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Asking Alumni #5

Asking Alumni #5

Wed, 3 Feb 2021

Jorrit Geels

As a student in one of the most widely applicable fields, it is easy to lose yourself in the amount of options you are given. But why figure it out all by yourself? 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.

This blog includes the 20th interview of the series. A great milestone! A huge thanks to Ralph, David, Daniëlle and Tedde for being a part of this blog series, just like the other alumni.

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

In case these blogs have sparked your interest and some motivation to get started with your professional career, consider joining career related events, for example organised by CognAC to get even more insight in the AI workfield.

The best moment to start paying attention to your career was at the first day of university, the second best day is today. Get started!

- Jorrit Geels

 

Contents:

  1. Ralph Niels: Senior lecturer at HAN.
  2. David van KuijkIT Architect & team leader at de Belastingdienst (Dutch Tax Authority).
  3. Daniëlle Verstegen: Director of Master of Health Professions Education at Maastricht University.
  4. Tedde van Gelderen: President at Akendi.

 

Ralph Niels

Ralph Niels is the youngest alumnus of this post. He graduated 15 years ago, whereas those featured below all graduated 13 years before that.

Ralph was an orientation mentor during the year 2000: that’s where he met his wife. Today, they have 3 children. Years ago he wrote his PhD thesis as a young father, and now he is a senior lecturer at the HAN. What did he do in between? What steps did he take? Keep on reading to get to know more on the career of this Efteling fanatic. (That’s right: he spends hours per month reading and listening podcasts about it - but he only visits it once a year…)

 

 

University and CognAC

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

I was a member. Most important thing I learned is probably how to pronounce "Linköping" ;-)

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

The first time I met other CognAC members must have been in the "TK" (terminalkamer). It was a great luxury to be able to use computers that were permanently connected to the internet without having to wait in line for half an hour (like psychology students had to do) or wait until a housemate was finished making a phone call and making the phone connection available for connecting to the internet. This really made a big impression.

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

I was a "student assistant" and that's where I learned that helping students is often more fun than being a student. I believe that this was the first step towards my current job as teacher.

About your career

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

Senior lecturer I teach computer science courses (mainly related to programming and research skills) to students of HBO-ICT at HAN University of Applied Sciences (just around the corner, near station Heyendaal!).

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

Although I work in the field of computer science, I regard myself as a teacher: of course my domain skills are important, but much more important are my educational skills. I believe that being able to explain and transfer your knowledge and insights to others is important in any job. My advice would be: don't just spend your time to gather knowledge, but also practice spreading knowledge.

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

As almost anybody would say, I wish I had taken more time to travel and more time to broaden my horizon. But I guess that for most people it is not possible to truly realise that before it's too late… ;-)

Dealing with problems

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

Giving bad grades to students who have worked hard, is something that I find hard to do. What helps me, is to realise that good grades are only meaningful when given to good work: letting bad work pass, would mean a deflation of good grades, and that would mean a disadvantage for students who have produced good work. It still hurts sometimes, though, to give a motivated and hardworking student a bad grade.

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?

After I got my Masters degree, I worked on my PhD at Donders Institute. After that, I worked for a process modelling company for a few years. During both jobs, I sometimes was jealous of people who talked about their work with real passion. For me, both jobs were just jobs. I mean, they were fun and I learned a lot, but I wasn't really passionate about them. At a certain moment, when working for that company, I got involved in providing training programs to clients, and that was the moment I learned about my real passion: teaching. Not much later, I moved towards my current job, and today I'm one of those people I used to be jealous of. The moral of this story? It can take a while before you find your real passion. In hindsight, both the research and the company job have helped me obtaining the skills I need to be good at my current job, so I wouldn't call them 'failures'.

Advice, to close off

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

Don't take your professional life too seriously. I am very happy now, working 28 hours a week in a job I love, and spending the rest of my time with my family and my hobbies. For me, that's a perfect mix.

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?

Even as a teacher, especially in the dynamic field we are in, it is not possible to know everything, and you don't have to know everything. You can start teaching what you know before you know everything you want to teach.

 

David van Kuijk

David wrote his introduction for me!

My name is David van Kuijk, aged 53. I started studying in Nijmegen in 1985 and graduated in 1993 (in between I had a break for 2 years). At that time the programme was called "Cognitiewetenschap" (Cognitive Science) and I got a Psychology diploma!

I play drums and once a week I submerge myself in a cellar in an old former monastry (close by the place where I live) with three other "older youths" to play rock music. In the summer I like to go to Austria for paragliding. In the last years my daughters (now 18 and 19) come along, while my wife prefers transporting herself closer to the earth.

University and CognAC

1.      Were you involved within CognAC? If so, how? What did you learn from that experience? And 2. What is your most ‘typical CognAC’ memory?

I think CognAC was started just after I had my study break. I was not actively involved, but I have hazy memories from the parties and certainly remember André and Freek. There was a weekend on Texel with Cognitiewetenschap somewhere in the early nineties in a farmhouse with many half hidden passages. I remember Tony Jameson hanging upside down in a tree at some moment, and getting lost in the farm. Was that organised by CognAC?

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

Critical thinking, sound reasoning, looking at problems/solutions from different perspectives and how to write good reports. At the time we had a subject called "Programming Paradigms" which still helps me explain to people that there is no ultimate tool/platform/pattern/language/paradigm. You have to understand the problem you are faced with and then pick the best way so solve it.

About your career

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

I have two roles at De Belastingdienst: I work as IT Architect, and as team leader for operations in the "Center of Excellence for Cognitive Solutions". I have been working at De Belastingdienst for almost 21 years now, but have only returned to AI/ML in the last three years.

As IT Architect I work on the technical and cultural change to containerisation and devops within De Belastingdienst.

The Center of Excellence is specialised in AI/ML applications and services. Right now we mainly do Natural Language Processing, but we are working on a chat bot, and image recognition/classification may also come into scope.

I am not a Powerpoint IT Architect, so I like to do some coding and fiddling myself. My focus is now on infrastructure and operations. That means providing a platform for our engineers to develop and operate Machine Learning containerized applications with CI/CD and GitOps on a Kubernetes platform called Openshift.

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

Collaborating in teams, analytical thinking, good communication skills, taking a software engineering approach towards AI/ML.  You get some of these during your study, but you have to cultivate these skills in your career.

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

Participating in some kind of exchange program to get a taste of studying on a foreign university.

Dealing with problems

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

In general working in a big organisation has the advantage of many opportunities within the organisation, and the disadvantage of bureaucracy and viscousness. Because I like to get things done, this can be frustrating.

I deal with that by:

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?

After I graduated I started a PhD but stopped after two years. I had some nice results which were published, but found out I wanted to work in a more applied field. I worked at LCN Planning and Scheduling in Nijmegen (which was founded by former Cognitiewetenschap students), and then moved on to De Belastingdienst. At the time I did not expect to work there more than 5 years, but I like the opportunities in a big organisation with complex IT and the fact that I can contribute to society.

De Belastingdienst has a mixed reputation with respect to IT, but in my experience there are a lot of skilled and motivated IT professionals working there.

So no regrets ;-)

Advice, to close off

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

Think Big, Start Small, Scale fast.

It helps you to get started with innovation, while keeping the long term goals in mind and not falling into traps which could be foreseen.

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?

Invest in your communication skills, stay curious with respect to developments in your field of work, get certified (I am an Opengroup certified IT architect), and try out different roles/positions to find out what makes you tick!

O, and read the blogs on martinfowler.com, e.g. this one: https://martinfowler.com/articles/cd4ml.html.

 

Daniëlle Verstegen

Daniëlle works at the University of Maastricht, where on her page (https://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/d.verstegen) she has this bio:

Daniëlle M. L. Verstegen is programme director of the Master of Health Professions Education (MHPE) program.  She studied Cognitive Science (Radboud University Nijmegen, 1992) and holds a PhD in Instructional Science (Utrecht University, 2004). Her area of expertise lies in instructional design, online and blended learning in the context of Problem-Based Learning. She was project leader of the PBL MOOC project, and is involved in national and international research projects on, for example, integrating palliative care in undergraduate curriculum and developing education for cross-border patient safety.

Daniëlle is a dreamer, a big dreamer. She used to have three dreams: go parachute jumping, learn Italian and live in a third-world country for a while. She has achieved those and by far tamer ones: t’ai chi, and learning to speak nine(!) languages. She can confidently apply for the title of ‘Mrs. Worldwide”; even while she moved back to Maastricht (close to where she was born), she has family and students all over the globe.

 

University and CognAC

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

For me Cognitive Science was still a specialization within Psychology. This was before the bachelor-master divide and before CognAC. I remember the start of CognAC, but then I was on my may to doing my thesis in Milan :-)

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

I did join in some activities in my last years... I remember a very rainy canoeing trip and cycling to a party with Joyce on her tandem.

Before that: there was Cognitive Science party every year at Tony Jameson’s place. In my last year it was organized by Prof. van Kempen. I still remember my great fear of getting red-wine-stains on his expensive white carpet...

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

What I have definitely used most: the basic psychology skills of presiding a meeting, leading a discussion and come to a joint conclusion, and interviewing someone to find out what exactly is the problem that he or she is struggling with.

About your career

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

After working with military schools (at TNO) and vocational schools (in Rotterdam) I now work at Maastricht University. I work mostly in post-academic education with part-time master and PhD students living all over the world. On one day, I could be talking with a local PhD student in Maastricht, a master student in Argentina, and a project partner in Singapore. I feel like I am still travelling even though I have been working from home since March.

In research projects I work on, for example, educational materials about palliative care or cost-conscious care. I also work with partners closer by on training healthcare personnel for cross-border care, very relevant in a region where three of the four closest hospitals are in Belgium and Germany. And I can tell you that cultural differences can be difficult at short distance too, maybe even more so :-)

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

Content wise: I started out in Intelligent Tutoring Systems (overlay student models, for those of you who remember). Over time I have specialized in instructional design for online and blended learning, and the use of technology in education.

I would say, though, that organizational skills and analytic thinking are far more important. Plus, the capacity to be flexible, make new plans, and also to so ‘NO’ sometimes. Those skills I learned mostly outside of study and work, raising three kids.

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

Maybe I would have liked to get involved more with the university or the faculty. Looking backwards, I’m not sure why I never joined an organizing committee of some kind. Around me, I see students involved in evaluating their own education. I think I would have liked that.

Dealing with problems

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

The hardest think about my current job is that I have 7 different bosses who all want different things from me. All of them feel that their work should get precedence, and all of them underestimate how many hours it takes. I try not to do the same to the people I work with, but that only means that I have to pick up tasks that others cannot finish. My first supervisor once advised me to always add 20% to the time that you estimate for any task. That seems to be about right.

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?

I ended up here by chance, I think. When I was looking for work the first time, jobs were scarce. So, I was happy that I got a job at TNO after 65 letters.... I had no clue what I was getting into. It was a fine first job, but I should have left after four or five years, I think. By then, I had started up my part-time PhD there, and I got stuck. Maybe, I would have been better off giving that up, and applying for a PhD position elsewhere.

My next move was also coincidence: I applied for a wide variety of jobs, and got one in Rotterdam, doing research for vocational schools. Big advantage: I felt that I was doing something useful. Vocational schools need our support, because that is where we make the difference for young people: a diploma that enables you to find work and have a reasonable life or ending up unemployed forever.

The large disadvantage: it was impossible to arrange family life with the kids going to school in Utrecht, me working in Rotterdam and my husband in Amsterdam. So, we agreed to take the first job that one of us could find outside the ‘Randstad’.  That happened to be Maastricht, by chance again.

None of these were failures, I think. I am perfectly happy with where I ended up. Long-term career planning has never been my forte, but who cares?

Advice, to close off

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

Your work is just a contract between you and your employer: they pay you to do stuff. If you are not happy, you can just leave. There are many other ways to earn a living.

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?

I did take quite some electives, also completely out of the field (clinical psychology, Italian and a course in gender studies). I also taught basic computer programming to psychology students and organized monthly meetings for a group of elderly people in the neighbourhood. I do not think it matters what you do as long as you enjoy learning new things. It is definitely something that I would look for in a CV.

If you want to get into education, you can do quite a lot as a student: take on minor teaching roles, getting involved as a student evaluator.

Most of all, though: find things that you enjoy doing, that motivate you to keep going and engage with people. Being happy is far more important than having a great career.

 

Tedde van Gelderen    

Tedde van Gelderen is President of the Toronto based Experience Design firm Akendi. He is a user experience enthusiast and there exist numerous great videos of him on the internet, explaining why it is important what he is doing. For instance, check out one of his keynotes (part 1 and part 2) and this short video.

Tedde simply has a lot of wisdom to share, so I won't keep you from it any longer. Enjoy the great read!

 

University and CognAC

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

My involvement at the time was as a regular member in the initial years of CognAC. Being part of a relatively new university field was a fun thing. We had a couple of events, parties, those were great, and it was nice to be part of a small group of likeminded people.

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

Because it was a new club, there were quite a few meetings, gatherings where we’d discuss CognAC, the logo, what committees to form, etc. Those meetings I remember the most, and the party at Tony Jameson’s house.

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

Getting a degree is number one. It opens the doors to many exciting opportunities. That sunk in for me around my 3rd year; I’d better finish this now.

I never thought the jump from high school to university life would be this big. After my first year, I nearly dropped out, barely had the marks to continue my studies, but once I did and finally learned how to cook rice and make a stir-fry, it slowly got better.

About your career

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

For the last 13 years, I’ve been running a user experience consultancy in Toronto, Canada, called Akendi (www.akendi.com). It’s a team of about 15 designers, researchers, and strategists doing user research, interaction design, visual design, and product strategy.

My role has shifted considerably since starting the consultancy. I used to work on projects, do research, some interaction design. Nowadays, it’s 80% business development and management of the company (finances, people). For most projects, I have a role as the account manager. To make sure the client stays happy, and we deliver what we promised.

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

In hindsight, I found my courses heavily focused on the specialty, the knowledge of the field. While that is important, obviously, and should stay 75% of what you learn initially, the other 25% should be about three things:

  1. Learn how to work with others (i.e. personal effectiveness)
  2. How to coach others in their work (i.e. leadership, management)
  3. How do organizations really work? Whether they make money or are government or a non-profit.

It took me a fair bit of ‘on-the-job-learning’ to figure out these three things and realise my strengths and weaknesses and what makes for a fun, successful career. Successful in life even.  It was too long, really, as many of the things I learned were not complex in of themselves, but no-one ever told me about them, so I had to learn by trial and error.

Oh, and number 4, please please learn how to do presentations. Well. It will get you where you want to go A LOT sooner.

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

Hmm, not really; I enjoyed the mix of learning, figuring out life, and travel. I did enough of all three, happy about that.

Dealing with problems

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

For a small-ish consultancy, the hardest thing is to keep “riding the wave”. You don’t know what work you are doing, say 4-6 months from now. Do we have projects, do our clients pay on time? The uncertainty is something you get used to but never really get used to. I’ve been fortunate not to let it get to me that much in normal times. The covid period we’re going through right now has been a much bigger challenge; it is getting better, though.

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?

I did my thesis work at Philips Research, applied for a job there during the final months of my project, and was hired as an HCI researcher. I moved after 3.5 years to Philips Design, thought that I could do more with the management skills that I thought I had and left to work as a management consultant at KPMG.

While at KPMG, I attended a conference in the USA and stumbled upon a Canadian company hiring people like me. As a result, my family and I moved to Canada about 20 years ago for a manager’s role in the user experience design field. It only lasted one year and ten months. I got laid off (the whole company of 90.000 people collapsed, really), and we didn’t want to move back so soon.

So, with a couple of my former colleagues, we started a human factors consultancy, worked that for almost six years, and in the end sold it to a local software development company. After that, I started again with my consultancy called Akendi. That was 13 years ago.

I find it hard to see any of the above as a failure, more as a next step that just happened. I know that I would have never known if starting my own business was for me, were it not for the layoff that I experienced. If that didn’t happen, I would have likely ended up in a VP or C-level role in a bigger company. I’m really glad I lost my job then; what I do now is way more fun.

Advice, to close off

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

Be honest, bold, and persistent, in that order.

  1. Be honest in what you do well, what is not your strength, acknowledge them, and act accordingly.
  2. Be bold and dare to step forward where others don’t. But once you do, count on to fail occasionally.
  3. Then be persistent and try again, and again. You’ll get closer with each try.

Some of this sounded, to me at least, a bit lame at first. Until I one day realised that this is what actually worked. When I did the three steps, sometimes implicitly, I got to somewhere better.

I use it to this day.

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?

Jump in with both feet in the now and stay there for a little while. Please. In the now, you can build a solid base of skills and knowledge in your field of interest. In the now, you can enjoy the work, the people, and the world around you. In the now, you can learn, wonder, and question. In the now, you can plan for tomorrow. And when you KNOW you are ready, and you will know this, you take that step.