Corona is making the world smaller, because we are facing a common challenge and we are seeing that people are people, no matter where they live. Everyone worries for their parents; everyone is frustrated by not going to work; no one wants to live in fear. Let’s remember that.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Johanna Björklund.
Johanna is Co-founder and CTO of Codemill AB, a digital product and service studio which she co-founded in 2007 in Umeå, Sweden.
Johanna’s background is as a computer scientist, with a special interest in theoretical computer science, multimodal data analysis, and machine learning. She holds a PhD in computer science from the University of Umeå, where she still contributes research, as well as being a regular event speaker on AI and technology.
She is the winner of a number of awards, including EY Swedish Entrepreneur of the Year, region north, 2017, as well as earlier in the same year being lauded as one of the top serial entrepreneurs under 40, a list compiled by Di Digital. In 2016, she was also on the list of Sweden’s ten most innovative entrepreneurs, a list compiled by the ÅForsk Foundation and the SISP, Swedish Incubators & Science Park.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Myparents encouraged me to explore many different interests, not only those traditionally associated with girls, so as I grew up, I had dolls and playhouses, but also a telescope, an airgun, and an Amiga 500. I loved playing with my cousin Patrick, and his He-Man doll and my Barbie often went on adventures together, solving crimes involving a lot of cardboard furniture and the Skipper doll.
I’ve loved mathematics for as long as I can remember and I wanted to study it at university. At the same time, I wanted to be sure I would find a job at the end of my degree. I knew I enjoyed programming, so I decided to major in Computer Science and this was in retrospect an excellent decision.
From there on, I continued to do a PhD in theoretical computer science, which is essentially mathematics. What drew me to the field was the feeling of order and truth — not unlike baroque music. My own writings aren’t in danger of being confused with anything by Händel, of course. But the truth remains that by learning a craft, you will be better able to appreciate the works of its masters.
During my undergraduate studies, some of my fellow students and I had talked about starting a company together. After we all graduated, we went our separate ways. However, around the same time as I got my PhD, one of them, Rickard Lönneberg, suggested again that we try to set up a business, and we did.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Actually, I try to stay out of interesting stories. I still have some, but they are hard to share because of GDPR. In the most discreet terms, a colleague of mine drank champagne in the penthouse of a surgeon who had done the hair transplant of one of Britain’s most famous chefs. Then this someone got to sit in the driver seat of said surgeon’s Ferrari and make motor noises while pretending to drive it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The first operates in the film and broadcast technology space: it’s called Accurate Video, covering everything from quality control to editing and post-production. In a space that was traditionally dominated by monolithic providers and ‘one size fits all’ software, it’s part of a new wave that is flexible and customizable. It’s all part of a wider trend we’ve witnessed legacy broadcasters taking part in, especially as they seek to catch up with Netflix, Amazon Video and the like.
Another exciting and timely project is Adlede. This company uses machine learning and computer vision to make smarter, more ethical choices around where to display advertising campaigns. All based on the right context — and content — instead of personal data….
Adlede points to a digital future that puts privacy first, and hopefully also delivers better results for brands and publishers too. Perhaps it will also bring back some of the occasionally surprising, or pleasing aspects of analogue advertising, where online — especially with retargeting — can become overly predictable. Some of our early customers were IKEA and Tullverket, and we are now helping our first clients in London.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My sister, who’s a psychologist. I get free therapy on all of the major holidays. Even though she’s younger than me, she’s always been a great role model and taught me a lot. The best thing of all, true or not (probably not), is that all emotions have a limited duration, and unless they are fed into, recede.
We have agreed that the time it takes for fear to subside is around 20 minutes. I used to be very afraid of flying, but now I am just moderately afraid. Even if my heart still skips a beat if there’s turbulence. I just think: let’s wait 20 minutes, and then I will feel better, and I often do. When I don’t, I wait 20 more minutes. This can be repeated.
Another source of inspiration is my friend Maria who’s the most resilient person I know. She had some nightmarish bad luck, but she showed immense courage in accepting the situation, pushing through it, and came out sparkling on the other side.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
In Sweden, the schools are still open, and the only major difference for me is that I’m required to work from home as far as possible, so in practice there isn’t a lot of difference. Even if the school were closed, my husband and I are pretty good at sharing house and childcare, so my efficiency would no doubt go down a bit, but on the other hand, I would have an opportunity to brush up on my pre-school maths.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Actually, I’m doing very well. Even though we don’t know how long the crisis will last, we know that it will eventually end. For me, this means that we have a limited time to try new things, and even if we prefer our old lives, there will likely be things that we’d like to continue doing once this is over. I like how small the world has become. Since meetings are now predominantly over some teleconference system or other, it no longer matters whether you are in London, Berlin, or like us, in a tiny town in northern Sweden.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
In my field, conferences are an important forum for presenting recent work and making new contacts. Since the outbreak of covid, physical conferences have been impossible and there is still a lack of digital alternatives.
For meetings in smaller groups, there are excellent technological solutions, but it is difficult to provide the large unstructured discussions that happen during workshops, or the kind of networking that is done during conference coffee breaks. In the short term, this is not a big problem, but in the long run, I am afraid that it will weaken the ties of our scientific community.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
To address this challenge, my research group has started to invite external speakers to our seminars. Now that everyone is working from home, the threshold for doing so has become significantly lower. I have also started to read more articles and whitepapers, and to have active online discussions with fellow researchers about their ongoing research. These are good habits, and I will try to keep them after the covid situation has been resolved.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
It helps to view this as the crisis of our generation, and then compare it to the world wars. Set in those terms, it is a small crisis. No-one will drop a bomb on our house. We will have enough to eat, and once the crisis is over, we will not have to hold marshall courts or rebuild our infrastructure.
We will not have to face horrible truths that we may or may not have suspected. We have the internet, wifi, Netflix, wine and crisps. My advice is to remember that this will end, and that we will come out of it stronger. For me, it also helps to focus on routines: get the sleep you need, keep a well-prioritized to do list, and working out regularly. Even more importantly, look after your friends and family.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
This advice might not work for everyone, but I like growing things, repotting plants, and taking seedlings. Since I spend so much time at home, I get to see my plants develop. Today, for example, the venus trap put out a new miniature arm, and the cress on the windowsill has also grown. Almost every day, there’s some piece of good news. For me gardening, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, is calming and teaches patience.
One of my favorite sayings is that “if you can’t get out of it, get into it”, and this idea is helpful to engage children in everyday tasks too. For example, if I tell my daughter to leave the iPad and clean her room, then the answer is as expected. However, if I tell her that we should tidy the house together and make it really pretty, and tie little scarfs around our heads and listen to happy music while we do it, then my offer is a lot more competitive. Also, in this particular scenario, I would say that she can choose which room she wants to be responsible for, and that will without fail be her own room.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
First reason: Corona is making the world smaller, because we are facing a common challenge and we are seeing that people are people, no matter where they live. Everyone worries for their parents; everyone is frustrated by not going to work; no one wants to live in fear. Let’s remember that.
Second reason: Every lost life is a lost world, and the worst of all evils for someone. Still, at the level of statistics and populations, what kills us is heart disease and cancer, and we are only moderately worried about those.
Third reason: Our societal response shows what incredible ability we have to change our behaviour, and this is needed to face the real crises of our and the following generations, which I believe are climate change and populism.
The fourth reason: Being close to death gives perspective. It shows you what is important in life, and what is not. Some day, you will die, and then you will be dead, and that is that, but now you are alive and your heart is beating. This crisis will, I think, help us to live more meaningful lives, and as a result, be happier.
The fifth reason: Our children are mostly safe from the disease.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to your family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
The expected outcome, no matter prior conditions, for almost everyone is that they will recover and live to die of something else. Still, it is exhausting to be under pressure for a long time, but luckily we have art, and science, and fiction, and nature and friends.
I love putting on a record and drawing, or clumsily trying to learn the piano, or finding out something about the universe I didn’t know, or bingeing a new tv series, or running in the forest, or calling a friend and most likely talking about the latest covid stats.
When things get really hard, remember that it is not dangerous to be afraid, and that you can give up as many times as you want to.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Bertrand Russell’s “Love is wise, hatred is foolish”. It’s vague, but I think it gives you the gist of life. I take it to mean: trust the thoughts you think with love and compassion, be wary of those that are rooted in fear and anger.
How can our readers follow you online?
I can start to tweet, if someone wants me to.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!