Q&A with Holly Toner

  • Holly is a Senior AI Engineer in the Technical Foresight team at Kainos. She has experience working on a variety of proof-of-concept projects that demonstrate the value of emerging technologies. Coming from a background in mathematics, Holly enjoys working with AI solutions.

    She oversees the Academic Partnership between Kainos and Ulster University’s AI Research Centre, orchestrating strategic research collaborations, translating research concepts to industry applications, and inspiring the next wave of talent to leverage AI for societal good. 

    Holly will be chairing a panel on GenAI and the Future of Interaction, Knowledge, and Personalisation at BelTech. 

    Q. There is a misconception that a career in technology involves sitting behind a desk writing code all day, what is the actual reality for most people who are employed in the tech sector in NI?

    While coding is undeniably at the heart of software engineering, there's a whole world beyond just tapping away at a keyboard in isolation. Software engineers are the ultimate team players, constantly bouncing ideas off one another to shape and prioritise their work. They're always on the hunt for the next big thing in tech, ready to experiment with innovative solutions that can elevate their projects. Communication is key – they're in regular dialogue with clients, working to get a sense of the issues they face and to communicate the value of their technical solution.

    Looking beyond the syntax, a career in technology opens doors to so many domains, inviting you to solve puzzles in healthcare, government, and more. It's about making a real difference. And if coding isn't for you, no worries – the tech sector has tonnes of roles that let you contribute without having to write a single line of code.

    Q. Do you need to have a degree or background in STEM to have a successful career in tech?

    A STEM degree is not a requirement. The key to a successful tech career is not necessarily a technical background – but rather, a curious mind and a knack for solving problems. These are the sparks that ignite innovation and fuel the creation of ground-breaking tech solutions.

    The power of a tech team lies in its diversity. Each team member views challenges and potential solutions through their unique lens, influenced by their background, domain knowledge, prior experiences, educational journey, and much more. This diversity is essential to generating a wide array of ideas and perspectives, setting the stage for innovative solutions that we might not see if we all had the same degree.

    For those who don’t have a STEM degree, I would urge that no matter where you are today, there’s a path to where you want to go in the tech ecosystem. My own journey into the world of coding began unexpectedly with mathematical modelling in Python. I couldn’t even write a line of code at first, but I loved it and quickly joined evening classes to explore more. I had no clue then that I was taking my first step towards a tech career – but if it's possible for me, it's definitely possible for you.

    Q. How has online learning evolved to enable accessibility and upskilling for emerging technologies?

    Online learning resources have revolutionised the way we access tech education, making it possible for anyone to begin their tech journey from anywhere, at their own pace.

    The way that we’re learning new skills is changing fast. Just a year ago, upskilling meant sifting through blogs or tutorial videos. Today, we can engage in back-and-forth conversations with the Generative AI chatbot of our choice, testing our knowledge until we have perfected a topic.

    There’s something inherently meta (and incredibly cool) about learning about AI from AI – and I must put in the obligatory warning that Generative AI can ‘hallucinate’ or produce misinformation. That being said, this personalised learning approach will be game-changing for learners.

    Q. What does the future of tech look like to you – is AI the only show in town?

    AI is a transformative powerhouse, and I do not doubt that it will continue to dominate conversations for a while. What intrigues me is not just the AI models – but everything that surrounds them. The tech community is increasingly prioritising sustainability and responsible AI practices. We’re thinking more and more about the environmental footprint and ethical implications of our AI advances.

    AI may be a key driver of future tech developments, but it's just one piece of the puzzle. Quantum computing is on the horizon, ready to redefine problem-solving and computational power. Meanwhile, advances in AR and VR offer a glimpse into a future where our interactions with AI are transformed.

    Q. What are the opportunities and benefits of working in the tech sector?

    The tech sector has tonnes of benefits. At the top of my list are the exceptional career progression opportunities, the truly interesting and impactful work, and the emphasis on a healthy work-life balance. Of course, this is closely followed by the free breakfast and office coffee machines!

    Q. What advice would you give to someone who would like to change career or consider a career in tech?

    If you’re thinking about it, do it. Try to pinpoint what excites you about tech - maybe it’s writing code, design, or data analysis. Once you’ve found a starting point, throw yourself into learning.

    Connect with tech communities online and in person. Watch videos. Listen to podcasts. And don’t be afraid to explore. Remember, the tech world values skills and passion, so showcase your learning journey and projects on LinkedIn. Most importantly, stay curious.

    Beltech returns on 7th March 2024 at Titanic Belfast, see here for more details. 

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