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Life at Canva

Meet Kerry Halupka - Principal Machine Learning Engineer

Written by Dani Brodie

Talent Brand Partner, Dani Brodie, sat down with Principal Machine Learning Engineer, Kerry Halupka, to find out about Kerry's journey into technical leadership. This interview is part of Canva's Women In Leadership series. You can discover the rest of the series on our blog home page.

 

Dani: Hey Kerry, thanks for making time to chat, let’s jump right in. What’s your role and what do you do at Canva?

Kerry: I’m a Principal Machine Learning (ML) Engineer. I’m also the Tech Lead for the Content Enrichment team, and the final hat I wear is ML Lead for Content. Essentially ML engineers are the people who develop, maintain and improve the artificial intelligence (AI) systems and algorithms.

 

Kerry and a teammate at a Canva celebration

 

Dani: That’s a lot of hats! And I think I read that you also have a PhD?

Kerry: That’s right, I have a PhD in computational neuroscience. I studied biological brains and how we can represent them using computers. I was working on the bionic eye, specifically on algorithms to emulate natural vision, with the goal of replacing vision for people who had lost their sight.

Dani: That's incredible. When you were studying for your PhD, did you ever imagine that you would transfer these skills to software engineering?

Kerry: I wanted to do my PhD and spend several years deep diving into a specific and interesting problem. But I always knew I also wanted do something where people would be able to directly interact with what I was building, which you don’t usually get in academia. When I joined Canva, I worked on Auto Focus, a background blurring tool designed to instantly add depth of field to photos. It was one of the first things I made that went live in the product and I remember saying to my parents, ‘Go and use this thing in Canva, because I built it!’ That was a very proud moment.

I have a PhD in computational neuroscience. I studied biological brains and how we can represent them using computers. I was working on the bionic eye, specifically on algorithms to emulate natural vision, with the goal of replacing vision for people who had lost their sight.

Dani: Amazing, I bet! Tell me more about what you’re working on at the moment.

Kerry: Right now I’m working on Canva’s Content Library, which includes everything from templates, to photos, graphics, audio, video and more. Essentially having all of this content at your fingertips is the magic that allows users to start inspired, rather than with the dreaded ‘blank page’. It’s our goal for any person, anywhere in the world, to have access to content that represents them and resonates with their lived experience. Our library has a huge amount of content and we’re constantly adding more and more, so we've been doing a significant amount of AI-powered content analysis and review work, to make sure our library is representative of every single user.

 

Kerry and other Canvanauts at a team event

Kerry: Historically in AI there has been a significant lack of diversity and most of the ML models have been predominantly trained by men, and trained on largely Caucasian or Western-centric data sets. The result is that ML models are biased, which becomes one of the considerable challenges we face in trying to make our product as diverse and representative as possible. Let's take image tagging as an example, which is the process of using AI to tag images with relevant keywords so that it surfaces when a user searches for it. If we’re only using ML models that are trained on western-centric data sets, they won't be able to understand the intricacies and nuances of the photos in each location. To achieve our goals we need to ensure that our algorithms are equipped to understand these nuances, which is a significant and fascinating challenge to tackle. I’m really proud that we’re investing so much into driving diversity in our content library. It's not just a marketing strategy for us, it’s at the core of our mission to empower the world to design.

I’m really proud that we’re investing so much into driving diversity in our content library. It's not just a marketing strategy for us, it’s at the core of our mission to empower the world to design.

Dani: What a great example of how our mission drives us to take action on issues like these. Kerry, with your incredible skills and expertise I’m sure you could have gone down any number of career paths. I’m curious to know what led you to pick this one, and would love to understand your experience as a woman in this field, making those choices about taking your career in this direction.

Kerry: In my position as Technical Lead, I have the privilege of shaping the team's technical strategy, as well as diving into the intricacies of ML work. My role doesn't encompass people management, which allows me to focus more on the technical aspects, which are my main area of interest. For me personally, it's incredibly rewarding to have a substantial impact at Canva through my technical contributions, without the obligations of a managerial role.

 

Kerry and other Canvanauts at an event at our Melbourne campus

 

Kerry: When I first joined Canva I was aware of these two different paths - technical leadership versus people leadership. When I was considering which path I should take, I compared the days where I would dive-deep into a technical problem, with the days where I would manage a team. Both were incredibly rewarding, however, I found that by the end of a technically-focused day I would be so much more enthused and excited about the next day. I struggle with imposter syndrome, and it was particularly bad when I was first starting out at Canva . I doubted my technical skills, and figured that I would be more successful in my career by taking the management route, despite it not being the source of my joy. Luckily in the end, I decided to prioritize my happiness and pursue technical leadership, and it turns out it was the right decision. I’m having a big impact at Canva and it's partly because I truly love what I do every single day. 

Perhaps you feel you are better at organising things for example, because you look around you and the people who are doing the organising are predominantly women. So you think, well that’s where I can have an impact. But I’d encourage every women to think outside of those boxes. Get an outside perspective. You can definitely go down the technical route and find it incredibly rewarding.

Dani: That makes so much sense. Do you have any advice for other women facing a similar decision about their career?

Kerry: I think a lot of women tend to question themselves, just like I did (and still do). Sometimes we can box ourselves into certain tasks or roles. Perhaps you feel you are better at organising things for example, because you look around you and the people who are doing the organising are predominantly women. So you think, well that’s where I can have an impact. But I’d encourage every women to think outside of those boxes. Get an outside perspective. You can definitely go down the technical route and find it incredibly rewarding. You might be underestimating your capabilities. In fact statistically, you probably are.

Dani: I love that - mic drop. Thank you so much Kerry, this conversation has been such a rewarding part of my day!

Employee portrait of Talent Brand Partner, Danielle Brodie

Dani Brodie

Biography

Dani Brodie makes talent brand magic at Canva. She lives and works on Wurundjeri land in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia.