Alexandra Abbas - Combining Knowledge and Passion

This interview was conducted and written by Kaisa Kumpas, head of public relations at the Digit conference 2023.

Alexandra Abbas is a diverse woman - economics, data science, machine learning and engineering - she has been through it all and grown a great understanding of multiple fields. She has explained: “My studies started in Hungary, where I graduated from a BA in Economics at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. Throughout my studies, I was highly involved in the local startup ecosystem, eventually inspiring me to pivot my career and continue studies in Engineering. I pursued a Masters at the University of Stirling in Scotland in Big Data, moved to London, and have been working as a Data Scientist, Data Engineer and Software Engineer since.” And today she is an engineering lead at Wise, a global tech company building the best way to move and manage the world’s money. When asked how she would introduce herself, she said: “I see myself as a generalist and my expertise covers a range of topics, including cloud technologies, infrastructure, microservices, machine learning and stream data processing.”

At Digit 2023, Alexandra will be speaking about how to nail your microservice architecture. She is going to share the main learnings from building Wise’s microservice architecture, consisting of hundreds of services and databases. The presentation will also include learnings from recent projects that Alexandra has been working on with her team that have helped them build high performance scalable solutions. We talked to Alexandra a little bit about her experiences, approaches and how they manage at Wise.

Based on your LinkedIn profile, you started out as an Associate Data Scientist and are now working as a Software Engineering Lead. How has working closely with data and machine learning helped you in your current position?

Software engineering is becoming increasingly data heavy and partly automated thanks to machine learning. I am fascinated by both, and thanks to working in Treasury, a team highly connected to both domains, I have been able to combine my knowledge and passion in my daily work.

Communication between traditional software engineering and data science isn’t always smooth, as the style of work and the requirements might be different. My understanding of both fields has helped me manage complex cross-functional projects and supported my move into my current role.

The Digit Conference focuses on the latest trends and innovations in digital technology. What do you believe are the most significant trends or advancements that will shape the future of the industry?

Artificial Intelligence is already disrupting how we work in Software Engineering, and I believe that it will keep shaping the role of Software Engineers.

As a leader in the digital technology space, what are you most excited about in terms of future advancements or possibilities?

I believe that there is a need for more accessible streaming data processing technologies which would allow non-experts, including non-Software Engineers to write high performance pipelines. There’s a lot of potential and space for new projects in this domain and I’m excited to see what solutions the emerging technologies will bring.  

One of the main focus points of this year's Digit Conference is also psychology - both in the sense of an individual member and the whole team. In your opinion and expertise, what are some of the key points to keep in mind from that perspective?

I believe that performance should be assessed first and foremost on the team level. Building high performance teams should be at the forefront of all engineering leads’ minds, but it’s important to keep in mind that this may be more complex than finding high performing individuals, and that a group of high performing individuals may not make up a high performance team. Understanding group dynamics and team psychology is crucial for technical leadership.

With the rise of remote work and virtual collaboration, how can companies foster a culture of innovation and teamwork in the digital age?

The past years and the pandemic have shown us that digital channels are very efficient to facilitate communication, but I believe that in-person interactions are still needed for the best possible teamwork and product innovation.

At Wise, we’re building a global product and our team reflects the diversity of our customers. Working in international cross-office teams, we’re used to interacting via digital tools. Nevertheless, we’re combining flexibility with working together in the office and travelling to meet team members in other locations during planning sessions.

Today, offering flexibility is crucial to meet employee expectations in the tech sector. We have created a hybrid policy to give people the flexibility they need to thrive at work, and balance it with their personal lives. In addition to the home office flexibility, we have introduced the Mobile Wisers option to work from abroad for up to 90 days a year. In 2022, over 1,000 Wisers used the opportunity, combining travelling and work.

Diversity and inclusion are critical components of a successful digital workforce. How can organisations ensure they are promoting diversity and creating an inclusive environment in their tech teams?

We're a global team with a global mindset - 125 nationalities globally! - and we celebrate our differences. We want to make sure that every Wiser can be themselves at work, that they feel respected, empowered to share their contributions and are able to progress in their careers. In our Tallinn office with over 2,000 Wisers, we are as ethnically diverse as London. This is a testament to the brand, work that we do, and love having people from different backgrounds.

Creating safe spaces, networking opportunities and sharing knowledge is key to driving inclusive culture. A truly inclusive approach includes building empathy for your peers, honesty, facilitating co-creation and co-learning, giving everyone a chance to contribute, and setting up a timely and constructive feedback loop.

As a woman in the software development industry, you have undoubtedly navigated various challenges and experiences unique to your gender. What advice would you give to other women who aspire to pursue a career in technology, and how can the industry work towards creating a more inclusive and diverse environment?

If you find yourself in a non-inclusive environment that discriminates against you based on your gender or other traits, and you believe that you can’t change that environment for the better, leave. Find environments, including school, companies, communities, that don’t set you back and where you can flourish. And even if you haven’t found them yet, don’t give up the search.

With the rapid pace of technological advancements, staying updated can be challenging. Could you share some of your favourite strategies or resources that you personally use to keep yourself informed about the latest trends and developments in the software development and technology landscape?

I follow a number of resources, including company threads about advancements, attend conferences, follow YouTube channels… All of this is useful for regular updates, but if you’re early in your career, building strong fundamentals is more important than following the news trends.

Throughout your career in the digital technology space, what has been the most transformative or impactful project you've been a part of, and what key lessons did you learn from that experience?

Here are some of my learnings from working with technically complex large-scale projects:

  • Think about scaling your data storage early and build with scaling in mind. However, you do not need to build the scalable solution at the start, but a solution that will allow you to pivot into a more scalable solution if needed. E.g. think about partitioning your tables and archival strategies ahead of time.

  • Accept that requirements will change many times and fast, especially in complex projects involving multiple stakeholders.

  • Delegate and trust. Large-scale projects can’t be shipped without delegating large chunks of work to others and losing visibility over details. This is part of the evolution of becoming a confident lead.

The Digit Conference aims to foster collaboration and knowledge sharing. What are your expectations from this event, and what do you hope attendees will take away from your presentation?

I hope that attendees will leave with a recipe of what to avoid and what to do when designing and building microservices.

Looking forward to seeing you all at Digit!

You can learn more about Wise on their website and also catch Alexandra during the conference to chat more about designing and building microservices.