Time management from successful scientist – Interview with dr Björn Schuller

From when I have started my PhD, a few years ago, I have been impressed with the work and achievements in various areas of Björn Schuller. In short, he is Scientist, Engineer & Entrepreneur. His success is what I have always admired and have been curious about – How he manages all of that? During the INTERSPEECH 2017 conference, I had the chance to meet him in person and ask him a few questions on his self-management & time-management skills. The experiences he shared is priceless . Enjoy!

Dr Björn Schuller – Photo: World Economic Forum

Björn Schuller – Scientist, Engineer & Entrepreneur

Currently Dr Schuller is *Full Professor & Head of the Chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems, University of Passau, Germany; *Associate Professor in Machine Learning, Group on Language, Audio & Music, Imperial College London, London/U.K; *Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Co-Founder, audEERING GmbH, Gilching/Germany; and *Visiting Professor, School of Computer Science and Technology, Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin/P.R. China.

Merge your interests in your profession

“I think I am in a very lucky position to do what is my passion, to combine hobbies, actually hobbies, and profession. And once you do this, it never feels like you are working, and it drives you to the point to just want to move things.”

What is your inner motivation, the purpose of what you are doing?

“I think I am in a very lucky position to do what is my passion, to combine hobbies, actually hobbies, and profession. And I think that is the best you can have in your life, because once you do that, it doesn’t feel like a job, it just feels like that I have all the time to do what I love to do.

So in my case, I was a musician in the past, playing in all sort of occasions a lot of music, I love language and learning languages and talking to people, so it is all about communication, music and combining this with computer things. I was an incredibly geeky kid looking back at it. At the age of nine I started to program in Basic. I didn’t have a computer, so I ran to a friend and got his computer to be able to code while he was doing fun things (Comodore C64). So I started to figure that I can’t have the music play during the game I coded, so I needed to do it in assembler, and from my pocket money at the time bought me a “How to code assembler” book, so this is really putting together audio and computer into a profession.

And once you do this, it never feels like you are working, and it drives you to the point to just want to move things. Nowadays, it is a feeling that I want to get computers being able to understand the audio as well as we do. I see we are getting closer and closer, sometimes in a frightening pace, because we (i.e., the researchers working on this topic) will be unemployed soon, and that I would accordingly need to do “real work”, not what I love to do soon :D (smiles). Then again, if you look at ambient sound analysis, not speech recognition, or speech analysis so much, I think we are far away from being as good as humans are. So that is still a good motivation :)”

Code from scratch

Is it better to code from zero or to use toolkits in your research?

“I am always preferring to code from zero. Then you are the master of your own code, you know exactly what is going on inside and, more importantly, you have all the rights for the code, if you want to start business later. You don’t have third party dependencies. Third party dependencies can kill you, because software is always being updated (externally), and you have to maintain the interface with the other software. It is also vulnerable, because the licensing of a software may change. Maybe something is free for usage today, but tomorrow they are changing the licence.

Personally I very much loving to code from scratch.”

Handle collaborations by talking to people face to face

You have a lot of collaborations in different areas, how do you handle all the communication, and track what is going on which project?

“So I am very much believing in meeting and seeing and talking to people. You have these hundreds of emails coming in every day – you lose track of that. And also, in the email, it is often very difficult to get the right tone of the messages. And following up on this can be very very tedious or a lot of effort, because you have a lot of different emails from different projects, and when you read one and the other, and the other, you totally lose track of what is going on. So at some point, meeting people and just talking to them can be much more efficient. This is why I love conferences, coffee breaks at conferences, evening events! You really meet the people, and you talk and resync yourself. At some point, I didn’t  go to project meetings enough in my current feeling –  because it is a lot of travel. But now I realise how valuable it is to really just meet the people and talk face to face.”

He also adds that talking to people face to face in tele-setting has a similar effect and that it is much more effective than writing endless chains of emails forth and back or slacking, although you have to have that as well sometimes.

Do one thing at the time

How you focus on your work, how you manage not to be interrupted?

 „I believe in quality time and really putting everything aside.“

“I think it is a very, very important thing to focus your mind and to make one thing at the time. Otherwise, you are doing nothing right, and then, you have this low quality output on all ends. So it’s focus rather than to say ‘Today is my day to finish A-off or B-off’, and you do nothing else. So I believe in quality time and really putting everything aside. And this is what I actually do very aggressively, so I really shut off the Internet, to not get new emails coming in (during quality time) and so on, and write a paper or write whatever report or write a grant proposal or anything, and even on the larger scale, I was having semi-year’s of focus on larger scale. So there was a semi-year for funding, so lot of proposals were written, and a semi-year for journal articles, a semi-year organizing things, and so on.”

Develop your skill to focus

“If you have this focus, that does not mean that you do nothing else, that really means that you put emphasis on one thing”

 “And if you have this focus, that does not mean that you do nothing else, it really means that you put emphasis on one thing, and you gain a lot of experience in that and you get better, and you develop your skill in doing this, rather then doing 10 things simultaneously that are again low quality.”

This is the perfect advice for all junior researchers!

“It is great! In particularly for junior researchers. Because back then I didn’t have idea how to get a grant and I thought if I continue doing this workshop organization and writing papers and everything with the same priority I will fail in all of these, and thus put really focus in one year on grant, grant, grant, and that worked very nicely.”

Dr Björn Schuller at HIT. Photo: audEERING GmbH

Take care of your health

Dr Björn Schuller has been involved in sports since childhood. He finds it very important to take care of your fitness level and health in order to keep your mind clear, sharp, and creative.

More resources

Talk on World Economic Forum

More about personal and professional achievements of dr Björn Schuller can be found on following links: