Tue Dec 01 2020

Xpert insight: the journey of our Chief Data Scientist

A blog by Marius Helf

Last week

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

Jorrit is the instructor of today's training. And there's not much needed to break the ice -- I know all my colleagues in the room, and I work with most of them daily at my assignment at the Municipality of Amsterdam. Together we help the Municipality to build the foundation of their cloud infrastructure, and build applications that help the city’s employees, and the citizens, to get the right information at the right time.

My journey

At the moment I work with a team of 16, which consists of data scientists, engineers, database specialists and frontend developers and the same amount of business translators, UX designers, lawyers and crime analysts on a project to detect improper use of housing space in Amsterdam such as illegal hostels and hotels. Some of us are colleagues from Xomnia, others work for the Municipality. Together we form a truly interdisciplinary team with a lot of different personalities and expertises. No day goes by without learning something new about a field you didn't even know existed.

With this team, we consolidate data from several internal sources and add intelligence to it. With the data scientists in our team I work on the algorithm to prioritize reports of illegal hostels in Amsterdam, while my main focus is on building the data infrastructure and pipelines to feed the application with data.

At the same time our business translators make sure that we build exactly what our customers need, and our lawyer has a sharp eye on compliance to privacy laws and guidelines. It’s these  kinds of assignments which motivate me -- working together with people to make a societal impact. This project directly improves the liveability of my new home city.

“Teleporting” Rabih says. “Travelling through space and time”, Sebastian says. “Being invisible” I hear from somewhere.

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

Flashback to 2014. I wake up in Ollie’s bed. Yes, the Ollie, co-founder of Xomnia B.V. Ollie is sleeping at the office and left his flat to me -- startup culture at its finest. As the Head of the RapidMiner University I am in Amsterdam to teach everything I know about RapidMiner and artificial intelligence to Xomnia’s first three data scientists . On Ollie’s bike I cycle to the Xomnia office a stone throw away from Leidseplein. I meet the team, I am amazed by the office, the culture and the openness of everyone I meet. And most importantly the enthusiasm I experience. On the last day of the training it’s not just 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. A year later I live in Boston, but I miss Europe. I pop an email to info@xomnia.com. “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 find myself back in the Xomnia office to sign my contract as Xomnia’s Chief Data Scientist. A new, exciting phase of my life begins in this February of 2016!

3 years after its incarnation, Xomnia is still trying to find its path. There’s lots to do, and all of a sudden I find 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 shape the Junior Development Program, which helps us to build long term relationships with our customers, and also attracts great talents to Xomnia. Lisanne and Gianmarco just being 2 out of more than 100 examples. We start our first joint venture, we build our self-driving boat, and next to my more organizational tasks as the Chief I also have the possibility to work on many exciting projects, ranging from investigating the betrayal of Anne Frank to lessening 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 and 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.

Amsterdam is not only home to Xomnia, but also to many amazing people. 3 months after moving from Boston to Amsterdam, I meet the love of my life. And the stay in Amsterdam extends from the originally planned two years, to a marriage to a Liverpudlian woman, a house, two cats - and slowly getting fluent in Dutch!

Amsterdam is also home to Wim Hof, better known as the iceman. And as the processes at Xomnia mature, I discover 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.

Today

And now, five years into the journey with Xomnia I come to realize why I find it so hard to choose a superpower: 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. Every single one of us has made this possible.

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.