Sohi Sudhir
June 29, 2021
6 min read

What it Feels Like to Work as a Female Machine Learning Engineer

My impressions after working for a few months at Slimmer AI

I started with Slimmer AI, a B2B venture studio in The Netherlands specializing in applied AI, in March 2021. I want to share the story of my first few months here because I hope to inspire female engineers — just as others have inspired me.

A little bit about me: I am from a small town in North India and both of my parents are doctors. My mother has always been a role model to me in terms of breaking the stereotypes of what women can do. I became excited about technology quite early, and I have made it the focus of my studies. I completed a Bachelor’s in Computer Science Engineering at the Manipal University Jaipur and a Master’s in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Amsterdam. I am a Natural Language Processing (NLP) enthusiast — I dream of developing technology that can comprehend language as humans do.

My passion is learning new things and I hope to use both my technical and non-technical skills to make the world a better place. Promoting and developing AI for good, in both the social and healthcare sectors, is my dream.

I learned about Slimmer AI through a former university NLP colleague who joined Slimmer AI in 2020. A few months later, while reading up on explainable AI (X-AI), I coincidentally came across a blog post by Ayla Kangur — senior machine learning engineer and Head of Responsible AI at Slimmer AI. I was polishing up my understanding of X-AI because when using complex AI models, especially the ones that yield good performance values, it is common to not put considerable effort into understanding what exactly the model is learning. This is due to both the complexity of the model and satisfaction with the performance values.

Ayla’s blog influenced me in a few key ways. First, it helped teach me the importance of understanding what a ‘black-box’ AI model is doing. Second, it helped me understand how Slimmer AI undertakes different projects and the focus they put on responsibility. And most importantly, I was inspired to read this from a senior female engineer who cared about ethical and responsible technology as much as I do.

I spent some time talking to my former university colleague about his experiences at Slimmer AI and learned more about the AI products and ventures they develop. The more I heard, the more I thought Slimmer AI would be a great fit for me due to the:

  • Use of the latest ML techniques: I was thrilled to learn about how much NLP Slimmer AI does, and their intense focus on the latest research and advances in this space.
  • Applied-AI focus: I also learned that when handling these projects, despite using complex AI models, efforts were taken to comprehend the working of the models. This means that they think through, from the beginning, how to take these models live into production. Every engineer wants their solution to be used in the real world.
  • Inclusive and diverse work environment: I could see — in words and in actions — that Slimmer AI values people and is committed to expanding the diversity within the organization.

Between the great experience of my former university colleague, and Ayla’s inspiring X-AI blog, I decided to apply to Slimmer AI’s open application for Engineering, hoping I could find a suitable role. I went through a series of interviews that focused on a technical assessment of my capabilities, as well soft skills and team dynamics. I was thrilled to get the offer (directly from the CEO) to become a machine learning engineer in the AI Innovation team.

When I joined Slimmer AI, I must admit that the first few days felt a bit overwhelming. But my supervisor and colleagues showed me the ropes and helped structure my on-boarding and learning path. For me, the transition from academia to industry felt huge as I had no experience working in industry before joining Slimmer AI (save for a few short internships). And on a personal level, I have often felt ‘impostor syndrome’ for various reasons, one of which is being a woman in a largely male-dominated field.

However, since my very first day at Slimmer AI, my ideas have been given importance and my voice has been heard by people who are much more experienced in the field. This has really helped boost my confidence and makes me feel as if I belong.

It was also inspiring to read Slimmer AI’s Head of AI Industry Partnerships, Heather Devereaux’s recent Medium post about throwing off the term imposter and gaining confidence in the tech field.

One example of the openness I have found is through the AI Fellowship at Slimmer AI, led by Sybren Jansen, the Head of AI Innovation. Every 6 weeks, the machine learning engineers spend dedicated time doing intensive research on the latest advances in AI. They explore ways to incorporate this research into our products and ventures. I noticed that the team was reading really great articles in between R&D cycles, but our way of sharing this information back to the broader group wasn’t effective. I had the idea for a ‘Reading Group’ for NLP/AI-related papers and shared this idea with Sybren. He was really open to my suggestion, and now every Wednesday in our meeting, team members summarize and share the articles that they’ve read.

Here are four reasons why Slimmer AI has been such a great fit for me:

  1. Flexible working: I started working at Slimmer AI during the pandemic, which of course has posed challenges for us all. But I’ve still been able to connect with my colleagues in person and online, and build a schedule that works best for me. For example, in order to create the needed focus for my work, I plan for most of my meetings to be in the first half of the day so I have dedicated time in the afternoon for development and deep thinking time.
  2. Collaborative environment: As mentioned before, I am an NLP enthusiast and have an inclination towards those types of projects. However, the first project I worked on at Slimmer AI involved Computer Vision (CV). But don’t worry: I was given a choice! I decided to take on this computer vision project so that I could explore a new field. This was only possible due to my super supportive team members — a big shout out to Bas and Job — who have been patient with me throughout the project.
  3. Cutting-edge technology: Apart from the products we develop, we also have ‘R&D’ cycles through the AI Fellowship mentioned earlier. These intensive cycles help us stay up to date with the ever-changing field that is AI, thus strengthening our skills. Therefore, while working as an ML Engineer at Slimmer AI, I am able to continuously research, learn, experiment, and develop. In a very short span of time, I have improved my ‘coding etiquette’, the way I approach a problem, and also explore a new field.
  4. Inclusive environment: It is no secret that the field of AI is predominantly male. However, Slimmer AI raises the importance of diversity and inclusiveness, and even more, efforts are being made by Slimmer AI to be as diverse as possible. There are currently 4 female engineers in the team and we would be happy to work with many, many more! It is so important that we not only break stereotypes but also pave the way for the next generations of women in technology. The journey is surely going to be difficult, and changes cannot be expected overnight, but we are taking steps in the right direction. Being a female ML Engineer myself, I strongly believe that our perspective (and other diverse perspectives) can greatly benefit the field — and Slimmer AI shares this same view.

If you are eager to learn, ready for a challenge, and want to use AI to solve real-world problems, Slimmer AI is the place for you! It’s been a great place for me.

If you have more questions about my experience or working at Slimmer AI, please feel free to reach out to me by email or on LinkedIn.