Willian Ver Valem Paiva has come a long way—both geographically, and in his career. He’s gone from Brazil to France, via Ireland, and he’s recently landed an incredible new role as a Lead Artificial Intelligence Engineer at a start-up in Bordeaux.
Growing up in Sao Paulo, Willian spent hours working out how to program his computer. It became his passion, and he knew he wanted a career working with computers. When he started looking at universities, he found he simply couldn’t afford the expensive fees to pursue a computer science program in Brazil. What he found instead was a company that would sponsor him to study engineering. It wasn’t the subject he loved, but at least it was a degree program. Within a few years however, he realized he’d made the wrong choice, so he did something very bold. He emptied his savings, left his program, and got on a plane.
This is the story of what happened next.
You studied mechanical engineering in Brazil, but decided it wasn’t for you. Can you tell us about that decision?
When I was 20, I quit my program because I was really fed up with studying something I didn’t like. I’d also been working since I was 16, in some really tough jobs. In one role I managed a whole maintenance team—when I was only 18! That was really stressful. I decided I wanted to enjoy life a bit, so I took the money I’d saved, bought a cheap plane ticket, and went to Ireland. I wanted to learn to speak English and just explore.
I did some different jobs there—kitchen jobs, painting, selling newspapers—which were all much calmer than my jobs back in Brazil. And, most importantly, I also met my wife while I was there!
You moved to your wife’s home country of France then, and that’s how you got started studying Computer Science, is that right?
Yes, in France, universities are far less expensive, so I could actually think about studying again. I was there around two years before I started a course. I wanted to be sure my French was good enough to understand the lectures. As soon as I thought it was, I started a Bachelor’s. I loved it, and followed it immediately with a Master’s, also in Computer Science. It was so good to have the opportunity to study what I really wanted.
And you were supplementing your university studies with Udacity courses?
I was. Long before I signed up for any Nanodegree programs, I started doing Udacity’s free courses—that was right at the start of my software development journey. I’ve had my Udacity account a long time!
When I first started my degree my understanding of French wasn’t the strongest, so I couldn’t understand much of what the teacher was talking about. Maybe just a few key phrases. When I got home each day, I’d research those keywords and use Udacity’s courses to really learn what I was doing at university!
You started your first programming job right after completing your studies. Can you tell us about that?
I had started an internship with a start-up during the last six months of my studies. I impressed them with the work I did, and it became a permanent job right when I graduated. It was a small company, and because of the skills I’d already built, I was made lead developer. I had a team of developers to manage, as well as working on some AI projects the company was looking at!
Was it overwhelming to have that much responsibility so quickly?
The management side of my role was okay, because I’d managed people before in Brazil. But I did find it overwhelming to suddenly be doing a job with elements of AI and machine learning, where I needed to be a real expert. I had to learn a lot through mistakes, especially early on.
Is that why you returned to Udacity, to be more effective in your role by exploring more about deep learning and machine learning?
That’s right. I started doing my own research into machine learning and AI, but there was a substantial lack of information out there. I’d become really interested in AI during my Master’s, but even at the university there really hadn’t been many resources. I really felt that I needed something more to understand the subjects, and to set myself on a career course in the field. That’s why I took the Machine Learning Engineer and Deep Learning Nanodegree programs.
It was a great decision. There was so much information I could use in my job. And the capstone projects, in particular, were really good. They were amazing at challenging you to go further with all the skills you’d built through the program. One project—where you had to track a face in an image—was really excellent. I spent a lot of time on that, trying different ways to iterate on what I’d built.
You’ve recently transitioned to a much more AI-focused role. Can you tell us about your experiences interviewing for that job?
It was quite unusual—they actually had to contract with an AI expert just to conduct the interview! The company is small, so they needed someone with really specific experience with artificial intelligence who could interview me and make sure I had the skills they needed.
Did interviewing with an expert make the experience better, or more challenging??
It was actually a really good interview. The interviewer was very focused on what I could do, and how I could improve things for the company. They weren’t asking me questions about my education or my experience. They wanted to know I could apply my knowledge and skills to their business.
What made me shine during the interview was that I actually proposed a solution to a problem the company was having. I suggested a way they could overcome their challenge, based on everything I’d learned and experienced. They were impressed, and said they could implement what I suggested. They quickly hired me after that!
Are you enjoying your new role?
I’m really enjoying it. It’s a start-up, so there are lots of opportunities to get involved with different things and build experience. And the AI projects I’m working on are really interesting, and going well. I’ve also still got a software developer role here too, which is great. That’s part of my DNA now. I always want to write better code, so it’s great that I can combine that with AI. There’s a lot of work, and a lot of travel, but it’s all really exciting. It’s a long way from where I was even five years ago.
It’s been such a pleasure learning about your story! Your tenacity, and ability to find creative ways to learn the skills you were passionate about, is really inspiring. And those traits are definitely earning you a lot of success; it’s great to see that your new employer recognizes the strengths you bring to the table. With your drive, and willingness to try new things and push yourself forwards, we’ve no doubt you’ll continue to explore, discover, and build!