Blog 2: Digital Assistants or Digital Assistance.

Use the Web to Get Stuff Done…Better.

Introduction

The world is a tough place* and as a graduate student, I will do anything in my power to make my life easier, especially in school. Balancing school, employment opportunities (applying, interviewing, etc.), keeping my amazing wife happy, family, fitness, extracurricular activities, grocery shopping, and subsequently cooking; I mean, come on, sometimes I feel like I need two of me just to get out of bed in the morning. I genuinely do not understand how the Part-Time community, especially parents, completes this MBA program. Luckily, I have come across a few tools that have helped me ease the burden of these “equally” essential tasks throughout my day.

(*Obviously, I say all of this in a bit of jest, and I am entirely grateful for the opportunities I have. However, there are more real-world severe problems that we are combatting these days: the invisible wounds Veterans come home with every day. Learn about how to help our heroes heal.)

Grammarly

According to my weekly Grammarly Insights Weekly Digest, I wrote 16,563 words, 138 alerts, and 1,598 unique words used this past week. According to the AI insights, most of my writing has been confident, friendly, and optimistic…hmm, it sounds like someone has been writing a plethora of cover letters.

We spoke briefly about Grammarly during our second class. I cannot recommend Grammarly enough to anyone who does any written work, sends professional emails throughout the day, or evaluates their performance based on their overall quality of work – written correspondence included.

Have you still not mastered the passive and active voice and when they are appropriate to use? Grammarly. Are you aware that you use the same word repeatedly? Grammarly. Are you unsure of all of the English language grammar rules? Grammarly. Delivery, engagement, and clarity suggestions based on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

AI systems use the idea of natural language processing algorithms to make a tool like Grammarly possible. Machine learning, for example, is a particular application of AI that involves teaching an algorithm to perform tasks by showing it lots of examples rather than by providing a series of rigidly predefined steps. Another example of this in our everyday lives is a commuter estimation within a maps service.

Grammarly’s AI system combines ML with various natural language processing approaches (Google is doing some cool stuff with natural language AI right now). Natural language processing gives computers the ability to understand text and spoken words in a similar way to humans. NLP uses rule-based computational linguistics, statistical data, machine learning, and engineered language models that allow computers to process human language, specifically written language in Grammarly’s case.

I use the Grammarly Chrome extension, which integrates directly into Google Docs, Gmail, and virtually any other text-based input platform on the internet (but not WordPress, sadly), and uses the same rules and governance as the host site. Grammarly is double encrypted, which means that you and only you are reading anything you write in Grammarly. For more on the security of Grammarly, see this Grammarly White Paper. All Grammarly server-side infrastructure uses Amazon Web Services, arguably one of the most secure cloud service providers available (I’m partial to GCP, #biased).

Grammary has a free and premium version; both are great options to help improve your writing.

Your, You're, meme with Leo DiCaprio

VMock – Get Your Resume Past Application Tracking Services

I have submitted more than seventy-five applications to internships and full-time positions over the past year. The percentage of resumes I have submitted versus the number of responses I have received is probably around 33%. How is that possible? How is it that when I submit a resume, someone reads it, probably says “no thank you, Brett,” and then never sends me a rejection notice? The problem that I have recently learned more about is that I assumed that someone read it. The majority of companies now use application tracking services software to rank and filter applicants accordingly based on broad criteria the company programs into their ATS.

Application tracking services look for key features of a resume, including keywords, gaps in work, examples of technical skills, and other specific criteria the company chooses to scan. There are benefits to application tracking services, including scaling the number of applications a human resources department can accept. In addition, companies can quickly sift through thousands of applications to ensure that each resume is at least looked at, even if it is only by a computer.

According to themuse.com, over 98% of Fortune 500 companies use an ATS of some kind. So, if companies are using software to filter my resume out, shouldn’t I use software to make my resume stand out to these application tracking services? VMock thinks so, and for the record, so do I.

VMock is a personalized, automated resume tool that uses artificial intelligence, data science, machine learning, and natural language processing to provide instant feedback to your resume. In addition, Vmock helps improve customers’ career fit, LinkedIn optimization, provides a job board of recommended jobs to apply to, and even suggests ways to improve your elevator pitch. VMock candidates are given a score based on 100 and are provided specific examples of delivering a more powerful impact to whoever or whatever is reading your resume.

Check out this video explaining more about what VMock is and how using AI can accelerate your resume. Unfortunately, Boston College has not provided this benefit to their students yet, but a quick email to Career Services would undoubtedly help.

Upload Resume Meme

Adobe Reader, Speechify, Natural Readers, et al.

This year, I have found myself as busy as I have ever been as a student, and to make matters worse, I have about a 30 to 40-minute commute to school (self-inflicted, I know). Usually, on my way to school, I consume podcasts, listen to an audiobook, or call family and friends to try and get some value from the single skilled function of driving (that is, until I get a Tesla). But, as I’m sure all of you are aware, there is a plethora of reading assigned to MBA students, arguably too much, and purchasing the audiobook for a case-based class generally is not an option.

I contemplated using TaskRabbit to pay a person to read all of my assigned cases at the beginning of the year to make a more efficient time of my commute. At the same time, I drive back and forth to school, but that, unsurprisingly, was very expensive, and given my lack of salary right now, that expense did not excite my wife all that much.

Thus, I turned to the internet; there must be a solution to this problem. I have found many tools that can help this process. For example, Adobe Reader can read your PDFs back to you, albeit in a computerized voice. However, it works well, and users can adjust to the speed of the narration, and it satisfies the requirement of listening to a case while I’m driving to school.

Other options that I have tried out are Speechify and Natural Readers.  There is a trial word count before Speechify requires you to pay for their services. $140/year was a little rich for my blood, and I decided to find an alternative solution. I have only recently started using Natural Readers, which comes as a Chrome extension. So far, so good, although the default and free voices are a bit dull.

In Conclusion…The Robots are Running the Navy!

As technology continues to decrease the barrier to entry of AI/ML, data analytics, and natural language processing, we will continue to see innovation in products that make our lives more efficient. For me, that means writing more accurately in less amount of time, submitting quality resumes to future employers, and finding different ways to “read.” All three of these tools save me time and allow me to be more efficient with other aspects of my life.

One caveat to these transformations is that we are making machines more intelligent, giving up more of our data, and increasing the risks of cyber threats exploiting these companies. Therefore, it is worthwhile to understand the security infrastructure these new technology tools use and decide whether or not you feel comfortable providing your data so that the machines can grow more competent.

I would be curious to hear of any other tools you are using in your day-to-day life that would pique my interest.

14 comments

  1. Great post, Brett! I particularly enjoyed learning about your experience and the tools you are using to make your life easier. I just added the Grammarly extension to my laptop, and it has been a life-changer (also in the middle of job applications, so I understand the struggle). Also, thanks for suggesting VMock; I will use it to (hopefully) pass those obnoxious ATS!

  2. Hey Brett, thanks for the relevant post. I cannot express in words how much I hate applying to jobs. Fortunately, applications like Handshake have some options for quick apply, but then you see the…(wait for it–dun dun duuun) “external application.” Here, some sites have the option to autofill your application based on your resume or your LinkedIn, but 99% of time from my experience, you cannot simply autofill the application and press submit. You still need to make minor changes. As we continue this experiment between companies, applicants and third party sites, the technology can only improve, and until we reach that day, I’ll be holding my breath and hoping things get more simple for the future generations.

  3. Brett, great recommendations for some tools to help as a grad student. Made me think of the digital transformation that occurred in education back in March 2020. Educators had to adopt new tools or adapt tools to engage students. More and more EdTech companies are implementing AI/ML to personalize lessons for students or generate feedback reports. Saves time, engages the audience, but the caveat (as you mentioned) is data security. Nevertheless, I see AI/ML playing a bigger role in digital tools within the education landscape.

  4. Brett, this was a super helpful post, but not for the reason I expected. I honestly clicked on this because the title conjured an image in my head of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) vs Robotic Desktop Automation (RDA), which essentially are automations that either replace human tasks (e.g. a bot that opens all 25 applications a call center agent needs when they log onto their computer) or augment them (a bot that autofills fields from one application with data from another, cutting out the need for copy/paste). While I thought I’d learn more about this, I left with a new Chrome extension (Grammerly) that I’m optimistic will help improve my sales emails. I appreciate you sharing your tips. One question: Do you have any privacy concerns about grammerly reading pretty much everything you type?

    1. I’m glad that even though I didn’t hit your expectations that you still found it useful. RE security…I understand why people would get concerned with security, but literally so does every other site you type things into, Grammarly is just overtly doing it and spitting back corrections to my sub-par writing. I know they had a security breach a few years ago, but I do think that being double encrypted helps me think that my data is secured.

      I choose to use the Chrome extension, but if the user was still concerned about security and still wanted the benefits, the user could use just the main website as well.

  5. Brett, thank you for sharing your recommendations! I am a huge fan of Google Chrome Extension. Like you, I use an extension that reads text aloud. In my fundraising role, I have to prepare significant amounts of email outreach. I find it helpful to hear my messages out loud before sending them. Normally, I would not appreciate the robotic reading voice. But oddly enough, I find it helpful here as I am not sure how the receiver of my email will “read” my email.

    However, I do have some privacy concerns. Boston College IT provides warning against Chrome Extensions because of privacy and data theft as well as the potential for malicious software. Link here:

    https://www.bc.edu/content/bc-web/offices/its/about/its-news/beware-chrome-extensions.html

    I am curious if anyone else’s company has an approved/not approved list of extensions.

    1. Bringing up security concerns is a must whenever adding new technologies into a company…I used to think people just loved to say no and weren’t able to innovate. However, if you check the link you provided, grammarly is an approved addition at Boston College…yay!

  6. Great insight Brett! I have not yet downloaded the grammarly extension on my laptop (its about time, I know!) but am going to do so right after commenting on your blog post! I too have sent out countless resumes only to hear back from a small fraction of them and did not know what to do to get around the ATS – I will definitely look into VMock.

    I also use Natural Readers to listen to case studies while driving but its really difficult for me to keep my focus with the monotone voice!

  7. So informative and great helpful hints!! Definitely going to check out Vmock.

    As I was reading the part about Grammarly, I thought about how helpful a tool like this would have been when I was learning to write in other languages, which then made me wonder how this type of tool impacts the learning process for students. Will students even need to ‘learn’ anything anymore, or will eventually the machines do all the work for us? Alternatively, will learning and teaching just take on a different objective and style? Last year I was collaborating on a case with a team and we noticed how google was finishing our sentences and effectively “writing the paper” for us. As these tools and other predictive text tools become more widespread, I wonder how that will affect the integrity of written assignments and tests – for instance, is it plagiarism or cheating if Google was the one who guided our thoughts?

    1. I actually think I have gotten a better understanding of the English language and the associated grammar rules…especially passive/active voice and not using unclear antecedents (those are my favorite Grammarly corrections). I find that I get fewer and fewer corrections in those two areas.

      In terms of students learning, I think you bring up a great point. I personally think that the overall effect will raise the level of education given the vast resources available and instant feedback.

      Thank you for the reply.

  8. Nice post. I’ve become a huge fan of Grammarly, and even have my kids use it to become better writers. I’m a professional author, and I still think it makes life a lot easier.

  9. I liked how your blog mentioned using extensions to make things easier (here is my plug for Honey, the coupon-code-searching extension that usually gets me free shipping), but also found some of Grammarly’s corrections were sometimes disruptive. I think I would appreciate a toggle on and off feature (which might exist in a paid version, but of course I am using the free one) since most of the student reports I write on campus require a very specific formatting that Grammarly does not approve of.

    This maybe leads me to my larger point that often I don’t do enough research to get all of the benefit out of the products I am using and will find that rather than take the time to do the instruction reading, I would rather revert to my older habits. Does anyone else struggle with this and if so, how have you overcome the somewhat time-consuming and perhaps annoying process of a deep-dive into the nuances of each product?

    1. That’s interesting, I’m not sure I totally understand your concerns with formatting. In my experience with Grammarly, I didn’t read anything, just started using it and seeing where I was using incorrect grammar, used the same word too frequently, or some other type of Grammar infraction.

      You can toggle Grammarly on and off when as an extension by clicking within your extensions and toggling on/off what you want Grammarly to check.

      To your point about not getting the benefit out of tools because of not doing the research to get the benefit out of the product…I guess at the core of Grammarly, that’s what it does for you. It’s almost as though you have your 7th grade English teacher standing over your shoulder while you type…it takes away learning passive/active voice but rather suggests you change your sentence. It notifies you of unclear antecedents without having to go back to a textbook to learn what an unclear antecedent is.

      I can empathize with you on having to read into certain topics to get better at them though. This semester I have had to read a lot of accounting text to get better at my Financial Statement Analysis class. Keep at it, these tools, and classes, will pay off!

  10. I think what you did here was helpful, but it also made me think about the other areas of my life in which there is tech that I refuse to use because of the 10 minute learning curve and still struggle to do manually. I was a late adapter in google cal (something that I cannot live without now). The integration has always been a priority for me. Apple does a great job with this on ical and iphone, which takes my email and adds relevant flights, meetings, classes, etc without even asking me.

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