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Meet the People: Q&A with Aveni’s newest NLP Engineer: Nikolai Debono

5 min read

This week we caught up with Nikolai Debono, one of our newest NLP engineers. He joins us all the way from Malta and shares his love for food and NLP!  


Tell us a bit about yourself, where were you before you joined Aveni?  

In 2019 I left my software development job in Malta to pursue a Masters in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh. At that point I had been passionate about NLP for many years. So, for me, doing a master’s degree on the subject was a dream come true! It gave me the opportunity to focus and learn about a variety of topics in NLP research. During that time, I was also lucky enough to meet many great people who I still call friends. Overall, I think the year I spent in Edinburgh might be one of the best of my life! However, it also took a lot out of me. Learning so much in so little time takes a toll on you. Because of that, I felt I needed a bit of a mental break. Fast forward a few months, and here I am working with an awesome group of people! 


What interested you in working for Aveni and what have you enjoyed about working here so far?  
I love everything about NLP. So, when I came across Aveni, their product instantly piqued my interest.  What sealed the deal, however, were the conversations I had with the team during the recruitment process. I knew that not only does the company have a clear passion towards their product, but that they also have the knowledge and skills to make their vision come true. 


What does a typical day look like for you? 

I start my workday at around 9 AM. The first thing I do every morning is look at the notes or to do lists I made the day before regarding any experiments and analyses I was doing. This helps me remember exactly what information I need to keep in mind, and what I need to look into that day. Before the daily 10.30 AM NLP stand-up I normally continue working on any task I was doing the day before. If I have to start a new one, I try to have a good plan of approaching it before we meet up so I can discuss it with the rest of the team. During the stand-up I discuss experiment results, things I learned from my analyses, and any ideas I had or any relevant research I found to help us improve our systems. Afterwards I spend the rest of the day understanding the business requirements of a particular task, exploring and understanding data, and building models.   


What do you think is the most exciting benefit of NLP for the Financial Services industry?  

Well, for me, the most exciting use of NLP is definitely the automatic detection of vulnerable customers. One thing the current public health crisis has taught us all is how easy it is to find ourselves facing hard times. When going through a personal crisis, the last thing a person needs is even more pressure than they are already facing. Therefore, I love that through NLP, financial institutions can make sure they are better equipped to identify and support those customers most in need. 


What have you enjoyed most about working at Aveni so far and what are you looking forward to learning more about in the future? 

Overall, what I am enjoying the most is the amazing teamwork. I feel like there is great synergy between the team, as whatever it is we are working on, everyone contributes different perspectives towards solving it. In my opinion, this is very important. Just like in other fields, NLP problems might not always be the most straightforward to solve, so having inputs from different perspectives makes it easier. 

In the future, I would like to continue learning more about NLP and machine learning in general so I can make sure that the work I do is as good as it can be! 


Where do you go to find out more about the latest developments in NLP and where would you recommend others to look? 

Personally, I find Twitter to be the most convenient place to get updates on recent research. Before my MSc buddies told me about it, I had no idea that Twitter had such an active machine learning community. To my surprise, most labs, researchers, and PhD students tweet about all of their exciting research. This makes learning about the newest NLP developments as simple as scrolling through any other social media app.  


Where do you see NLP heading in the next 3-5 years and which industries do you think could benefit the most?

Well, based on the current trends, I’d say the continuous improvements in hardware performance will allow research groups to continue developing larger models, trained to understand exponentially more linguistic data. I also think that it will be significantly more commonplace to apply the information learned by these huge NLP models to specific tasks, requiring little to no labelled text data. 

However, I also think that this focus on expensive models will lead to increased research in other areas of NLP. I think we will start seeing significantly more research into models that are smaller, more data efficient, and ideally, more environmentally friendly.  

There probably will also be a boom in areas that are currently not as popular. For instance, I think we will start seeing significant advances in models that can understand the millions of lines of code in online repositories. Or models that can better understand tabular data, or even the complex relationships between images and text.   

I honestly find it difficult to say which industries will benefit the most from all of this. One thing I’d say though is that NLP will be increasing the productivity of many people, especially in areas that currently require significant human creativity or expertise. To give you an idea, there is early research being done on tools that accelerate a software developer’s work by automatically generating documentation for hundreds of lines of code. Programmers rejoice! 


How do you like to unwind from work? What would a perfect day look like for you?

Food, food makes everything better! My perfect day is one in which I can wake up late and do any of my favourite hobbies. Those could be playing online video games, reading about an interesting topic, or meeting up with friends. Recently, I also started learning photography. I’m still a beginner, but I enjoy going out and slowly learning how to take better photos. I’m sure all of this sounds boring, but that’s exactly what I love about it! 


 To learn more about the Aveni team, check out our team page! 

Stay in touch via social media. Find us on LinkedIn and Twitter 

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