EPISODE 4: Diversity & Inclusion Q&A with Johanna Björklund
EPISODE 4: This month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Co-Founder & CTO, Johanna Björklund.
We discuss producing state-of-the-art research and technology, all things Theoretical Computer Science and Johanna shares some great resources for personal development, along with powerful advice for anyone wanting to become a CTO/Co-Founder in their career or start public speaking at events.
Johanna, we are very excited to welcome you into our initiative, thank you for your time. As a Co-Founder, CTO & Associate Professor, please can you share a little bit about what it is you do and what a typical day for you is like?
“I share my time between the university and the role of CTO at Adlede. I typically wake up around 5.30am to have two hours of quiet work before it is time to take my daughter to school. My husband gets her ready, and I take her there. The early mornings are usually about planning the day and trying to get a head start on the most important task. During the day, I work on research projects, product development, and project management. The research work consists of algorithm development, formal proofs, and practical experimentation, all related to semantic parsing of multimodal content, that is, translating media items such as video, images, sound, and text, to structured representation suitable for downstream processing tasks. Product development means working together with the team to improve our products and prioritise intermediated steps. On the side of project management, I typically coordinate a number of research and development projects and these need planning, communication, and delegation. In addition, I have business development meetings and PhD supervision scattered throughout the week, and in the autumn also teaching.
It can be quite much at times, so I spend a lot of time planning and prioritising my work. I do this at yearly, monthly, weekly, and daily level, to connect the larger objectives down to daily activities. My calendar, time tracker, and todo list are some of my most important tools. At 15.30, I pick my daughter up at school and then put in a final half an hour while she has an afternoon snack. The evenings are spent with the family, on household chores, and exercising.”
Sounds like you have a great routine established to suit your busy days. How would you define your technical expertise?
“I have an MSc in Computer Science (CS) and a PhD in Theoretical Computer Science. My current research is in computational graph theory, which lies in the borderland of CS and mathematics. The methodology is primarily deductive, using formal proofs to establish, e.g., the correctness and time complexity of our algorithms, but we also do experimental evaluation, mostly in Java and Python. My application area is semantic parsing of multimodal content, which requires knowledge of media production and management, but also of data mining and machine learning. During the last couple
of years, I have had reason to work more with deep learning and continuous-state approaches, which complements my previous experience of finite-state and statistical approaches quite well.”
Awesome! What do you enjoy the most about your current position?
“To participate in the entire technology development chain, from ideation and initial sketches at the university, to implementation and deployment of finished products in the industry. I am really happy about how they have turned out. Our product suit at Codemill is called Accurate Video and is a family of cloud-native software tools for media production. They are accessed via a user-friendly web interface and make it easy for distributed teams to collaboration around, e.g., video editing, marketing and quality control.
At Adlede, we use AI/ML to place advertisements in relevant contexts. This allows purpose-driven companies to communicate efficiently, without the need for personal or behavioural data. In general, I love that there is always so much to learn, and that I get to work with so many competent and friendly people.”
Are you still learning?
“Yes, producing state-of-the-art research and technology is a moving target, so exploration and learning are always necessary. I learn new things every day, mostly from my colleagues but also from reviewing articles, playing around with technical toolkits, and solving everyday work problems.
Some great resources for learning I’m using are Google Scholar, Quora, Stack Overflow. I also sometimes listen to Life Hacker ‘The Upgrade’ for inspiration. The Upgrade has varying quality depending on who they’re interviewing, but I like their overall positive attitude and willingness to try new things. I’m also a huge fan of the book ‘Getting Things Done’. There are some online courses published by Stanford that can also be very helpful.”
Thank you for sharing some great resources. What is on your hitlist to learn next?
“Research wise I want to get deeper into Deep Learning architecture, such as Transformers. This is a Deep Machine Learning model introduced in 2017 which is designed to handle ordered sequences of data, such as natural language, for various tasks such as machine translation and text summarisation.”
How has your journey to becoming a Co-Founder & CTO?
“Rickard Lönneborg and I co-founded our first company Codemill in 2007. At that time, we had only just had our degrees and knew some things about programming, but almost nothing about business creation. We were fortunate to have strong support from the local science incubator, and luck enough to get us through the first difficult years. It has never been easy, but it has always been interesting, and I’m proud of what we have accomplished.
For me, the biggest challenge has been to combine the careers of a researcher and a CTO, which are both famously work-intensive roles, and still have a functioning social life. In the beginning, it felt almost impossible, but now that I have momentum on both sides, there are many nice synergetic effects and opportunities. It is wonderful to be able to collaborate with some of the world’s best researchers and business proficients at once, and to link basic research with real-world application.”
Sounds like a fantastic journey — Did you always know that working in technology was what you wanted to do?
“I have always loved mathematics and problem solving, and that is what drew me to a career in engineering. I like technology, but in the sense of a physical instantiation of abstract mathematical principles, not as a plethora of gadgets and devices. Having a solid mathematical basis gives you a sense of timelessness: The language that we use to implement our algorithms might change from year to year, but the algorithms themselves are more long-lived, and in some cases even provably optimal (meaning that we will never find a faster algorithm for the particular task)”
What or who inspired you to get involved in the technology space?
“My parents made a point of encouraging all my interests, both traditionally male and female. They bought me dolls and playhouses, but also an airgun and a small telescope. Both my parents liked science fictions, and Isaac Asimov was an early favourite. Then I started to watch Star Trek TOS and that was pretty much that.
My mother was a great role model who had defied tradition to study math and has always been a spokesperson from equal opportunity. It also helped that there were at least a few female teachers when I started the computer science program, but in general I have experienced a dearth of female role models. Luckily, this is improving, and now whenever someone asks how I can juggle my two careers, I point to Angela Merkel and say that if she can run Germany, then I should be able to manage a small research group and a couple of media spin-offs.”
Great to hear that your parents were very supportive with your interests. What would be your advice to other young women wanting to become a CTO or Co-Founder in their career?
“Invest in a solid technical education and be as social as you can during your studies. You need both the know-how and the connections to succeed. When you later start your career, take a do-it-yourself approach and build the kind of position that works well for you, and also the surrounding company if needed. There are many unhelpful stereotypes around about what it means to be an entrepreneur, a researcher, or an engineer, but all these roles really mean are people that build companies, find new knowledge, and solve problems. The rest of the things, like working late nights, flying back and forth between conferences, and being obsessed with gadgets, are all optional.
One of the most important books I read as a teenager was The Fourteenth Bride. In many aspects it is not unlike other young-adult fantasy books: a heroin undergoes a long range of challenges for the sake of someone she loves, and in the process grows as a person. However, then ending stands out and though I didn’t like it at all when first I read it, it put some important thoughts in my head that have been with me since.”
Fantastic, thank you for sharing Johanna. I know you are also actively presenting at local & international events — What would be your advice to anyone wanting to get into public speaking?
“I typically have 2 approaches when it comes to public speaking:
1) Super rehearsed & polished with short pitches that I practice 40 times over so I can do it by heart.
2) I do things that are predominantly improvised (this is the approach I like the best). If there is a question to discuss, my preparation will be thinking about this, so I have some valuable opinions to share and essentially then doing the presentation as a dialogue with the audience. I find that this approach keeps it as honest & personable as possible.
I read the book Wilful Disregard by Lena Andersson which really helped me with this approach. The author writes fictional novels, as well as political and popular scientific columns. I don’t agree with all her opinions, but I think that she made an excellent point when she said that honesty about your personal experiences is a good way of being relevant.”
You mention some great tips! A frequent topic for discussion with Women in Tech in my network is the worry of starting a family, while trying to balance your own career and continue to progress. How have you managed to maintain work/life balance?
“I have a husband and a seven-year-old daughter. To manage work-life balance, I try to put in eight focused hours of work every day, but not much more (unless I have some urgent deadline, but thankfully this does not happen too frequently). My husband and I share the household work, and we also have great support from our parents.”
I guess it’s about being disciplined when it comes to switching off from ‘work mode.’ We have had a great chance to now get to know your journey, it’s super inspiring! We would love to know a Fun Fact about you…
“I can’t form my tongue into a u-shape, that is the one weakness where I have made absolutely zero progress with over the years. I love trail running and try to fit in at least a short run every day. I have been a vegetarian for 25 years, but my husband has recently taken an interest in vegan cooking, so since the start of 2020, we are essentially vegans and it’s a lot easier than I had expected.”
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Thanks so much to Johanna for a great discussion. Tune in next week where we dive deeper into Johanna’s views on diversity and ideas how we can appeal and attract more women in tech!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
By Ellie King - Principal Talent Partner - Data / AI - Nordics