Mother's Day Interview: How Nicole Finnie Became a Competitive Kaggler on Maternity Leave

As Kaggle’s moderating data scientist for the Data Science Bowl, I’m fortunate to have met first-time competitor Nicole Finnie. Her team (Unet Nuke) impressively ranked within the top 2%, earning Nicole a silver medal. More impressively, I learned that Nicole had no ML/DS experience just a year ago, and picked up these new skills through online classes during her recent maternity leave.

As an expectant mother, I found Nicole’s story inspiring and am excited to share it with the broader Kaggle community this Mother’s Day.


What’s your academic/professional background?

I hold a Bachelor degree in Computer Science and a Master degree in Software Engineering specialized in computer visualization. In the past 8 years, I’ve been a software developer in the database kernel area at a large R lab.

How’d you hear about Kaggle?

2 months ago, during a coffee break with our lead data scientist and a fellow Kaggler, @hafeneger, we were thinking of creating a new machine learning project in our lab, and he suggested “Why don’t we kaggle together?� And that was the first time I heard about Kaggle.

What’s your secret for doing so well in your first Kaggle competition?

Getting information from the Kaggle forum was our first step to learn possible ideas, and then I researched those ideas further by reading the academic papers. Once I had a good feel for the theory, then it just took lots of time and work to implement. When you use a popular kernel, make sure to try to implement ideas and concepts from different research papers, that will be more likely to set you apart from other Kagglers. Most importantly, you need to choose competitions you’re passionate about.

Our Real Secret Weapon

What kind of methods did you try in the DSB competition?

Since it was an image segmentation competition, I tried different combinations of CNNs with different output channels and different post-processing methods to see which gave us the highest local metrics. And in the final week of stage 1, I wrote a fully automated pipeline to speed up training models with various data augmentations. In the final 3 days, a Kaggle grandmaster, also our remote colleague @CPMP joined our team. He advised us to ensemble our best 3 models using weighted majority voting and that made our solution more robust to unseen images.

Did your background in software engineering help you do well in the Kaggle competition?

Yes, it helped me to quickly convert ideas to code.

How was your experience teaming up in a Kaggle competition?

I teamed up with our data scientists @hafeneger and @alexec and my husband @jliamfinnie. All four of us come from different areas in our lab and we met up every week discussing new ideas, which was lots of fun. Modularizing our code without using Jupyter notebooks was the most efficient and realistic way to work as a team. In the final 3 days, we teamed up with our remote colleague, a Kaggle grandmaster @CPMP from another country, which was stressful but it pushed us to significantly improve our models in a short amount of time.

Will you join more competitions? What kinds of competitions most interest you?

For sure. I’m mostly interested in image competitions because you don’t need to ensemble 1000 models to win a competition. However, after the DSB, we’re broke due to costs of a cloud GPU VM, so it may take a while to save up for the next image competition. 🙂


What motivated you to pick up machine learning during your maternity leave?

Originally, I wanted to write an app for real-time object recognition for my newborn daughter, so I got interested in the deep learning field. During my learning, I “stole� (git clone) the tensorflow source code and built the said app using a pre-trained YOLO v2 model for my baby daughter. Now my one-year-old doesn’t want to give me my smartphone back. 🙂

How did you pick up machine learning/deep learning?

The student I supervised at work took the machine learning course at Coursera from Prof. Andrew Ng, so that became my natural starting place.

How did you manage your time to learn new technical skills, while being a first-time-mom at the same time?

Thanks to German labour law, I was able to enjoy a long paid maternity leave. I’m someone who just couldn’t stand being idle, so whenever my baby napped (which was only 20 minutes at a time), I used the time to learn machine learning online. I was very sleepy though.

How do you get time to compete in a Kaggle competition while having a full time job and a 1-yr old baby?

I tried to trick my baby to go to bed early so I could Kaggle after she fell asleep. Lots of coffee and tea helped. To be honest, I was physically exhausted, but the excitement of the competition kept me going.

Are there any additional resources you wish you had?

A babysitter for sure!!! We took care of our baby 24/7 by ourselves. I wish I had more time to kaggle.

Apple Juice Not Beer

Did your husband play a big role in this whole thing (your picking up new skills, joining Kaggle competitions, etc)?

Yes, my husband was on parental leave at the same time and we learned ML together. He played the biggest role. We teamed up in this competition. (I figured it was the only way not to violate the Kaggle rule: not sharing information privately outside the team. :p ) He was very supportive and we took turns: one person had to distract the baby when the other was Kaggling.

Did you ever have any anxiety that you’d have to choose between having children and having a career?

No, I like challenges. 🙂 Having children can be very inspiring. That gives you new ideas and makes you realize how little time you have and you want to squeeze value out of that precious little time. I hope to be a good role model for my daughter and let her know that you don’t need to choose between having a family and having a career.

On Mother’s Day, do you have anything to say to other mothers?

Happy Mother’s Day!! Oops, I meant to say “Embrace your passion, to have a happy kid, you need to be a happy and content mother.�