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Finding a Career That’s a Perfect Fit

Safiyyah Saleem

Speech and Language Manager, VoiceBox Technologies

Safiyyah, who graduated from the program in 2010, works as a speech and language manager at VoiceBox Technologies. With a background in math and applied linguistics, she found computational linguistics to be a perfect fit. “The program allows you to enter a career that involves language — to be focused on linguistics in a very marketable way in industry.”

Why did you decide to enroll in the UW master's program in computational linguistics?

I have a bachelor's in mathematics and a master's in applied linguistics. This field was the perfect blend of my interests — computer science and linguistics. Once I found out about it, I knew that's what I wanted to do. So I started researching programs that would allow me to make that switch, coming from a linguistics background; the UW has the best program for that.

What did the program faculty and instructors bring to the learning experience?

They brought a lot of academic and industry experience, depending on the professor, which was very helpful for me. They were very approachable and eager to help you, to point out different projects that you could do. I was able to work closely with [program director] Emily Bender on the Grammar Matrix project, so that allowed me to get more in-depth experience with rule-based approaches.

What part of the program did you enjoy the most and why?

I enjoyed the class on knowledge engineering the most, because it allowed me to go in-depth. I like research, and that was the starting point for my being able to work on the Grammar Matrix. I eventually went on to do my thesis based off of that work, so it's the most meaningful to me because I stayed with it the longest, and it was very interesting.

Do you feel that the program prepared you well to work in the field of computational linguistics?

It did. It gave me the framework to understand how everything fits together, and it gave me the tools for knowing how to conduct research in the field. It allows you to enter a career that involves language — to be focused on linguistics in a very marketable way in industry.

Can you tell us about your career path since you graduated?

I started out as a computational linguist at VoiceBox Technologies, a small speech recognition company in Bellevue. Recently, I was promoted to leading the team here at VoiceBox, so my title now is speech and language manager. I manage a team of computational linguists who are responsible for the speech and intent grammars for VoiceBox.

Did your degree help you land this job?

Definitely; it was completely instrumental. I wouldn't have this job if I didn't have the degree.

If you could predict one groundbreaking technological change related to this field, what would it be?

I think that it's going to be the proliferation of speech recognition in our lives. We've already seen with applications like Siri, and you have it in car navigation systems. But I think what we'll see in the future is that a voice user interface is going to become one of the dominant ways that people interact with technology.