Sindi Shkodrani (’15): ‘I’ve always been passionate about impactful innovation and entrepreneurship’

January 20, 2021 Dimana Doneva
Sindi Shkodrani (’15): ‘I’ve always been passionate about impactful innovation and entrepreneurship’

Our alumna Sindi Shkodrani (‘15) was listed as one of 11 AI leaders from Amsterdam to watch in 2021. Back at AUBG, she studied Computer Science and Information Systems, was the president of the Computer Science Student Union, one of the founders of the Engineering Club, co-organizer of the 2012 TEDxAUBG event and senator in the AUBG Student Government. Sindi, who comes from Albania, was also awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award in Computer Science at the 2015 AUBG Honors Convocation and graduated summa cum laude.

Upon graduation, she moved to the Netherlands to study AI at the University of Amsterdam and then joined location technology company TomTom. We spoke to Sindi to hear about her career development, her activities as part of Women in AI Netherlands, and the exciting work she is doing in the field of self-driving cars.

About TomTom

You have recently been named one of 11 AI leaders to watch in 2021. What is the work that you do at TomTom and the technology you are developing for self-driving cars?

At TomTom, we build maps for self-driving cars, the so-called HD maps. HD Maps are the next generation of maps that model highly accurate, realistic representations of the road with detailed geometric information that will aid sensor perception, precise localization and path planning for safe driving of autonomous cars.

In my team, we use AI and Computer Vision to translate collected road data (images, 3D scans etc.) into semantic representations that go on this map.

Studying AI

What has been your experience studying AI at the University of Amsterdam? What projects did you work on?

Studying AI at the University of Amsterdam was challenging but fun. It is an intense 2-year program that allows you to get in-depth with all relevant AI subfields nowadays, from the fundamentals of Machine Learning and Deep Learning to the applications in Computer Vision, Natural Language Processing and Information Retrieval. Though my student years in the Master’s were not a walk in the park, I’m thankful for how much it prepared me for the job market as well as the research world, although I decided not to stay in academia.

The projects were quite interesting and we were mostly working in teams. In one, we had to build an AI that generates text captions for images. In another one, I had to reconstruct 3D objects from 2D images. I’ve also had to mimic the behavior of a search engine like Google or Bing. There were many fun ones.

AUBG Impact

In what ways has your AUBG experience prepared you for your graduate studies and current career? What classes and extracurricular activities did you find most impactful?

AUBG was a very different experience compared to the public university research Master’s I got at the University of Amsterdam. The UvA has 33,000 students, so in the beginning it was a bit of a culture shock to not get that attention from administration and Professors that I was used to getting in AUBG. You have to figure things out on your own and dig for information. There’s not as much attention to teaching either compared to the American style of education, Professors are rather “lecturers” than “teachers”. Though they are world-class researchers, they are expected to introduce you to what you should learn and not necessarily be the best people to explain concepts. This was a bit hard to adapt to. In addition, there was not really a centralized campus and not much attention on extracurriculars, so your social life is not necessarily entangled with the university experience. These are the things I missed from AUBG times.

On the other hand, being one of the top-ranked universities in the world it comes with the benefit of having world-class programs that adapt very fast to cutting edge research advances. The courses go very in-depth and prepare you to do research on your own. AUBG was way more career-focused and practical in comparison. While it made me very confident with coding and projects in general, I had to do a lot of self-study on scientific methods and advanced statistics to keep up during the first courses of the Master’s.

I did not see the benefit of extracurriculars at AUBG until a bit later in my career. Entrepreneurial drive, caring about the problems of the world and questioning the things you are doing are not often taught to engineers and researchers in specialized programs. This is what usually makes me stand out from others and not be intimidated when leadership skills are needed. I am thankful to AUBG for that. My most memorable extracurricular experiences at AUBG were with the Student Government, the Computer Science Student Union and TEDxAUBG.

Are you still in touch and collaborating with other AUBG alumni and in what ways?

I am in touch with most of my friends from AUBG, with some of the closest ones we still meet often. One of my best friends in Amsterdam is someone I know from AUBG.

Unfortunately not collaborating professionally with AUBG alumni as much as I’d like to. I hope there will be more opportunities in the future.

Women in AI Netherlands

What are your activities as part of Women in AI Netherlands? What are your observations on the prospects for women in the STEM field in recent years?

With Women in AI Netherlands we organize events and gatherings that aim to build and strengthen the AI community as well as fight gender biases. Recently we launched WaiACCELERATE, an ethical leadership and business accelerator program targeting women founders of AI startups, taking them through the steps of building their companies from ideation to funding.

I’m hopeful for the future of women in STEM fields, as there’s increased awareness of this problem and the benefits of diversity. Many companies and institutions are already making steps in the right direction.

Plans for the future

What are your plans for your future career development?

I plan to stay in Artificial Intelligence, as it’s an exciting field that delivers news by the day. I hope we’re past the AI winter and now using it for tangible applications that bring value to humanity.

In addition, I’m thrilled about the future of self-driving cars too, so I hope to continue staying in this domain and experience the transition.

Besides my day job, I’ve always been passionate about impactful innovation and entrepreneurship, so I stay close to initiatives where I can participate in mentoring and technical advising of early-stage AI startups.