As an avid field hockey player, Nicolas knows a lot about teamwork. Together with his team the Director of Data Science at Bertelsmann Education Group creates machine learning-powered software applications that help students and job seekers be more successful in their careers. Having studied in Rotterdam and London, he is now based in New York. When everyone had to work from home during the pandemic, he set up his desk on the fire escape stairs of the house where he lives. After all, extraordinary conditions call for extraordinary measures!
What did you do before you joined Bertelsmann?
I studied International Business Administration in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and finished with an undergraduate degree.
When and why did you decide to join Bertelsmann?
More than once. The first time I joined Bertelsmann was for an internship in the Corporate Strategy and Controlling department in the fall of 2014. The Corporate Center in Gütersloh was ideal for me as I wanted to learn more about Bertelsmann and all the different companies belonging to the Group. After finishing that internship, I took a stint at getting to know another company and then rejoined Bertelsmann in the summer of 2015. This time it was for an internship with the Education Group’s Mergers & Acquisitions department in New York, and this turned into my first job. After three years I left for London where I completed a Master’s degree in Computer Science, only to return to Bertelsmann a year later, now leading a data science team.
Did you ever think you would one day have the job you have now?
At the very beginning of my career: no, because I very much focused on business. But once I had completed my Computer Science degree: yes, I wanted to have exactly the job that I do today.
How would you describe your job to your grandmother?
I would tell her that I lead a team, and together with that team I create software programs that help students and job seekers be more successful in their careers.
What makes your professional life exciting?
It’s the many things I work on that couldn't be more different from each other. Any given day I could be involved in developing machine learning algorithms or building consumer software tools, supporting M&A transactions or helping our businesses improve their cyber security standards. That's definitely a big plus. My work on Bertelsmann’s Tech and Data Advisory Board, headed by our CFO Rolf Hellermann, is also very exciting. It helps me understand how Bertelsmann adopts new technologies and enables me to contribute my thoughts on how to make Bertelsmann future-proof, for example, with respect to the Metaverse. Finally, I'm part of a group called Team 2030 that advises our CEO Thomas Rabe on emerging trends. In that way, we help him to position the company for the future. It is the scope of tasks that I'm involved in that makes my job exciting.
"It is the scope of tasks that I'm involved in that makes my job exciting."
Has there ever been a fork in your career path? Which way did you take?
In 2018, I had to decide between pursuing an MBA degree course and doing a Master’s in Computer Science. I went for the latter because I wanted to round off my profile by adding these skills. I was also really curious about how computers actually work.
Which of your skills do you want to expand?
Entrepreneurship and creativity are the core values of Bertelsmann. What do they mean to you?
As a member of this organization, you need to have room for new ideas. But ideas are just the starting point. A company also needs the willingness and the firepower to put them into practice. Bertelsmann has all of that – a lot of people with a lot of great ideas, the room to develop them and the money to let them become reality.
How do you try to find balance in your life?
I travel a lot to see places I've never been before. I also exercise a lot – healthy body, healthy mind, if you will. I go for runs, play field hockey or tennis, meet the guys in the park for some soccer or spike ball – the best game you could ever want to play. And I surround myself with friends who inspire me and make me laugh. That's all the balance I need.
What makes a good team player?
Having played field hockey my entire life, I learned that you need to understand your own value as well as that of the team. What do I, what does everyone else contribute? When you understand that, you can support others when they need it most and bring your own qualities to the team. In the business world, sharing knowledge also makes a good team player.
"Bertelsmann has a lot of people with a lot of great ideas, the room to develop them and the money to let them become reality."
What makes a good leader?
A good leader is able to inspire and lead by example. Good leadership requires regular feedback from those who are being led. That's where a lot of leaders tend to fall short. You must always want to improve yourself. And you must recognize and highlight the achievements of your team as theirs instead of your own.
What makes a company truly responsible?
A company acts responsibly when it puts people – whether employees, customers or consumers – first, takes responsibility for them and acts according to transparent values. A company should also be socially and ecologically committed and act sustainably.
Who or what inspires you?
I am inspired by people who are able to capture an audience. I loved the Michael Jordan documentary that came out a few years ago, reading Barack Obama’s book or watching Steve Jobs’ product presentations. I admire them all for what they did to change the game.
What matters to you as you create your own career?
When I'm interested in what I'm working on, when I consider it to be a cool problem, I am pretty good at finding a solution. On the other hand, when I have to solve a problem I don’t find very interesting, I don't work as well. What matters is therefore to keep finding and solving really interesting challenges. That’s important to me and will help me grow.
"I have a passion for education, for teaching others and making them grow."
Which of your passions do or will play a major role in your career?
I have a passion for education, for teaching others and making them grow. That’s why I joined the Education Group six years ago. And that’s why I spent a year in the Dominican Republic teaching English and math to children. This, together with my passion for sustainability, will determine how I choose my future jobs.
Which skills will be essential to you personally in the future and how are you planning to develop/enhance these?
As I said earlier, there are many things I would love to understand in greater depth, particularly those that I work on. I want to understand them right down to their atomic parts, if you will, because then I will fully understand what everyone on my team needs to be working on. It’s like breaking up a big challenge into smaller ones.
When you create a consumer product that needs to not only market well, but also leverage an AI algorithm to function well, it's not enough to just direct everyone in their respective fields and let the marketing team do their bit while the software engineers do theirs and the data scientists do something else. You need to be involved in all of these areas to be a sounding board. Only then can you be a better partner and manager for the overall team.