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Interviews / Software Engineers & Developers

Balancing the Grind With Paul Tune, Senior Machine Learning Engineer at Canva

Paul Tune is a Senior Machine Learning Engineer at graphic design software platform Canva, where he works as part of the subscription arm of the company, Canva Pro.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I am a Senior Machine Learning Engineer at Canva, and I started my career at Canva in the Search and Recommendations team, specialising in building search relevance and template recommendation models to make Canva’s content more accessible to more than 20 million monthly active users.

Prior to Canva, I was working in an early stage startup called Image Intelligence (a startup with only 5 employees), now merged with another company known as Nirovision.

While there, I was working on deep learning applied to retail security solutions on systems that process hundreds of millions of image frames per day. Going further back, I was a researcher in network measurements, high-speed router load balancing algorithms and signal processing at the University of Adelaide.

At present, I’m in the Canva Pro group, the subscriptions arm of Canva, and my role has transitioned to that of understanding Canva’s user base as well as to build models that predict user churn, help grow Canva Pro’s user base, and determine the strategy of how best to utilise data at Canva Pro.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Working in a startup means that I’d have to take each day on its own.

I can describe a rough outline of a day however. Typically, I start the morning with exercise, which could be lifting weights, boxing or some HIIT-style cardio exercises. I’ve also been doing gymnastics with a personal trainer for about a year now.

After that, I’ll head for breakfast at Canva, which is graciously provided for staff, and chat to colleagues before starting work.

My mornings are usually (unless something more urgent appears) reserved for working on season goal projects: these are projects deemed important for the year’s quarter. Canva works in a seasonal cadence which spans (roughly) three months each.

For me, this would be a data science-based project, which includes quite a bit of the engineering and testing for the deployment of machine learning models, or the exploration of Canva’s massive datasets. I may have to work with the Data Engineering team, or discuss issues with the Data Analysts about the data we’re seeing.

My afternoons are reserved for meetings and other tasks such as reviewing code from my colleagues (called a pull request), polishing old code or, refactoring, in software engineering parlance, having product discussions with designers and product managers, and helping to answer a variety of data questions from stakeholders and engineers.

Towards the end of the season, I am involved in planning the next season’s goals.

Lately, I’ve also been involved in planning and staffing in order to grow the Data Science specialty at Canva. This would mean interfacing with my fellow colleagues in the same specialty, and educating Canva’s staff as a whole about what data science means and what kind of impact the field can have on Canva.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

There is flexibility when working at Canva: a number of my colleagues do not adhere to the traditional 9-to-5 workday.

There is also a work from home option. Some have also done remote work quite a bit, sometimes even overseas. Conference call support at Canva is very good, which makes the process easy. I personally have not done any of these. Breakfast and lunch at Canva is too good to keep me at home!

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Without a doubt, I count myself lucky to have found my career quite interesting and intellectually stimulating.

Machine learning and data science in general is still a nascent, fast growing field with a torrent of developments each day, so maintaining a work-life balance can be a challenge, since I’d have to devote a portion of my time to keeping pace with current developments.

That being said, my life outside of work is reserved for reading, photography, other side projects, catching up with friends, and more recently, volunteering as an editor for The Gradient. I could also do with a bit more travelling, which is a personal goal of mine!

Although some of my colleagues have once remarked that I seem like an extrovert, the truth is that I do get drained by constant social interactions. For me, it’s very important to get some time alone, whether at home or in public to “recharge”.

The time spent here would involve reading a book, or going around taking photographs on the weekend, for example. In any case, taking my mind off work to appreciate something else of beauty would be essential.

I achieve this by semi-scheduling my time outside of work. I say “semi-schedule” because I wouldn’t want to unnecessarily constrain my time; sometimes there are friends to meet or interesting events to go to, which I may only find out at the last minute. I’d imagine this would be harder to achieve when one is raising a family, however.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

When I was in academia, I determined that in order to do creative, impactful work, it is vital to have a large chunk of your day to just read and ponder. A lot of that time is used to clearly define the problem you’re trying to solve, and only then figure out the solution.

Sometimes, this requires some trial-and-error, making it a fairly iterative process. Moreover, there will be days that may seem like there is absolutely no traction, and is frustrating, but it is important to keep up with the process.

So I make it a priority to use the best hours of my day, typically the morning when I’m still fresh and undistracted, to work on a difficult problem. Only then would I devote the rest of my day to more menial, maintenance mode tasks.

That being said, inspiration does strike at the oddest moments, and if you can drop everything else to pursue that inspiration, then it becomes an obligation to pursue it, because it does pay dividends! Even then, the key is, again, to have as much time for yourself.

I’ve since translated this habit to my current work life: I will block out a stretch of time to work on the important problems that would have a significant impact at Canva. I typically schedule meetings, unless urgent, in the afternoon so that I can devote my best hours to working on the aforementioned problems.

Browsing through emails, reviewing my colleagues’ work, and answering ad hoc requests are typically reserved for the afternoons. It is very tempting to “do a lot” and seem productive; the reality is, a lot more can be achieved through less activity, saying no to most things, and with more careful consideration of what you (and your team) are trying to achieve.

I personally think that a strong focus on a single task with ample amounts of time to think is an underrated skill in a world full of distractions and noise.

The second is to exercise and eat healthily. Consistency in these two areas of life tend to go out the window during the hectic moments in any work life. I’d, however, encourage everyone to put these as non-negotiable priorities. You will thank yourself once you get much older.

6) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

Reading is one of my greatest pleasures! I have too many books to talk about, but in the interest of space I’ll limit my discussion to just three:

1. The Success Equation by Michael Mauboussin: luck and skill are often intertwined in most ares in life, although it’s not a common realisation.

For instance, in business, working hard is often cited as the leading indicator of success; whilst a necessary prerequisite, it’s not the be all and end all of business success as luck certainly plays a role too.

Mauboussin does a great job systematically disentangling luck and skill in various domains, as well as to show how one can maximise his/her luck, in addition to working on their skill.

2. The Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb: Taleb elucidates the important concept of “black swan” events, which are unpredictable events that cause a massive upheaval in society, for instance, the Internet.

It’s a fascinating book, especially more important in our increasingly algorithm-driven lives, where we do our best to remove as much uncertainty from our lives. Taleb, on the other hand, argues that the volatility is actually a good thing: it helps you keep a more agile and adaptable mindset.

It has certainly shifted around how I think about making decisions and living: there’s only so much one can control (and predict) in life, so it’s more important to preserve a measure of optionality, that is, being able to go with the flow when circumstances change, potentially drastically.

3. The Arrival by Shaun Tan: there are no words in this book, but it doesn’t need any to convey its beautiful message. The surreal images by Tan of an alternative Earth conveys so much meaning, especially to someone like myself who moved from my home country of Malaysia almost two decades ago.

I was fortunate enough to chance upon the author at (then operating) Borders at Lygon St in Melbourne, and got him to sign my copy. It was a serendipitous moment, and I’ll never forget that. Less of an improvement to my life, but more about reminding myself that life is the sum of the little, non-Instagrammable / highlight reel, moments too.

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Doing my best to get a good night’s sleep the day before! It’s an underrated habit, and I find doing this consistently quite challenging. I do, however, find that a good night’s rest makes you far more effective the following day. Having the energy levels makes a huge difference between a great day and a mediocre one.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

A work-life balance is something that is deeply personal. Whilst there are countless articles on the subject, with various authors sharing their experiences and what worked for them, I eventually learned that it’s a question I can only answer for myself.

I don’t think an interview from someone else would help in my case, although I could certainly learn a trick or two.

For instance, what worked for Tim Ferriss probably wouldn’t work for me. I’ve known some top researchers during my time in academia where their work is life, which is clearly a case of zero work-life balance in the traditional sense.

Though not recommended for most people, it works for them because nothing else excites them as much as the intellectual stimulation they get from their work. And you know what? That’s okay too.

It’s more important to figure out what you want out of work and life for yourself, and finding that balance would follow soon after.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

I have been lucky to be one of those rare individuals where there is hardly any difference between work and play, because of the intellectual challenges my work has been providing me. Considering that work makes up the majority of our lives (besides sleeping), I’d say that it is vital to find work that excites you, if you are able to.

Not all of us are fortunate to have that option, but my advice (cliched as it sounds) would be to always try to bide your time in your current role to find one that makes you want to get out of bed each day.

What I’m trying to get at is similar to what Steve Jobs mentioned in one of his interviews: “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you”. Since your life and by extension, time, is something very personal and special, why not make it one that’s unique, interesting and meaningful?

Finally, learn as much as you can wherever you go, even when it’s uncomfortable. The knowledge you gather can be used in the most unsuspecting of situations, and I don’t just mean winning trivia night at the pub.

If you’d like to have a conversation with us about how you balance the grind, get in touch with us!

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Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.