From intern to Ph.D. – Ivona’s career journey with Tooploox

  • Scope:
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Culture and People

Or how to become a tech lead?

From intern to PhD - career journey with Tooploox

“I don’t know any other company in Poland where you can combine Ph.D. studies with your daily work so smoothly. What’s more, I have mentors at Tooploox who have taught me more than I learned in my Ph.D. studies.” Says Ivona Tautkute-Rustecka, tech lead at Tooploox and AI artist. 

According to research conducted by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, happy workers are 13% more productive. So what can companies do to make their employees happy? Sometimes the answer is “just give them space – for development, for their passions, for being truthful, for trying new things.” 

This is the story of Ivona Tautkute, who listens to her heart and does things that make her happy. This passion and great intuition have led her to the tech lead position in projects based on machine learning and to become a world-famous AI artist. 

As Tooploox, we are happy we can join in this journey with Ivona, share our knowledge with her, support her, and help by showing different directions and options she can choose from. 

Today we invite you to read Ivona’s story about how, from the beginning as an intern, she became a Ph.D. (and not only this!), and how she is still satisfied with her job. 

How did your programming journey begin?

I studied mathematics and the only computer subject was “introduction to computer science,” during which we wrote programs down on paper. My University has a high education level but is rather more concerned with theory, not practical knowledge. It helped me with the logic and foundations of programming, but I needed to learn the rest on my own. 

In my first job after University, I worked as a financial analyst and in system support, but I found the job rather boring. I felt I needed something which challenged me, where I could solve interesting issues. 

I started to attend courses after working hours, during which I learned programming on entry-level and basic commands in python. In the meantime, I discovered machine learning. One thing especially interesting for me in this field was computer vision and how we can use it to analyze images. 

In doing this, I began to understand it was impossible to master machine learning on a high level entirely on my own while I had a full-time job, so I started to think about changing my career path. At that time, I worked in a high position with an excellent salary as a financial application analyst, but I knew that if I wanted to pursue my dreams, I had to find an internship option.

At that time, I wanted to be a part of the community of people working with machine learning, so I joined many meetups in that field. At one of them, I met Tomasz Trzciński – who is Chief Scientist at Tooploox and now also a Board Member. 

Tomasz gave a presentation about a model of prediction for image popularity, which I found very interesting. I wanted to know more, so I visited the Tooploox website and there I saw photos of cats, a smiling group of people holding my favorite non-alcoholic drink, and a great atmosphere in the office. I realized this was a place I want to work in.

And what came after? How has your career developed?

Tooploox hired me at the same time as I got the information I was accepted for my doctoral studies. I didn’t know how I would manage this, but I decided to try. On the first day of my studies, I met Wojtek, who worked for Tooploox and had also started his Ph.D. studies along with me. 

My first tasks at Tooploox set the direction of my Ph.D. thesis. The very first project I worked on at Tooploox became my first scientific publication. Everything just fits perfectly! I was fortunate I could do research and learn at Tooploox with great specialists at my side.

The topic of my Ph.D. thesis is Multimodal Representation Learning with Deep Neural Networks. It’s a combination of publications I wrote while I was working on projects which interested me in an academic way. 

At Tooploox, I tried to find room for research and method improvement in every project, which would help me in my research and further develop my skills. Fortunately, in most cases, it wasn’t difficult at all!

What’s more, between projects, I always found something to do – research, conferences, publications. Thanks to these, Tooploox got new clients, and I was able to publish multiple research papers, which right now make up my doctoral dissertation. So many advantages for both me and Tooploox! 

You started at Tooploox as an intern, today, after nearly five years, you are the technical lead. How do you see this journey – differences in responsibility, changes in skill set, independence in projects?

As an intern, I worked on solutions and simple tasks, I did not have a lot of responsibility. At that time, I was learning a lot from my mentors, Tomek and Wojtek – people with an incredible experience. They taught me not only technical stuff, but I could observe how they talked to clients and managed projects. I feel that most of what I know now I owe to them. 

As time went by, I gained more and more experience and suddenly I was one of the experts in Computer Vision. I also started taking up tasks that were less related to coding but more towards decision making, contact with business clients, presenting our methods during meetings, mentoring junior team members, and managing project direction. The whole journey was very smooth, without clear borders between each level.

In a holacratic structure, we don’t have one job position with rigidly assigned duties. We can get involved in tasks from different fields in the company, so I decided to engage in other areas as well, such as managing our internal AI projects.

Some part of my time I allocate to supporting employees – their development, solving their problems, and helping with new directions in their career paths. 

These changes you describe – where do they come from? Were they from you, or were they company decisions?

In the beginning, I got a lot of support from the company, but the decisions were always mine. I could always learn from my more experienced colleagues and observe their work. Thanks to that I could see different directions, and I could choose those which were the most interesting for me. For example, if I saw that someone was great at negotiating and selling our skillset to a client, my thought was, “Wow! I want to do that the same way!” With this approach, I picked different elements from different team members which I wanted to improve and work on in myself. The decisions were always dictated by what gave me the most joy and what was most natural for me. 

I know I couldn’t be a “standard scientist,” one who only does research. So I decided the best direction for me is to combine science and engineering with working with people – and now I do this, and it leaves me feeling fulfilled. 

How do you perceive your development at Tooploox?

If I don’t like something, I cannot really hide my dissatisfaction, and it has to be changed. I always strive to do things that grant me fulfillment and are not just time fillers. That’s why I’m grateful I found a career path that gives me satisfaction and I feel that my competencies fit it well. 

During my career at Tooploox, there were cases when projects I worked on were not a perfect fit for me. Fortunately, we were always able to make arrangements with project managers to switch projects so that I could work in technologies and industries that were closer to my skillset. The possibility of changing projects is good for employees but for Tooploox as well, because when you are satisfied with your work, you can bring more benefits to your company.

You work in the field of AI and are also interested in AI art and NFTs. Could you please explain what these two have in common and what you find inspiring in them?

An NFT (non-fungible token) is a certificate that confirms the authenticity of any piece of digital content. In most cases, it is used for digital art, like music, drawings, animation, etc., but it can also be used to confirm the authenticity of, e.g., a ticket. In terms of digital art, it is a gamechanger for the digital artist because, before the NFT, anyone could download or copy anything on the internet.

NFTs, give confidence concerning art’s authenticity, which, we can say, is a creation of a new value, a new medium.

I have been interested in photography since I was 18 years old – in that year of my life, my grandpa gave me a Lomo camera, and it all started from there. I used this hobby to escape when I felt overwhelmed during my undergraduate and master’s studies in mathematics. I evolved in those two domains in parallel. I worked on my career in Computer Science and AI, and I also worked as a photographer on weekends, during concerts and events. They existed as my two separate worlds – art & technology. The more I worked with machine learning, the more I wondered if there was an option to combine these two fields.

A couple of years ago, I finally discovered AI art. In the beginning, when I just started working with GANs in a commercial project, I remember accidentally running the network with the wrong parameters and generating some weird abstract patterns. I was surprised at the unexpected aesthetic qualities of these random patterns and started wondering if I could use this technology for art. The better AI methods became, the more possibilities appeared for creating AI art.

The number of photos needed to train models has decreased significantly, which opens up plenty of opportunities. I started to train models on my own photos and decided to send my work to a digital art contest in Poland, which I won. That was the moment NFTs showed up, and I decided to try tokenizing them as NFTs and perhaps even selling them.

The interest in my work was huge! But the best was yet to come.

So what is your most significant success in terms of NFTs?

My NFT work has been sold in Sotheby’s auction house in New York – this is the world’s most prestigious auction house and is the biggest dream for most artists. This was also true for me, just two months before, I told my husband that this was the peak of my dreams. Now he laughs that my dreams were too small.

Besides that, my works have been shown in 19 exhibitions, and New York, Greece, Singapore, London, Tokyo are only some of the cities my work has visited. During 2021, my art definitely traveled a great deal more than I did.

I guess it was the best year of my life. Ok, maybe just after the one in which I got married. 

Is AI art a hobby or a full-time job? How do you manage it when you also have Tech Lead responsibilities at Tooploox?

Some time ago, I changed my contract with Tooploox to part-time to have more time for creating art and managing my side of the business (marketing, networking, strategy). I don’t know where this path will bring me, but I know that combining science and art is what makes me happy. What’s best is that both of these things are complementary – being creative helps me with client projects and also helps me stay on top of AI research, which in turn helps me create better works in the intersection of art and technology.

A hybrid way of working, flexible working hours – these are definitely helpful. Thanks to them, I can manage tasks for both of my jobs. 

Because of my busy schedule, I sometimes need to keep reminders for myself to have some downtime. I need to keep in mind that I should go for a walk or do yoga. What’s interesting is that the same action might be both work and relaxation, like taking photos – I can take photos to train neural networks and make the next piece of art, but I can still take photos during a holiday with my friends and it will be relaxing for me.

What do you think holacracy (the structure in Tooploox) has in common with the flexibility you mentioned?

Thanks to the flexibility holacracy gives, I could take care of internal company tasks and management, not only developing my technical skills. Of course, this “flat structure” is not for everybody. Within holacracy, you always have to ask yourself, “what’s next? which path should I choose?”

Do you think there was a challenge or situation which would be impossible to do in other places than Tooploox?

My Ph.D. I don’t know any other company in Poland where you can combine Ph.D. studies with your daily work so smoothly. What’s more, I have mentors at Tooploox who have taught me more than I learned in my Ph.D. studies.

At the end of our conversation, I would like to ask you, as an AI specialist and enthusiast, what do you think is the direction of AI development?

It’s a good question. I wish I knew it, but in my opinion, no matter what the future of AI will look like, the most important thing is to adapt to it. 

What we have right now, we shouldn’t call artificial intelligence because there is no consciousness in it. I don’t know if AI will become real intelligence in the future – there are so many opinions about it in the scientific world – some experts say that we might see it in 10 years, others think that it is impossible for at least another 100 years. 

What I’m sure of is that in 10 years we will be using totally different technologies than we use now. That’s why it is so crucial to never stop learning.

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