One of the last year’s winners of Women in Technology scholarships, Irena Djordjevic from Nis, has been in touch with science and technology from her earliest school days. Passion for those fields and excellent results at competitions have opened the doors of Petnica Science Center, the most prestigious institution for young talents in Serbia. Last year, Irena graduated from the School of Electronic Engineering, University of Nis, where she became interested in data science. As an exceptional student, she quickly got an internship at Microsoft where she learned how to apply knowledge from this field in real business challenges. While waiting for the official start of her professional career, Irena is finishing her master’s degree in data engineering.
Open and self-initiative, Irena leaves the impression of a person ready to show how much she knows, and who does not hesitate to step into the insufficiently familiar. Ambitious but humble, she, like many of her generation, especially those who are self-aware of their talents and qualities, is adorned with the absence of false modesty. She is not someone who looks for excuses and speaks very clearly about her future plans, as well as about the issues and challenges of the modern world.
How did you get in touch with Nutanix and our Women in Technology initiative?
I’ve heard about Nutanix from colleagues who attended one of your lectures at the School of Electronic Engineering. Then, I got to know the company in more detail at the Job Fair in Nis last year. There I heard a lot of information about what you do and that as a senior year student I may apply for Women in Technology scholarships.
How much did it mean to you to get a scholarship like this?
Even though I would continue my studies in any case since I enrolled in master studies sponsored by state, this scholarship meant a lot to me as a motivation for further work. There is a limit to how much industry experience can be gained in university studies, especially in data science programs, which are still being improved in our education system. Summer schools, seminars, online courses are an excellent way to gain knowledge and my plan is to invest part of the money from the scholarship in such activities. This summer I applied for a deep learning course in Lisbon, though it’s postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To conclude, it’s very useful that there is an initiative like this for students in Serbia, and it would be great to have even more of them. In this way, our talents would be as motivated as those from more developed countries.
From a gender perspective, how do you rate initiatives like Women in Technology that encourage girls to take a bigger part in the tech industry? Can this reduce the gender imbalance?
I think imbalance originates partly from the fact that men usually have a greater interest in technology, and partly because women and girls often lack self-confidence. This is something that I’ve been seeing since elementary and high school. Some girls give up on their technology careers even before the beginning of their studies. They assume it will be difficult for them and that they will not perform well even when they are interested in tech. It even happens that when they enroll in a technical faculty, at some point they say to themselves “I won’t be able to do that” and thus unnecessarily shatter their self-confidence. What I noticed during my studies is that the best projects and results were when both boys and girls were in the teams. That gives us an opportunity to analyze problems from different perspectives.
Did you have any doubts when you decided to study at a technical school? How did you deal with stereotypes and prejudice?
I’ve been in love with mathematics and physics ever since elementary school; I went to many competitions, and even then I knew that I would do something related to science and technology. However, over time I’ve turned a little more towards something more practical, where more realistic and interesting problems are solved, so I enrolled in the School of Electronic Engineering. Also, everyone in my family is technically oriented so their support also played a big role in my decision. As for prejudice and stereotypes, I ignored them.
Do you know the opposite examples, that someone is talented in some social fields for instance, and enrolls in programming because it’s now popular and promising?
It’s also a problem I’ve noticed exists. It’s a bit unrealistic that suddenly so many students want to enroll in computer science, and it’s obvious that it does not suit everyone. However, it’s now popular because of easier employment compared to other occupations. Also, many “academies” and quick courses are emerging. They attract naive people who think they will become experts in a few months, which degrades engineering and the long-term study process.
You were a student, but also an associate at the Petnica Science Center. What experiences did you bring from there?
For me, it’s a specific, almost unreal experience where I met brilliant people. Petnica is a place where values such as logical and critical thinking are instilled and developed. Through seminars and many activities, young people are trained not only for science but also much more than that.
As for your future, do you see yourself in data science? This field is still not developed in our country as in the USA, for example.
The interest in this field is growing in Serbia as well, as it has become an indispensable part of technology because of its wide application. For me, this field is very interesting and challenging since it requires a very good theoretical background, but also practical experience, and it is also very promising in any part of the world.
The eternal question: stay in Serbia or go abroad?
I would honestly be the happiest to stay in the country where I was born because my family and friends are here. If I see that I can make a satisfying career, I will stay in the country. The scholarships like this may have a positive impact on young people and it would be nice if there were more similar initiatives. I am highly motivated by such things.
A message for those who are thinking about which career path to take?
It’s never too early to specialize, especially when developing skills in the field you are interested in. I do not think we should view work as an obligation, but as an integral part of us, our priorities and interests. This is how we can achieve the best results, create positive change, and then the job does not become a burden. It is very important to choose a career based on preferences and not on what is popular.