When Canadian Business magazine recognized Amy Xiao as one of Canada’s Developer 30 Under 30, we were elated but hardly surprised. It’s well known that Amy, a junior research developer at Borealis AI, is considered one of the fastest coders in the country. In fact, her fingers move so quickly you can’t actually see her hands on the keyboard, just a plume of smoke and lines of code racing down the screen in front of her. We tried to record a video of it for this post but the screen went mysteriously black every time.
While impressive enough on its own, it’s Amy’s desire to make the world a better place that really singles her out. Amy’s commitment to creating entrepreneurial ecosystems in emerging communities will take her to Africa next April after graduation. Get to know this awesome human as we pry into her brain. But not literally, because that’s gross.
You’re finishing up a degree in Math and Physics at the University of Toronto. What made you choose that track instead of Computer Science?
When I initially chose to pursue software development, I saw it as a means to an end, a set of tools that would ultimately help me find ways to help better other people’s lives. Software development, and now machine learning, can be applied to so many different domains. Ultimately, I want to contribute to space exploration and physics helps me keep the door open to that. Math is because I’m really bad at it [laughs]. I’m paying so much in tuition that I want to learn something instead of just going off my strengths. [Ed. Note: Amy’s version of being “bad” at something is most people’s experience of being awesome at something.]
None of the stuff we’re so preoccupied with on a day-to-day basis would even matter if we weren’t created in the first place. We’re actually just a tiny speck of dust in the grand scheme of things. Seeing how we can push the human exploration of space forward makes everything else seem relatively insignificant in comparison.
When did this fascination with space and existential questions develop?
[Laughs] I think we all go through that teen phase.
No, that phase is about emo and selfies.
Well, back then I used to always get stressed out about school. I’d never really experienced failure, because I always strived to get the best grades. But then there was a period of time when I faced some difficulties because I didn’t have enough time to meet the standard of work I wanted to achieve. So, one day it occurred to me in the grand, grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter whether this stupid art project is going to be that good. There are more important things to worry about. Then I would watch documentaries about the giants in science that helped advance us and I got really inspired and wanted to see if there was anything I could do to continue that.
You realize this is an insight that most people don’t internalize until they’re around 80.
[Laughs. Then says nothing. Brief awkward silence.]
OK. Right. Moving on. What do you do here at Borealis AI?
I’m a junior research developer. I started back in September and I’ve seen the evolution of the team. I’ve been working on an internal tool using Natural Language Processing. I created a solution to semi-automate the process of removing junk words from a topic filter so instead of a human going back to delete those words, the algorithm does it for you. Right now the internal version is done and we see there’s an external use for it, so we’re trying to build it out as a web application that’s easy to visualize.
What made you want to join our team?
I have an interest in machine learning and research and I wanted to see if I could make a novel impact, which is mostly done through research. I saw the posting through U of T and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this job description is exactly what I see myself doing in the future.” I was also a big fan of the people I’d be working with and the things I would be able to learn. So, I applied on a whim and ended up getting the job.
What’s the best part about working here?
There are so many parts. Foteini [Agrafioti] and everyone are really supportive of what you want to track toward and they have a lot of knowledge to help you get there and focus you. There are also lots of workshop opportunities, RBC’s connections within the industry and their ability to fund things that allow us to have a legitimate role in the machine learning community. It’s an incredible opportunity all around.
You’re considered one of the fastest coders in Canada. When did you realize you were really good at it?
I think there’s still so much left to learn. My typing speed is really fast, so maybe that gives the illusion [laughs]. There are people who are really talented in this area and have had training since they were 10 in thinking programmatically. For me, I know the overall solution but I still have to work towards breaking things down. That’s why I write everything in my notebook. I like solving problems, so as a part of that I’m able to think somewhat creatively about coding.
Along the same lines, congratulations on being named one of the Developer Top 30 Under 30. What meant the most to you about being recognized?
Partially, it’s validation that I have something to offer the world. There are a lot of really smart people working in this area and there are times when I doubt myself and wonder if I’m really cut out for this area? Having gotten the award makes me want to work even harder so I can prove to everyone who nominated me what I can accomplish. Now that I’ve reached this point, I want to go to the next level.
As part of your application, you mentioned you’re interested in developing entrepreneurial ecosystems in emerging markets through tech literacy.
Yes. I took a year off after high school to go backpacking, and spent quite a bit of time in Peru. There’s a big difference between the state of infrastructure in developing nations compared to where we are here. But anything that doesn’t exist now is simply potential to grow. Everyone, everywhere is pretty smart but they may lack knowledge around what they’re capable of. I want to bring that kind of knowledge to youths in emerging areas and help empower them. I want to see if I can start an entrepreneurial program in some local communities in Nigeria or Kenya by pairing high-achieving students at local schools with an entrepreneur or business mentor in the community and have them work together to solve a problem. It will serve as an avenue for them to see they have what it takes to make a real impact in their community.
Ideas are one thing, executing them is another. How do you go about building this?
I’ve been following the tech scene, particularly in Nigeria and Kenya. There’s a lot of news about innovation happening in regions of those areas; they have some really good government-supported incubators. I’m planning to travel to either Nigeria or Kenya next April and work at an incubator as a software developer. I don’t know if my idea is going to work and I have to learn about the local way of life first and build connections. I’ve already received validation that this is something Kenya could use. One woman connected to one of these organizations told me there are a lot of tech companies [there] but they just don’t have the talent numbers, so an initiative like mine is needed.
Do you have time for any extracurricular activities?
Like, fun, for example?
There was a period of time last year where I just worked non-stop but it’s not sustainable. I realized recently I had to plan my fun time too in order to have the energy to put back 100% into my work. I try to go to the gym a few times a week. I like lifting. Hanging out with friends.