Interview with Lucie Blechova, Machine Learning Engineer Lead
Lucie joined Kiwi.com in June 2022 as a Machine Learning Engineer and before that she lived in the Netherlands and worked for a commodity trading company. This year she has been promoted to lead the team of Machine Engineers. When she was studying, there wasn’t an option to study Data Science and she always liked thinking about how to reduce the manual work. “That’s basically what ML Engineering is”, says Lucie
Lucie is a confident, self-aware, and inspiring person who loves her work and is motivated by everyday work challenges. Read on to hear her thoughts about women in Kiwi.com Engineering, women in Engineering in general, the pay gap in the industry, and more.
Hi Lucie. Can you tell us more about yourself?
I studied Economics, and I started working as a Data Analyst and then transferred to Data Science because that was a much better fit for me. After that, I have slowly been shifting to Machine Learning Engineering for a couple of years and that’s where I am now. I worked in Prague for six years, and then I moved to the Netherlands. I didn’t enjoy it much there so I started my search for jobs in order to move back to Prague.
On a personal level, I am a huge nerd! I love all those rockets launching into space, science fiction, and all of that. I also practice yoga and hiking and in the summer I try to do as much wild swimming as possible. I also love martial arts, and now I just watch MMA sometimes, but I used to do karate, kickboxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
What got you into these sports?
Good question…I think I like the art of it. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, you feel where the leverage is and you feel how the other person moves and know what to do next. You feel the balance. In kickboxing, you learn and perfect techniques. To me, it’s an art and it’s beautiful.
What motivated you to join Kiwi.com?
After I decided to move back to Prague, I searched for jobs and had four really good offers which I narrowed down to two and then it was a really difficult decision to make. Looking at that period now, I would say that I chose well with Kiwi.com. Our offices in Prague are beautiful, and the team I work with is awesome – I truly love my team. Everyone has been very nice and easy to work with. What I like most about Kiwi.com, is the atmosphere we have here. It’s about the people, in the end, you want a manager who respects you, who is kind to you and who helps you grow. I really think the culture here is that you can be yourself. You enter the office and see people wearing hiking shoes, and shorts, or people who are dressed business-style and nobody cares about that, everyone is accepted.
Before being promoted to the lead, you worked as an ML Engineer. Could you tell us more about your regular day at work back then?
Generally, we work in three-weeks sprints. At the beginning, we are discussing what we will do and we have to come up with ideas ourselves, nobody tells you specifically what you should do. If you don’t understand something, you need to get familiar with it and think about how to, for example, implement some changes there. Once you create something, you sometimes have to share with the rest of the team or other teams and explain what it is and why you are doing it in this way, to explain the numbers shown, and so on. It’s very exciting and challenging in a way that is fun.
A regular day would be a combination of programming, meetings with colleagues, ideation sessions, evaluating statistics, and making decisions based on them.
What values do you praise in co-workers?
What I praise most is acting like a team. If you imagine a game called Tug of War, I like the feeling that we are all pulling the same side of the rope. We have common goals and we want to achieve the same things. It’s the feeling that you can always ask around for help and I feel happy if I can help someone as well. Because if we help each other, we help the cause.
You have to feel safe that others won’t undermine you, right? It’s very important to have decent people around who want to do their work. This type of cooperation is very valuable. Of course I also appreciate my colleagues being hard-working, driven, and reliable, but I guess that is what everyone would say as well.
What do you find the most challenging in your work?
I really like problem-solving and creating solutions to problems, so I wouldn’t say anything I do is challenging in a bad way. I would say it’s fun. I always liked math and I guess it is challenging but not in a stressful way, it depends if you like the work you do or not. I have to learn new things every day, which I love, but others might call that challenging.
What was the biggest challenge in your career so far?
Honestly and sadly, the biggest challenge for me was to be paid properly. In one of my previous companies, I was pretty unhappy with my salary and whenever I would ask for a raise, I was told there was no budget. As I was young and naive, I believed them and I didn’t want to be mean to my manager by pushing harder as I considered him a friend. I wanted to be loyal, so I stayed. One day, I accidentally found out that one colleague who had much worse results compared to mine had a much higher salary than I had. That made me quite angry because I felt wronged and also betrayed as I was being lied to.
It wasn’t true there was no budget, the truth was that there was no budget for me. In the end, I pushed the manager and got the money I deserved but I had to negotiate extremely hard to get a salary that would be fair. Doing that was a huge challenge, but I succeeded in the end.
It makes me feel sad now that I allowed myself to be pushed around like that. I am not sure if I just was being too soft or fell into the pay gap trap because you can never tell based on a sample size of one. But I definitely learned my lesson.
Why do you think the pay gap is happening?
There are so many reasons that can cause differences in salaries. It is a very sensitive and complex topic and I am definitely no expert. For example, you have jobs done by mostly females that are traditionally low paying, like nurses or teachers. It’s everyone’s choice to do that job but it’s not a secret they are badly paid. So that part is more about the choices people make.
The problem is when there is a difference in salaries at the same job without a valid reason. There are, unfortunately, still double standards for men and women in many areas of our society and this I think is the underlying reason behind the pay gap.
For example, it seems that people sometimes don’t feel as bad about underpaying a woman as underpaying a man. Some people in our society still have the idea that women just don’t need as much money as men do because they are not the family breadwinners. So some would not feel so bad when they decide to underpay a woman and as a result, women then have to fight much harder to get good salaries.
It’s definitely a combination of multiple reasons – some that are deeply rooted in our society, but some that could be changed easily. The good thing is that we are making progress as a society and we are moving away from all kinds of discrimination. But to put things into perspective, here in Europe we are very lucky – the pay gap is a big problem, yes, but what about other parts of the world where women do not even have basic rights?
How important for you is seeing female role models in the ML industry?
To me, not at all, my role models are just people regardless of gender. Even when I was younger, I never looked up to women specifically to see what is possible for me. I guess I was very lucky with my family who never made me feel like I have limitations based on gender.
How easy is it for a woman to move around within the engineering organization at Kiwi.com?
As a recent proof of the non-discriminatory culture in Kiwi.com, I am happy to share that I have been given the opportunity to lead one of our ML Engineering and Data Science teams. Now I actually have personal experience with how the promotion process works in Kiwi.com works and I am glad to say that it is transparent and simply fair.
Apart from the pay gap experience, you shared with us, do you feel that being a woman has made your experience in tech different in any way?
Not these days. Although, when I was 14, I started coding in HTML and there were these internet forums where you would connect to people. There, I was the only girl and people would be rude to me, insulting me that I don’t know anything, that my questions are stupid, etc. I realized it could be because I was a girl and I created a new account with male gender, and guess what? I never got these insults again. So I guess that’s different – boys would not have to do this. But that was 17 years ago, I would not even remember it if it were not for this interview. Things changed for the better.
So I would say that now my experience is not any different from a man’s.
Do you think this is because the industry changed or because you changed?
Good question. I think that society, in general, has changed and we, fortunately, don’t get to see that much sexism and discrimination in general. It’s also because now I am in a social group with educated and smart people and the situation I mentioned before were some semi-random people from the internet.
Do you ever struggle with confidence? How do you overcome it?
I don’t. I know what I am capable of and I am aware of what I can do and what I can’t do. And if someone does struggle with confidence I would say, just try. Whatever you want, just try, because you never know. And when you try things, you learn about yourself. You learn your capabilities, your strengths, and weaknesses. And then there is no reason why you would struggle with confidence because there is simply no space to doubt yourself.
What is something you would never tolerate in your position?
Many things, obviously. Discrimination, devaluation, and disrespect, but also feeling slowed down, not seeing opportunities to grow and learn more. I would not stay in a position like that. Also, I would hate seeing someone else be disrespected in this way and I wouldn’t stay quiet.
If you had power, what is one thing you would do differently when it comes to hiring women in technology?
Maybe hiring women in general – close the pay gap. I would like all HRs to be transparent with facts and not only to make sure that people get fair salaries but also to tell the candidates that they did so. For example, telling a candidate “Your salary is X% of the average of other people in the team because they usually have n years less/more experience than you” makes all the difference. Then people can be confident that they agreed to a good deal. And it would not only help prevent the pay gap but also make people confident that they are joining a good company on good terms.
On the other hand, if we want to get more women working in tech, which I guess was the intention of this question, we need to start much earlier, from the very beginning of our growing up. Some women were told they were not suited for math as children because they were girls. They never tried and tested if they were good at math, and they never succeeded in getting to the hiring process because they did not even choose an education that could lead them to a job in tech.
So the reason for not having many women in technology starts much earlier than when we even get to the hiring process. I remember a group of girls in my high school who would say they are “not talented in math” therefore physics isn’t for them either. I would tell them it’s really easy and during the lunch break, I would teach them and they were shocked that it’s not difficult at all, just a few formulas that you have to use. The problem was that they never even tried because of what they were told by others. It’s not that the girls are the ones to blame, it’s usually about parents and other adults and what messages they give kids while growing up.
Are you inspired by Lucie’s success as we are and interested in boosting your career next to her in our technology sector? Check our open positions in Engineering and don’t hesitate to apply.