Melanie Heighway, Atlassian: “There’s immense potential for technology to create a more fair and inclusive world for all individuals”

Over the past three months, we have interviewed futurists, authors and entrepreneurs as part of our investigation into the future of work. What will offices look like? What impact will AI have? Here, we’re thrilled to publish the thoughts of Melanie Heighway, who offers a unique internationalistic view — for that is a huge part of her job.

Melanie leads the Product Localization team at Atlassian. On the off-chance, you don’t know Atlassian’s name, its range of products includes Jira, Confluence and Trello. Each of which is available in 19 languages.

Fortunately, over the past 18 years, Melanie has led a diverse range of language initiatives, including speech and language tech projects used for machine learning in language technology, and mobilisation and management of face-to-face speech and sign language interpreters.

So, as someone who is passionate about languages and removing barriers between cultures, how does Melanie view the explosive growth of AI and hybrid working?

What was your first role in tech and what is your current role today?

Melanie Heighway Atlassian
Melanie Heighway, Product Localization Team Manager, Atlassian

My first role in tech began straight after I graduated from university. I was a linguist and transcription manager at Appen, a company that collates speech, text and natural language data used for the improvement and development of language technology such as voice and handwriting recognition, and machine translation. These days Appen’s data is also used in the development of wider AI and machine learning products.

Currently, I work at Atlassian where I lead software localisation efforts. My team’s mission is to collaborate closely with internal product, engineering and design teams to ensure that Atlassian’s products are accessible and functional globally, supporting customers in 19 different languages.

Is there any science fiction story that, in your view, successfully predicts the future?

I can’t say I feel there’s any one story that successfully predicts the future, but there have been certain science fiction stories that contain elements that seem eerily plausible and possible for the future.

I’ve always found elements of Aldous Huxley’s book A Brave New World to be plausible. A Brave New World was published in 1932 and I first read it in the 1990s, but I still feel that it’s quite realistic about what the future might be like.

Another writer who predicts futuristic elements or themes well is Blake Crouch. I recently read Upgrade and found his storyline around genetic engineering and the effects of severe climate change quite realistic for where the future seems to be heading.

Beyond literature, the movie Her, directed by Spike Jonze strikes me as remarkably realistic and conceivable in terms of portraying the future in terms of our interactions with AI chatbots and virtual assistants, and AI tech disrupting and entwining with human relationships.

I’ve also found some episodes of the Black Mirror TV series to be quite believable. A few episodes that jump out at me for their depiction of plausible futuristic technology were Entire History of You, Hated in the Nation and Hang the DJ.

I hope we don’t see the story Ready Player One become a reality in the future as people spend more time logged into VR tech at home than they do in person or offline activities like getting out in nature!

How do you think the work office will change in the next ten years?

I believe we’re going to see a shift to a more hybrid blend of working from home, co-working spaces and offices, for professions where it’s possible, which will drive a change in what a typical office looks like.

We’ve already seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of online collaboration tools, and I believe that’s only going to get stronger, particularly replacing whiteboards and projector screens as these move online and onto screens or even VR headsets.

We’ll also see fewer desks in the office as fewer people will be coming into the office regularly, and we’ll continue to see an increase in “hot desks” and offices being designed more as a place to meet in groups to connect together, rather than sit individually at desks to work.

I suspect we’ll start to see VR headsets becoming more affordable and accessible making them more common in jobs in tech. I don’t think they will replace in-person connection and collaboration time, but they will make it easier to work from home, particularly where you’re limited in space for large screens.

Related reading: Will AR glasses replace screens?

Which areas of society do you think will be more impacted by technology?

I think education, healthcare and vehicles will be heavily impacted by technology advancements, in a positive way. Technology will make medical diagnosis and monitoring in the healthcare sector more accurate, accessible and affordable. It will also help education become more accessible and customised, as well as engaging.

I also believe we’ll see technology positively disrupt the way we get around, with cars becoming safer thanks to assisted driving technology advancements, and better detection and diagnostic tech.

I believe cars and transport, in general, will be better for the environment as we move fully towards electric cars. I’m already super impressed with my car that’s able to do parallel reverse parking for me — I worry I’ll forget how to do a reverse park at this rate!

automated cars

I really hope we’ll witness the positive impact of technology in the area of accessibility, providing crucial assistance to people with support needs and/or disabilities. There’s immense potential for technology to improve accessibility and create a more fair and inclusive world for all individuals, regardless of their abilities.

I do worry we’ll see a more negative impact on social relationships as people spend more time using technology rather than focusing on offline in-person experiences. Certain entertainment and mobile device technology can be anti-social and not conducive to being present at the moment with someone.

I’m also concerned about how we’ll navigate deep fake human impersonations with AI and the invention of apps providing AI romantic partners.

What jobs will be gone by 2030?

I know there’s a general feeling that many jobs will be replaced by technology in the future, which a lot of people find troubling. It has been a hot topic in the localisation and wider language services and technology industry that I’m in, ever since machine translation really took off.

However, I recently read that The World Economic Forum estimates that, by 2025, technology will create at least 12 million more jobs than it will destroy. I think this is a positive sign that while some jobs will be less common or even phased out, we’ll see an increase in tech-related jobs.

And what new jobs might be created?

I think we’ll continue to see a decline in cashier jobs in supermarkets, travel agents and factory workers as we’re already seeing a lot of automation, AI recommendation and robotics replace human workers in these areas. We’ll see a decline in taxi and delivery drivers as we see autonomous vehicle and delivery drone technology develop further.

From my work at Appen, a lot of work is needed in testing, training, and tuning AI to improve output, so I think we’ll see a steep rise in the need for AI trainers. Coupled with this, I think we’ll see a growth in AI ethicists and cybersecurity job roles to drive ethical AI practices and the protection of sensitive information and processes.

I mentioned earlier that I think we’ll see the healthcare industry be positively impacted by technology, and I believe we’ll see a lot of jobs created in this area as there’ll be the need for experts to develop and oversee services and technology in this industry.

Two other areas where I think we’ll see more jobs created are sustainability and aged care. Given the current state of climate change, it is likely that companies, countries, and large organisations will increase their efforts towards sustainability measures, in turn creating more job opportunities in this area.

We’re also seeing people live longer, leading to ageing populations in many countries. I think that there will be a rising demand for professionals working in this field, especially since there is a very human aspect to care roles that can’t be fully covered by technology.

Who in tech do you find inspiring, and why?

Reshma Saujani
Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code (image source: Wikipedia)

One particular person who springs to mind is Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code. Girls Who Code is an international non-profit organisation working to close the gender gap in tech.

Saujani’s vision and leadership at Girls Who Code has been instrumental in revolutionising access to tech education, not only in terms of gender diversity but also for underrepresented minority groups and individuals from low-income backgrounds.

Approaching this question from a different perspective, I’m also deeply inspired by individuals who advocate for the ethical and safe use of technology, particularly AI.

We know that AI tech can perpetuate biases, given the data used to train them, which can lead to discriminatory or unequal outcomes in a range of situations such as hiring, money lending and legal justice.

Witnessing professionals in the tech industry take a stand against such ethical challenges and bringing these concerns to the forefront of public discourse is really inspiring. These individuals demonstrate courage and integrity in promoting transparency and accountability, and they help drive us towards a future where technology is utilised responsibly, and safeguards are in place to prevent unintended harm.

For more Future of Work interviews

Our thanks to Melanie for taking the time to share her thoughts on the future of work. For more predictions, read on:

  • Michael Bayer, CFO at Wasabi Technologies: “We need to invest now in the jobs and infrastructure of the future”
  • Colin Fraser, founder and Managing Director at Nevis Capital. “Professionals who can ‘supercharge’ themselves with AI tools will win big in our new world.”
  • Simon Long, CBRE Southeast Asia: “How do we create work environments and a culture that actively brings everyone together?”
  • Christine Li, Knight Frank: “The effects of technology are likely to lead to a redefinition of jobs and skill shifts rather than apocalyptic workforce reductions”
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Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.