Data and ping-pong: Meet Ilija, one of our founders

A SQL query walks into a bar, walks up to two tables and asks “Can I join you?”

/sad trombone sound/

Even though the jokes about data science are often as poor as a church mouse, our next interlocutor is not. Today, we are sitting down for a chat with Ilija Susa, a brilliant data scientist and one of the founding fathers of Content Insights.

He’s the one who came up with the first working version of CPI and gave it to Dejan so that his idea of creating a unique system that adequately analyzes content and writers could finally get some legs to stand on.

As they say, the ship is only as good as its captain, and our Ilija is as good as they come. If you ask anyone from the Content Insights team to tell you a thing or two about Ilija – you will hear that he’s a mighty fine skipper. He’s basically like Blackbeard if Blackbeard had no beard and sailed the internet instead of the seven seas. 

Ilija is a husband, a father of two wonderful children, and a seasoned data engineer with a lot of experience in the finance sector. Since he was a kid, Ilija was really into math and data. Today, he’s all grown up now (he’s freakishly tall like Gulliver) and he still spends most of his time dealing with numbers, but only on a much higher level. 

In this interview, we touched base with Ilija on a number of different topics – his career, management style, his interest in data science and data engineering, as well as his passion for ping-pong. The whole ping-pong part is a bit weird if you ask me, but hey – you can’t really tell your boss what he can and cannot say in an interview, so yeah – it is what is. But nonetheless, Ilija is an interesting fellow worth listening to.

Read the following interview to learn more about Content Insights’ Co-Founder and Senior Data Analyst: 

Hi Ilija. Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you end up in data science and what made you choose a career in this field?

I’ve worked with data throughout my entire career. The first job I got was a programming gig for a company that handles big data. My job description used to gravitate more towards engineering-type ETL assignments rather than science. 

For me, the thrill of working in an environment like that wasn’t necessarily that I had access to all these fancy tools and tech, but that I got to solve problems using those tools. I realized that I was able to help someone solve a complicated conundrum very simply, and there was something really motivating about being able to distill all that code into something simple. There was kind of a buzz to do that, and it’s what drove me to perfect my skills. But my first job mostly involved coding and I felt I could do so much more besides that.

So when we started with Content Insights, I applied those problem-solving skills through a mathematical and statistical lens. It was a unique experience because I have a maths degree and that was the first time I’d actually got to utilize the theories which I’d studied for years. Everything started making practical sense!

Around the same time, the hype around big data technologies really picked up steam. That’s when I became a true data science enthusiast. 

Can you explain data science to a total noob?

Nowadays, we are surrounded with copious amounts of data. Spice that up with a little maths and statistics and you’ll get data science. Voilà!

You’re one of the founders of Content Insights. From your perspective, what does it feel like to be one of the key figures in such a company? What do you find most challenging and what most rewarding about running a startup?

Of course, everything is much simpler when you are working for someone else. Such arrangements let you prioritize taking care of yourself and your family. But when you are one of the captains of the ship, you also have to take full responsibility for you colleagues, clients, etc.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t try to run your own business. On the contrary, I recommend it to everyone. Interestingly enough, if you ever got the chance to meet Ilija 20 years ago, you would probably think that this fellow would never be in a position to manage his own business – and yet here we are. So, anything’s possible… 

There are three key moments which hold a special place in my book ever since we started:

  • Finding out which clients love using your tool, so much that they become your advocates
  • Establishing our company culture, which, throughout all these years, was the greatest challenge because it requires much more tact and planning than business operations
  • Using all that knowledge we’ve acquired to give back to the community 

What does your usual working day look like?

Well, I start my day at 6 am by taking a long walk. That’s when I hold a one-man stand-up meeting, or a brainstorming session, or I find something to bicker about with myself. During this walk, I essentially plan out my entire day, which, as it turns out, is also the most important part of my day. 

Sometimes priorities, meetings, and other circumstances dictate that I have to reschedule things (which is why somewhere around 4 PM I tend to realize I haven’t done anything as planned. Oops!)

My work doesn’t stop even though I’m devoted to my kids during the afternoons and evenings. In my mind, I’m still doing a lot of planning and contemplating the tasks at hand.

I finish my day ten seconds before I go to bed around 11 PM. Alright, just kidding! A solid half an hour reading session is also compulsory before I hit the hay.

You currently work as a Senior Data Analyst, but you also help out a lot in the Data Engineering department as well. Can you tell us more about your responsibilities in Content Insights and share some of your special skills?

When you are one of the founding members, it is really hard to give an accurate description as to what it is that you do. Maybe it would be easier to make a list of all the things that I didn’t do. At the very beginning, it included everything – from toilet paper shopping, web programming, and HR interviews to coming up with (data science) algorithms. Yet as the team grew, other people started taking over some of my responsibilities. Now I’m pretty much left with data engineering and data science, which is my forte and the thing I look forward to the most. Someone else buys the toilet paper these days.

There’s a story going around the office that you’re a solid ping-pong player. Is that true? If it is, could you tell us more about how you got into ping-pong?

Finally, an actual question!

My love for table tennis blossomed some three years ago. Yup, that’s when I really started playing and everything just sort of escalated from there. “Solid” is a mild statement. I would rather say I’m excellent, if not the best. Sure, I mean, sometimes I let junior colleagues win, but that’s all for the sake of good sportsmanship and boosting their self-confidence. Think of it as one of the keen managerial skills that I possess. 

Do you follow ping-pong tournaments or is this a really stupid question?

That’s a stupid question!

Name four famous ping-pong players, I dare you.

What?!

Name four famous ping-pong players, I double dare you.

Well, if I exclude myself and if we view things from a local perspective (so Novi Sad, Serbia, and the region), then the names certainly are: Djordje Marjanovic (the back’end is his speciality), Milos Stanic, Dragomir Radovanovic and Vladimir Kravic. Those who are fans of table tennis surely must know what I am talking about. 

It’s well-known that the guys at Content Insights used to participate in local ping-pong tournaments. If I remember it correctly, we even had two teams in a local league. Could you share with us how all this started and give us a summary of your success in those tournaments and individual performances?

Last season was terrific for us. We started off with two teams and with the idea to make the best score as possible. In the end, when we added up the points of both our teams, we earned a solid 6th place out of 9 teams – and we also held our league ranking [bearing in mind that there is no other league beneath it]. 

This season, however, we have prepared a new tactic. We will merge these two teams by relying on the logic (or lack thereof) that “2+2=5”. Honestly, I can’t reveal any more details because of our competition, but a part of me still wants to tickle the imagination of our biggest fans who haven’t seen us in action for quite some time now. I certainly hope they’ll return to the stands to support us after this interview. 

Last, but not least: Do you have any advice to share for people who are just starting in data science?

Don’t be afraid of technology, tools, and their bombastic names. After all, everyone possesses the main tool for data science – and that is the brain. Yes, that’s all you really need to get you started. 

Thanks Ilija for sparing a couple of minutes to chat with us. Our Co-Founder & Senior Data Analyst will be attending this year’s Data Conference in Belgrade next month, so feel free to find him there and ask him anything that interests you about data science and data engineering.

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