Published on: 27 May 2020
Written by: Jorrit Geels

Okay, we get it; AI is all around us. It is used in almost any field imaginable, and the job opportunities are simply endless. As an AI-student myself, I found myself with a great uncertainty of where my future is taking me because of this.
I tried my best to explore my options, however, I was looking for something that I thought I could not find. I can’t even name all career events I visited anymore, I got lost in brochures , and I have a near-monthly ritual of visiting the website of our career service.

Then I realized something very important: you are never alone. There are always others sharing the same struggles, both now and in the past. I decided to reach out for advice to those who have been able to deal with my struggle in the past, our alumni. These kind people took their time to review their career for me: the choices they made, the problems they had to deal with, and what in the end made it all worth it. 

The format is very simple: they all answer the same 10 questions in their own way. No guidelines, no restrictions: their story.

If you are/know an alumni (preferably 5+ years since graduating) that would like to participate in these blogs, please email me at cogblog@svcognac.nl.

Today I present to you the first four replies I got. There are many more to come. A huge thanks to Hielke, Joris, Jonas and Paul for being a part of this, hopefully lasting, blog series.

Hang in there, the future is bright.
- Jorrit Geels

 

Contents:

  1. Hielke Schut: Java Developer at the Volksbank
  2. Joris Janssen: Co-founder at Luscii
  3. Jonas Moons: Lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht
  4. Paul Lemmens: Senior scientist at Philips Research

 

 

Hielke Schut

16 years have passed since Hielke Schut, treasurer of the 11th board of CognAC (2001-2002), graduated from Radboud University. He started out as a UX designer, but recently switched his careerpath to become a Java Developer at De Volksbank. In this interview, he shares the valuable lessons he learned throughout the years!

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

I was involved as treasurer of the board. That way, I got to know my fellow students a lot better, next to that, I also got to know all students that were in AI and it helped to better connect with teachers, the university, other studies etc.. It was a great experience and above all a lot of fun.
Last but certainly not least: it also helped with my organizational skills. 

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

A party that we organized while our sister association Kogvet, from Linköping, Sweden, were visiting. With our tight connections with computer science at the time, they were invited as well. It was a great success from an integration point of view, financially a bit less successful :-)

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

That would be both social skills and living your life besides studying. Study is an important but not the only part of your time at the university. Enjoy it!

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

Currently I work as a Java developer at De Volksbank. I switched careers 3,5 year ago, before I was a UX designer but learning and doing new things is what motivates me most. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/hielkeschut/)

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

First of all, find out what really interests you. And BE interested in others and be curious. Any question you ask might bring you answers you do not expect. 
How you go about doing so does not really matter. Possible routes could be symposia, education, job switch, any kind of networking event, or even becoming a student assistant. Helping and educating fellow students, and working with your teacher/professor, will give you a different perspective and unique point of view. 

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

Do not do too much. Make sure that you are focussed on the things you do and have enough time to do so. I once tried to do a course in Spanish next to all my other activities. It was only 4 hours per week... in class and another 16 hours of self-study... oops, that did not work out for me, so had to stop after about 6 weeks. Lesson learned.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Knowing that there is so much I do not know about Java development and all the techniques, platforms and other related skills that I have not mastered yet. There simply is so much to learn, but there are only 24 hours in a day, and only 7 days a week. It is difficult to decide what to focus on sometimes; what first to learn.

I deal with this challenge by asking myself 2 questions:
   1 what does the team need or benefit most from?
   2 what do I want considering question 1?

Usually that will help me focus a bit better.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

First off all, every step I took contributed to where I am right now, so no regrets. However, when taking a certain step, you will not know where it will take you yet and, on top of that, if that is even where you want to go.
If you do not fail at something at some point in time you will not learn. Failing is always an opportunity to learn from. 

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

Be curious, ask questions and do not make assumptions. ‘Why?’, ‘how?’, ‘is it really...?’.
Be positive, have fun with colleagues enjoy what you do, or you will not be doing it for long.

Put things into perspective; even if you enjoy your job, it still is only work. Make sure you know what is really important, that will help you make decisions.

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

Ehrm, see all the above? Get out there and do things, just try it out... Think but do not overthink. For me, what was and still is the most important in my job: my team, the people I work with on a daily basis. What kind of work I do is less important than who I work with. Find a team and environment that you fit in.

Editor’s note: I also asked Hielke to answer the following questions, so I could possibly use them for an introduction. I was not able to find a good way to squeeze them in, however, I still thought the answers were respectively rather cute, awesome and interesting:

11.      Biggest achievement: Father of 2 children
12.      Unusual hobby, habit, or character trait: Diver and divemaster
13.      Interesting fact about yourself: That would depend on the reader, what (s)he might find interesting. Maybe not interesting but at least typical is that I like to be quite precise about what one says and what on means. A lot of people, even on the news seem to be very sloppy or careless about what they say and how they phrase it. From a language psychology point of view it is interesting why there are not more miscommunications

 

 

Joris Janssen

Joris Janssen, member of the 14th and 15th board of CognAC, left Radboud University 12 years ago, and has made great steps in his career ever since. Read all about how Joris went from doing a PhD, to working in Philips, and then founding a company that currently counts 60 employees, and his experiences along the way!

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

I was Chair (05/06) and Secretary (04/05). This was back in the day when CognAC had about a 100 members and being on the Board was not a full time position. I learned a lot about myself, what I like and don’t like to do. And I thoroughly enjoyed organising activities together with fellow students. Looking back, the culture at CognAC has set me up for the leadership style that I have later developed. 

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

So many to choose from. But Semi - Simultaneous Risk in Eten & Drinken will always have a special place in my heart.

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

I learned what I am passionate about, and what I do not really care for. At university, and the years afterwards, it is much much easier to try out different things than later in life. I believe everyone should use that time to figure out what you like and what you don’t like, for all aspects of life. 

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

I co-founded Luscii, a company that develops software to remotely monitor people with chronic conditions. We are with 60 people now and active in countries in Europe and Africa. I run the company together with my co-founders. I focus mainly on topics around product, engineering, design, compliance, people (HR) and scientific research. We work as a Holacracy, so there are no official managers. I try to be a servant leader, helping people to be the best they can be. 

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

I really love building products. I do believe the AI program sets you up to be a great Product Owner for a software company; combining a strong engineering background with a good understanding of people. But there are some gaps, especially around UX design, and also in interviewing and understanding your customer. If you think you want to create products, learn how to understand your customer, learn about UX design, and preferably learn how to sell. 

Managing your time well is essential. You might want to check out Grip by Rick Pastoor and Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen. I have been practicing GTD for 10 years now, and it has given me a lot of peace of mind and focus on the things that really matter. 

As soon as you move from being an individual contributor to a leadership role, you need to develop a whole host of new skills. Right now, listening, empathy, aligning, negotiating, convincing etc. are much more important than anything I was professionally prepared for during my studies or early career. 

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

In hindsight I would have loved to have taken a bit more time at university. I graduated after 5 years and was only 23. Spending an extra two years on some other Master and enjoying life as a student a bit longer would have been a good choice. I wish someone told me there is no reason to haste through life. 

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

I still struggle with balancing leadership with being an individual contributor. And have been struggling with that for years now. Only doing management activities gets boring after a while. I want to code or design as well. But combining management with other roles is really hard. As a manager you are constantly being distracted with questions. As a developer you want time to focus. I block days in my calendar and turn off all my notifications, but something things still get through.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

Step 1) I did a PhD after my graduation, went to Stanford for a bit. Learned that the academic culture is not for me. Unpopular opinion: analysing lots of data is boring. 

Step 2) I worked at Philips for a few years afterwards. Learned that I really like working on something concrete, that will hopefully end up in the hands of users. Also learned that I want to work in smaller organisations, with lots of autonomy and transparency.

Step 3) Took a serious pay cut and joined an AI startup in Rotterdam as employee number 6. Did everything (from sales, to development, to legal, to HR). Learned so much from all that I did wrong. It was the best investment in my professional development I could have made. 

Step 4) I joined a company that later resulted in Luscii. With a solid financial base, I got to build a team and product from scratch, which was a really amazing experience. We are a close group now that has a lot of fun trying to create something valuable for society. We celebrate the biggest fuck up of the month, because we realise that that is how we learn.

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

In the beginning of my career, my insecurity drove me to try to prove myself constantly. Just hearing from someone that “I am good enough the way I am” and “I don’t have anything to prove to someone else” was really necessary to make me happy and enjoy my work again. If you can let go of the external pressure you experience, you will give yourself a huge present. Burn out is a huge issue, and as a manager I tell people all the time that they are wonderful just the way they are. I hope you can remind yourself about this from time to time as well.

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

Experiment as much as you can early on. And try to find what you love. If your financial situations allow for it, don’t haste through your studies.

 

 

Jonas Moons

Currently he works a lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht, but 12 years ago Jonas Moons was still a student at Radboud University. How did he get there? In this interview, you can read all about the founder of CognAC’s annual “autumn walk” and his career, as well as his experiences and lessons learnt along the way.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

Yes, I was in the Activities Committee and the Sweden Committee. I started the tradition of the herfstwandeling (Autumn Walk) to the Duivelsberg (in the woods of my youth), which is apparently still a thing. I suppose I should put some lofty phrases here about how it helped me acquire organizing skills, and I suppose it did. But mostly it was just a ton of fun. God, I miss those days.

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

There are so many to choose from: from the Sweden exchanges with Linköping to the hours hanging around in the "TK". But the Batavierenrace is most on my mind. We were the night group (the best group), playing Scooter songs in our white minivan while we raced to the next stop.

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

Probably taking the initiative, to follow my impulses where they lead me. I took courses in philosophy, started theater (which is still a hobby of mine), and organized lots of activities within CognAC. I experienced student life as a relatively sheltered environment in which to learn the habit of trying things out, which is a very useful thing to develop.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

I'm a lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, also known as the Hogeschool Utrecht in Dutch. I teach research skills, statistics and machine learning in the Communication bachelor and in the new master Data-Driven Design. I was also a researcher for 6 years in a research group on behavioural change at the same institute, focusing on questions of methodology and statistics.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

Obviously, anyone who wants to become a teacher needs to be very familiar with the content of the subject he or she is teaching. Ultimately, however, this is only a minor part of what it means to be a teacher. In my opinion, it is much more important to be a didactically strong teacher with the ability to connect to students, than to be an expert. You have to enjoy working with a group. You need to be able to muster enthusiasm, even if you slept bad and your cat died. You need to gradually be able to be (some version of) yourself in a classroom, and be vulnerable (about your cat having died, for instance). You need to be able to connect with people on an individual level. You don't necessarily need to be a huge "people person", though it helps (I'm only mildly so, but many of my colleagues are).

Unlike in primary and secondary education, you can start teaching at universities without any specific degree, completing the necessary courses while you work. I would advise students thinking of going into education to find contexts in which to practice teaching skills: student assistant jobs, tutoring, giving workshops at your volunteer organization, giving presentations, giving ski training, whatever. Mostly to find out if you enjoy it. You will learn most of the skills on the job.

6.      Are there any things you wish you’d have done in your time as a student?

Most of all, I regret not having studied abroad. It seems like a really exciting way to broaden your horizon. Other than that, not really.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Aside from correcting, it's probably dealing with unmotivated students. Surprisingly and somewhat unfairly, students tend to have priorities in their life other than your course. There are a couple ways of dealing with this. The first is to empathize with your students. Not everyone can enjoy your course and neither should they. But they should still feel welcome and learn something. I actually enjoy joking around with the distaste for research, exploiting my somewhat nerdy image in a program that's decidedly not nerdy.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

In hindsight it seems like a minor blip in time, but at the time I found the process very hard and frustrating. After the AI bachelor I took the Cognitive Neuroscience master, during which I found out that a PhD was not for me, at least not then. I always got good grades and had been playfully called "professor" in grade school. So, whenever I thought about my career (which was not very often), I more or less assumed that I would become an academic. But my nagging suspicion that I would simply not like sitting down most of the day reading and writing, was quickly confirmed. It was also far too individualistic for me.
So, my advice is to strip away any romantic ideas you have about your prospective job, and find out what it involves on a day-to-day basis. Would you enjoy that?

Not really knowing what to do next, I found a starting position in market research. But that, too, involved a lot of sitting down. It also lacked a sense of purpose for me.
I always enjoyed teaching in various roles: as a student assistant, as a tutor, giving presentations. So together with a job coach I explored the field of education. He stimulated me to go out and talk to a lot of people, to explore my options and widen my perspective. In the end, I took the dive and directly called a few heads of study programs (with sweaty palms) and got a lucky break with a temporary teaching job. From then on, it's been relatively smooth sailing.

Would I consider these steps failures, now? Certainly not. Did I consider myself a failure, then? Probably, now and then. The truth is, unless you have a very clear perspective of what you want to do, starting out on the job market can be a hard and rocky road. But statistically speaking, you'll get there. Hang in there.

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

So, the best career advice I've got was to talk to a lot of people in your network. Don't be afraid to reach out to people who might help you on your journey. During my time in the woods, I've had coffee with a lot of people, most of whom had no job to offer me, only experiences and knowledge. You might be surprised how many people are eager to talk to you about their work, but it makes sense. Most people are happy to help others, and most people enjoy talking about themselves. At the end of these conversations, ask them for other people to contact.

These days, I get a few of these requests myself, from people wanting to go into education, and I always honour them. And if you do get rejected - well, it sucks. That's just basic psychology, we humans hate rejection. But it's only a temporary feeling, just like the fear of putting yourself out there.

The thing is, you can sit by yourself with your sketchpad, brainstorming about your future career, but that's not how it works. You've got to go out there, talk to people and do stuff to find out what it is what you want to do.

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

Speaking in general, I would look for the activities that you think you would enjoy in a job, and what percentage of the job they make out. Secondly, find something that you find purposeful. Unfortunately, most jobs will involve drudgery, bureaucracy and Excel to a much larger degree than you are now accustomed to (sorry to sound condescending). But, as Nietzsche said: "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how". I remember many meaningful moments and conversations with students that are worth dozens of hours of mindless administration.

If you want to go into education, the most important thing is to enjoy interacting with students, with a class. Find out if you like that. Specifically, if you want to teach at the hbo level, you might want to get some job experience first. You'll stand a much better chance if you have 1-3 years of job experience. Data science and AI programmes at the hbo level are popping up everywhere, so there's no shortage of opportunities. Good luck!

Editor’s note: I also asked Jonas to answer the following questions, so I could possibly use them for an introduction. I was not able to find a good way to squeeze them in, however, I thought the answers were too interesting to leave out:

11.      Biggest achievement: Staying friends with some really nice people for over 20 years
12.      Unusual hobby, habit, or character trait: Recently, sending poetry readings via WhatsApp audio message
13.      Interesting fact about yourself: My favorited chord is Fm6.

 

 

Paul Lemmens

I, Jorrit, wanted to write the introduction, but Paul went ahead and already wrote one for me. Not all heroes wear capes.

My name is Paul Lemmens, it's been 20 years since I graduated as one of the last Cognitive Science graduates just before we became AI, and fifteen since my Ph.D. My biggest achievement is getting listed on Slashdot.org for a research project that I was involved in at Philips. I've recently discovered mechanical keyboards and that topic is something that takes away a little of my time each day. Back when I was still at the university, I programmed an online publication board (the CognAC wall I think I called it) for CognAC members that invoked quite a bit of interest of our teachers and the university; for the former because it regularly crashed the server it ran on and for the latter for what sometimes was posted on the board.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience?

I've been an active member of CognAC for nearly all the time that I was a student. If I remember correctly, I was responsible for the website as committee chair (and created the ---for some people--- infamous CognAC wall as our very first online post it board), with Jeroen Houba I was in the lead of creating the CognAC Lustrum CD that contained digital copies of all newsletters, smoelenboeken, and what not that was created during the first 10 years of CognAC, I co-organized one of the exchange trips to Linköping (Sweden), and I have been secretary of the board for a year.

2.      What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

I met many friends during my time at CognAC (and Cognitive science in general) that I kept for long after graduating. Much of our interaction took place in either the "board room" and/or the "terminalkamer"; often a lively place with lots of disregard for cleanliness and quietude for studying and working.

3.      What is/are the most valuable thing(s) you learned in university, outside from course material?

It was a really valuable period in which I learned many things predominantly because in that period of your life, you still have time to slack and spend time on acquiring new skills and new knowledge.

About your career

4.      What is it exactly that you do now on a daily basis?

Since 2007 I work at Philips Research (to some this may also be known as the former Natuurkundig Laboratorium, NatLab). I was hired for my expertise on the topics that I studied during my PhD but over the years developed to providing generic study support for projects dealing with (data from) humans. I am typically involved from the first ideas about a study up until the analysis and reporting; however, I also consult or only do data processing and statistics.

5.      What skills are most valuable in order to perform well in your workfield? What would you advise students to acquire these skills?

In multidisciplinairy projects, I typically bring in a highly organized personality that helps ensuring that also the small details get sufficient attention in all processes. That organized character also helps in understanding that in certainly in business context many procedures are mandatory and that can cause frustration or anxiety in colleagues that, by character, tend to have less attention on these aspects.  Cognitive science has been tremendously helpful in learning how to bridge between the more technical sciences and psychology or social sciences in general. In these multidisciplinairy project teams I can relate to both sides and ensure that technical disciplines understand the psychologists and vice versa.

Many of these skills tend to come with the years or are a character trait. However, being able to bridge between various disciplines is something that naturally follows from being a cognitive science student because as scientific discipline it also is a multidisciplinairy science. It is important to appreciate that and not only seriously do all coursework in the various disciplines that you encounter during your time at university but also take the time and effort to talk to the students from those other disciplines to learn their thinking about solving problems.

Dealing with problems

7.      What is the hardest thing about your current job? How are you dealing with that?

Working in industrial research brings its own set of challenges. While grant money and making an effort to ensure your next year's salary is not as much of an effort or "thing" in industrial research, the relatively freely available research budget also implies that other people have more control and direction on the work that you do. This sometimes results in projects being stopped mid-term or not being able to exactly do your own ideas. This something that you simply need to accept as a given; after some time this gets easier but sometimes it still goes against the grain when you are working on something that is close to your heart.

When that happens I usually think about the other side of that situation: with the easier and sometimes larger budgets, you can achieve higher pace in getting to results that often need to be actionable for you customer or stakeholder. In turn, this could result in having your work end up in a product that eventually is sold to businesses or consumers. With that comes great responsibility to do proper reproducible research.

8.      How did you come to your current job? Did you take steps in between? Could you consider any of these steps as ‘failures’, and if so, in what sense?

That aspect of your research ending up in a product is something I have come to appreciate more and more over the years that I spent in research. As many in the (former) NICI also I had my sights on an academic career.

However, looking back I recognize that already from the outset I found some of that fundamental work almost "ritualistic". While understanding for the understanding is import to bring the world forward and I enjoyed listening to the often fierce discussions between (competing) researchers, I often failed to see how a particular topic or study addressed would bring that understanding.

So when I had the opportunity to do a Postdoc at the faculty of Industrial Design in Delft, via some contacts from the NICI, I thought that could be an interesting opportunity although I will certainly admit that back then I found it a scary prospect to do more applied work for being scared of leaving the basic science behind. Yet once I got started there, it was a far more enjoyable experience than I ever could have expected.

Unfortunately, funding that I applied for to stay a little longer did not work out; fortunately, a former PhD colleague from the NICI forwarded a position at the renowned research facility of Philips. I jumped on this opportunity to shift my focus on even more applied research work and I have not looked back since.

Advice, to close off

9.      What is the best advice you ever got? Why did it turn out to be so useful?

Getting into an industrial research position offers more opportunities compared to academia because there are more opportunities to divert from doing only research, and the base of the pyramid is bigger so there are more opportunity to rise in the ranks if you wish. As I wrote, the main thing that you need to accept is that others may or will drive the work  that you need or want to do but when you get higher up in the tree, the opportunity and need to drive your work yourself again increases. There are also more fixed and rigid  processes and procedures that you need to accept and deal with.

10.    Do you have any good advice for ambitious students that would like to go into your workfield? And what kind of advice should they ignore?

To actually see that industrial research is an interesting opportunity, you do have to change your perspective on doing research from choosing or settling on your topic at the end of your university time (and then moving to a PhD and onwards) to seeing and recognizing that you are learning a set of valuable skills and methods for analysing problems of any kind, whether it is academic (basic) research or applied industrial research, or even something completely different than research. This is a tricky change because academic training tends to instill that you and your research subject are one and the same thing. Instead, it is the combination of you, your (extracurricular) experience(s), and the skills and methods that you have been thought that captures the true value of you as a person. This perspective grants you the opportunity to see employability everywhere.