It was only last year during the February edition of our TechTalks at Hackages that we had the pleasure of inviting Christina as a speaker. I think that everyone who has ever heard her speak will agree that she is an amazing speaker!
Besides being an amazing speaker and creative soul, Christina works as a Corporate Communications Manager at Google, has her own podcast and is the co-founder of The School of AI Brussels.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I’m a communicator at heart. I work in media and public relations. I podcast and I write. I play music and make art in my free time. Ever since studying translation and interpreting, I’ve worked in political communication. It has been 8 years now. I spent some time at the UN office in Bonn looking into space (or rather, explaining the power of satellite images and the challenges they can help solve). Later I worked with scientists to help them explain their sustainability research and why it matters. And I spent 5 years representing the European Commission in their press office. There, a normal day would include organising press conferences, answering questions, and managing political leaders’ press relations at international summit meetings.
Now I work as communications manager at Google, covering artificial intelligence, sustainability and philanthropy – helping experts explain their work to the world. I love that there is no typical workday really. Some days I’d be organising press events or writing press material. Others I’d be speaking to experts and developers in order to understand their work and be able to accurately convey it to others. And on yet others I am taking a step back to think more broadly about how to find the right way to tell stories – stories that are fascinating, but often complicated.
And why now tech?
Over the last few years I realised that my field of work – as many others – is heavily impacted by technological changes. And, in line with one of my favourite German sayings, I wanted to be “mittendrin, statt nur dabei”: right in the middle, instead of on the sidelines. So I started reading about the tech world, taking online courses, and reaching out to researchers and developers to ask questions and learn through exchange.
The more I learned about the tech world, the more my curiosity grew. Finally I decided to take a sabbatical from my job and learn how to code. I was interested in better understanding algorithms – how to make them, how to train them and how to use them. All of this helped me understand the bigger picture.
What is currently the favourite part of your job?
My absolute favourite is the fact that I keep learning on the job. I enjoy breaking complex matters into understandable chunks – but I am of course only able to do that, if I understand the subject at hand. Having the opportunity to talk to experts and learn from them, is one of the biggest privileges about my position.
How has Covid-19 impacted your work? What do you feel has improved and what are you missing the most?
I started my new job during the first lock-down, and I have been working from home ever since. It is a great privilege to be able to work remotely without having to be exposed to the virus’ risk. And to be honest, in the beginning I was quite happy to work from the comfort of my own home. But by now I do feel the isolation and loneliness, and what I miss most is human contact. Seeing each other on the screen is a fantastic alternative, but what I miss most is seeing people in real life. I hope we’ll be able to do that soon.
How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?
I really enjoy rollerblading (check out oumi_janta, I love how incredibly easy and fun she makes it look). I used to train to play roller derby. I didn’t continue (it is hardcore!) but if ever, in a post-covid world you get the chance – go see a Brussels Rollerderby match, I highly recommend it. I also love playing the piano, drawing and painting. It’s a beautiful way to switch off the world around me.
And podcasting has become a huge hobby of mine. For any German-speaking readers of this interview, at Lass Mal Ändern, my friend and I are talking about why it’s so hard to change things for the better – be it the world, personal habits or other people’s views – and how it’s nonetheless worth a try.
If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?
The tech world can seem quite intimidating at first, but when I started coding, it was amazing to me to see how welcoming and accommodating the majority of people were. People really went out of their way to share their expertise and help others learn. These days, I am proud to be able to return the favour.
If the majority of people occupying that space don’t look like you, it can be particularly intimidating – tech is still a world mainly occupied by white men. This makes it all the more important that we, you, they, join the tech world anyway – not despite but because of that. Tech needs more diversity.
My first piece of advice is always: start with dreaming big. If you had an empty canvas in front of you, and could paint your ideal future – what would it look like? The bolder the better.
Then, break it down into smaller goals and milestones. What people do you need to connect with? Who could tell you about different opportunities in this space? Which skills would you need to learn, which milestones can prove your expertise and credibility? It takes time to figure these things out, so don’t put undue pressure on yourself and give it time. But outlining the vision is always a useful first step.
I did this many years ago, and I felt silly for even putting my goals on paper. What made me think that I, of all people, could achieve this? But you never know.
Are there any particular women in tech who have inspired you?
Yes! Saida Sheikh-Ahmed is the woman who inspired me most, taught me most, and empowered me to believe in myself. She is an incredibly knowledgeable and patient mentor – she taught me everything I know about artificial intelligence before I started to work in this field. She and I started the School of AI Brussels and I am very fortunate to know her.
Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?
Another cool one is: Where the internet lives.
What made you join the women.code(be) community?
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine made me aware of Databeers, a really cool event with short, fun presentations about data projects – and free beer. It’s such a cool place to meet interesting people, and to be honest, I don’t remember if it was there that somebody told me about women.code(be), but it certainly brought local tech events onto my radar. Then, while I was doing the Le Wagon bootcamp, I visited a talk organised by women.code(be) that was being held in the same building. Next thing I knew, I was hooked!
You co-founded The School of AI Brussels where anyone can join meetups to learn about artificial intelligence. What are your take-aways from running this community so far?
My biggest take-away was the value in connecting experts with non-experts. Before COVID brought an end to our physical meetings, our events were usually visited by a mix of developers, experts in machine learning/AI, all the way down to absolute beginners and everyone in between. The first half of our workshops was usually an open discussion: we would open with a broad topic, (e.g. biases) and see where it took us. Experts would share some insights into their work and expertise, and beginners would not only learn from that, but add their unique perspective. Everyone had something to contribute and it was a fascinating mix.
In a field like AI – a general purpose technology set to transform almost any sphere of our lives – it is important for experts and non-experts to talk to and learn from each other. It is only this way to guarantee that all views and impacts be considered in such a broad societal shift.
How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?
I think step number one is: listen and talk to women and minorities (not about them). Ask for advice and opinions from people who are different from you and who have had different life experiences. One easy way to do so is by tapping into networks that bundle those voices.
For example the Women in Tech Caribbean network for example, which the incredible Janique-ka started.
And support and engage with initiatives that empower people to speak up and participate.
You’re clearly a skilled communicator. I remember people telling me after your talk at our meetup last year hat they really enjoyed your clear presentation. Do you have any tips for improving your communication skills?
Thank you for the compliment! The starting point for me is to put myself in the shoes of whoever is going to listen to me. I ask myself: Before I knew what I know now, what would have helped me? What kind of info would I have needed 5 years ago? And what tone would have been most useful – for example an encouraging, inspiring one? For me personally, it really helps that I write things down as they happen to me, or as I learn them: what surprised me this week? What mistake did I make? What was a game-changer for a challenge I’ve been grappling with for a while? It’s not even that I always go back to read my notes, but the process of reflecting helps me to distill the important bits of information.
Then it helps to structure them into a couple of key themes, say one to three. Start with everything that comes into your head, and then see how you can cluster them. If you feel like you’re stuck, talk to a friend. Try to explain to them what your presentation is about, focus not only on the content, but also on what your ideal outcome is, i.e. what would you like your audience to think, feel and do afterwards? Then have your friend summarise it back to you. You’ll see where your narrative needs sharpening, and what elements have the desired effect.
When it comes to presenting, my number one tip sounds so banal, but really isn’t: BREATHE. Yes, practice is important, but there’s no stress remedy like slow, calming breathing.