Alexandra Ross, Senior Director, Data Protection, Use & Ethics, Autodesk

Alexandra Ross is Senior Director, Senior Data Protection, Use & Ethics Counsel at Autodesk, Inc. where she provides legal, strategic and governance support for Autodesk’s global privacy, security, and Trusted AI programs. She is also an Advisor to BreachRx an Advisor to USF’s Strategic AI Program and a member of WLDA – Empowering Women Leaders in Data and AI. Previously she was Senior Counsel at Paragon Legal and Associate General Counsel for Wal-Mart Stores. She is a certified information privacy professional (CIPP/US, CIPP/E, CIPM, CIPT, FIP and PLS) and a frequent speaker at privacy and security conferences.  She holds a law degree from Hastings College of Law and a B.S. in theater from Northwestern University. Alexandra is a recipient of the 2019 Bay Area Corporate Counsel Award – Privacy. Alexandra launched The Privacy Guru blog in 2014 and has published an ebook Privacy for Humans (available on Amazon and iTunes).

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Alexandra shared her professional trajectory, her favorite aspects of working at Autodesk, the best piece of advice she has ever received, personal sources of inspiration, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Hi Alexandra. Could you explain how you came to be interested in the field of data protection?

Early in my career, while working at a law firm in the intellectual property group, I found a natural connection to data protection issues. At that time, I was advising technology companies on issues related to e-commerce, data privacy and security breaches. These issues evolved over time as the Internet developed and regulation became more complex. The intriguing part to me about data protection law is that it’s not static; it’s a fast-paced, constantly evolving landscape. Also, it presents a compelling mix of societal and technological concerns that do not just impact businesses but have a profound effect on individuals and society. The personal element in data protection is what makes it truly unique. It’s not just about understanding laws and regulations, but also about having empathy and respect for individuals and their expectations.

What do you love the most about your current role?

In my current role at Autodesk, I am able to solve problems and enable forward-thinking business initiatives. One of the aspects I enjoy most is the opportunity to develop comprehensive data governance and compliance programs. This responsibility not only allows me to leverage my expertise but also plays a crucial role in the continuous improvement of our company’s operations.  What truly enriches my experience is the team I lead and the teams I collaborate with. I am surrounded by a talented group of professionals – lawyers, government affairs, business and technical professionals. Their diverse perspectives and collective knowledge greatly enhance our problem-solving and decision-making capabilities. The variety and scope of work I encounter is both challenging and rewarding. From privacy and security to AI programs, I am able delve into critical areas that are shaping the future of technology. This gives me the opportunity to build and maintain trust in our programs, which is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job.

You’re an Advisor to BreachRx, an incident response platform and an Advisor to the University of San Francisco Strategic AI Program. What do you gain from these advisor roles?

My Advisor roles at BreachRx and the USF Strategic AI Program offer moments for learning, knowledge exchange, and professional growth.

At BreachRx, I work with the founders as they develop their incident response platform and offerings. I witness the challenges of building a product from the ground up, including seeking funding and sales opportunities. It provides me with insights into advances in incident response technology.

As for my role in the USF Strategic AI Program, I provide guidance and feedback on their management training module for Strategic AI. This exposes me to a range of perspectives on AI and its strategic applications in various industries. It allows me to stay abreast of the evolving landscape of AI and helps me in considering Autodesk’s approach towards this technology.

Do you think it’s important, for those just starting out in the privacy sector, to earn privacy certifications or qualifications alongside professional experience?

Absolutely, it’s important for those starting out in the sector, and those with more years of experience to earn privacy certifications or qualifications. These certifications provide valuable and practical knowledge in context. They offer a structured learning path that covers a wide range of topics relevant to the field of privacy. This knowledge is not only theoretical as these programs often include real-world case studies and scenarios. Privacy certifications can also provide a competitive edge, differentiating you from your peers. They demonstrate a commitment to professional development and a deep understanding of principles and practices. This can be a significant advantage when applying for jobs or seeking promotions. Lastly, earning certifications from organizations like the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) provides networking opportunities. These organizations host conferences, webinars, and local chapter meetings, providing a platform for relationship building and knowledge sharing among privacy professionals.

Women aren’t the only underrepresented group in tech – what can be done to make tech more diverse across race, class, and gender?

Diversity is indeed a complex issue that extends beyond gender, and there’s considerable work to be done to make tech more inclusive for all races, classes, and genders. For the past few years I’ve been a member of Women Leaders in Data and AI (WLDA), an organization that offers professional networking and best practice sharing to empower women leaders in the AI field.

To address diversity across categories, we can start with recruiting outreach that targets underrepresented groups. This includes partnering with universities and organizations that serve these communities and providing internships and scholarship opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds. Training programs can also play a significant role in promoting diversity. They can help equip individuals from underrepresented groups with the skills they need to thrive in tech roles. At the same time, diversity and inclusion programs within companies are essential to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and valued. Finally, and probably most important, is a change in mindset. We need to challenge our own biases and assumptions, and understand that capabilities exist in all, not just those who have historically had a seat at the table. While there are many strategies to promote diversity, they all require a commitment to change and a willingness to do things differently. It’s not an easy task, but it’s one that is absolutely necessary for the continued growth and innovation in the tech industry.

In your academic or work career, were there any mentors who have helped you grow along the way? What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Yes, I have been fortunate to have had many mentors who have influenced my professional journey. These mentors, from my earliest days at a law firm, through my time at Wal-Mart, and now at Autodesk, have imparted professional wisdom, but they also taught me the importance of empathy in leadership. These mentor relationships were not just about professional growth, but also personal development. The best piece of advice I received was ‘Don’t be afraid to take up space.’ I interpret this as an encouragement to be authentic and courageous, to assert my presence and share my ideas, even in situations where I might not feel ready or entirely welcome. This advice has encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, to take on new challenges, and to make my voice heard. It has reminded me that my perspective is valuable and that I have a right to share it. In essence, it has empowered me to be a more confident and effective leader. Coming back to empathy – the advice is also about understanding and validating the perspectives of others, making room for diverse voices, and cultivating an environment where everyone feels seen and heard.

The meaning of leadership can change from one era to the other, how would you define the meaning of leadership today?

Today, leadership is about finding signals in the noise. In an age where we are bombarded with information, an effective leader can discern what is important and use this clarity to guide their team towards the right objectives.

Leadership is also about distilling complex concepts into actionable recommendations. To navigate the complexity we all deal with, a leader must be able to simplify it, articulate it clearly, and translate it into actions that bring about real change. I also strongly believe in leading through influence and commitment to shared culture and values. It is not about dictating or micromanaging, but about inspiring and motivating.

What is it that motivates and inspires you in your everyday life?

Living in the Bay Area in Northern California, I can easily get outdoors for a hike or to walk my dog on a trail in the Presidio or along the water in Sausalito.  It’s a great way to clear my mind and rejuvenate. Additionally, I find inspiration in reading an engrossing book or watching a great film. These cultural experiences can be incredibly enriching and inspiring as an opportunity to step out of my own existence and immerse myself in the world of the story.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

In the next five years, I see myself continuing to grow my legal team at Autodesk, leveraging our data protection programs to include AI governance and operations.  I also continue to seek opportunities as a board member and advisor, where I can share my expertise and learn from others. Given the flexibility of remote work, I would love to spend more time traveling and possibly living abroad for extended periods. In 5 years, I may be spending time in France (ideally Paris or the south of France), where I could improve my language skills, eat all the croissants and soak up the culture.

What advice would you give to women who want to enter the tech industry?

In navigating the tech industry, my advice to women would be to prioritize training and education. The field is constantly evolving, so it’s crucial to remain up-to-date and knowledgeable about the latest advancements. Be curious and open-minded. Embrace opportunities that come your way – these experiences can help shape you into a well-rounded professional. Find a mentor, someone who can guide you, share their experiences, and provide valuable insights. Mentors can be a great source of support and inspiration. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to take up space! Make your presence known, share your ideas, and make your voice heard. Believe in your capabilities and never shy away from showcasing your skills and talents.

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