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Marily Nika

At thirty years of age, Marily Nika continues to add firsts and awards to her CV: Anita Borg PhD scholarship, Imperial College, London; project manager at the ‘giant’ Google; award for her work in support of women, and the impressive list continues. However, this active Greek woman does not rest on her laurels, she stands firm, while she talks to ‘Bridges’ about her relationship with Greece and  the challenges information technology creates for Greeks within the country and abroad.

Computer Science PhD

Engineering Program Manager at Google’s head office California, USA

She has worked on many projects to put the Greek language on the global’ digital map

You are the first Greek woman to receive the Anita Borg scholarship from Google to do a PhD at Imperial College, London and were so highly thought of that you were invited to work at Google’s head office. Tell us briefly about your ‘journey’ from Greece and the Maritime School of Piraeus University to America and Google.

Since I was very young, I have loved mathematics and computers. Growing up, I tried to include information technology in all my activities, both at university and elsewhere – whether university assignments (even when the assignment was for Economics I would make programs for analyses), personal projects (I learnt and ‘played’ with new program languages or I made simple programs/games) or freelancing (from simple pages to online shopping applications). As a result of this, I had accumulated enough material to show when I applied for and was accepted to do an MSc in Computing at Imperial College, London. On finishing the degree, I decided to do research which would combine my undergraduate and post graduate studies. I completed applications for PhD programmes and scholarships (one of which was Google’s Anita Borg), explained my passion for information technology, in which I wanted to work and described some of the technical projects on which I had worked. The doctorate was essentially practical (20% was theory) and the summer internships at companies were exceptionally useful in ‘building’ my CV and learning outside university. In 2013, I successfully interviewed for a permanent job before I’d even completed my PhD – and I’ve been doing it ever since.

 

Can you describe your work at Google and the challenges there?

I’m working on the Google Assistant in Google’s IT sector. My team is developing the ‘logic’ with which the assistant can ‘understand’ what users tell it then reply in the same language, no matter what that language is. The greatest work challenge for me is the size of the company. There are over fifty thousand employees, which means you must get used to working at the pace of a large company, with people from all over the world, different cultures and work backgrounds. A further challenge is the fact that we are all responsible for ourselves, in other words, we must organise our schedules ourselves so as to achieve our goals.

 
 
Equally impressive is the fact that you have been awarded for the promotion of women in IT and new technology. When you were getting started, did you feel that the bias towards men taking the lead in this field would create obstacles for you and how did you manage to overcome them?

 

I have been lucky enough to meet many women in my life who became role models-women I wanted to emulate. The advice that they always gave me was never to let the fact that I was the only female speaker at a conference or the only female member of a team bother me. Indeed, if you believe in your work, have self-confidence and positive energy, all obstacles can be overcome.

 
Other than individual skills, what elements of Greek temperament help a Greek man or woman stand out even in one of the biggest companies of the world?

All Greeks who I have worked with work extremely hard, they never give up, they are extremely knowledgeable and particularly inventive. In fact, a few days ago I learned that I had been nominated for an award for Greek women abroad. That shows how many Greek women (and men) excel every day in their fields.

Does your present position involve any interaction with Greece and Greeks?

One of my first projects was developing Greek voice recognition. My most recent project is a keyboard for ‘greeklish’, where the user uses Latin characters to type but Greek characters appear on the screen with the correct spelling and autocomplete. For more information click here.

 
For many people involved with new technologies, Google is a lifelong dream. Despite that, was leaving Greece a difficult decision?

 Of course it was very difficult, I thought I would be alone for a year, but it’s already 10 years since the first time I left. However, I’m always for experiences and work abroad even for a short time, it’s a great experience.  

From what colleagues back in Greece say, are there opportunities for people who want to progress in this industry? Would you return and if so under what conditions?

Information technology is an industry where there are always opportunities and I’m particularly pleased to see young people creating their own opportunities and companies. I’ll probably return, but the fact that my family does not live in Greece plays an important role.

 Does the fact that IT is a global language help in enabling Greeks to work in their own country but stay connected to the rest of the world?

 Of course. I know a lot of people who work in Greece for foreign companies. They have meetings online via internet, they decide their own schedule and the best way of working for them and they are very efficient!