Q & A with Christos Hadjinikolis, Senior Software Engineer
We sat down with Christos Hadjinikolis, a Senior Software Engineer to find out what day-to-day life looks like, what significant milestones he has had at Vortexa, and what he really thinks of our company culture…
Christos is a Senior ML Engineer, operating as part of the Predictions & Market Modelling Team (PMMT), responsible for generating high-value forecasts that enrich our data products through implementing data processing and ML pipelines to predict the operations of the >10,000 tankers tracked by our system.
His focus is on designing, implementing and testing code that allows historically niche research to be elevated to the real-world scale. Christos works closely with data scientists, analysts, engineers and experts, to help bridge the gap between scientific experiments and commercial products by ensuring a very high percentage of uptime and bulletproof fault-tolerance of every component of the infrastructure. He is also working closely with team members to implement best practices in our key technologies.
Prior to Vortexa, Christos worked as an ML Engineer consultant for major organisations, like Vodafone, with key responsibilities in the company’s effort to migrate its analytics services to the cloud; CNHi, working with sensory data to enrich live dashboards, and; UBS, where he leveraged his graph-analytics expertise to investigate and extract insights from millions of e-mails within the UBS network of internal and external communications. Christos is also a visiting researcher at King’s College London where he completed his PhD in AI, while he has recently been approached by the Cyprus Standardisation Organisation to participate in AI standardization work in European Technical Committees (CEN) or the International Technical Committees (ÉSO).
Fun fact: Christos can stand on his hands and he loves Japanese mangas!
We wanted to find out what inspired Christos to join Vortexa, what some of his biggest milestones have been to date and what day-to-day life really looks like for a Senior Software Engineer?
What inspired you to join Vortexa?
It was two things really. The first and most important one is its people. Even in the early stages of my interview, I felt like I was being approached by humble, smart and generally the kind of people that I would love to work with. Everyone I met, from my team-lead to my colleagues, all the way to the CEO of the company, struck me as interesting people, to say the least; people that can help someone evolve and become a better professional and a better person. I am now eight months into the role and I can say with certainty that my expectations were spot on.
The second is the data that we have access to and the niche problems that we are dealing with on a daily basis. The oil and gas industry is a very cryptic industry and what we are doing is not only disruptive but it is also challenging in many exciting ways. At the same time, the fact that we get to visualise the fruits of our labour through our informative dashboards, adds a tangible touch to our work–you can almost sense the impact you are making on those screens and that’s a very satisfying feeling for an engineer.
”…If you want to work for Vortexa, you need to be a team player, someone with a high level of empathy and someone with a passion for what they do. These are the qualities we hold to a high standard and the foundations of the company’s success.”
What would you say is the most interesting aspect of your role?
As an ML engineer, my main responsibilities lie with designing, implementing and maintaining robust ML systems that feed our dashboards. Sometimes, this has to do with building something from scratch–a greenfield project. Working on something like that is intriguing in many ways. One gets to take initiatives, bring in new practices and enrich the existing tech stack in a very impactful way. The support I have received from the company in doing so has been invaluable. Initiatives are not just encouraged but they are practically supported in ways that allow us to facilitate change effectively and efficiently. Slowly but surely I have watched this happen again and again as we technically evolve along with our systems.
Another aspect that I equally enjoy though is debugging – yes, we have bugs here as well! I joined Vortexa in the 5th year of its journey. As soon as I joined I wanted to find out everything I could about everything there was, which was obviously not possible. Hundreds of repositories, a very rich domain with a variety of terms and expertise I couldn’t master over a night or even after many months into the role, made this a really daunting task. Nothing has helped me understand the industry and our work more than the occasional debugging. It almost feels like I am opening a book at a random page and start reading paragraph after paragraph being fully captivated by the tales and beasts that were once tamed while trying to figure out how to fix things. It’s a thrill and there is a story to say every time!
What have been some significant milestone moments for you at Vortexa?
As a researcher, I try to study my field but getting from theory to practice is not easy. I follow many colleagues out there; I try to be up to speed with recent advancements and best practices and, where and when possible, I try to apply what I learn in my everyday work.
I came across a seminal paper on the Hidden Technical Debt in Machine Learning Systems in 2016 and though I felt like I was able to fully understand what was conveyed in it, it was always hard to find ways to apply the suggested guidelines and practices. Sometimes it was because of the lack of available infrastructure, others it was a lack of culture and in some cases, maybe, it was a matter of not having the right use case at hand.
Recently, with the help and support of many colleagues, we built our own library to handle I/O operations in a standardised way across repositories and we released it internally with great success. The major advantage that this library has is that it enables us to write code in a consistent way minimising the use of “glue code”, which can be expensive to maintain and understand. We went from theory to practice and to see an idea taking flesh and bone is almost like giving birth to something new – a very fulfilling feeling.
What does day-to-day life look like for you as a Senior Software Engineer?
Nothing out of the ordinary I would say. I start my day with my pod’s stand-up and follow that up with the pod-leads stand-up. I dedicate time to properly updating technical tickets and reporting progress-made or blockers. Then I’ll spend half an hour checking my e-mails and responding where necessary. I usually follow that up by reviewing open pull requests and after these are out of the way, I try to focus on individual work.
I try to pair up a lot with my colleagues. I try to practice extreme programming where I can and I am a firm believer that pairing is a way to speed up development in the long run. I also like presenting my work, new ideas and I am always up for a discussion.
These days, I really miss the whiteboard sessions we used to have and which we all took for granted. Covid-19 has deprived me of them and I am eagerly looking forward to engaging in many more in the months and years to come as we leave the pandemic behind us.
What key qualities make a Senior Software Engineer successful?
To be honest, I am learning as I go. I don’t know if I am on a path to success but I sure hope that my team is. I guess caring about the success of your team as a whole is important in what we do; it is important in a multifaceted way. When people prioritise unblocking others first, when knowledge transferring sits at the core of what we do, when skills development is facilitated on a daily basis by colleagues that are open to teaching others, being taught and open to learning, then evolution is accelerated.
There are basically two key requirements for all these: honesty and trust. One needs to be honest with what they know and what they don’t and one needs to be comfortable with both expressing their knowledge or lack of.
How would you describe the culture at Vortexa?
“Great” is the word that comes to mind. For me, Vortexa ticks all the boxes in terms of the culture that a startup should have. Vortexa is firstly and above all a company that really cares about its employees. You feel it in your regular sessions with HR. It’s not just another meeting in your calendar but a genuine discussion with people that honestly care about your well-being.
”…the fact that we get to visualise the fruits of our labour through our informative dashboards, adds a tangible touch to our work–you can almost sense the impact you are making on those screens and that’s a very satisfying feeling for an engineer.”
Technically the company is not just open to change but is embracing it at all levels. Initiatives are welcomed and supported and the same goes for justified research. New ideas that end up populating our screens and dashboards often come from those initiatives and from stimulating lunch break discussions. One feels surrounded by proactive and intelligent people that are not just keen to talk about new ideas but are happy to go the extra mile and put in the work to get things moving.
Finally, and this is very important to me, politics are non-existent here. I am not trying to oversell Vortexa to anyone by saying this. I have been part of complex organisations in the past and I know how rivalries and unhealthy competitiveness can get teams to their feet, slow down production and sometimes even put companies out of the market. This is not the case here, primarily because of the kind of people we are, and I would easily bet that this won’t change.
What advice would you give people hoping to join Vortexa?
Be honest with what you know. Be open with what you want to achieve by joining Vortexa; what are your personal goals? Convey your passion for what you do by showcasing your technical expertise in a humble and amenable manner. If you want to work for Vortexa, you need to be a team player, someone with a high level of empathy and someone with a passion for what they do. These are the qualities we hold to a high standard and the foundations of the company’s success.
Describe your working life at Vortexa in three words?
Exciting, intriguing, stimulating.