Dhanuka Nanayakkara: A mind behind AI

By Seth Robinson

The headlines of the science section say it all: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on the way, now the big questions are what AI will look like, and what it’s role in society will be? But what about the people behind the machine? What does it take to work in an industry run by futurists? We spoke with Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) and Master of Engineering (M.Eng) alumnus Dhanuka Nanayakkara to find out more.

Dhanuka began his studies in the BCom in 2011. He’d always wanted to be an engineer, but a broad interest base in mathematics and business inspired him to take on the BCom first.

“I've always enjoyed working on electronics or computers, and I was always really into Maths so I wanted to do a Commerce degree with Actuarial Studies and a Diploma in Mathematics. The plan was to work for a bit once I graduated and come back to engineering after a few years” he says. “The BCom gave me the chance to learn about areas outside of my specialisation like finance and economics, which was really interesting. You also get to be around some incredible minds at the University of Melbourne, they don’t exist everywhere.”

-Dhanuka Nanayakkara.

It was in his time at university, studying in the Bachelor of Commerce, that Dhanuka was given the opportunity to explore his options, and evaluate some possibilities for his future.

“I interned at Deloitte, then later at KPMG in 2014. After that I decided that I wanted to go straight into the Master of Engineering. KPMG had offered me a grad position working in strategy, but I really wanted to go on with engineering. After completing an internship at Woodside Energy while I was studying my master’s, I discovered I was really interested in working with Artificial Intelligence. I reached out to KPMG to say I didn’t want to come back to do strategy, but coincidentally, in the time I’d been doing my master’s, KPMG started a new team working on AI and technology consultancy. I spoke with that team and began working there when I finished the Master of Engineering. It was a winding journey, but I found it pretty awesome.”

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Ultimately, Dhanuka thinks it was the versatility of his background, and the range of skills he acquired over the course of his university education that secured him the job at KPMG.

“I think they look for people with my kind of background, who have done so many different things. At first glance, there are a lot of skills that don’t seem compatible. There are no natural overlaps between my degrees, but there are common threads like technical problem solving and working in fast-paced, dynamic environments, and learning to adapt to new challenges. The underlying core process is similar. I was also really passionate about the field, so all of those things came together and made it a natural fit.”

For students who are about to begin university or are already studying, Dhanuka has a few parting words of wisdom that might nudge you down your own awesome, winding path.

“As corny as it sounds, students need to believe in themselves. There are a lot of opportunities that come along, and you might think ‘I’m not ready for that, there are so many people who will be more experienced and a better fit,’ but when it comes down to it, no-one’s ever ‘ready’. It’s about giving things a go and figuring out what works for you, and university is the perfect environment for that. I was the president of the Global Consulting Group (GCG), which is the sort of student society that flourishes at the University of Melbourne, it's a place you can meet talented people. Make the most of those opportunities All the things I’ve done came from me saying ‘hey, that sounds cool, I’ll give it a go’. So that’s it. Try everything and find out how you can make it work for you.”