Spotlight on Women in Tech: Lilla Böröczky, PhD



Originally posted on August 13 2019 on Tapad's Engineering Blog

I’m happy to introduce our new Spotlight column at Tapad Engineering. Each week, I’ll introduce you to someone new. We’re kicking off this series with Spotlight on Women in Tech, featuring Lilla Böröczky, our VP of Data Science.

You grew up in Hungary and attended a prestigious high school. Can you tell me a bit more about the role that education played in your childhood?

I grew up in a family where education and learning were given the highest priority.

I need to give a big thanks to my parents who let me pursue my non-gender biased interests and dreams. My father, who was a veterinarian, and my mom, taught me from a very young age to be curious and to not be afraid to ask any questions.

I was an only child and my parents never raised me in a way that would be socially acceptable solely for a girl. Because I was never interested in “girly stuff” like makeup or fashion, my parents strongly encouraged me to try out things that really intrigued me, like playing soccer with the boys, or riding a motorbike when I was 13 years old.

When did you develop an interest in science, technology, etc.? Did you know from an early age that you would end up in a technical field?

I was always a very good student from the get-go, but from about 3rd or 4th grade, I realized I enjoyed learning math and science, like chemistry, much more than I did history, literature, or writing. Of course, my parents never let me slack in those subjects that I found boring.

In Hungary, there were (and still are) high schools that specialized in certain areas, like math, languages, music, sports, etc. for gifted children. For me, it was natural to apply to a boarding school that had one class specialized in math, and other specialized classes in different subjects, like languages.

I took the entrance exam for the mathematics section of the Laszlo Lovassy High School, and I was accepted. This meant that I had to move about 1.5 hours away from my home and live in a dormitory. I was only 14 when I moved away from home, so I definitely learned how to be independent.

High school gave me the opportunity to explore my interests in math, physics, and chemistry, and also learn a new language (English). On top of that, I was also able to interact with other kids that had the same interests as me. In the mathematics section, there were 28 of us, and only 9 of us were girls. The majority of my teachers in high school were not only devoted but were also extremely seasoned, who primarily focused on teaching the basics very, very well. This prepared all of us for college and for the future.

Tell me about the cultural norms in Hungary regarding women in tech. Do women have to fight discrimination, fight for equal pay, and/or fight for the right to take maternity leave as they do in the United States?

Due to the cultural and political situation in Hungary when I was in high school and in college, women in tech weren’t really discriminated against based on gender. Honestly, in Hungary, I did not really feel a different dynamic between boys and girls. It was more merit-based. If you were bad, you were bad, and if you were good, you were good.

I was fortunate to experience this gender equality in my technical education. I started my Ph.D. at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics following my M.Sc. in electrical engineering, but I had the opportunity to go to one of the leading technical universities in Europe, Delft University of Technology in Holland, to continue my doctoral studies. There, I definitely felt more of the gender bias: the few female electrical engineering doctoral students were all foreigners.

I can’t speak much about what is going on now in Hungary, as I left the country in ’95. However, as I am going back yearly to Hungary, I feel that even though the gender bias may have deteriorated slightly, it is still not so bad overall. I am still keeping in touch with some of my peers back home, who are successful women in the tech field.

You mentioned that you began learning English at age 14 (in addition to several other languages). You have 21 U.S. patents, and you have published over 50 papers in peer-reviewed journals. This is a huge inspiration not only to women in tech, but to anyone who believes that it’s “too late” to start learning a new language. Can you tell me a bit more about your linguistic journey?

Due to the political situation at the time in Hungary, it was required to start learning Russian around age 8. I started learning English at the age of 14.

As studies demonstrate, learning a second language is easiest before the age of 7 or 8. I was exposed to a second language where the letters are Cyrillic, so in addition to learning another language, I also learned to read and write in a new alphabet. I continued to learn Russian in high school. English basically became the third language that I studied.

I also picked up French just because I was interested in it.

Retrospectively, I wish that I had learned English earlier.

When I was 17, I went to Denmark for a field trip and stayed with a Danish family. It was then that I realized how different it was between learning a language in a classroom (like I did with Russian, for example) and actually speaking a language naturally with other people.

From a technical point of view, since I have been working in America since ’95, I definitely think in English when doing professional matters. At home, it’s a mix. My mother lives with us (my son, my husband, and I), and she speaks only a little English, so we usually speak Hungarian. However, English is used at home when we are discussing more technical or scientific subjects.

Many women feel that they must choose between having a family and having a successful career. What advice would you give to women in tech who are trying to balance career and family?

I had my son when I was already here in the US and had already somewhat established my career. As an older mom, I had the opportunity to have support and to put my son into a quality day-care. I was also able to hire child-care help like a seasoned “governess”. Regardless of this, I think the main “trick” was planning ahead, coordinating my business trips with those of my husband (who was traveling a lot), and time management.

Throughout my entire career, I definitely separated work and family life. I always tried to finish my work at work so I would have time for my family at home. I always made it clear at my job what my usual working hours were.

When talking about flexibility, I think it’s a very over-used word. In my case, flexibility meant that I would be at work for consistent hours each day. However, if the weather was awful, or if I had a doctor appointment, I would use the flexibility offered. This allowed me to work efficiently at the workplace, so in turn, I could have both a work life and a family life.

Obviously, there was and is limited time available for entertainment, thus I am usually selective about where I want and don’t want to go. I’d usually rather go to a Met production of an opera, as opposed to wasting time in shopping malls or on social media.

Our son is now 20 years old and is a successful young man in both academics and sports. I am confident that he understands and evangelizes that women in tech and working mothers are not unicorns, but are just a normal part of society, who deserve equal pay and equal opportunities.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I just want to give credit to my M.Sc. and Ph.D. advisors, Professor Fazekas (Budapest University of Technology and Economics) and Professor Biemond (Delft University of Technology, Holland), who gave me the opportunity and guidance to work on cutting-edge topics of the time (namely video processing). I am certain that without having a Ph.D. in this field, I would not be here.

Obviously, I also want to give credit to my husband, who I’ve known since I was a student. He always encouraged me and supported my career 100%. He was the one actually who talked me into coming to the US and accepting my first American job at IBM.

These are quotes that I’ve written and included in my Ph.D. dissertation:

  • It is essential to keep in mind that purpose and perspective are very important in every walk of life.
  • The worth of a person is not solely determined by his/her professional success.

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