EPISODE 2: Diversity & Inclusion Q&A with Antonina Danylenko
EPISODE 2: This month I had the pleasure of speaking with Antonina Danylenko, Head of Applied Machine Learning. We explore her inspiring career journey to date, all things mathematics and the importance that her work contributes to bringing value to people’s lives.
Hej Antonina, it’s so great to be speaking with you and have you involved in our initiative. Can you please share a little bit about what it is that you do and what a typical day as a Head of Applied Machine Learning for you is like?
“As Head of Applied ML, I’m responsible for leading a team of 6 people, to develop personalisation to our Viaplay and Viafree customers at Nordic Entertainment Group (NENT Group). We work on Machine Learning models, deploying the models and writing microservices with data pipelines to make sure we reach the many users of our products.
Every morning, on the train to work I will always try to read data-oriented papers and blog posts that are relevant to our team and share them through our team Slack channel, the same way as my teammates share their findings. The Slack channel is very effective for us, as most mornings we will go through our discoveries posted here, discuss ideas and if we want to work with these techniques or technologies.
My morning is then typically followed by meetings where I will align with Product Managers or Architects in the organisation. If I’m not in meetings, I will always make a conscious effort to spend my time on updating my knowledge with what is going on in the Data Science world as not only am I leading the team, I am also a member, actively involved in coding. Usually, I will pick up tickets from backlogs or sprints that we have planned.”
That’s great, it sounds like you are keeping yourself very busy and up to date with the trends in the market, super refreshing to hear! So I assume you are still learning?
“For sure, I’m learning every day! We have a rule in our team that we spend one day each sprint on learning new things. I’m always trying to encourage so we can grow together. Now we have a group who take Coursera courses together, we have bi-weekly catch-ups on our progress and motivate each other to complete, it’s really great. Also at NENT we have Hack Days that happen twice a year. This is a unique opportunity to learn and develop something new and to have fun with people from other teams.”
Awesome, we also have something called R&D Fridays here at DigiTech where we can develop ourselves in areas we are passionate about. How else are you further developing your career?
“What I’m working on right now is finding a good balance between the things I love to do the most to what I do actually do the most. Leading a team is not always easy, it’s so important to me that everyone is happy and can continually develop themselves.
The next step for me is to reach a level where the team is so efficient, I can also become more of a team member, where I can code with everyone for example 80% of my time. Having a self-efficient team is how I am trying to further develop my career. We have a strong team, taking full responsibility for what they are doing. So it’s going great so far.”
What else are you interested in learning?
“I would like to go more into recommendation systems with Deep Learning As a team, we have already started to work on this with some proof of concepts here and there. At this stage, it’s more about finding what will work for us.”
I’m sure you will achieve that this year. It sounds like team spirit is really valued at Viaplay! What were the deciding factors for you joining the company?
“I actually met my future Viaplay boss at a conference in Stockholm, this meeting really inspired me to join. I have always had a passion to work on platforms that are making people’s lives better, I was previously at IKEA (which contributed to making everyday life better). Viaplay contributes to helping people enjoy themselves through entertainment, people can relax using our platform. There are plenty of opportunities at Viaplay on how we can drive this platform towards our customers, from development to recommendations to make choice better/easier for our customers.”
It’s great to hear how passionate you are about making a difference with the work you do. As Head of ML, what do you enjoy the most?
“The feeling of accomplishment as a team is what I really enjoy the most. Also, seeing the great results that are produced not only to the end-user but to our internal customers.”
Super! Self-reflection I feel is super important, with this in mind. How has your career journey been to date?
“So I completed my master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence back in Ukraine around 2008. At this time there was pretty much no AI, at least not in Ukraine, so it was not easy to find a relevant next career move. The only jobs really available at the time were for Business Analysts.
Because of this, I made the decision to complete my PhD. To do this I relocated to Sweden and started my journey of a PhD in Computer Science. For the first 2 years, I started with compiler construction and static programming analysis. For the next 3 years, I moved deeper into Machine Learning.
As you can imagine, 5 years at university was pretty exhausting, so once I completed my PhD I decided to go towards an industry career. I was offered a great opportunity to work at IKEA as a Data Scientist. I think I was one of the first hires with an official ‘Data Science’ title. I stayed there for 3.5 years.
My family then decided to relocate to Stockholm, as I mentioned before, I actually met my Viaplay boss at a Stockholm conference whilst I was still living in Lund. So I joined Viaplay where I started as a Data Scientist with the initiative to build personalisation. To get more of a focus on personalisation and move our vision along faster, I then was given an opportunity to build a team.
Viaplay has given me the freedom and opportunity to grow the team in the direction I think would be most efficient. It has been a great journey for me and together with colleagues, we have built a great team and are working towards great success.”
What a fantastic journey you have had so far. It’s very inspiring and well deserved after all of your hard work. What have been your biggest challenges?
“One of the biggest challenges was during my 5 year PhD studies. For me, it was a constant battle of questioning myself if I was doing the right thing? Especially as I was involved in core computer science where there were not a lot of women. I would often visit conferences and feel like I was only in the 10% of people there, which would make me question, am I smart enough? Do I deserve this? There were a lot of questions, followed by a huge one once I had completed my PhD. Do I go towards industry or academic?
Even now, I really enjoy reading papers and contributing to research, basically the things maybe I can’t do as much now I’m in the industry. In general, the Data Science and Machine Learning space is always challenging. There is always something to learn, the industry is moving super-fast, so it’s a challenge, but also a huge plus. There is always something to do, my hobby is learning, it’s fun and something I am extremely passionate about.”
For sure, the market is evolving and moving so quickly! What has been your memorable or proudest work moment to date?
“A super proud moment was when we released the personalisation at Viaplay and received really good results and response. When I come to work, I’m greeted with a strong, talented and funny team. I get to work with my friends every day and this is appreciated and honourable feeling.
Also, completing my PhD was a great moment. When I finally got my papers after all of my work and saw my mums face, knowing I had made her proud, made me feel incredibly happy.”
Incredible! So did you always know that working in technology was what you wanted to do?
“When I went to university I was 16, I always knew I wanted to do a degree in computer science, that was never a question. My mum wanted me to do business administration and my dad wanted me to do applied maths. I chose the third, Computer Science & AI. I have never doubted my choice, even when I was 16, I never considered any other career.
There was a point at IKEA where I was offered the opportunity to work closer with the business away from IT. If I took this it would mean completely stopping anything IT related. At the time I thought no way can I do that, if I stop with IT then who am I? All of my education, my years of dedication and passion would almost be for nothing, I wasn’t sure if it would be interesting for me. So I decided to stay in IT, I have always known that working in technology was what I wanted to do. If I were to leave IT and return after a few years, I would lose knowledge, it would be a challenge to catch up, as several years in the IT space is more like centuries.”
So no regrets or looking back and you continue to achieve greatness! What or who inspired you to get involved in the technology space?
“My mum has always been involved in the technology space, she is a professor in applied linguistics and now does research in Natural Language Processing. When I was younger, my mum was interested in the machine translation of text, she purchased a computer, we got our first internet connection and from there I was hooked. I really wanted to understand how it all worked. My mum has played a very big role in my life and she still does.
In school I didn’t like any subject except maths, this was the only passion I had (and still do) along with track and field athletics. During my last grades at school, I took some university courses in maths, I remember sitting in lessons at school, solving maths problems and not listening to what the teacher was saying. My passion for maths and interest in computers is what inspired my degree.”
Do you have any other women role models or mentors?
“Meeting great women in Stockholm has made me realise how much I was lacking having strong women in my life. I’ve always been in a very male-dominated environment, when I joined university there were around 5 girls in the class of 30.
In my previous job I met a great woman, her words and advice are still always in my head, she was very inspiring had a great work/life balance and was very goal-oriented. I always try to look up to how she was doing things and mirror her approach.
Now, I encourage everyone to find inspirational people, who can support you and be there for you when you need to make complicated choices, it’s like a support system. Of course, it’s important you share similar interests and passions with these women, which is why I am so involved in the Data Science community.”
Something that gets discussed frequently with Women in Tech is the idea of starting a family all while trying to progress and achieve in your own career. How have you managed to find a comfortable work-life balance?
“The truth is, it’s very difficult. I have 2 small children and feel like I don’t get to spend enough time with them. I can’t say that I manage it well but I do try my best. Something I’m working on and still learning is ‘how to let it go’ — Usually when I finish work, I will pick-up my kids, cook food, feed them, open my laptop, and because I know I have work-related tasks to complete, I will try to put the kids to sleep too fast. Now I agree to let things go, when I come home from work, I try not to think about work, I try not to open the laptop. It requires control, lots of it because your hand is always trying to grab the laptop and continue with the work, but it’s important to slap this hand.
Also, learn to let it go on the weekends, agree that during the day you will be there for your family and spend time with them. You will try not to think about work and put away your phone/laptop. Some people leave their laptop at work and it works for them, but I can’t do that, well not yet. It’s the lesson of letting go, I’m still learning, I’m not saying I’m good at it but I’m getting there.”
Thank you for the great advice! We would love to know a Fun Fact about you…
“It has to be how I watch movies. I watch a movie in 15 minutes. Usually, I start slowly but end up losing patience and read online what happens at the end of the movie. Then I will find the interesting moments in the movie and rewind/fast-forward to other points. It’s very hard for my husband to watch a film with me, as you can probably imagine.”
Wow, I guess cinema dates are out of the window for you and your husband then!
Thank you Antonina for sharing your journey, it's truly inspiring and I’m sure an exciting year of growth and learning is ahead for you! Be sure to tune in next week where we will discuss all things Diversity & Inclusion with Antonina.
Are you a woman in the technology field too? How has your experience been similar or different? Do you have any questions for women in the technology industry? Would you like to get involved in this initiative? We would love to hear from you, please contact me on email@example.com
By Ellie King - Principal Talent Partner - Data / AI - Nordics