Still Curious S2E7 - Cristina Huidiu

Cristina Huidiu00:00

I hated math passionately. My background is in humanities and if anyone would have told me that I would have to use math on a day-to-day basis, I would have said they're absolutely insane. But I think I've always had a problem-solving inclination and it just became a means to an end in solving all of my curious questions.

Danu Poyner00:24

You're listening to the Still Curious Podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Cristina Huidiu who designs and prototypes integration solutions with Elsevier and has previously been a technical product specialist, product trainer and librarian.

Cristina is based in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In today's episode, we discuss Cris' love of problem-solving, her journey from humanities background to becoming a data analyst, and the importance of communication and soft skills when working on technical projects.

Cristina Huidiu00:53

A lot of it comes from listening first and asking questions after and trying to figure out how people really use that particular technology. Knowing how to ask questions is probably a better skill, than knowing very advanced computer programming languages.

Danu Poyner01:13

We talk about growing up in Romania, building a chat bot system, using natural language processing, and how an unfortunately timed server crash meant losing everything.

Cristina Huidiu01:23

I spent probably a month on really nothing to show because it just literally did not exist anymore.

Danu Poyner01:29

We also go into Chris's thoughts on humanising technology , why some really tedious sounding things are boring and why some aren't, and Cris' very practical approach to learning technical things.

Cristina Huidiu01:41

Why would I spend a week or two trying to figure something out when someone else surely has done it before. I could have spent that time doing something else.

Danu Poyner01:49

I really enjoyed. Chris's very modest, pragmatic, and down to earth takes on all manner of topics. I hope you will too. It's Cristina Huidiu coming up after the music on today's episode of the Still Curious Podcast.

Hi Cris, an absolute pleasure to have you on the podcast. How are you?

Cristina Huidiu02:32

I am very well. Thank you for having me. It's really exciting to be here.

Danu Poyner02:36

Excellent. I have so much to ask you, so I'm just going to dive right in. You're an integration consultant with Elsevier where you design and prototype integration solutions, write technical specifications and co-ordinate a development team. Previously, you've been a technical product specialist, product trainer and librarian.

What would you say is the most important thing for someone to understand about what you do?

Cristina Huidiu03:00

I think for me, it's been a natural growth in understanding how research is being assessed. That's how I started as a librarian. And then digging into the data more and more. Where's the data coming from? And now I get to really go behind the hood and understand all of the processes and what it means to bring all that data together.

And what are the challenges there? I consider myself quite lucky in that respect.

Danu Poyner03:26

Yeah, absolutely. Were you always technically minded and analytical? What was driving that interest?

Cristina Huidiu03:31

I actually don't know because, my background is in humanities. I hated math passionately. And if anyone would have told me that I would have to use math on a day-to-day basis, I would have said they're absolutely insane. But I I think I've always had. a Problem-solving inclination of sorts.

And it just became a means to an end in solving all of my curious questions.

Danu Poyner03:56

So you're a humanities person, turned data analyst. Is that a fair assessment?

Cristina Huidiu04:02

Yes, definitely.

Danu Poyner04:03

I'd love to dig into more about that journey, before we go too far, one of the things I always do is ask people to explain things as if to a 10 year old. You're an integration consultant. Can I ask you to explain what an integration is to a 10 year old?

Cristina Huidiu04:17

I think it's a lot like Legos. Just imagine that you have a bunch of buildings, that are just scattered around the room and you have a car and you need to drive the car through all of those different buildings. And you don't have connections between the buildings.

So you would have to go to one building, go out, go to another building, go out. With integrations, you' re basically building bridges between those buildings and, of course, some buildings might be built with Duplo and the other ones were built with bigger kid's Legos. So you need to either build some connectors from scratch or find the right way of creating those bridges between the buildings.

Danu Poyner04:54

Nice. Okay. I'm getting the visual that sometimes all of the pieces don't fit because they're made of different types of blocks and things. So what do you do then?

Cristina Huidiu05:03

That's the fun part of it. One of my colleagues said that when it comes to integrations, whatever can go wrong will go wrong. We need to be prepared in that respect. But the best thing to do is not get sucked into the problem itself, but always keep in mind what you really want to achieve with that particular project.

How you bring things together needs to eventually bring value to the people who end up using that system.

Danu Poyner05:27

What kinds of data are you actually working with? Just so I'm clear because a lot of people who listen to this or not be from a university background. So, you're working with integrating all the pots of data that the organization has in different areas and integrating that with a core system for managing research information. If I got that right,

Cristina Huidiu05:48

Yes and no. Primarily it's research data, but it can be any other bits and bobs that around the university. So you can think of HR systems or data that lives in grants, management systems or patents. For the most part, this is it or data from ethics management systems, covers 80, 90% of most of the data that we get to work with?

Others might just be in a completely different data universe, like a data warehouse or something else is needed.

Danu Poyner06:18

Can you share any examples of what kind of integrations you're working on so people can understand what it is you're doing.

Cristina Huidiu06:25

It can be either connecting various systems together or, putting together data from multiple different systems. So you can end up reporting on data that has been living in systems that are so different that people wouldn't have thought that you can put them together.

Danu Poyner06:40

You described that as the fun part. It occurs to me that probably not everyone would consider that their idea of fun. What is fun about it for you?

Cristina Huidiu06:48

The problem solving part of it because you need to think about how do you really put it all together? Who would have the best answers? And there are lots of super talented people that I have the pleasure of working with. So I get to pick their brains every day, in thinking of what can we actually do to build those bridges.

Danu Poyner07:06

What's fun about it?

Cristina Huidiu07:08

The problem solving part, definitely. Just trying to figure out how to solve whatever connection needs to be built. How are people using it?

It's always interesting to figure out and understand what people actually expect of those particular platforms.

It also gives you an insight into specific cultures and the categorizations that you're using and the way that the system itself is built, and the default languages that they're using. It really gives you also an insight into the culture and the country, and the university.

Danu Poyner07:38

So a bit like archeological digging. You can tell

Cristina Huidiu07:42

A little bit.

Yeah.

Danu Poyner07:43

about the thing you're working on based on how they classify things and what kind of stuff they have.

Cristina Huidiu07:48

As a librarian, when it comes to classifications,

Danu Poyner07:51

Super power. Yeah. You mentioned that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, which I think is good life advice. What kinds of things do go wrong and what happens? How do you deal with that?

Cristina Huidiu08:01

Oh, the server can crash and everything you've been working on can disappear, or certain connectors just take longer to build and you're on a tight deadline. Or there are specific errors or data mismatches that you weren't expecting. Specific dates, you would expect them to be written a certain way, but two or three of them, or 100 of 20,000 have a completely different format.

And you can think of the European type format versus the American one where you have dates with day, month, year, and then month, day and year. And you only have a few of them. So, trying to uncover them as soon as possible before everything else is preferable, not always possible.

Danu Poyner08:45

It sounds like there's a lot of attention to detail over things that maybe some people would consider trivial, but they're not trivial. They have implications and consequence. Do you have something that comes to mind about the most trivial sounding thing that had the biggest consequences?

Cristina Huidiu09:01

That's a good question. I think the answer might be different depending on where you are in the project building team. For me, the fascinating part that I still don't understand a lot of is the DevOps part, because there's just a lot of magic going on. That little bit keeps fascinating me for some reason. Some of the projects that I'll probably be more excited slightly outside

Danu Poyner09:25

yeah, what's the most exciting thing you get to work with.

Cristina Huidiu09:28

people.

Danu Poyner09:30

Good answer.

Cristina Huidiu09:31

There's just so many fantastic people that I get to work with both internally. So with the team and the wider team, but also of course, each of our customers and the people that I get to meet through conferences or other places, but people in general.

Danu Poyner09:46

Excellent. So before your current role, you were working as a product specialist at digital science on a global information database for the science technology and innovation sector, which is how we know each other. We had basically similar roles in different parts of the world. So one of the things I really admired about you there was your in-depth and really hands-on understanding of the data structures and how you were able to then apply that to solving business problems for clients in creative ways they hadn't considered. I'm really fascinated by that combination of serious technical understanding, the analytical problem solving you've mentioned, and then also wrapping it up in a strong presentation and storytelling style. It's not something you find all that often in one person. Can you unpack that for me please?

Cristina Huidiu10:36

That is a bit of a very nice compliment. So thank you, first of all.

Still working on parts of it. For me, what has been important is to figure out which parts I am really good at and where I need to work. But, for the most part, I'm just another connector between the technical team and how they explain things and how they think about the systems that they're building.

And then the customers who have a different view in different focus of course, because they're thinking about their own problems in how they want to get things done. It's a bridging of the different worlds.

And that's one thing that I found absolutely fascinating because I get to dig into the business problems on the customer side. And then I dig in into how did that's actually possible to make happen.

Danu Poyner11:19

That communication and translation function there is clearly a really important part of what you're doing. So there's being able to talk in technical detail with developers and also to the technical people on the client's side, but then also being able to convey technical ideas to non-technical people like the managers and the sponsors is important as well.

Cristina Huidiu11:39

Yep. And a lot of listening, a lot of listening.

So people get the space to explain everything that they need to explain.

Danu Poyner11:46

I wanted to ask you how you go about navigating that communication side and in general and what strategies you use and how you go about preparing for meetings. The communication side is so interesting.

Cristina Huidiu11:58

For me, it's very important to understand what motivates. On the business side of things, I really need to understand what is making them need, whatever they're asking for. So what is the driver? What is the need? Why they want things a certain way. And then that gets paired against the technology that is available, and what it would take to get certain things done, because not everything can be done all the time, so there might be some trade-offs.

You need to understand just how important each of the bullet points really are in case something needs to be left out or transformed, but maybe there's a different way of thinking about it. Not necessarily how it was explained the first time.

Danu Poyner12:38

and there's never a conflict between the motivation and the technical possibilities of right. That never happens.

Cristina Huidiu12:45

uh, that always happens.

Danu Poyner12:47

So what does that look like and how do you navigate that?

Cristina Huidiu12:50

That goes back to the why, just understanding why certain things are important, and what kind of decisions are being made based on it. And then maybe the solution is not straightforward, but it might not be something that either the technical team or the business side of things have thought of, but together there might be some creative thinking and solution finding.

I think there's always a solution. As long as the limits are very clearly described and the motivations behind it very clearly described no one is going to be unreasonable. But there's a lot of transparency and a lot of trust on both sides.

Danu Poyner13:28

So, is part of what you're doing, designing those kinds of solutions and then communicating them and getting acceptance for them?

Cristina Huidiu13:36

Yes.

Danu Poyner13:37

Zooming out A bit Let's talk a bit about those set of skills. Integrations consultant at an academic solutions company seems a very specialized role. Was that something you always were aiming for? Or did you have a plan? A tell me about that.

Cristina Huidiu13:51

I never really had a plan A. This one was nowhere near the alphabet or any alphabet for that matter. It just naturally grew into what I was doing, just following the questions that I had about the job I had at a certain point in time. On the librarian side of things, we're doing a lot of benchmarking and analysis and using all sorts of metrics, to analyze impact and then moving on the corporate side of things, I got to see how they were brought together and what that means. Now I'm just taking it another step to just look under the hood a bit more and try to understand all of the processes, but more from a technical perspective. There's quite a lot of technical jargon that I need to learn.

And I've been learning in the months since I've joined Elsevier. It's been a natural transition. If I would have started in a different role or different types of jobs, my curiosity would have led me somewhere else.

Danu Poyner14:42

It seems like the librarian work really opened up some possibilities for you and get you things to play with. But I'm curious how you came to arrive at the librarian work in the first place.

Cristina Huidiu14:52

Oh, that is a very good question. I think I have a very funny answer. Between my cousin and myself is an 11 year difference. And she was already working in a library and she was always telling you how she's traveling everywhere.

And she's meeting all sorts of people. I was like, oh, this is such a cool job. So I went to library school for that very specific reason because I too wanted to travel for work and have fun. And the rest is history.

Danu Poyner15:16

Well, going to library school so you can travel as not a combination that I would have thought of. You grew up in Romania in Bucharest, is that right?

Cristina Huidiu15:24

I grew up in a small town in Eastern Romania and I moved to Bucharest for the university. So my small town is the typical small town. Everyone knows everyone. So we'd go out and play and climb trees and the typical childhood and then move to Bucharest, it's a completely different environment, just the typical big city, I guess, where you get a lot more opportunities to go to the theater or go to galleries, big concerts. And of course the university environment is different.

Danu Poyner15:55

It's a whole thing all by itself. Isn't it? So when did this inspiration strike you to do librarian school?

Cristina Huidiu16:05

11th grade. But even that it was never really my first choice. I started out like any dreamer kid wanting to be an astronaut and a pilot but I hated math, so that wasn't an option anymore. And And then I have to focus on something more tangible, and being a librarian looked fun.

Danu Poyner16:26

Because of the travel or because of something else?

Cristina Huidiu16:29

Because of the travel and just meeting people and being around all sorts of interesting things.

Danu Poyner16:36

So travel, no math being around interesting things. Tick, tick, tick off. I

go to Bucharest and the rest is history.

But it turns out that the bit that you were drawn to, there was the mathsy bit. I want to understand more about that discovery.

Cristina Huidiu16:50

Even in library school, the classes that I liked the most were the cataloging and the indexing part, and then as a group, the third year and masters, it was around knowledge management and information management side of it all. There were also courses around the history of literature and around all sorts of old languages.

So you could focus a bit on Greek or Latin, or Slavic languages but I discovered quite early that that's not really me. So, I focused on more of these, they're not really technical, but they're more to the realm of what is possible now and in the future.

Danu Poyner17:28

When you say they weren't really you, is that because it wasn't tangible or practical enough or some other reason?

Cristina Huidiu17:36

Yeah, I think the word practical, and I think I've always liked them from a romantic aspect of it. So when you think of just opening old books and they're beautiful and they were printed 500 years ago or some that had been erased and rewritten on top of it, and that's a whole discovery process in and of itself. But I wanted something more practical and more tangible and something that I could play with without destroying, basically.

Danu Poyner18:03

Fair enough. So what was the first really tangible, practical thing you were working on where you discovered you really enjoyed that?

Cristina Huidiu18:13

I started working in the library and my second year of university. So the discovery actually started at the same time, because I got to do indexing and cataloging in the real world and then I got to see what were the struggles that we would have at work and try to figure out solutions to that.

We implemented easy proxy at the library. We got to do all sorts of trainings, for the databases. So I kinda got sucked into all of this pretty early on. And I was having a lot of fun.

As long as it don't get bored and I have fun, I'm pretty happy at work.

Danu Poyner18:46

Yeah, same. Did your colleagues recognize this ability that you had? Was that helpful?

Cristina Huidiu18:52

I would hope so because I was there for 10 years. And I'm hoping that if they weren't finding all that useful, they would've told me sooner. And I'm still in contact with them. I can ask them.

Danu Poyner19:03

This might be a silly question. It's certainly a naive question, but is there a characteristically Romanian take on librarian ship or is that pretty much a universal thing?

Cristina Huidiu19:16

To be honest, I think that the idea of a librarian has changed so much, that it's pretty much different from university to university, even in the same country. Because a librarian can mean a variety of things. You can still be the person that assigns the indexing and the cataloging and indexing codes to the books.

You can be the person that guides the users into discovering the research that they need. Or you can be the types of people that was mostly drawn into that deal with metrics and analytics and the impact part of the role. It can mean a variety of things, and they're also different skills that are needed. Librarian means the sum of skills that exist in a library at a certain point in time. And also the freedom that they have to focus on any particular thing But I I've met some fantastic librarians as a librarian, but also since I joined the corporate side of it all and they're always inspiring to talk to.

Danu Poyner20:10

Tell me a bit about the move from the librarian role into that corporate structure. How did that come about?

Cristina Huidiu20:18

That's also a bit of a funny story. I moved to the Netherlands from me to the Netherlands because my now husband lives here. So I moved out of love you can say.

I always loved metric. And when the opportunity arose to, to work for the company that has Altmetrics and with the Altmetric team, I just went straight for it.

Danu Poyner20:36

That's really great. They say that luck is where preparation meets opportunity. It sounds like that just came up and you went for it and two things in one, a nice job in a future husband's not bad.

Cristina Huidiu20:49

Yeah, you can say it that way.

Danu Poyner20:50

What was the experience of relocating to a different country like for you? Was that straightforward? Were there things that surprised you.

Cristina Huidiu20:58

I think I I've gotten the lucky part of it all because of course I had to live, and I had someone to guide me through the whole process. I still feel like a guest in many ways, because I still work from home even though I've changed jobs. And I get to explore all sorts of places, but every time I see a windmill, I'm still incredibly excited.

Danu Poyner21:17

Excellent. Do you like working from home?

Cristina Huidiu21:19

Oh, I love it. I'm definitely way more productive when I work from home. I get to separate my own time and also not necessarily work nine to five or nine to six, but if I want to open my laptop and just do something at 10:00 PM, I'm not incredibly exhausted because I spent two hours commuting to work and back.

Danu Poyner21:38

Yeah. Freedom and flexibility, but that's interesting because the global headquarters of your organization is not far from where you live. Is that right?

Cristina Huidiu21:45

Yeah, that's true. They headquarters are in Amsterdam, but my manager is in Italy. Part of the team is in Denmark and another part of the team is in India. The people I need are not an office on a daily basis. Anyway.

Danu Poyner21:57

What was it like moving from the university situation in the library to that global team environment, what was different?

Cristina Huidiu22:06

there was definitely a bit of a learning curve, especially in how things are seen. And there's a lot more practicality to it all when it comes to decision-making and how you plan your time. These were things that I had more freedom to come about and explore things. So if in the library I wanted to spend a week on playing with, I'm thinking of Bots.

So Bot is, one of those tools that I've played with for about a week or two, the chat bot. Yeah.

That's the word I was looking for. I wanted to build a chat bot for the library and my manager was like, okay, go for it. She is still very awesome. But unfortunately as I finished building it, there were they the floods in the US in 2009 and the servers there died and I didn't want to rebuild it.

But that was, I think my first interaction with really technical language and properly building something from scratch in trying to understand how very basic natural language processing really works. That was a very basic form of it, using Ellis. So nothing advanced, but it was fun.

Danu Poyner23:12

So you're working on a chatbot in the library. This is the first time, you really engaging with the technical side, how do you go about learning that stuff from scratch? Can you put

yourself back in that process and talk me through it?

Cristina Huidiu23:27

I Google a lot I go from the premise that whatever problem I have, someone else had it before me. So it's just about streamlining the questions that I asked the search engine and there's just so many resources. And then there are so many people that would be happy to share what they know.

It's just a question of finding. And I've gotten much better over time in asking for help when I needed help. I think these are probably one of the biggest lessons that I've learned to just speak up and ask for help when I need it. But at the time it was mostly just naive twenties of trying to do it by yourself.

There was a lot of Googling involved, a lot of failure in learning from that and then reverse engineering, whatever went right. Or whatever went wrong. And trying to understand and learn from that. And then just Google some more.

Danu Poyner24:16

I'm just lingering on this a bit because I recognize the Googling for stuff approach and it feels like a kind of skill in its own right. Knowing how to ask and streamline that and what to for. Is that a fair assessment?

Cristina Huidiu24:31

Yes. I've definitely spent a lot of time just trying to figure out how to ask the search engine for what I needed. And then two hours later, when I found the right combination, I felt like a complete idiot because it was just so straightforward. But I think there's been this misunderstanding of where and how to use search engines and in this whole misinformation and fake news things.

So there is definitely a lot of assessment?

but the information that you need, but when it comes to the code or when it comes to more of the technical stuff, there's definitely a lot of value in just using engine.

Danu Poyner25:06

What's there a moment when you realized you becoming confident at this or getting good cause that process is very iterative. There's a lot of, time where you don't feel like you're achieving anything, just looking for stuff, then there's times when you do find something really useful, but it means that it has ruined everything you've done for the last three weeks.

And you have to start again. There's a whole lot of emotional stuff that goes on in there. What's that process like? Talk me through it.

Cristina Huidiu25:33

Yes. So the more I've gotten into analytics, the more I understood how I work and how I learn but also what I don't know. There are things that I know I know, and I know well, and then there are things that I have no idea what I'm doing, so I'm just wishing for luck. I tried to position what I don't know in two buckets, things that I really should be knowing, and things that I really don't need to worry about.

So I need to be comfortable with not knowing. That's where I am right now, but it took me a while to get comfortable with not knowing and be able to express it to the world that I don't know that. And I also don't want to know that, but I'm interesting in why this thing works that way, because this is the problem that I'm trying to solve and getting to the point where I conveyed the problem quite well to the people around me

so we can think of solutions, and also get rid of some of the non sustainable solutions, but at the same time with proper arguments.

Danu Poyner26:31

Did you flick a switch in your head from being a humanities person to a data analyst type person or is it not a binary like that?

Cristina Huidiu26:40

I don't think it is a binary. I think humanities, people ask a lot of questions and curious about a lot of things. I think for each person, whatever drives this curiosity is different. For me, it is just the problem solving part and just trying to figure out why something works the way it does, it's just fascinating to get the answer to that.

Why is this thing working the way it does? But other people might work differently. I do think that having a humanities background can be helpful in this. Situations, because if you do look at things differently, sometimes get to challenge things that have been the way they are, but you have no idea they were that way.

Danu Poyner27:20

Yeah. You get to ask inconvenient questions that, people go. Why are you asking that?

I'm asking you a lot of questions about this because I think from the outside what you're doing is very inspiring to a lot of people. It's a trajectory that lots of people in 2022, evaluating for themselves, I think people with more soft skills backgrounds looking to build up technical skill and explore the possibilities of technical data-based careers.

But this is something that you've been doing for a long time and you're having a lot of success with it. I think it's really interesting to hear about how that journey worked for you at a time when it was a lot earlier than many people were looking at that. a perspective on that?

Cristina Huidiu28:00

I think that the journey into technology roles is not a straightforward one. Knowing how to ask questions is probably a better skill, than knowing very advanced computer programming languages. Of course it depends on what you're planning on doing, because if you want to build applications from scratch, then of course asking questions, won't help you all that

much.

There are also different roles within technology and data areas. There will always be the people around you to support you. So do find the people to help and guide you and inspire you. And don't worry if it's not a linear path. It almost never is.

Danu Poyner28:38

It does strike me again how much you're emphasizing the communication side of things, knowing how to ask questions and also the listening that you mentioned, because so much of it is about the people that you're working with. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

The listening in particular.

Cristina Huidiu28:54

Yeah. I'm particularly fascinated about the humanizing technology aspect of. And in order to humanize the ecology and humanized data and in science, in general, making it understandable and approachable by people that are outside the field. It takes a few different steps and I think social scientists in general can bring a lot of value and people with soft skills can bring a lot of value into that. A lot of it comes from listening first and asking questions after and trying to figure out how people really use that particular technology, how people go about their daily life.

For me personally, there are pieces of technology tools that I have to use every day. And I absolutely hate, the user experience is horrible. I always think that the people that designed it absolutely hate their jobs and they want to share that pain with other people.

So I really want people that work with the solution that myself and the team that I'm a part of come up with think that we absolutely love our jobs. That is why we listen a lot. And we ask questions about everything to make sure that the solution that we come up with, it's not just a bunch of drag and drops that, you know you have to use

and then you have to move your entire

work around a tool rather than the tool serving you.

Danu Poyner30:15

I wonder if you have any examples of a humane technology practice that you're particularly impressed with.

Cristina Huidiu30:23

I'm not going to name any names, but I think for each of us, every time we use a tool and it's not painful, that is a very good example of that. There is quite a lot of conversation around it, around the data visualization community and how you visualize data and how you bring it to different types of audiences.

That would take it away from just creating charts and graphs to really expressing the core value of your analysis. So you're not taking people through a journey of your own discovery of the data you've been working with.

but actually answering the questions that people in front of you have.

You also need to consider who those people are. Do they only want specific things. Do they really want to get into the data and find out more about what you've been doing? There's a lot of empathy I that you need to have and work with and