Clémentine Plati

"I'm the one that never gives up!"

Queens of Tech Podcast

60+ questions with female tech influencers about their journey into STEM

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Tech Queen

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Clémentine Plati - Machine Learning Researcher @Twitter -Podcast Queens of Tech

Clémentine Plati

Machine Learning Researcher + Co-Founder and Program Coordinator,
Mentoring Circles for Data Science and Machine Learning @Boston University

Clementine is a Machine Learning Researcher at Twitter. From within their RecSys Lab, she works on developing the next generation of recommender systems, as well as consults to product teams across the company to help them unlock the full potential of their data by applying the latest Machine Learning techniques. Prior to joining Twitter, Clementine spent three years at Tripadvisor refining the models they use to automate the company’s online marketing strategies.

Clementine holds a Ph.D. in Statistics from Boston University and a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics from the INSA of Toulouse, France. She has held various leadership positions in non-profit organizations such as the Massachusetts Association for Women in Science (MASS AWIS), Boston University’s Graduate Association for Women in Science (GWISE@BU), and the Boston University Student Chapter of the ASA (BUSCASA). Most recently, she co-founded Boston University’s Data Science Mentoring Circles and has been a key leader of the program ever since.

Deeply honored to be featured in the Queens of Tech Podcast! Thank you Jasmine Moradi for letting me share my journey.

Clémentine Plati

Full transcription

In this episode, I’m very excited to welcome my guest tech queen Clementine Plati, Machine Learning Researcher at Twitter. Bonjour Clementine, nice to have you joining us from Boston, USA. Ca va?
Thanks for inviting me. I’m really excited to be a part of your podcast. I listened to your first episode and I really liked it.

Now let us dive into your journey into tech. Hope you’re ready for the Queens of Tech’s 60-plus questions.
I’m ready.

***FUN FACTS ***
  1. How would you describe your personality in three hashtags?
    I would have to go with #Frenchie, because I’m French, and that is a lot of my personality. #Boston, because I’ve been living here for 10 years and I love it. #MachineLearning, because that’s what I do in my daily activities. 

  2. How would you describe your life in three sentences?
    I grew up playing volleyball until I was 20 years old, and that took most of my time. Then I went to university and I studied mathematics and statistics. From there I got my Ph.D. in the United States in statistics, and then I started working in the US in the field of data science machine learning, which was a continuation of my degree in a sense. 

  3. What kind of music stimulates and motivates you the most?
    That really depends on the day but what I like to do is, we have Pandora in the United States, it’s a website where you can put on music, and it’s going to put music that is similar. So today it’s raining, so I’m listening to Ezio Bosso which is a very quiet piano kind of musical music. 

  4. What’s your personal motto?
    There’s no problem. there are only solutions!

  5. What is your favorite book?
    Harry Potter, because I learned English with Harry Potter.

  6. What is your favorite podcast?
    Pivot, it’s a podcast on tech, and it’s fantastic. If you like tech I really recommend listening to it.

  7. Mac or PC?
    Mac.

  8. Say something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know.
    Everyone knows everything about me, I’m not I’m an open book nothing secrets.

  9. What is your hidden talent?
    I had to ask my husband for that one, and he said that I can always find something to cook even if we have nothing at home.

  10. If you were going to write a book about your life what would the title be?
    The one that never gives up!

***CHILDHOOD***
  1. Where did you grow up?
    I grew up in a very small town in France. I think there were like 500 people living there, and the farmer would go through the main street with his cows. 

  2. What was your dream job as a child?
    I wanted to be an astronaut. 

  3. What was your favorite subject in school?
    Mathematics.

  4. What was your least favorite subject?
    French.

  5. What would you say is your earliest memory of technology and the arrival of the internet?
    It’s funny the first thought that comes to mind is connecting to the internet. At the time like in the 90s, there was a little sound you could not use your phone, and you were paying for internet by the hour, so your parents would yell at you if you were staying too long.

  6. Which were then the three first technology gadgets you owned?
    So the first one I can remember of is getting a Compact Disc for my seventh birthday, and it was with the city of Celine Dion. I think that was her first CD and then my dad gave me his very first laptop which was probably humongous, and I was just using it to play card games.

  7. Who was your female role model and why?
    I don’t really have a role model but as a kid, I really like the cartoon cats where it was sisters fighting crimes. I have three sisters but at the time I had two, and so we were really identifying ourselves as being those ladies fighting crimes. 

  8. How do you think where you grew up and the school you went to and the generation you come from influence your education and career choice?
    I don’t think that where I grew up in France really influenced me. The thing that influenced me is my mother because for some reason she made it a point of principle to tell me and my sisters that we had to be financially independent women and that this would happen through education. So for as long as I can remember I’ve always been a very serious student, but I wasn’t serious because, but because my mom was telling me I needed to be financially independent as a woman, and so I’ve always been a very hard studying student.

***CAREER PATH***
  1. What did you study at university?
    I studied in France and I think I was lucky that I didn’t have to choose what I had to study.  I had to kind of just narrow down the scope a little bit after high school, and so I went to what we call an engineering school. So in an engineering school, you study multiple scientific topics, and then you get to choose, so I first went to an engineering school where I learned about a bunch of topics but then based on this I was like I really want to specialize in mathematics and statistics.

  2. Who and what influenced you to get into your chosen field?
    It was my sister’s boyfriend. It wasn’t an accident the only topic I liked at university was mathematics and one day I was talking to him, and I was saying you know I really like mathematics, but I don’t know what kind of job I could do with that I don’t want to be a teacher. He mentioned to me, that he was like you know there’s this program on the other side of the country that has like a math department and I don’t think it leads to teaching. You should look into what they do and that conversation on a random day just really changed the course of my life because if I hadn’t known about this program I would have never ended up where I am today.

  3. What professional roles have you had before that led you to the current one?
    So I think one of the very pivotal moments I’ve had, is the internship I had in France at the atomic energy commission, and it was a semi-research role. The reason that was pivotal is that at the time I’ve always thought of research as a place for old white men something very boring, but I actually joined their lab and my internship advisor were those super lovely ladies, and I was surrounded with people that were young and interesting. I was like you know what research is actually pretty cool, and so I applied for a Ph.D. after that.

  4. What does your company do, and what is your title?
    Twitter is a social platform and if you’ve never used it you can get a news feed on it. What do I do for Twitter?  I’m a machine learning researcher which means I develop algorithms that hopefully make the content on Twitter more interesting to the user and more specifically I’m part of the recommender system team. What this means is that I have tons of items, how do I sort them? So Netflix is a recommender system how do I show you movies? Amazon is a recommender system, which products should I show you and at Twitter, we have a recommender system because it is about which tweets should we show you, or which people should we recommend you to follow, those are recommender systems. 

  5. How did you get the job, and what are your main responsibilities?
    They reached out because I was working at TripAdvisor on the recommender system team. What I do for Twitter is that I literally sort things for them. 

  6. What does a typical work day look like for you?
    I usually go to the gym in the morning. By the time I come back I hang out with my husband, and we have coffee sometimes, and we go for a walk. Thank God for remote work because it’s giving us the time now to do those sorts of things. Then around 8 30 a.m I open my laptop the first thing I do is that I read the messages that I’ve received because the people I work with are in different time zone, it goes from London to San Francisco. So people might have emailed me yesterday or early this morning, and I’m waiting for answers so that’s the first thing I do I reply to people. Then I run a lot of algorithms. I just launched algorithms last night, and so I’m anxiously waiting to see how they’re doing, are the results good? and probably they’re not going well, so I’m going to have to solve my problems.

  7. What do you love about your job?
    This is a really easy answer for me. The thing that I love the most is that I’m working at Twitter today, but I worked at TripAdvisor which is a very different type of product. I worked at the French atomic energy commission which was an energy sector trying to assess risks of nuclear incidents, so my skills are extremely transferable. My goal is to build models and as long as you give me data I can do that, and so I can work in so many fields that this is very appealing to me because it makes your carrier just more flavorful.

  8. What is the best experience you’ve had in your role so far?
    So far I must say that one of the things I’m the most excited about is that I just rolled out one of my models on Twitter on the notification product. So if you’re receiving notifications on Twitter today it’s coming from me.

  9. What is the biggest challenge, you have encountered so far, and how did you tackle it?
    Being a researcher one of the challenges is that you’re trying to answer questions to problems that there’s not necessarily an answer to. So you can spend a lot of time doing your best without getting any results. You can be very close to the answer, and you don’t know it, it’s like walking in the dark. This can be mentally frustrating because you’re a very hardworking person until you’ve finished what you were trying to do it’s like you’ve done nothing and so this can be difficult sometimes.

  10. What do you wish everybody understood about your role?
    I’m an engineer. I’m not an IT person. Stop asking me to fix your printer! Message from my mom.

  11. What is one of the common myths about your professional field that you want to disprove that everybody?
    I think people think that we do some sort of malevolence sometimes. One example I have in mind is that I used to work for TripAdvisor and my friends would tell me: “I saw a price and when I clicked on the hotel it was 10 times more. They’re doing this to trick me”. I think what people don’t realize, and I didn’t realize it myself until I worked in the field is that there are some problems that look very simple for the user, but that are actually really hard. For example, getting a price of a hotel is a really hard problem. You couldn’t ask for prices in real-time all the time, so you had to cash prices which means that there’s error potentially. It’s just that the product you use a lot of work is being put into it by people that tend to be very thoughtful, and I’m yet to see an instance where we try to trick the user into something this is just there’s just not as much malevolence as people might think. 

  1. What do you love about working in the tech industry?
    I really like the work culture and the flexibility. Just to give an example; my office is very colorful. At Twitter, it’s a very fun environment I have friends who work in finance and I go to their office and its cubicles and it’s white, and it’s very serious and everyone is wearing a suit. Not to quote company names but one of the companies that I joined at some point on the first day asked us to please wear shoes because people had been walking around the office barefoot. That was actually I guess the limit to what they were willing to accept and so this is just a very casual environment and that’s what I don’t want to work in a serious place.

  2. What has by far been your biggest achievement in your career?
    So it’s not quite in my career but something that I’m really proud of.  I created a mentoring program two years ago at my university to help students to guide them in their employment search because when I looked for employment myself, it was harder than I had anticipated. I learned a lot along the way and I wanted to pass on some knowledge. I must say that just having students reach out to me and tell me they got an internship through the mentors they have or that they answered a question in an interview because I told them about that sort of question before it’s just really rewarding.

  3. What’s the biggest factor that has helped you be successful? Any success habits?
    This is very typical of my field, and it’s not necessarily true for every field, but my field is very competitive for roles. It’s not rare to have 10 000 applicants. It’s not enough to be good at what you do you also have to make yourself visible and this is something that I’ve learned the painful way but that I’ve made a conscious effort at. So I think that networking is a very important part of your career and this has been a successful habit of mine for sure. 

  4. How do you measure your own performance at work?
    Did my model make it to production?

  5. What is your biggest failure in your career, and what did you learn from it?
    I was looking for an internship in 2016, and I thought that my resume and my degree would speak for themselves. I applied to maybe 25-30 places and I heard back from no one. I learned a very painful way that you have to do more than just apply for a job. You have to connect with folks to make yourself visible when it comes to employment search and that’s how I started the mentoring program.

  6. What is inspiring and motivating you the most in your role and career right now?
    I really enjoy working with junior employees trying to help them solve some of their problems. What they’re going through it’s particularly rewarding for example when they’ve been stuck for a little while, they reach out because they don’t know what else to do. You can help them walk through their problem and help them find a solution. This is something I really enjoy. 

***MENTORSHIP AND ROLE MODELS**
  1. Do you have a mentor today?
    I do not have a mentor, but I have a support network of people. People that I’ve worked with, friends that I can tap into when I have a question.

  2. Who is the female role model you look up to in your field?
    I don’t have a female role model nor do I have a male role model.

  3. How important do you think it is to have a role model and mentor during one’s career?
    I’m not really keen on the idea of having a role model mostly because I think that people always display themselves in a certain light, and you don’t see the entire picture. You could aspire to be someone, but you don’t really know why that someone is so. So that’s not really my thing to look up to some people.  I would say though that having a mentor can be useful. if you find the right person and there are folks that have walked a path that you’re going to walk and that could have some learnings that they could teach you. Yeah, if you can find yourself a person that you trust. I recommend it.

  4. What does leadership mean to you?
    The people I’ve worked for that I considered good leaders what I appreciated from them that they were bringing the best out of me. Can you help a person grow in their career, and can you help them become the best version of themselves?

  5. What do you consider a good versus a bad leader?
    I joined TripAdvisor and on the first day the Vice President of the division had a meeting, I don’t remember what’s the purpose of the meeting, but he basically asked around the room for everyone’s opinion, and you could see that everyone’s opinion was important to him. He was using his team as counseling, but then at the end of the day, you could also see that the decision would be his and that he would bear the consequences of whatever outcome was happening. When someone uses his team as a console but at the same time is decisive that’s something I aspire to. A bad leader micromanagers people and thinks that everyone they’re working with is just bad. That they’re the only person in the room that understands anything and because they don’t trust their team, they want to check every detail of what you’re doing.

  6. Who would you say is your favorite female tech leader?
    I don’t have a favorite tech leader. 

  7. How would you describe yourself as a leader?
    I really don’t think of myself as a leader personally, but I do hope that the people around me know that they can reach out to me for a console.

  8. What values are most important for you as a leader?
    I really don’t think of myself as a leader.

  9. What leadership lessons have you learned that have formed you into the leader you are today?
    Some of the leaders I’ve worked for that I would want to try to emulate are the ones that listen to you and praise your work before pointing out that your work can be improved. I’ve worked on leaders that are very quick to jump to pointing the flows as opposed and don’t acknowledge the effort you’ve been putting into moving some work forward. I think that being appreciative of the work that your people are putting forward is really important to me.  I hope that’s something I do in my daily activities.

  10. What would you say are your three strengths and three weaknesses?
    I think my strength is that I’m very helpful. I really genuinely like helping others and I think this is motivated by the fact that I’ve never been this kid in school that’s really smart and understands everything right away. so I’ve always had to work hard to understand something and so it makes it easier for me when someone reaches out to have patience in answering that question because I understand that it’s not always easy to grab a concept. So I think I’m really patient when people reach out with a question and I actually really enjoy that. My three weaknesses; I think are that I like polish sometimes in my communications. I can be very blunt that’s perhaps the French person in me, but I don’t do as much roundabout as I should and this is something I’m really working on I’m very brief on my wording.

***DIVERSITY, EQUALITY, INCLUSION & BELONGING***
  1. What do diversity, equality, and inclusion mean to you personally?
    For me, diversity and inclusion are the process of bringing as many people from as many backgrounds as possible into one place.

  2. What do you consider to be three to five signs of good company culture if you were to join a company?
    The one thing is how much turnover do they have? If you find out that the oldest member of the team has been there for a year it’s not usually a good sign people are not staying there and there’s a reason.

  3. As a woman, what has been the most significant barrier in your career, and how have you overcome these challenges?
    I do not personally think that I’ve faced barriers, but I think that one of the barriers most women do face is that they self-censor themselves. They do not apply to some roles simply because they think that they are not as qualified as they are, which is a very woman thing to do. Men if they look at a job description and they check three boxes they’re going to be like, oh yeah I’m good. If a woman only checks nine out of ten they’re like, oh I’m missing that one skill, so I ‘don’t know if I have that problem, but I think a lot of women.

 

  1. Why do you think it is important for more women to join the tech industry, especially as leaders?
    I just want to broaden the scope of this question. I think it’s important for a person from every background to join the tech industry, not just women. I’m talking about ethnicity, I’m talking about age and the reason is that in my experience if you have folks from various backgrounds you generate varied ideas. When everyone is the same person whatever person that is you tend to just converge and move forward always the same thing, and you’re missing on opportunities just because if you all think the same you all move the same idea forward and the scope of your vision is just much smaller.

  2. Do you, and how do you speak with your female colleagues and male colleagues about diversity quality and inclusion challenges, especially salary gaps?
    We don’t do this, it is not a conversation that I have had, I don’t talk about salary gaps.

  1. There are many public and internal discussions about the barriers women face from reaching higher positions in the tech industry. How do you feel it has affected and is affecting you, and what is your advice on how to best unlock these roadblocks?
    It’s not just about the tech industry. I think it’s about the workplace in general. I think it’s harder for women to reach leadership positions and I think the reason is that it starts at home. Because as women when we start our career we get to the edge where maybe we’re going to have children. What will happen when we have children? Someone has to take care of them and if your spouse is not supportive, it tends to rely on the woman to make sacrifices to go pick up their kids after school, to bring them to school, to bring them to school activities which means that this is time they’re not spending at work. This is a time when they’re not moving forward in their careers, so I think that having a supporting spouse that spread the load of the household work is really key in helping women move forward in their careers.

  2.  As the tech industry finds it hard to attract and retain women what is your best advice on strategies for how companies can work to build a stronger corporate culture that engages gender diversity?
    So I think for me there are three key things that really would help women. Number one is flexible work hours. I’ve just talked about picking up kids from school. If you can pick up the kid and then go back to work it’s really helpful. The second thing is equitable pay, one of the reasons women struggle to move forward in their careers is because often when a couple has a child sometimes the cost of child care is so expensive that one of the parents has to stop working and take care of the child and the natural conversation is which one earns the least that’s the one that’s going to stay home. If the woman doesn’t earn as much the traditional thing is like okay, so you’re going to stay at home. If women are paid what they’re worth, it increases their ridges it increases their chances of staying at work. The last thing I would say is remote work opportunities, it’s not rare in a couple that often the wife will follow his/her husband or her wife across the country for roles that this person is having and helping them move forward in their career. So the wife is constantly relocating changing jobs and not moving forward with her career. If she had access to remote work she could stay in her position and continue growing in a role instead of just helping her spouse move forward in her career. So yeah, flexible hours, remote work, and equitable pay are I think really key.

  3. What would you say then are the few challenges and possibilities of implementing diversity, equality, and inclusion in a workplace?
    I think the main challenge is that even for companies that actually do make a conscious effort at the end of the day they’re working with a pool of candidates and the pool of candidates is driven by the folks that are graduating. If you look at the STEM programs it’s moderately men. Actually, the candidate graduating in computer science engineering it’s not a diverse pool at all even for companies that want to make a conscious effort the pool of candidates is not diverse, so I think it really starts with those schools, actually. 

  4. Why and how do you think companies would benefit from having workplace gender diversity especially better gender representation at C-level?
    It gives women out there and younger ladies the impression that it’s possible. As I said I never pictured myself as a researcher because I had this vision that researchers were old white males, and it’s not that I was self-censoring myself. It’s just it’s not what was visible. I think it would be great if we could see more diversity just to encourage folks from every background to picture themselves as leaders.

  5. How much do you think the tech industry has changed regarding this subject since you joined?
    I think I’m lucky that I work in tech which I believe tries to make a conscious effort to hire folks from diverse backgrounds. My field is not the most biased one. I would say that when I joined Twitter one of my first meetings was me and 30 men which were very strange to me but since then it’s been 18 months and in my team were now five or six ladies. This is something that for instance Twitter makes a very conscious effort, they are very actively trying to be diverse, and so I do see that it’s part of the public conversation. It’s a slow process because as I said it starts in school, but I think especially in tech there is a conscious effort to try to be more diverse. 

  6. Looking back on your own career what one thing would you have changed in your working environment to break the bias?
    I think again just encouraging women to apply to roles that they wouldn’t. Women tend to suffer from imposter syndrome, they tend to think that they’re not worth what they’re worth. I think encouraging women to apply pushes them towards leadership. When you’re a manager encouraging them is really important and also again trying to give them equal pay. Women tend to not ask about their worth in salary. I think that obviously, financial means are a good way to keep women in tech.

  7. Looking forward what would, will you do as a leader to improve the bias for the next generation of women in tech?
    I think mentoring young ladies is really important because you can be their cheerleader, you can help them achieve their potential by just literally being their cheerleader. You can do this! I know you are smart! Just being supportive to young women around you is really helpful.

**MENTAL HEALTH AND WORKPLACE BALANCE***
  1. I’m sure without a doubt you have a busy lifestyle, so how do you take care of yourself to maintain good mental health?
    I have two things that I try to do. Not consistently, but I do try to work out as much as I can when I do have the time, and the second thing is and this is hard for me this is a conscious effort, but I try to leave my laptop at 5 p.m and to not reply to answers. It’s basically difficult because I do enjoy my job, so, I’m very drawn to my laptop, but I work with folks in the UK and I work with folks in San Francisco, which means that there’s always someone messaging me, and it’s really easy to be sucked into it. So I really try to unplug especially now that I work from a home where your laptop is here like right here. I make a conscious effort to try to not engage with my work after certain hours. 

  2. Have you ever experienced burnout?
    No, thank God, knock on wood.

  3. What motivates you every day to get out of bed?
    You know, I just I really like what I do. I love the field of machine learning, so the question is how do I leave my laptop? My husband and I had to have a conversation because he was like you have to stop working. So that’s the hardest thing for me, it’s not to get out of bed is to go back to bed.

  4. What is your advice on how companies can create a more mentally healthy workplace in the new now?
    In a very strange way, I think that the pandemic has been a blessing because we’ve discovered remote work in a way that we just didn’t envision two or three years back. I must say that remote work and flexible workouts have been such a boost in my mental health because back in the days I had to drive to work, but now I work out in the morning. So if I had to go back to the office this time that I spent at the gym working on myself, I would spend it in traffic. This is just a lifestyle change like we don’t wake up with an alarm clock anymore. I really hope companies keep remote work and flexible workouts this is a blessing.

**WORDS OF WISDOM***

  1. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given that has helped you during setbacks in your role and career?
    It’s not a piece of advice, but I think I’ve been very blessed in that very early on my mother has really given me and my sister self-confidence. She’s always told us that we can do anything like anything, and I’ve never really doubted it, but I think it’s because she kind of distilled it. So don’t self-censor try everything if you fail that’s okay but don’t you dare not try.

  2. What is the worst advice you have ever been given, and how did you tackle that?
    When I was applying to PhDs one of my friends told me that I wouldn’t make it, and she wasn’t being mean I think she was just trying to prepare me mentally. I thought she was being thoughtful but never let anyone tell you that you cannot do anything you’d rather try and fail than not try. I don’t understand people who don’t try.

  3. Is there something you wish you would have known or a skill you wish you had when starting out in the tech industry?
    Network, network, and network.

  4.  If you have the ability to go back in time when you were just the beginning of your career what advice would you give to your younger self?
    Don’t be so hard on yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect just do your best and don’t be too hard on yourself. 

  5. What advice would you give to young girls and women, wanting and trying to break into STEM fields today?
    You are smarter than you think. Don’t self-censor. Try everything, you can reach for the star and if you get it that’s great.

  6. What is next for you in your role and career in tech what are your career aspirations?
    I don’t have a vision. I just float. I just enjoy seeing where things will bring me.