Meet the people: Q&A with the mastermind Barry Haddow, head of Natural Language Processing (NLP) at Aveni

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byHayfa Bukhari

Tell us about yourself. What was your career path before you joined Aveni?

After a PhD in mathematical physics, I went to Dublin to continue my research. Whilst I was there, I got more interested in computers, so I took a conversion course, and joined a software consultancy at the time of the Celtic tiger.  I worked with them for 5 years, mainly on projects in telecoms and finance, until an increasing interest in artificial intelligence brought me to Edinburgh for more study. There I met Lexi Birch (now head of Aveni labs) and started on my research career in the School of Informatics. I worked on a variety of projects in Natural Language Processing, in the areas of Information Extraction, and Machine Translation, before joining Aveni in 2019.


Before we go any further, what is NLP?

It stands for Natural Language Processing (NLP) – software that enables computers to process language. For example, if you type a question into Google and it finds the answer for you, or you ask Amazon Alexa to play you some music, or you use online translation to understand the French news, then you are using NLP. 


What attracted you to work in the field of NLP and how do you find working in both academia and industry? 

For me, NLP was at the intersection of many things that interested me: language, computers, artificial intelligence, and mathematics. Working in academia gave me a lot of freedom to pursue what interested me, and to work with a lot of talented people. While working in the industry, the things that you do have a more immediate impact, and I also get to work with lots of talented individuals.


What drew you to working for a startup and what does Aveni’s mission mean to you?

Lexi and I had often discussed how we could use the technologies we researched, in the “real world”, and Aveni gives us that opportunity. I enjoy seeing NLP all the way from theory to lab experiments, to real-world applications that people can use. At a startup, you see the “farm-to-plate” pathway, rather than just being a small cog in a big machine.


What is your team currently working on and what’s the most interesting aspect of your role? 

I am working on how to develop and use NLP in the risk analysis products we are building. Trying to understand what the customer would like to achieve, understand what the customer’s data is telling us, and working with the development team to see how to put it into practice. I’m also keeping a good eye on the technologies coming down the pipeline, for example, NLP models that can ingest huge numbers of documents and then generate extremely realistic text on any topic.


What are some of your biggest learnings from working at Aveni? 

I feel I have learnt a lot about how the finance industry works, and the challenges they face, and also about the modern approach to software development and its use of cloud-based technologies. But there’s still far more that I don’t know…. 


Take us through what a typical day looks like for you?

It’s a bit of a mixture because my work is split between the University and Aveni. Typical tasks I would do include meeting with Aveni staff, and University staff and students to discuss ongoing projects; reading, writing, reviewing and editing research papers, as well as blogs and tweets about new research and technology; discussing new potential projects with our sales/marketing/product management team; working on project proposals … and ideally writing code to better understand new problems and technologies. 


What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a career in NLP? 

That’s tricky because there are many routes. But one thing is not to forget the “L” part, in other words, remember that it is about language so we should take time out of the deep learning rush in order to learn some linguistics. And English is just one of maybe 6,000 languages in the world, so learning about other languages gives you an appreciation of many different ways things can be expressed. Finally, you will also need to make sure your maths is up to scratch. It’s fundamental to everything, particularly linear algebra and statistics. 


How do you balance your work and home life? 

I keep the weekends free for family activities. 


Quickfire Round:



Pizza or Pasta?

    • Pasta


Staycation or Vacation?

    • That’s a tough one. Happy about reducing my flying so will go for Staycation.


Book or Film?

    • Book


Edinburgh or Dublin?

    • Well Edinburgh (that’s where I live!)


Cats or Dogs?

    • Dogs. I like cats for their independent outlook, but dislike them for their effect on urban birdlife




Click here to find out more about the Aveni team!

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