Industrial PhD

PhD or industry? One-million-dollar question: Going towards Academic field or Practical work?

This is the most common question that will come to your mind after graduation. Each one of them has its advantages and disadvantages, so how should I pick one of them?

I remember a piece of advice given to me by my professor during my bachelor degree when I asked him about the proper way of picking a graduation project. There were many options to follow, so, after a deep discussion with him and considering the available different opportunities, we found out that most of them were a good fit both for my skills and knowledge. 

As a result, he told me,” This will not be the last time where you have different choices in your life or career and you do not know how to pick one of them, because usually they are more or less equal according to your criteria.” His advice was to close my eyes and pick one of them in a random way and to go ahead with that choice, because we simply do not live in a digital world where everything is black and white, wrong or right. Moreover, who knows except God, that taking the other path will be better for you, so in case I do not know I will not bother myself too much. Actually, that helps me not to regret any decision that I take while I have another option, because I do not know and no one else knows how it could have turned out.

The summary of what I want to tell you is that success is a part of happiness. I indeed believe that success is sustainability. Whatever your choice is – only you are responsible for making it successful, and your success at one chapter of your life will be useless if you will not benefit from it in the next one so that you will be able to reap what you sowed. Sustain your success from one chapter to the next.

One of the reasons why I wanted to do a PhD is because I like teaching and sharing knowledge, especially when I understand something very well and observe something that is not trivial. Most of the time I felt that there is something missing in the story and I want to know more about it. I want to see the full picture, and every time I convince myself that maybe the next step will contain answers to my ambiguous questions, but as soon as I move to the next step other questions pop up, until I realize that learning is a continuous cycle that will never come to an end.   At the same time, I wanted to try something new and work on something that is more helpful for society, something that will be valuable in the near future. Also, I want to know more about the cycle of production and what life looks like in the industry sector. Therefore, choosing something that combines the research process with industrial life is what I am looking for, and for this reason, doing an industrial PhD was indeed what I am looking for. 

What is Scrum? | Blog | CodeCoda

Fig.1 Abstract Scrum Workflow.

First months at the PhD

A new chapter of my work. Everything is new and fresh, whether working with new teams, fresh experiences, innovative communication tools, or gaining useful management skills. Recently, before working at Worldsensing and after my graduation, I worked at a local company in Italy as a machine learning engineer. Later, I moved to Madrid to start a new job as a researcher. As a result, you could say that the common factor from all of these jobs and experiences is that I have been on top of my work (by the means of no reviewing or supervising on the code after the delivery process). This rhythm and style of work lasted with me until I joined Worldsensing. Everything has changed after that! 
Worldsensing company is following the Scrum methodology. So, as a result, the proposed work/code will not be accepted immediately, and the functionality of your code will not guarantee its prospective acceptance or approval. It needs to be reviewed and get approval from someone else within the team. During this cycle or process, they will give you some comments, suggestions, or recommendations. In the end, you should follow and apply some rules and conventions of work that all of the team agrees on.

One sprint at Worldsensing

As I mentioned before, we are using Scrum, which is a software development methodology based on an iterative workflow where the requirements and solutions evolve from collaboration among self-organizing cross-functional teams. This methodology has been used in other fields including sales, marketing, etc. I remember during the bachelor study I took a course about software engineering and a part of that course was software development methodology like waterfall and agile. Besides that, during my study and also after that I have never used these methods. I completely forgot about it until I joined Worldsensing. In the first week of my work, they described and illustrated everything to me from scratch. 

There are many agendas and purposes for each step of Scrum, I will try to mention the main points for each step, and then I will tell you about my experience with this methodology. A sprint is a short period of time that usually lasts between one to four weeks. Each iteration requires a multi-functional team to work on all aspects of the project, including planning, analysis, design, coding, unit testing, and more. As you can see in Fig.1, where the cycle for a sprint is illustrated. Before the beginning of each sprint, there is a step called a backlog grooming meeting, where we define the new user stories (tasks) for the next sprint and assign estimates (efforts) to those stories. 

For instance, in case you must take a training course, attend a seminar, summer school, or have to deliver a task for a PhD course, then we will define a new story, and afterwards we will estimate the effort for this task. At the beginning of each sprint we have the planning meeting where we discuss the agenda.

During the planning we confirm estimated story points for all stories that we are planning to start working on in the next sprint. And according to the availability of the team members a specific story will be assigned to each one of them, but the remaining stories will be moved to the next sprint. During the implementation days we have the standup meeting: it is a short meeting that usually lasts from 15 to 20 minutes tops and consists of two rounds. In the first round each one of the team members shares with the others what he/she was doing yesterday and what he/she is planning to do today, it happens without too many details. The second round is where in-depth explanations may take place. In case of the second round, if someone wants to discuss something with more details, ask for help or suggestions from the other team members, then he/she can do that in this round.

At the end of each sprint we have a review meeting and during this meeting we have 3 different goals. Firstly, to review our performance during the sprint. Secondly, evaluating the percent completion of the progress in the goal achievement of the current sprint. Finally, reviewing the goal for the sprint and demonstrating new features that were implemented during the sprint. Moreover, conclude our sprint achievements in the shape of a demo, if possible, in order to present them later in slides during the meeting (coming later). 

The last step of the sprint cycle is a sprint retrospective meeting. Within the retrospective meeting every team member adds his suggestions or comments that he/she thinks could help us to improve our performance. To start doing specific things – stop doing something or keep doing something like keep attending the meeting on time. The last meeting for the whole team in the engineering department is called “show and tell”, where every team shares their achievements with the whole department and after that answers questions regarding that. 

I came from an academic sector where you have a maximum of one or two meetings per week with your supervisor and sometimes none, and usually to discuss something or to present that something is working well. So, to be honest, in the first week of my work I could not see any benefit for these meetings, especially the standup meeting which was annoying for me. I also remember that I have complained directly to my manager that there are a lot of meetings and I could not see the benefits from them. Within the next sprint, as I remember, I started to see and observe the benefits of these meetings which helps me to organize my work as well as my daily work. The one that hated at the beginning (standup meeting) is now the one that I like the most, especially when I am working remotely from home. It is really helpful to meet your colleagues and ask for help or suggestions from them for something that could take days from you, so you could say it is like a meeting to schedule your daily work in a proper way.

I remember the first meeting with one of my current supervisors at the company when he told me about naming the teams within the company with the names of superheroes. To be honest, in the beginning, I thought it is more for fun than anything else. It did not take too much for me to discover what he meant by that when I saw the team members with their individual capabilities look like the superhero when they help each other to achieve the same objectives of the team. Teamwork is among the things that impressed me the most at the company and also the way of communication and collaboration between the members within each team from different departments. For instance, today I had an issue that I could not solve during the last two days of work, so, I asked the help of another colleague and we scheduled a meeting on the same day. In the end, we succeeded to solve it after two hours of working together trying different scenarios. I believe that without his support that issue would have taken me a week or more to solve. This is just an instance of daily help that I receive from my colleagues and vice versa. This process of taking/ giving brings me the feeling of confidence that I can be useful in a productive process.

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Sobhi Alfayoumi

Sobhi is a Palestinian from Gaza city. He got his Bachelor’s degree in Communications & Computer Engineering from Al-Azhar University-Gaza – AUG, then he finished his Master’s degree from the University of Padova, Italy. After his graduation, he worked as a machine learning engineer in Italy and then he moved to Spain to work as a researcher at Imdea network institution. Now, he is a PhD student at Worldsensing in Spain, where his research focuses on applied machine learning for resource orchestration in a large wireless network.