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  • Writer's pictureLaura Caicedo

Luca Verhees, a data Scientist at Nederlandse Spoorwegen and ambassador for Kickstart AI

Meet Luca, a dynamic and accomplished data scientist whose fascination with technology began in childhood and flourished through adolescent explorations of graphic design, UX, and front-end development. Now employed at Nederlandse Spoorwegen (the Dutch national rail service), Luca combines their academic expertise in data science and applied machine learning with real-world applications – fine-tuning predictive algorithms for bike-sharing systems and advocating for AI adoption in the Netherlands. Join us as Luca reflects upon key milestones, challenges, and lessons gathered along the path to becoming a successful female technologist.

Q1) Can you share a bit about your background and your current role?


I have an academic background in Data Science and Applied Machine Learning. From a young age, my entrepreneurial spirit led me on a freelance journey. I explored the fields of graphic design, user experience, and front-end development before entering the world of data science.


Currently, I'm a Data Scientist at Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the principal passenger railway operator in the Netherlands. In this role, I leverage data and analytics to facilitate better decision-making within NS by addressing business challenges through end-to-end data science products, consulting, and conducting ad hoc analysis. For example, I work on the forecasting models for our sharable bicycles (OV-fiets) to better inform travelers while planning their trip and to guide long-term product development. I’m also a proud ambassador for Kickstart AI, contributing to their mission to accelerate the adoption of AI in the Netherlands.


Q2) How did you first become interested in technology, and what led you to your current role?


My interest in technology ignited at a young age while exploring tools like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

I remember creating my first website at the age of 10 filled with numerous visual elements and GIFs, including an animated cat that followed your cursor. In my defense, these were perceived as very cool during the early years of the internet.

From creating websites for others to developing my own brand LuMo ("Luca's Monsters", cute monsters that I drew on anything from sneakers to large murals), I gradually improved my technical and entrepreneurial skills.


The start of my academic journey also kicked off my more professional freelancing career. While delving deeper into technology during my studies, I started applying these newly acquired skills in freelancing projects. I frequently found myself in situations where I had no idea what I was doing, adopting Pippi Longstocking's quote as my mantra: "I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.". Sometimes things turned into great successes, sometimes into failures, usually somewhere in between.


There was a pivotal moment during my master’s thesis internship. As a freelancer, your role often entails being the designated expert on a topic. I realized that I longed for an environment where I could learn from others around me and explore areas that I was less experienced in. That's when I decided to stop freelancing and take on a full-time job as a Data Scientist.


Q3) What main challenges have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?


Navigating the diverse landscape of data science posed a significant challenge, especially in the beginning of my career. There is such a great diversity in terms of work that can be considered "data science". It might sound very straightforward, but it was eye-opening for me to realize that some people thrive on certain work that completely drains me of energy and the other way around. And that doesn't mean either one of us is a better data scientist.


One thing that has helped me is to really dedicate time to reflect on my career and see it as something that can be tweaked and refined to something that truly aligns with my interests and values.

I really enjoyed the book "Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life" by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. They apply design thinking principles to create a more fulfilling and purpose-driven life. It helped me realize that I am not stuck in a particular role or career and can reshape my career without major changes.


Q4) Who or what has been the most significant influence or support in your tech journey?


Connecting with like-minded individuals through communities like Kickstart AI served as significant sources of support.

Especially as an introvert, I enjoy having just a few strong connections with people who share my interests and passions, helping each other to grow both personally and professionally.

Additionally, my curiosity has been a driving force to continue learning and discover new things.


Q5) How have you seen diversity and inclusion evolve in the tech industry throughout your career?


Throughout my career, I've witnessed a positive evolution in diversity and inclusion. I've seen a notable increase in initiatives and programs aimed at attracting underrepresented groups, fostering a more inclusive environment, and amplifying diverse voices. However, it is still an ongoing effort.


Q6) How do you manage the work-life balance in the tech industry?


I've learned the hard way how crucial it is to manage your work-life balance, to set boundaries to adhere to them. Especially if you're passionate about what you do, it can be so tempting to work a couple of hours extra, take on a bit more responsibility and before you know it you're drowning in work.


I am grateful to be in a work environment that highly encourages a healthy work-life balance.

While I think this is an important foundation, I firmly believe that achieving a good work-life balance is also a personal responsibility.

For me, engaging in physical hobbies such as running, knitting, and refurbishing furniture helps in unwind from work and find a healthy balance.


Q7) What skills do you believe are most important in today's tech world?


I believe that soft skills such as critical thinking and creativity are crucial in today's tech world, especially with the increasing integration of AI in our everyday lives. It is more important than ever to maintain a critical perspective on the world around us.


I also see generative AI as a tool that offers incredible support and removes barriers. For instance, I typically do not enjoy writing due to my perceived lack of skill.

Without ChatGPT's assistance, I might have not agreed to participate in this interview, as it would have taken me significantly more time to write down my thoughts.


I think the recent advancements in AI are a tremendous opportunity for people to dedicate less time to mundane tasks and more time to leveraging our creativity and critical thinking skills, ultimately contributing to the improvement of the world around us. 


Q8) Can you share a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career? 


I'm very proud of the projects that I've worked on at the Dutch Railways, as they allow me to make a positive impact on travelers every day. This includes improving shared mobility services, where I focused on long-term forecasts that determine the sizing of new rental locations, as well as promoting sustainability at train stations by optimizing construction processes to meet energy reduction targets while minimizing the impact on travelers. Personally, I find this work significantly more fulfilling than engaging in more commercially driven solutions, where the primary objective is to generate greater revenue.


Q9) What are your future goals, and where do you see the tech industry heading in the next few years?


My most important goal for the future is to make a meaningful contribution to society through my work, positively influence those around me, and at the same balance that with a life that I enjoy living with enough time and energy for life's many joys.


In my field, the hype around generative AI and the evolving regulations for AI are noteworthy. As mentioned before, I hope we can find a way where AI can assist us in reducing the constant busyness of our lives, providing more opportunities for creative endeavors and activities that bring us happiness.


Q10) What advice would you give to other women considering a career in tech?


First and foremost: ask for help.

In my experience, most people are eager to support others, but they cannot lend a hand if you do not ask for it. Although I sometimes still struggle to ask for help, it has proven to be a game-changer for me several times. In most cases, combining effort makes it easier to achieve progress than when working independently.


Second, echoing what Burnett and Evans stress in their book (see also my answer on Q3): integrate design thinking into your life and career, and start prototyping. This means learning from experiences and talking to people to figure out what you want and what you need to do to reach your goals.


Both things helped me reshape my career and for example discover that I enjoy mentoring and educating. Instead of switching my career completely, I had a lot of conversations with people that do this type of work to get a better understanding of it and explored opportunities to experience these things in my current role.


Q11) Let's continue the flow... who would you like to read on the Lovelace Series?


I would love to see my dear friend Juliette Houtepen featured.


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