Vicki Boykis, Machine Learning Engineer, Automattic
👩🏻💻 Job: I work a lot on building scalable, flexible systems for content discovery and search which is just a fancy way of saying I write a ton of code trying to get part A to send data to part B.
🇺🇸 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
👶🏻 Daughter (6), Son (1.5)
🐥 Social media: - Twitter
Resources she enjoys
- Fishtown Analytics Roundup - Great data content
- Drawing Links - Hard to explain, Just comics about life.
- Into the Hopper - podcast on Machine Learning and Software Engineering Daily about Software and I like 99% invisible for other stuff. The Anthropocene Reviewed is just beautiful.
- Rest of World - on global tech stories not covered in mainstream media
- Dan Luu’s Blog…I always think about his normalization of deviance piece
- Julia Evans’ Blog….canonical way to write about software
- Nisha Chittal’s newsletter is nice and meditative
- Last Week in AWs is a good way of keeping up with cloud stuff
- I always read Hacker News every day and try to read Arts and letters daily every week to balance out the tech with the humanity
Career & parenting: teaching Russian, dealing with data, solving problems…
Being a machine learning engineer and a mom
How did you approach motherhood being a machine learning engineer? I personally find it difficult to have no “specs” for how to raise kids (“professional quirk”!). Being used to dealing with data, were you not inclined to look for an “engineering” way to comprehend motherhood?
I think the thing that motherhood has made crystal clear for me is that almost nothing that machines do can be as beautiful or as meaningful to me as what people do. This is a very large statement to make given how much computers have given us: they have given us the power to communicate over enormous distances. They allow me to order food from my phone, they allow me to talk to you! They have given us search engines and social networks, they have given us movies and so much more.
But a few years ago, when my oldest was just two, we sat down to watch Moana for the first time. She had never watched Moana, and I had never shown it to her or explained anything about it to her. She had never seen the ocean in her life, or understood anything about waves or islands. In the movie, there is a scene where the ocean, as an anthromorphized wave, comes to Moana and gives her a jewel. The animators did a clever thing where the wave doesn’t look like a person, but you can kind of tell it has a personality. “That wave wants to be friends with Moana,” my daughter exclaimed.
And in that moment I understood that, with machine learning and neural nets and everything we do at work, we have an extremely long way to go to match where a toddler is in understanding how the world works.
At the risk of sounding corny, I am amazed and elated at everything my kids do, because they offer me a different view into what it means to be human, to learn to be a person and become part of humanity, and I think I’m learning more about that every day than anything else.
As I became a mom, this task of being there for these people every day as they learned to become human became all-encompassing and my first priority. When I was young, I used to think I wanted to be a CEO, to make powerful decisions, and to fly places. My ambition in that direction has completely tempered, for now, and now the biggest struggle of my career is about how to allocate enough time for myself to learn and grow as an engineer as much as possible while also, at the same time, devoting as much time as possible to raising these humans. It is an immensely hard task, but when I get the balance right, it is extremely rewarding. Probably my biggest career choice lately is to seek out roles that allow me to be remote. Although covid has been the most terrible thing to happen to us collectively in a generation, in the regard of work becoming more elastic, it has been, for me, wonderful.
What is the biggest source of learning new things: ML or kids? :)
I am constantly learning both on the job and from my kids, and often those learnings will diverge, but sometimes there are things that apply to the work world: time management, compromise, learning how to talk so other people will listen to you, that are also extremely helpful at home.
Maternity: “joy and chaos and noise to your house”
What is the hardest thing about being a mom? I love your article “No, I will not enjoy every moment”. Now that your kids are not newborn anymore, is it “easier” to`“enjoy every moment” or whatever their age, as parents it is hard to enjoy every moment?
Since I wrote that post, I’ve had another baby, who grew from a newborn into, now, a toddler. Newborns and toddlers are REALLY hard, because you have zero control over when they sleep, what they say, and what they do.
You’re just kind of trying to shepherd chaos one minute at a time. And you have zero control over how your day is allocated. It’s all mostly in service to their needs. And, at the same time, they are so cute, so funny, so thoughtful, so full of the essence of whatever life is, and bring joy and chaos and noise to your house.
As my older grew out of that phase, I completely forgot what that was like and have had to readjust!
One thing that my husband and I have been very passionate about is teaching our kids Russian as a first language, and since we both came to America when we were little and think in English, this has been the hardest thing that we’ve done. In order for kids to learn language, there is this idea that you have to constantly talk to them. Even when they’re 2 days old, when they’re not listening, when they can’t talk to you yet, just constantly. Telling them different names of things, narrating what you’re doing in the kitchen, etc. As an introvert and an only child, I’m content to sit for hours at a time in silence, so this constant talking, in a language where I have to think extra-hard, was probably the hardest part of early childhood.
Now that my oldest speaks fluent Russian, I can look back and see that it was worth it, and it’s easier to engage in it with my youngest, but boy I would not go back to that time.
I think what’s harder for me now, with two kids, is trying to focus on both of them. It’s kind of like, if you see two moving dots on the horizon, moving in divergent directions and you try to focus on both of them. You just can’t. You can only focus on one at a time, and when you’re focused on that one, the other one gets neglected, so then you go to focus on the other one, and then the first one gets neglected, and on and on it goes, in an endless cycle of balance to make sure both kids get the age-appropriate attention that they need.
Writing publicly: “Once data is on a server, it’s replicated and resold, snapshotted and never deleted”
You seem to be passionate about writing! How do you manage, in addition to your jobs (as ML engineer and parent) to write so consistently on your newsletter/blogs? How do you find inspiration for blog content?
In the Where I end and where she begins post, you talk about not writing publicly about your daughter “I think my right to talk about her for my own personal need for validation and intellectual exploration ends and her right to privacy begins”. And you mention using a private protected blog for family. I find it very interesting! Do you still use this system? Were you not tempted to write more about parenthood (more only about you being a mom) or is it something you prefer to keep private as well?
I’ve been writing since I was 5 years old and decided to write an autobiography of myself (super short at the time :D), so I can’t imagine ever not writing. It’s almost like a physical need I have. Some people have this need to work out (I wish I did!) or to sew or bake, or however else they express themselves. I need to write, both to record what happened and to make sense of my world. The only way I have time for it is because my husband and I are lucky enough to work from home and don’t have any commute at the moment, and we also split post-work childcare on and off, so for example I have time to write while he’s giving my daughter a bath. We also have family that lives nearby and can sometimes take kids on the weekends, which means I also get time to recharge and write then. I could not do it otherwise.
Because writing is so important to my mental well-being, I always try to make time for it as much as possible. It kills me that I can no longer write publicly about a lot of the things I used to write about, both because I now have more visibility, which means more scrutiny and criticism in ways that I don’t want (I wrote about this idea that we’re all experiencing it, here), and because a lot of them involve parenting, which I try to keep private. I saw this comic a very long time ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. My kids’ life, past some very early years, is not mine to share, and I would love to give them this gift of free and open internet. I have plenty of things I’d like to say about parenting, but I’m still undecided how best to share them publicly, so I’m only journaling them for now.
As a data person, I have an inherent understanding that data is never really deleted online, even if a company says it is. It’s like the Jewish parable of the woman with the pillowcase. Once data is on a server, it’s replicated and resold, snapshotted and never deleted. So it’s the easiest, but also the hardest, to not talk about something rather than to regret talking about it.
Career: “I love solving problems”
What do you like most about your job? What are the challenges you’re facing? I am thinking of how being up to date with all things happening in AI for example.
I love solving problems, particularly problems where different systems have to work together. It’s like a puzzle to me.
My biggest challenges are, as you said, trying to stay up to date with everything because my time is definitely limited, and learning what the best practices are in engineering in a field that’s, seemingly, trying to redefine engineering from the ground up (I wrote about these ideas here and here.) and trying to understand the impact of my work on the entire system, the entire application, the users and the company, as well.
The older I get and the more senior I get, I start to understand that there are patterns to technology and the challenge then is recalling a project where I used a similar pattern and knowing the pros and cons of that pattern and whether we should use it or not, as opposed to jumping onto the latest framework.
My biggest challenge that I am trying to tackle remains communication, particularly in a distributed and remote way, in a way that makes sense and brings us forward in progress. There are really no OReilly books for this, so I’m working on it as I go.
There was a moment when my husband was not home yet, I’d already picked up my daughter from daycare, and we were walking into the house, when my phone rang and it was two people on a call waiting for me. I had completely forgotten about the call, and my daughter started kicking and laughing. With one hand, I picked her up, with another I picked up the phone and balanced it on my shoulder, and I opened the door with my foot. This is what parenting while working is like a lot of the time. It’s ok to feel lost, frustrated, etc. We’ve all been there.