today.
Your PhD studies were focused on ship scheduling optimisation — what does this mean and what attracted you to this field? What benefits does the optimisation of maritime logistics bring to the industry, and are there flow-on benefits to us, the general population?
I ended up working in the maritime industry almost by accident. I was looking for software development jobs after graduation and the company that I liked best after my interviews built maritime software. So I ended up working on software to help ship captains and harbour pilots sail their ships in and out of ports safely and load more cargo onto ships. I stayed for five years and ended up using one of my later projects, a ship scheduling system for Port Hedland in Western Australia, as a case study for my PhD.
During those five years, I worked on software that affects nearly everyone, but that almost nobody has ever heard of. If you buy goods from overseas, they probably get to Australia on a ship, and that ship probably used software that I worked on to get here safely. But until I started that job, I never really thought about how a ship captain decides how much cargo it’s safe to load on a ship. It’s actually a really complex problem, with big consequences if you get it wrong.
I didn’t have a prior interest in the maritime industry at all. That’s one thing that I really love about the technology industry — every industry needs software. Therefore, it’s really easy to move between industries and fields. I began travelling to remote ports like Port Hedland and talking to harbourmasters and ship captains, then moved to working at a huge Silicon Valley software company making tools that are used by millions of developers and billions of users around the world. Now I’m in a country town setting up a business that does IT consulting for small businesses — a completely different industry, but building on the same skill set.
Can you please describe your more recent work with Google Maps?
At Google, I was the Product Manager for the Google Maps Web APIs. API stands for Application Programming Interface and APIs are like building blocks for software. APIs let developers include common pieces of software — like maps, sign-in buttons or videos — in their own apps and websites. The API what lets developers put Google Maps into other apps or websites. Whenever you see a Google map on a hotel or restaurant site, my old team built the API that makes that possible.
How can the information, data and technology that you are involved with at Google Maps improve the transport industry in Gippsland?
Some of the big innovations we’re seeing in the transport industry at the moment include: fleet optimisation techniques to make running a fleet of vehicles more efficient with less time idle; ridesharing and truck-sharing systems to make better use of unused capacity in vehicles; on-demand transportation-as-a-service approaches (e.g. Uber for passenger transport, and similar services for goods transport); vehicle tracking and monitoring solutions that let businesses that own a fleet of vehicles get an instant overview of where all their trucks are; and vehicle insurance approaches that take into account how you actually drive, so safe drivers can get lower premiums.
The common themes of these innovations are:
a) Better data that lets companies make better decisions;
b) Personalisation that enables better customer service;
c) Improving efficiency by improving utilisation of expensive assets.
What do you envisage as the future extensions or capabilities of Google Maps and how can they benefit us, especially those in regional Australia?
Even without adding new features, making better use of existing Google Maps capabilities in regional areas has a huge potential for impact. For example, there are so many businesses in Gippsland that aren’t listed on Google Maps at all – limiting those businesses’ ability to grow and reach new customers. This is one of the reasons why we run a training event called Get Your Business Online that walks business owners through getting their business onto Google Maps (among other digital marketing platforms). Google Maps also lets anyone upload information about local businesses, and there’s even a Local Guides program where you can sign up to get points and rewards for uploading information about businesses in your local area to Google Maps.
There’s also a lot of potential for Gippsland businesses to make better use of map-enabled services to help their customers, such as the transportation industry improving the efficiency of their fleets, or businesses in the travel industry marketing themselves better via map-enabled aggregator sites or creating map-based tourism guides.
In more novel technologies, there’s immense potential in agriculture. With drones being used to improve efficiency on farms and the falling costs of on-demand satellite imagery bringing precision agriculture solutions within reach of more and more farmers. While these are geospatial tech, not Google Maps features, they have the potential to make a big difference to businesses in regional Australia.
Do you ever use a paper map or the famous Melways?
Not for a while now. I used to sketch paper maps when I was going somewhere remote, but not since Google Maps added an offline maps feature.
In researching your work and your involvement in more egalitarian ventures such as Girl Geek Academy, do you say a ‘conflict’ with developing code that makes companies an incredible amount of money versus code that may not be profitable, but can greatly assist society?
Personally, I find that if I work on something that makes money, but doesn’t make a positive impact in the world, I end up feeling restless and unhappy. At the same time, making no money at all is also a problem, since everyone has bills to pay.
Fortunately, there are plenty of projects that both make money and have a strong community benefit. In my first job, the software I worked on helped prevent oil tanker groundings, as well as making cargo shipping more efficient, both in terms of money and in terms of carbon emissions. At Google, the Google Maps API was used to save lives by helping people access critical information during natural disasters, or by helping homeless people access services in a crisis. Both products also made a lot of money, but seeing the impact they had in the world was what made them more than just a job to pay the bills. With GippsTech, I wanted to create a company that can pay its employees a decent salary and bring a community benefit helping local businesses with technology, thus boosting the local economy.
How can Gippsland foster the development of technology that benefits our region?
Gippsland already has a lot of small businesses and organisations working on interesting technology innovations, but at the moment they’re scattered and not closely linked — limiting their impact. When establishing GippsTech, we looked for tech and business-related events happening in the region, and found that we had to go to around 20 different sites and Facebook groups to find out what was happening across Gippsland. That’s why we’ve mostly focused on bringing the Gippsland tech community closer. We’ve started a Gippsland Tech and Business meetup, and a Women in Tech meetup as a follow-on from the #SheHacks event. We’ve also started a fortnightly newsletter that you can sign up to on our website collating all the tech and business events in the region.
I think the biggest thing that Gippsland businesses can do to foster the development of technology that benefits our region is to work together more closely, collaborate with other businesses, and find ways to make more of an impact than anyone can individually.
Why did you choose Gippsland as the home for your business, GippsTech?
My husband is from Gippsland. Whenever I came across an article about something awesome with technology in regional areas, I’d talk to my husband and we’d usually conclude, “Somebody should do this in Gippsland!”. But we had no time, as I was flying to Sydney every week for work. When I left Google, I decided I wanted to spend some time working to help regional businesses access the same technology expertise, connections and opportunities that are available in cities — that’s how GippsTech was born.
Why do you encourage people to learn about computer coding and technology?
The Internet, and today’s world is being built by people who understand coding and technology. It’s particularly important for people from marginalised groups to be involved so they can help ensure that the world we’re all building includes them, and solves the problems they care about, not just the problems of the majority. All software teams should consider how their technology affects people, but it’s particularly important for people from marginalised groups to learn about technology themselves so that they speak for themselves.
One of the questions that Girl Geek Academy asks with their #SheHacks program is, “What would the internet look like if there were more women building it?” That’s a question I’d like to pose to all people who think of themselves as non-technical or not cut out for coding and technology. “What would the Internet look like if you were building it?” “What’s the world missing because you’ve always thought of yourself as not technical?”
GippsTech states that you're an inclusive organisation and support diversity in all forms. Why is this important to you and what are the benefits of such a community-orientated approach?
Most importantly — treating all people, as people, is just the right thing to do. Supporting diversity right from the start of setting up a business makes good business sense. There’s a lot of research that shows that diverse teams make better decisions on complex problems.
There’s also the concept of “diversity debt” — when a community is founded by a group of very similar people, they keep attracting more people who are just like them and it becomes increasingly difficult to bring in people who fall outside those social norms. Once diversity debt develops, it’s very hard to change, but it’s much easier to prevent from the start. I’d actually recommend that all new business people think about how they’ll avoid diversity debt developing in their company. If you find yourself with less than 20% of your staff being women, as is common in many tech companies, it’s very difficult to convince women that your organisation can be a good place to work. On the other hand, if you think about diversity from day one, as your organisation matures, your diversity will be the envy of other companies with vastly less effort.