Tue Dec 01 2020

Xpert insight: The journey of our Principal Machine Learning Engineer

By Marius Helf

"If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?" Jorrit asks. It was one of those icebreaker questions that help instructors to get their students talk. It's 9 o'clock, somewhere in Holland.

Jorrit is the instructor of today's Big Data training. In fact, there was not much need to break the ice -- I know all my colleagues in the room, and I work with most of them on a daily basis at my assignment at the Municipality of Amsterdam. Together we help the Municipality build the foundation of its cloud infrastructure and create applications that help the city’s employees and the citizens to get the right information at the right time.

What I did at Xomnia as the Chief Data Scientist

I worked on a project to detect the improper use of housing space in Amsterdam, such as illegal hostels and hotels. I am part of a team of 16 professionals coming from Xomnia and the Municipality. Our team included data scientists, engineers, database specialists, frontend developers, business translators, UX designers, lawyers and crime analysts. Together, we formed a truly interdisciplinary team with a lot of different personalities and expertise. No day went by without learning something new about a field you didn't even know existed.

In our team, the business translators made sure that we build exactly what our customers need, and our lawyer had a sharp eye on compliance to privacy laws and guidelines. It’s these kinds of assignments that motivate me -- those that require working together with others to make a societal impact. This project directly improves the livability of my new home city.

In fact, I try to choose all of my projects such that they have a positive impact on people. After a study of Computer Science at the TU University of Dortmund, I started as a Junior Project Engineer at RapidMiner. Five years later, I made contact with Xomnia for the first time as Director of the RapidMiner University, RapidMiner’s global training program.

At Xomnia, I work with clients like VodafoneZiggo, for whom I built a tool to help their technicians find and fix problems in the cable network faster (you know how frustrating it is to wait for the monteur, right?). Other clients I worked for include KLM, whom I helped to get an early heads up of delayed flights so that they can notify their customers in time; and railway companies, whom I supported in maintaining their tracks; and a many many others to whom I delivered data related projects.

Back in the training room, Rabih says “Teleporting!”. “Travelling through space and time!” Sebastian says. “Being invisible!” I hear someone else say.

I am not quite sure what to make of this question. It really makes me think. And I can’t quite find an answer.

How my journey with Xomnia started

Flashback to 2014. I woke up in Ollie’s bed. Yes, the Ollie, co-founder of Xomnia B.V. Ollie was sleeping at the office and left his flat to me -- startup culture at its finest. As the head of the RapidMiner University, I came to Amsterdam to teach Xomnia’s first three data scientists everything I know about RapidMiner and artificial intelligence. On Ollie’s bike, I cycled to the Xomnia office, which is a stone throw away from Leidseplein. I met the team, and was amazed by the office and the culture and the openness of everyone I met. Most importantly, I was amazed by the enthusiasm that I experienced. On the last day of the training that I delivered, there were not only  the three Xomnians in the room, but a small 20 guests from a range of current and future customers.

This training week has left a lasting impression on me. A year later, I was living in Boston, but always missed Europe. I popped an email to info@xomnia.com saying: “Hey guys, I’m looking for a new gig. Shall we arrange a call?”. Two phone calls, three months and a transatlantic flight later, I found myself back in the Xomnia office to sign my contract as Xomnia’s Chief Data Scientist! With this, I began a new, exciting phase of my life in February of 2016. Starting 2021, I assumed the role of principal machine learning engineer.

Xomnia sets its path

At the time, Xomnia was only 3 years old, and was still in the process of setting its path. There was a lot to do, and all of a sudden, I found myself with many new, exciting responsibilities. In the course of the following 4 years, we transformed  Xomnia from a small 7-man show, to a recognized AI enterprise. We shaped the Junior Development Program, which helped us to build long term relationships with our customers, and also attracted great talents to Xomnia, such as Lisanne and Gianmarco and hundreds of others. We also started our first joint venture to build our self-driving boat. Next to my more organizational tasks, I also had the possibility to work on many exciting projects, ranging from investigating the betrayal of Anne Frank, to reducing the impact of flight delays with KLM.

The more we grow, the more talent we attract, and the more managerial tasks I can hand over to new colleagues. This leaves me more able to focus on my true passion: getting my hands dirty with data and code, connecting the two of them, and choosing the right tools to enable customers like the Municipality of Amsterdam to make an impact for her citizens.

How is it like living in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam is not only home to Xomnia, but also to many amazing people. Three months after moving from Boston to Amsterdam, I met the love of my life. My original plan to stay for two years in Amsterdam has turned to a marriage to a Liverpudlian woman, a house, two cats - I am also getting fluent in Dutch, slowly but surely.

Amsterdam is also home to Wim Hof, better known as the iceman. And as the processes at Xomnia mature, I discovered a new passion next to data and AI: connecting back to what we really are, connecting back to nature, following Wim’s example. The power of the breath, breathwork, and exposing the body to extreme cold. While breathing sounds like nothing special and jumping into a frozen lake in winter sounds outright crazy, this combination delivers an incredible relaxation and calmness. It’s that calmness that nurtures the passion in me, and next to building artificial intelligence and pumping data from A to B, I decided that I wanted to share this experience. As an instructor for the Wim Hof Method I coach people to manage their stress. Working with the people and the heart is a perfect balance to working -mostly- with machines throughout the week.

Where I stand today

And now, seven years into the journey with Xomnia, I’ve come to realize why I found out why it was so hard to answer Jorrit’s question about which superpower I would like to choose: I believe that every single one of us already has all the superpowers that we need. After experiencing it myself and coaching countless people of all ages and backgrounds, I know that everyone can immerse themselves in ice-cold water and feel great.

We live in a time where we can do everything we want. We can travel the seven seas, we can work abroad, we can live wherever we want. Teleporting is (almost) real. We can find a person anywhere in the world and fall in love and forge a bond for life. We can grow a small startup from an idea and seven team members to a thriving company known throughout the whole of the Netherlands. This last accomplishment was made real with the efforts of every single one of us at Xomnia.

Being part of Xomnia’s story

I am proud and grateful to be part of this journey. And if you want to nurture your own superpowers, I invite you to get in touch with Xomnia for technological superpowers. To learn about the power of the ice, checkout happyyeti.nl.

Learn something new or do something that you have never done before, believe in yourself, and just do it! - Marius Helf.