From Engineer to Director with Google
Lewis: So welcome back everybody to Preparing The Un-prepared. This is a podcast that aims to help people in data make smart career and hiring decisions. Today, I’m going to be joined by the impressive Imed Zitouni who’s currently the director of engineering at Google. Imed has an extremely impressive career that started in France with a Ph.D. in computer science that’s now led him to work with some of the world’s most prestigious companies. He’s been both in the trenches as an individual contributor and has led some major R&D efforts in NLU knowledge engineering globally. With that in mind, I thought naturally this episode should be focused on leading elite and NLP teams, and here are some of the topics that we’re going to discuss, so first and foremost, we’re going to dive deep into Imed’s journey in tech, secondly, we’re going to talk about the evolution of NLP, the human and computational understanding, thirdly, what it’s like to drive and lead innovation at some of the world’s leading tech companies, then we’re going to talk about what the future looks for NLP or natural language and then advice on the best practices for companies who are looking to explore NLP as tools for business. So welcome to the show.
Imed: Thank you for the invite.
Lewis: So very keen, obviously, to kind of jump straight in and understand a little bit more about your journey, because first and foremost, we’ve been connected for probably a couple of years now and a lot’s changed since then.
Imed: Absolutely things have changed, I’ll start maybe from the beginning. Thank you for the invite, so I will share how I got into NLP and then my journey in tech, actually it really goes back to when I was a kid, I grew up in Tunisia, North Africa and at school, my favorite subject was around math and solving problems and outside of school, I was similar to other kids. I am passionate about soccer, watching games at the same time playing games as well, and why I mentioning this, actually, when you grow up in Tunisia and you would like to see and watch nice games and nice shows about soccer, it is natural to watch the Italian TV channels and why I am mentioning this is because I don’t know, Italian, I never learned Italian in books or in school but I find out that by watching TV and watching games over time I start to understand Italian and at least I have a comprehension of that language, and that’s triggered something in me, which is how someone who didn’t read the book about Italian, didn’t learn the language, didn’t learn the grammar, is able to understand the language just from data, from repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating, and I would say that created my interest in this area, the interest in learning the language, understanding the language without necessarily getting into learning it from books, learning its grammar and now these things become obvious when we talk about language understanding and we talk about NLP in a sense that, yes, we train a model, you have plenty of data, we could do speech recognition, but I am talking a couple of decades ago and where we were really in the early stages. I remember going to France for my graduate study and working on language model for speech recognition. At the time, dealing with the vocabulary of 20,000 words are supposed to be a very large vocabulary. It’s supposed to be top notch sci-fi kind of things that we are doing. I know people laugh about that today, but we did really make great progress. I am really proud about the progress that the community made in general in this area of natural language understanding, speech recognition, machine translation, now we talk about the system. So that’s how I get to interact with this field. That’s how I became really passionate about this field. And of course, after graduation and doing small experience in the startup in France, at that time, there was an offer that comes from Bell Labs and in the late 90s and early 2000s, when you get an offer from Bell Labs, you don’t refuse it, you just go. So that’s what happened to me, I got an offer from Bell Labs. There is no way to refuse it. So I left Africa, I left Europe, and they come to the United States and it was a new experience, I knew no one, I still remember that sunday coming to the airport and taking the limo to go to New Jersey, to Westchester. And it is a completely new world to me, it is a completely new experience to me, everything is unknown, but the excitement of starting a new journey, the excitement of working with top notch people, that are really experts in the area, and that started my journey in the US and I spent, from there, from working with Bell Labs, we worked on many projects, I remember my first assignment. I am this newgrad coming to the US working with talented people, and I talked to my manager, and the first week, I asked him, what problem do you want me to solve?