Swarm Story

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Tim Santos

How Tim Santos builds AI communities

Director of Product for AI Cloud Solutions at Graphcore

When we think of gamechangers in tech, we tend to glorify self-made moguls or full-stack professionals who succeed by virtue of their sheer genius.

But Tim Santos believes that one person figuring everything out on their own is highly unlikely in a world of information overload and complex systems. “I believe it takes a village to raise a developer. The leading possible Big Tech companies you can think of aren’t a one trick pony: their secret is building strong ecosystems that rely on strong communities,” he told Swarm in a Zoom interview.

If you don’t believe him, just take a look at his rich tapestry of experience for proof. While Tim always had an inclination towards sciences and math from when he was a kid, he admits that his grandmother was the reason he took such a liking to it. “Back when I was in preschool, she would teach me how to do addition with flash cards. That’s when I realized I enjoyed it and formed a sentimental connection to it as well,” he shared. 

When he eventually pursued a degree in Electronics Engineering in UP Diliman, there was no targeted curriculum for AI at the time. Tim then took matters into his own hands: on top of the courses required in his curriculum, he enrolled or audited 10 to 15 courses in film, linguistics, foreign languages, philosophy, and even theatre – basically anything that struck his fancy. Collaborators from these different departments served as his support system, encouraging him to look into computational approaches into their specific fields and expand his interest in other disciplines. “Because of that, I had reached a fork in the road at some point, where I was tempted to shift. Should I go full-on into any of my other interests, or should I stick to being an engineer?” he recalled.

During his undergrad years, Tim stumbled upon a research lab that focused on digital signal processing projects. “Basically, you take analog sounds – lights, music, film – and you digitize it. It’s the core technology behind why we have TVs and cameras today,” he explained. Behind that initiative was the dean of engineering: a renaissance woman with two doctoral degrees in music and electrical engineering. “She was the one who showed me that I didn’t have to choose between engineering and all the other interests I had. It was quite prescient to think that those disciplines not typically associated with the engineering domain would eventually find its way into the digital space, and that's the world we're living in now,” he said. Had he not seen that possibility, he would have gone down a very different direction.

"It was quite prescient to think that those disciplines not typically associated with the engineering domain would eventually find its way into the digital space, and that's the world we're living in now."

Tim’s interests and talents were further cultivated by upperclassmen in his home department: “The grad students in the lab were really the ones who encouraged me and gave me feedback, they had the patience to help me improve my coding skills, and even held me accountable to pursue graduate studies. That’s where I learned that you could have the best, fastest, greatest technology but you really do need to have people to ask so you can build something new,” he shared. Surprisingly, he has never received formal coding or programming training: every tool in his arsenal that he uses to build AI infrastructures today is a product of tutoring from friends or his own tinkering around.

Exploring opportunities elsewhere

While most of his peers pursued careers in programming or the academe, Tim had an inkling something grander was waiting for him abroad. “I started getting digital signal processing projects overseas, which exposed me to the level of sophistication as well as the market for innovative, cutting-edge stuff,” he said. Armed with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a keen foresight into the future of the tech scene, he decided to pursue further studies in China and eventually made the United Kingdom his home base.

Mere exposure to the wide adoption of technology in other countries was an eye-opener for Tim: he remembers presenting a paper at a research conference in China, only to find military presenting their findings alongside a coffee shop in an adjacent session. Upon landing a position in London, he knew he wanted to achieve the same breadth, depth, and impact. 

Today, he’s the Director of Product for AI Cloud Solutions at Graphcore, where he enables developers and organizations to build and deploy their own cutting-edge AI models. "Basically, I identify problems: either those in the real world or in businesses. From there, I design potential solutions that employ a toolbox of technologies to solve these problems. The problems could be solved by any combination of tech, it just so happens that the toolbox I use to build contains AI,” he explained. 

"I design potential solutions that employ a toolbox of technologies to solve these problems. The problems could be solved by any combination of tech, it just so happens that the toolbox I use to build contains AI."

“For me, working overseas actually enables me to do more and give back [to the local tech scene],” Tim said. “The projects I work on impact the work that’s being done in the Philippines. In global consortiums on AI safety, where not all countries get invited anyway, I get to carry some of the concerns of the Philippines. If a company deploys an AI system that’s going to wipe out 100 to 200 jobs in back offices in the Philippines, other people won’t be able to represent this issue because they’re running a business.”

Uplifting local communities

Outside of his day job, Tim is widely known for his community-building efforts. As the leader of the AI Hive here in Swarm, he collaborates with some of the world’s most reputable and recognizable companies.

Just take a look at some of his projects for yourself: from implementing algorithms for Samsung to deploying AI models with HSBC, he and his team have extensive experience in the end-to-end process of delivering digital solutions. Best of all, he doesn’t believe in gatekeeping his work: he contributes to open source AI community Hugging Face, allowing other users to collaborate with him on his models and data sets.

It’s refreshing that regardless of where Tim ends up in the world, his practice is rooted in the distinctly Filipino value of community: while he achieves great success on his own merit, he doesn’t forget to look back and take the rest of us up with him. “I go back to the Philippines regularly and find ways to nurture my roots by working with people, using my skills, and helping in building the ecosystem like through my work with Swarm,” Tim beams, as one of our proud advisors.

While he believes that visiting home constitutes going on vacation with loved ones, he considers community work a different, enriching experience: “Do you really feel at home in a tourist destination or is it just a passing thing that you do once in a while? There’s no connection [to the motherland] that way.”

Recently, Tim made his way back to the Philippines for an AI conversation with Swarm, in partnership with DeepLearning.AI and Kickstart Ventures. Speaking before over a hundred key decision makers across esteemed companies is a pretty tall order for someone who only has 10 days to spare. But it’s something he genuinely enjoys and looks forward to. “Whenever I have the chance, I want to make time to work on an event,” he shared. Some topics he opened up include advancements in the field of AI over the past few years and different use cases in AI implementation, based on his vast international experience.

Images from AI in Action: How is AI Influencing Product Innovation & Operational Excellence?

As someone who has reached his level of success, all Tim wants now is to give back in any way he can. While he refuses to divulge his plans in detail (“Let’s just say it’s a secret!”), his pipe dream is to build a physical space where people can access the same level of mentorship and support he enjoyed.

“I haven’t ironed out the specifics yet but I just know I have to be doing something to help grow the space in the Philippines. I’d rather be part of the solution rather than just complain and wait for it to solve itself.”

Resources

AI Hive on Swarm

[Event] AI in Action: How Is AI Influencing Product Innovation & Operational Excellence? (In partnership with Deeplearning.ai, Kickstart Ventures, and Swarm)

[Fractional Podcast] Episode 9: Building AI products with business value | Tim Santos (Graphcore, EY, Teradata, Samsung)

Story by Angel Martinez
Angel Martinez is a culture writer, consumer researcher, and content strategist based in Manila, Philippines. Her work on the internet, identity, and their intersections has been published in VICE, i-D, Teen Vogue, and Vox, and commissioned by behavioral insights agencies like Canvas8 and Crowd DNA. She recently concluded a year-long fellowship at Kontinentalist, an award-winning editorial studio that bridges research and the public. Outside of work, she tries to read a book a week and taste every iced matcha latte with oat milk the city has to offer.

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Tim

, in a nutshell:

Director of Product (Cloud Solutions) at Graphcore, an AI unicorn

Award-winning expert who built on the cutting edge of AI since 2015

Zinc.VC Visiting AI Fellow

AI Hive lead

Currently based in London

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