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A financial analyst’s love of fashion leads to a new career as a software engineer

For our second computer science profile, we spoke to Olga Minguett, a National College of Ireland graduate working on voice recognition technology at Optum while studying for her MSc in AI at University of Limerick, to find out how a passion for fashion led her to a career in computer science.

Computer Science Profile Series

Through this series of interviews with early career computer science graduates, the Royal Irish Academy Engineering and Computer Sciences committee aims to highlight the interesting and varied jobs a computer science degree can bring you.

Interview 2: Olga Minguett

What motivated you to study computer science?
I was born and raised in Venezuela where I studied accountancy and did a MSc in Taxation. While in Venezuela I worked as a financial and accounting analyst. In 2014 I moved to Ireland, where my brother was also living. My primary goal was to study English abroad, but the economic and civil situation in Venezuela was also a motivating factor.

It was love at first sight! I loved Ireland and wanted to stay. I started looking for courses and came across information about Computer Science. I already had two degrees under my belt, and I had to decide whether to continue in the same career path or change. I had my own fashion blog and managed the frontend and backend myself. I found it really interesting to figure out how to store images, to display information or how to sort photos if I wanted a carousel on the front page. I began coding using HTML, CSS, and bit of JavaScript on WordPress, just using the available wikis. I really enjoyed it so if I thought if I must start building my career again in a new country why not do something completely different and I chose computer science and enrolled in the Higher Diploma in Science in Computing at National College of Ireland (NCI).

I was very into fashion at that time I got a certificate in fashion buying and as a stylist – and I brought this love of fashion into my studies. In college I built an application which allowed you to take pictures of all the garments that you have in your closet and then mix and match all of them to plan your outfits for the week.

So, what motivated me to study my degree was seeking new information, combining the professional and theoretical skills I already possessed and pointing my career in a new direction.

Tell us about your career since finishing your studies?
After I finished my studies at NCI, one of the graduate programs I applied for was the Technology Development Program (TDP) at Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group that leads information and technology-enablement for health services. I found out about TDP while attending a GradIreland Job fair. In September 2017 I was selected for the program and was assigned to a team that related to my interests, met other graduates from other teams and signed up to courses relating to the company, the healthcare industry and cutting-edge technology. On top of all of that I was assigned a mentor to help me navigate the program. I started working as a business analyst, then I moved into a product owner role, and after getting promoted last year I moved into a technical role as a software engineer. I highly recommend the TDP program to all final year students, as it is a lot of learning, career exploration and your own development.

As continuation of my studies, I am currently in my second semester of a two-year part-time MSc in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Limerick, an industry-led programme that is entirely online. The degree will provide the knowledge base and skillsets important to this sector. The course has been a great experience, the programme is set up using mixed learning and emphasizing practical application.

Tell us about your current role?
I work in the voice and speech team. I am currently working on improving the adoption of Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR)/ Natural Language Processing (NLP) in our call centres. There are a few elements to it, starting from insuring that we are effectively capturing users voice that can be affected by noise due to loud environments or accents, to then doing speech-to-text and finally processing the text to extract the valuable fields that we need from it.

How do computer scientists work alongside other disciplines in your present work?
I work in a very collaborative environment, with product leads, product management, frontend engineers and data engineers. We also work with input from physicians, nurses and GP’s. For instance, if we are creating or improving a product that a nurse will use, we want to know their requirements and outline what is needed according to their situation. That means that as a computer scientist we use our knowledge and existing technology to solve problems in the medical field by trying to translate their understanding about how the health care system works from first-hand experience into an application or program that can simplify their work. It is answering the question ‘How we can make their work easier?’ in every interaction with them that helps us to write better code. It is a multidisciplinary, collaborative and a synergetic effort that impacts the real world.

But are there any surprising aspects of what you studied in computer science that you didn’t think you would use when you were studying them but has turned out to be really relevant.Computer science gives you the mindset of how to solve problems. Problem solving is a skill that you gather silently in computer science, almost by osmosis but it turns out to be extremely relevant in your day-to-day work. I like to explore problems using sketch diagrams and using logic on each component part or when writing a function. We were taught that you should try to think about how you would describe the broader aspect of your problem and that lots of people might have similar issues at the same time. I brought that mindset into my work by trying to create solutions that other people can understand. I create code that is readable and reusable, so that others can just take it and use it or build upon it. So, it is not just a function you created for that one thing; everybody in your team could use it in different projects. In addition to considering others when writing code, documentation is key. I always write product manuals and keep records updated.

What’s the most exciting development happening in this area right now?
The most exciting developments are in the field of Artificial Intelligence and the products and applications powered by it. For example, in the voice recognition realm, companies have increased investment in their research and development activities to improve their products. This can be seen in the well-known voice-enabled assistants where we are reaching the ability to maintain continuous conversation, or in call centres where it can be used to track the call evolution for better performance. It can also remove barriers to access to services for example for people that are visually impaired. It is incredibly innovative and very exciting.

And what do you think makes a good computer scientist?
Besides calculus, algorithms and knowing about data structures, I would say documentation. My advice is to learn how to document your work so that it can be reusable. It is not about a single piece of work, it is about the ecosystem that it will be part of, so another computer scientist can come along and replicate your work if needed or understand the reasoning behind your decision or how you solved the problem.

So what kind of advice would you have for a computer scientist to get the best out of their degree.
If you have the opportunity, do an internship. It will help you to experience a real-world job in computer science, which can be quite different than what you expect in college; it is a hands-on learning. The foundational knowledge from college like theories, principles and terminology is important, but an internship will help you to piece everything together. It will make more sense when you see the practice.

What are your future plans?
While staying in my current role I would like to improve my technical skills. I am a firm believer that there is always room for improvement. In future I would like to advance into a data scientist role.

Is there any advice you would give the younger generation, particularly young women, who might want to go into computer science or technology?
I would say go for it and study computer science; it is beautiful career that I feel so passionately about. You will love it. Trust me! I am a big advocate of woman in tech and I co-founded a MeetUp group called Tech Léi, which translates from Irish to ‘Tech by Her’. Our goal is to highlight innovative tech projects and ideas across all areas of emerging technology and to promote and highlight the work of women in this field. We bring together women that can be seen as role models for girls and women that want to study computer science. We recognise how important the visibility of females in tech roles is, and the need to make STEM subjects more accessible to everybody in schools, particularly to young girls, who might not otherwise see themselves studying computer science or being in a tech role in the future. My advice to these young women would be to study maths and statistics. They are difficult subjects but not impossible, so you can do it. In my case, I studied and then practiced accountancy, but my interest in fashion lead me to create a blog which led to my learning about coding and now I have ended up doing it full time. If you have a passion for something the twists and turns of life will take you there if you let it, young people and particularly young girls need to be encouraged to see where their passion for learning and development can take them.