From software engineering to AI

Dr. Shuai Zhang started off as a software engineer, but his curiosity in AI got the better of him.

Dr. Shuai Zhang.Dr. Shuai Zhang started off as a software engineer, but his interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) drove him towards a PhD in this field. Using AI and Machine Learning, Dr. Zhang worked on recommender systems to create information filtering that helps users uncover relevant products or content.

Dr. Zhang recently accepted a role at ETH Zurich where he will continue his research on AI.

PhD degree and year: PhD in Computer Science, November 2019
Current role and organisation:  Postdoctoral Researcher, ETH Zurich

What led you to study Computer Science?

Before coming to UNSW, I was a software engineer. At that time, I had heard a lot of interesting news on the success of AI such as AlphaGo. I realised that AI would be an essential part of life in the future and was motivated to expand my knowledge in this area. As such, I decided to start my PhD journey in computer science, hoping that it would equip me with the cutting-edge knowledge in AI and give me a platform to do some meaningful research related to this field.

What was your PhD project about and what were the outcomes of the research?

My PhD research topic was about building recommender systems with machine learning and AI. More specifically, my goal was to identify users’ intention from their past behaviours, and help users to discover relevant products/content, so as to create a better user experience.

My research has been published in top-tier computer science conferences including NeurIPS, IJCAI, AAAI, and journals, and some of the research is deployed in real-world systems.

Can you tell us about your role since graduating? And what is it like to work at your current workplace?

Since completing my PhD degree at UNSW, I have been working as a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich, where I am lucky enough to continue my research on AI. I get to work on a range of challenging research problems and collaborate with people from interdisciplinary backgrounds.

What’s your favourite/fondest or most striking memory of studying at UNSW?

My favourite memory from my time at UNSW was when I worked as a student assistant for an industrial project. I got this invaluable opportunity to contribute my expertise to solve real-world problems and help make a difference to end users. The project was covered in the media ‘Raiz Invest partners with UNSW to power rewards with machine learning’.

What advice would you give to other students who are just starting their degree in Computer Science?

Be curious. Think about how and why things work as they do and ask yourself if you can make it better and more efficient.

Get your hands dirty. The process of designing and implementing systems can give a deeper understanding of the theory you’ve learnt in course work.

What character traits/skills do you think are important for engineers to cultivate?

I think two important traits are: continuous learning and a collaborative spirit. 

Technology is ever-changing, the rate at which it is getting updated can cause us to be left out and outdated. Continuous learning is critical in helping us to expand our skill sets and keep up with the emerging technologies.

Engineers need to work with engineers from different backgrounds, product managers, designers, and people from other business units. Developing a product usually requires the efforts from cross-functional teams. We need to keep communications open within teams and balance personal achievement with group goals.

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