Irina Pushkina on being a Technology Innovation Lead and a business-minded dreamer

For this edition, we sat down with Irina Pushkina, the Technology Innovation Lead at Schuberg Philis. Her specialties include creating value from visions, solving complex problems, and dreaming both at work and at home. Originally from Uzbekistan, she lives in Heemstede with her partner and two sons.

Working life

What’s your role at Schuberg Philis and how did you get there?

My role is Technology Innovation Lead. And I’m part of the Labs team. I joined the company two-and-a-half years ago. My background is computational physics; I got my PhD in Japan and I did my postdoc at Utrecht University. At some point, I decided to make a very critical change: I left academia and went to industry, where I worked on the full cycle of software development and software as a product. I ended up at an R&D company, which gave me the possibility to really develop myself in business and, at the same time, IT. And that was the moment when Schuberg found me and invited me for an interview. But after that first round, my interviewees came to the conclusion: OK, that function which we envision for her is not what will suit her. She’s asking too many technical questions; it might be that this role will be too boring for her. I had a lot of questions about the future of the company and where my competencies and experiences actually could be used. What surprised me is that quite quickly there was another round of interviews organized with people who could answer all these questions, all the way up to the directorship of this company. So I had a meeting with MDs, where we had a nice conversation about the ambition of the company itself and where I potentially can help and why I should be part of this ambition. This realization took us back and forth and eventually they created the function for me, which was entirely new to Schuberg.

What’s a typical day like?

My day can start at 7 o’clock in the morning with checking emails, Slack, and a lot of newsletters I’m subscribed to which keep piling up. The whole day is split between networking and talking to people. About the projects which are running and to discover what is happening in the company. About seeing where I can be relevant in facilitating innovation project and where Labs can be helpful. This year I tried to change my strategy because the difference with other companies is that Schuberg puts you in the driver’s seat. You can drive anywhere – to the places you like, to the experiences you get – but then there’s so much coming your way. The difficulty is to keep everything under control. When newcomers join the company, in the first year, they can feel like I did: like a kid in a candy store – you want to try all the candies. So you have to say to yourself: “Hold on, one thing at a time.” Otherwise, your attention will be split between so many projects that you will be carried away. This year, I’m more oriented toward the personal ambition I’ve been trying to pursue since I joined Schuberg, and all my activities are leading me now toward that.

Which project are your ambitions currently pinned on?

In Labs, we have the multitouch table, which uses unique object recognition technology. It can be used for the tangible and interactive visualization of complex problems. The goal is to adopt this technology, and my role in this is to find the way to wire the simulation technique which can give some powerful predictive analytics. We are in an exploratory phase right now, and want to bring the customer into the project. Before it was more a matter of seeing what I could do myself, but now I want to do it together with the customer. So we are focused on a proof of concept for that particular technology to support the problems the customer envisions can be solved. Because in your mind you can have all kinds of ambitions but they’re still your mind; if it’s not practical for the customer or for the engineers, it doesn’t bring anything except a beautiful gimmick, which is expensive. When it comes to some technologies, everybody’s trying things. But the question remains: so what? In my view, we need to cross this line of playfulness toward value, usefulness.

You have two Masters and a PhD in theoretical physics. Did your academic background prepare you for the work you’re doing now?

Absolutely. All people who come from academia – it doesn’t matter what you study – learn an approach to solving complex problems. You are trained to think things through, look at the question from different perspectives, try different tactics. And then we have all different competences. I was quite fortunate to always do things with the computer. The problems I was trying to solve in physics were with supercomputers, so always programming models which can solve problems which are very complex which are analytically the minded, cannot really solve. Even when I went to industry, I was still keeping a very tight connection with the software engineering methods. In a way, I see a common thread through everything that I have been doing and why now I’m really enjoying what I am still doing: trying new applications, new technology, and new programming languages but still solving the problem. Plus, what is also interesting is my PhD was in quantum gravity and my background is in quantum mechanics, and the question of quantum computing is really now becoming quite relevant.

Company culture

The Schuberg Philis Careers website invites open applications, admitting that sometimes the company doesn’t know they need a particular colleague yet. Was your experience similar?

My example speaks for itself. You know, quite often recruiters find people, and during the interview, people realize they can offer something else. What I loved during my interview at least there was particular attention to the questions I was asking. If I was digging for the answers, then the right people were found to make sure that I got the answers. It made me feel they’re really interested in people. They really want you to find your place and your full potential doing what you like. It also brought me the feeling that this would be interesting because what I offer is not yet what is used and it's my professional challenge, actually, to bring them that level the company can use. That feeling, it’s the happiest place you can imagine.

So Lab271, as Schuberg Philis calls its innovation hub, offers a place to translate your theoretical knowledge into practical relevance?

When I just changed from academia to the industrial sector, the first thing I heard was: “You’re not in academia anymore. If we want you to stop working on this project, you have to stop because it’s not that you are investing in your own dream. No, this is business. Everything you have to work on will serve the business. But that’s not how it is at Schuberg. Labs is a unique place. We’re really there, in a way, to dream. Although sometimes people think of “dream” in a negative way, something big always starts with a dream. So we try to keep an eye on what is happening in the technical market and in the outside world. We see how other companies are experiencing things, how they help their business. There’s so much energy we’re pumping in, so many nice ideas that let us every year create the vision for the upcoming year, with our ambitions and KPIs. We bring this technology on board and offer it to our colleagues – and it’s not only the engineers, but also the customer operations managers and the sales and managing directors – so we eventually can expand the business proposition for the customer.

Passion project

Are you similarly visionary in non-working life?

I don’t create KPIs at home. It’s the only place where I can let go and relax. Plus, I have two boys who are very dynamic and very active and don’t allow any visible structure in my daily life. I have to seize the moment. The younger is still in mostly in a playful mood, but with the older, we’re really sharing some nice moments. Like me, he has also passion for watches. I’m collecting watches and I’m learning about the movement itself by taking watches apart, although so far I haven’t managed to put one together. That’s my dream.

Deconstructing time sounds like a fitting hobby for a quantum physicist. How many watches do you have?

Oh, currently in my collection I have about 70 watches. But the value of the watch is not in its price tag. Some can be old and cost just 20 bucks, but there is historic value in them. There is some moment which was a breakthrough for the watch; it exhibits some technical beauty and after its breakthrough became mainstream. I have a lot of watches like that. For now, it’s my hobby – the greatest one I have. One day in my life, I would love to make a watch for my son. Although he’s five years old, I can see this fascination now when I let my son listen to the tick of the watch, and then there’s this sparkling in his eyes. And then I say: “Now listen to the tick of my heart.” And then there’s another sparkling.

Curious to know more about how more colleagues spend their days? See the whole series here.