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Q&A: Leah Abou Jaoude on Her Journey at BrainBox AI

At BrainBox AI we know that driving positive change starts with our people. In this Q&A series, we’ll be interviewing a few of our colleagues so you can get to know them as well.

For today’s iteration, we had the chance to speak with Leah Abou Jaoude, Manager of the Building Digitalisation team at BrainBox AI to learn more about her career journey, her proudest moment, as well as her adventures working from home.

Q&A: Leah Abou Jaoude on Her Journey at BrainBox AI

Q: To start, could you tell us more about yourself? Who is Leah Abou Jaoude?

A: I'm from Lebanon and I grew up all over the place. I first lived in Nigeria, then my family moved to Lebanon, and finally I came to Montreal to obtain my Masters from McGill University in Mechanical Engineering. I thrive in fast paced environments and I really like things to keep changing. I like to adapt to and constantly learn new things. That's kind of how I ended up here, at BrainBox AI. 

I live in Montreal without most of my family. I just have a brother here and some friends. It's a typical Lebanese lifestyle to have your family scattered all over the place. Most of us choose to leave the country to find new opportunities. It’s been challenging, but the life I’ve built here has been incredibly rewarding.

Q: How did you cross paths with BrainBox AI and what motivated you to join the company? 

A: When I was studying at McGill, one of the first things I did was attend the Career Tech Fair, which is where I discovered BrainBox AI. Straight away, I thought that the concept and the solution were super interesting. As a mechanical engineer, the part of engineering that I liked the most was HVAC-related (heating ventilation and air conditioning). I'm also very passionate about the environment and climate change and I really like feeling like I'm making a difference on a regular basis. The problem was that it always felt like it was something that had to happen outside of work or in my free time. When I found out about BrainBox AI, I was fascinated by the ability to combine work and what I'm interested in, aka: Mechanical Engineering and my passion for taking care of the environment. 

It helps to  feel like I'm making a difference every day . Everybody has had those days where they just don't want to go to work, but knowing that I'm making a difference really helps with that lack of motivation that can sometimes come up, especially working through a pandemic. 

Q: Tell us more about your academic background and your interests/expertise prior to joining BrainBox AI.

A: I did Mechanical Engineering and non-thesis masters, and my research project was actually about renewable energy. I focused on how to improve the thermal energy storage tanks that are used in solar energy power plants. You can see that most of my interests lie in pretty much the same direction as renewable energy. That's what I first thought I would gravitate towards. But then I saw that BrainBox AI was doing something equally as interesting, which is improving existing systems. With renewable energy you need a lot of capital to install new infrastructure. Honestly, if you look at the cost of a solar power plant, you’d probably faint. They’re very expensive. 

What BrainBox AI does, on the other hand, is fascinating because it tackles the demand side of the energy equation. Oftentimes, society is very focused on increasing supply through the production of more energy, usually cleaner substitutes like renewable energy. This is great, but if we don’t balance the equation it’ll all be for naught. In my opinion, when you're working on supply, there's never going to be enough, you know, it's the same concept with money. No matter how much you have, you can always use more, right? There is so much potential to make  existing systems more energy efficient, and ultimately help the climate fight.

That's what I liked about BrainBox AI. You're tackling the problem in real time, not just the future. You need a lot of years to build a power plant. You need a lot of backing, and a lot of capital. It takes a lot of time for something like that to become effective. With BrainBox AI, it’s effective in a couple of months. 

Q: You’ve had an interesting and quick trajectory at BrainBox AI. Why don't you tell us about your journey, where you started versus what you're doing now? 

A: I started in April 2020 and I was doing my Masters at the time. So, at this point I was working part time as an intern. For a long time, the Data Mapping team consisted of myself and the original team member and data mapping analyst, Donald. 

Fast forward one year, the team had grown to around 4 people, I graduated from my Masters, and I decided to join BrainBox AI full time. By September of 2021, there was a reorganisation of the Global Deployment team under Sandro Tiseo’s, VP of Global Deployment, leadership, and I was appointed manager of my team while Donald transitioned to Tech Lead. We were both able to go in the directions we preferred; mine was management and his was focused on automation. We continue to work closely with each other to improve our existing procedures and move towards automating more and more of the work.

Thanks to my leaders’ guidance and support, the transition was smooth and today, I lead a team of nine brilliant people. I was also lucky to work with gals and guys that were supportive and enthusiastic for this change.

Q: The Data Mapping team recently became the Building Digitalization team. You’ve had the chance to help transform your team to better match the company's goals and the client experience. What was this process like for you and your team?

A: There were several reasons behind the transition. We started off focusing on data mapping, but over time we realised that there was a lot more that could be done with the effort we were already putting into analysing buildings. The thought process was: what more can we achieve out of this effort?

We started by speaking with other teams including the Advanced Metering Integration team about potentially transitioning some of their tasks over to us, including the monitoring of power consumption of the equipment. Since we were already analysing what equipment was present in buildings, it only made sense for us to include the calculations of how much each equipment is consuming in terms of energy. It was a super collaborative effort with other departments, and we’ve figured out a great way to work in a more integrated fashion.

We also began looking at ways to become more integrated with the industry, and that is how we began implementing Haystack conventions in our buildings. Haystack is a convention whereby you apply tags to the data in a building, and its purpose is to move towards a consistent naming structure in the HVAC industry.

During the transition, we also realised that “data mapping” or “data analysis” was not representative of what we're doing on the team, and therefore, the full value of our work was difficult to explain to our end users. Transitioning the name helped outline all of the important outputs we were delivering, including data mapping, data normalisation, data tagging, haystack tagging, power consumption analysis, and more. I worked closely with Nathalie Benoit, VP of People and Culture, and with Sandro to pick a name that we felt best suited the team. 

Q: As a manager, how would you describe your team’s spirit and dynamic? 

A: Team culture is really important to me. I focus on it a lot and, in my opinion, we have a wonderful, collaborative culture. We're a very young team. I think we are on average the youngest team at the company. We’re primarily made up of fresh graduates either at their Bachelor’s or Master’s level and everybody on my team is like a sponge. They are so willing and so eager to learn. We are in constant communication and we’re always ready to help each other out.

As mentioned earlier, we recently started taking on more tasks. We're expanding our mandate on the team, what we do, and how we help other departments. My teammates are taking these changes wonderfully and I can really see their dedication and passion towards our mission. I would say that BrainBox AI propagates that passion throughout the whole company. 

Q: Your team is lucky to have you and so is BrainBox AI. After hearing your story at the company, I would love to know what your proudest moment at BrainBox AI has been. 

I think I have two answers for my proudest moment. On a more personal note, one of my proudest career moments at BrainBox AI was definitely becoming manager, mostly because I hadn't expected to take that role or that position so early in my career. Being offered that was a huge compliment for me, and it was very nice to be recognized by Sandro for the potential I have. It was great to have so much support and encouragement to take on this new role. 

My second proudest moment would be successfully transitioning my team from “data mapping” to “building digitalization”. It was a really big moment for us as we expanded our team objectives and became more aligned with the company’s goals. If we had been working in person at the time, there would have been big celebrations! We still plan to celebrate in person eventually.

Q: How has working from home been for you and do you have any tips for other professionals?

I started in April 2020, so I was on-boarded during the work from home period right after the pandemic started. To be honest, it was a great experience all things considered. I felt like we were still able to have that kind of interpersonal relationship you develop when you're in the office. We were a team of two at the time and we were in constant contact with each other. 

At the beginning of work from home, I really enjoyed sleeping in and not having to commute every day. We were mostly off camera and we didn’t have to worry about looking a certain way or being “office-ready”.

Over time, I realised that that was not great for my mental health and it was not working out well in terms of continued motivation. So, towards the end of last year, I made a change and I now go to the gym in the mornings before work. Maybe it’s a little off topic, but that is my major accomplishment because let me tell you, getting out of bed was not easy before that! 

Getting that movement in the mornings helps me come to my computer much more awake, and much more ready for the day. I also try to take regular breaks, especially “standing breaks”, to avoid sitting at my desk for 8 hours straight. I do hope that my effort to look out for my well being helps and inspires those around me to do the same.

Q: You recently took advantage of BrainBox AI’s famous “Work From Anywhere” policy. How was that experience?

A: The best part about working from anywhere for me is that I can simultaneously travel to see my family, visit new places and get some work done. As a person who lives far away from their family, all of my previous trips were usually dedicated to seeing them. I think a lot of immigrants living in Canada can relate to this. I wasn't able to visit new places, which is something that just rejuvenates your soul and recharges your batteries.

So, when work from anywhere was implemented, I was really able to take advantage and see my family while doing a bit of travelling for myself. I ended up travelling to Ghana for two months. Part of my time was spent with my family, who owns a farm there, and I also took a few days to explore new places. I’m a very family-oriented person as you may guess, so just being able to see them again, have breakfast together in the mornings, and chat with my brother during my breaks was amazing. In spending such a long time with them, I was able to settle in the routine of living with the family again, rather than constantly be the visitor from abroad. You can’t put a price on that!

Q: That’s about all the time we have today, but before we go, please tell us what were your top three places you visited while working from anywhere? Asking for a friend.

One of my favourite places we visited in Ghana was Mole National Park. We stayed in a large place called Zaina Lodge, located in the middle of the park, for about 4 days. Being that entrenched in nature was so serene. We also went on different kinds of safaris (walking and driving) and were able to see a plethora of flora and fauna.

My second favourite was our weekend trip to the beach. I'm a sunshine person, so you would be astonished about my choice to live in Canada! We spent time at the Blue Diamond Beach Resort and stayed in a cabin right on the beach, just a few metres from the water.

The third place would have to be the day-trips to the mountains. My father's farm is located between mountains in the East, so we'd have a lot of trips in that direction as well. As you can tell, I definitely took advantage and went all over the country!