How Franco balances being a university professor and Amazon Scholar at Prime Video
A week in the life of Franco Raimondi, an Amazon Scholar at Prime Video and Professor at Middlesex University.
Name: Franco Raimondi
Occupation: Amazon Scholar and university professor
Time at Amazon: Four years and two months
Location: London, UK
If you could have one superpower, what would it be? Convincing my wife that I need one more bicycle!
My name’s Franco and I’m an Amazon Scholar for Prime Video and Professor of Computer Science at Middlesex University, London. I grew up on Lake Como, Italy, and in the past century I obtained a degree in Physics from the University of Milan in Italy, working on computational fluid dynamics and numerical simulations.
After a short experience as a research assistant at Imperial College London (where I worked on simulations for airplane engines), I slowly shifted to the field of mathematical logic, which provides the foundations for the formal verification of complex and critical systems, obtaining a PhD in this area from University College London. After a few years as a post-doctoral researcher, I joined Middlesex University in 2009 and became a Professor in 2016.
I think that academics can learn a lot of good practice from industrial placements through the Amazon Scholar or the Amazon Visiting Academic programs
Given my interests in the area of verification, I leaped at the opportunity to join Prime Video as an Amazon Scholar in January, 2019. The Amazon Scholar program is designed for academics from universities around the globe who want to work on large-scale technical challenges while continuing to teach and conduct research at their universities. This was the ideal opportunity to apply my research to real-world problems and have an impact on millions of Prime Video customers. In my new role, I joined the Prime Video Automated Reasoning team to work on software verification (you can find out more information about this in our How automated reasoning improves the Prime Video experience article).
During this time, I worked with software developers and applied scientists to deliver solutions for improving the customer experience at Prime Video. Along the way, I learned how to bridge the gap between theoretical algorithms and practical implementations, managing goals and operational performance in parallel with scientific dissemination. I find that the Amazon Scholar program is an unparalleled opportunity that allowed me to retain my position as a university professor while also working for Prime Video.
In May, 2021, I reduced my hours at Prime Video and returned to Middlesex University to continue teaching and working in an academic setting (I am now the Head of Department for Computer Science), while continuing my collaboration with Amazon on a reduced schedule.
Here’s how my week went.
I’m an early bird, so I usually wake up at 05:45am or 06:00am. On weekdays, I go for a 30-minute jog or, if it rains too much, I do a bit of indoor training on my road bike (but cycling is mainly for the weekend). This is my usual morning routine and I use this time to plan for the day ahead.
I’m at the university at 08:30am and I start the day with a few individual meetings with people who report to me. We cover short and long-term objectives, teaching, research, and general support. Supporting colleagues is an aspect that I love about being a professor, but I also love learning about new directions and exploring collaborations both in teaching and in research.
After lunch I block two hours to complete grading my course (I teach a third-year university course on testing and verification), and then I attend final year project presentations for third-year students. I typically supervise students who work on my areas of interests: automated reasoning and artificial intelligence (AI).
To end the day, I go back to the revision of a journal paper that is due in two days… This was a hard paper, full of mathematical notation and proofs, and it took me much longer than expected!
Tuesday is dedicated to group meetings: we have a faculty leadership meeting where all heads of department discuss university-level business. Then I meet with the directors of programs to plan the delivery of our teaching. We look at student feedback and at the availability of staff to plan for the new academic year and to ensure a fair workload allocation. I meet with HR to start the recruitment process to replace a person who is retiring soon. Finally, I meet with the deputy dean for research and with the administration team to plan the inaugural lecture of a new professor.
I have a one-hour gap in the afternoon and I use it to start typing the review of the journal paper. People cannot believe that academics write papers for free (and, in fact, sometimes they pay to be published) and also do peer reviews of other papers for free! But this is part of the job of being an academic: we contribute to the creation and dissemination of knowledge; it’s part of our duties.
Before finishing off, I check my Amazon email and plan my meetings for the following day.
Wednesday is typically my Amazon day. In the morning, I have a few 1:1s with people in the Prime Video Automated Reasoning group and I read notes and documents from the previous week. At the moment, I’m focusing on new research directions for the future: multi-language and WebAssembly verification (WebAssembly, or Wasm, is a language used to run efficient code on any device type).
In the late afternoon, if I’m lucky, I can block a couple of hours to look at code reviews and do a bit of development of prototypes: I really enjoy building things!
I’m back at the university and tend to spend Thursday morning with my PhD students. Currently, one student is working at employing a digital twin for a robotic platform used for teaching. This is something that was developed by the student during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we soon realized the benefits: a digital twin is always accessible and there is no limit to the number of students who can use it.
Another PhD student is working at building a precise call-graph for WebAssembly. This is a very important topic of current research because a precise call-graph helps tracing the possible runs of a program and, therefore, it enables the verification of complex properties of software.
In the afternoon, I attend a validation event for a new program for next year. In the evening, after briefly checking emails and seeing if Prime Video needs anything, I join the inaugural lecture of an academic who was recently promoted to full professor: her work is in computer vision (CV) applied to medical diagnosis. This is a very exciting area with a huge impact!
As a senior manager, sometimes I do things that are not exactly considered standard for a computer scientist. This morning, I joined a team of architects to plan the teaching spaces for next year and I had to decide how to place walls, doors, and what kind of furniture and equipment should be used.
We have very successful masters courses at Middlesex University (for example, MSc Data Science, MSc Computer Science, and MSc Cyber Security and Pen testing, among others) and the interest in these is growing, so we need more space for the students. Then, I discuss with the coordinators of these programs to plan hardware requirements for these new labs and timetabling constraints, something that I will present next week to faculty leadership and the director of programs.
In the afternoon, I coordinate a departmental meeting where I introduce our three-year strategy and the department objectives for next year. When I took on my new role, I also introduced a feedback mechanism and this is definitely a big step forward with respect to what we had before.
I think that academics can learn a lot of good practice from industrial placements through the Amazon Scholar or the Amazon Visiting Academic programs: from frequent and anonymous feedback to meetings focused around the discussion of a document, I think there are plenty of processes in the university that could be made more efficient.
On my way out of the building, I stop in our new research area and have a cup of tea with colleagues. We discuss weekend plans: my plan is to go climbing with my daughter on Saturday with a couple of Amazon colleagues, and then spend Sunday with family, friends, and a cat we’re fostering. And, of course, cycling at 06:00am in the morning, as usual!
Thanks for joining my week!