Catherine Breslin, freelance machine learning scientist

In our regular series, industry big knobs remind us of their first jobs


Hi, Catherine! Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Catherine Breslin, and I’m a freelance machine learning scientist. I’ve spent my career building machine learning technology, particularly voice recognition, at Amazon Alexa, Toshiba and Cambridge University. Now I work as a freelance consultant, mainly for start-ups.

What was your #MyFirstMcJob?

A kitchen porter in a pub in Darrington in West Yorkshire.

How did you get the job?

By phoning up lots of pubs and shops and seeing who were hiring. I remember I was very nervous phoning around because I was 15 or 16 and my mum said: if you’re going have a job, you’re going to have to ring up yourself!

What did you have to do day to day?

The main job of a kitchen porter is to wash the dishes. So there was a lot of washing dishes! I also helped the chef prepare the food, chopped vegetables, got ready for service and helped cook when it got busy. After a while I also started to wait tables and make deserts some evenings.

How long did you worked there for?

Almost two years, evenings, weekends and holidays, when I was doing my A levels.

What were the perks of the job?

I did get to steal a few chips before they made their way onto the plates! I got to wear a nice chef’s jacket and funky chef’s baggy trousers that looked like clown trousers because I was quite small.

What did you spend your first paycheque on?

There were only two clothes shops in my town — one of which was New Look — so I vividly remember buying clothes from there.

Did anything particularly funny happen?

There were always kitchen disasters, wrong orders, and burnt and undercooked food that wasn’t funny at the time, but probably made it more fun in hindsight.

What skills did you learn that you still use today?

I have a dishwasher now, so I’m a big fan of that! I can chop vegetables pretty quickly and cook big meals without too much stress. It taught me how to stay calm under pressure because serving food in a local pub can get very hectic.

Are you still in contact with any of your old colleagues?

The pub is still there, but I don’t have many connections to the area anymore and so haven’t been back to the pub since.

Why is alumni so important to you personally?

Keeping in touch with alumni wasn’t something that came naturally to me when I was starting out in my career. My field — voice technology — is very small so it’s a tightknit community, and I’ve ended up working with the same people at different companies. It’s important to keep that sense of community because a lot of the opportunities that come my way come from those acquaintances.

Why is alumni is important as a concept?

If you can cultivate a sense of alumni, there’s a sense of belonging. Some of my best bosses have really recognised that people move on because their career path doesn’t necessarily align with the company at the moment, but it might again in the future. The best bosses cultivate friendships, relationships and networking situations with ex-employees so they can work together again in the future.

What would happen if you went back and did a shift at the pub today?

I’d be so tired! It was pretty hard physical work because you’re on your feet, rushing around trying to get lots of meals out the kitchen.

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would you say?

I would pay more attention to networks, alumni and cultivating relationships earlier in my career, as these networks are with you for life. I would also have more confidence in what I’m doing. When you’re young, you might not feel like all the options are open to you, but if you push yourself to do things outside your comfort zone, opportunities come your way.





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