Ilona Melnychuk, Product Manager on Painting & Long-Distance Running

What I love the most about Painting is that it has taught me to see colours, shapes, and nuances in the real world that were not visible to me before. I also love painting because it teaches me to be patient when working on a detailed piece that will take months, if not years, not finish. You don’t get the instant gratification of finishing a piece in one day. It comes together little by little with hours of regular focus. It’s similar to being a Product Manager and building a product. It takes constant building and many iterations to create a delightful piece of work.

My name is Ilona Melnychuk. I am Ukrainian-born Irish in terms of origin, and I feel lucky that I was able to grow up in such different cultures. Professionally, I’m a Product Manager (PM) of AI/ML products and I enjoy the challenges that this work brings. I’m also excited about the potential of being able to contribute to thought leadership in product management, as it’s a relatively new field.

I currently live in London — I moved here from Dublin after graduating to start my new job in technology. I was happy to go to any big city where I’d have a job that I enjoyed. It was a good choice. London has been great: fast and multicultural and lots of opportunities to develop my career and hobbies.

I feel like I became a product manager through a series of fortunate events, and some luck, and I’d like to continue developing my skills within it because if you’re good at it, you can make a real difference to people. I think that if product management was easy, then we as humans would have already solved most hard problems (like poverty, disease, and crime), and have moved on to establishing a society in space and solving problems there! But we haven’t, so the potential is huge. It’s also quite a nascent profession, where there are a few amazing leaders, but there is still room for more thinking, guidelines, and principles. As technology evolves, it opens up the possibility to solve problems in new ways — a PM needs to adapt and lead when solving these problems. I hope to contribute my thinking to some niche areas of product management where I can share where I’ve made mistakes, where I’ve learned, and created methods to overcome challenges that can be reused by others.

Outside of work, I’m curious and love to learn, so I have quite a few hobbies from DIY to sports to art. However, the two that are the core of who I am are Painting and Long-Distance Running.

Since primary school, I liked painting and art. During my year in Paris in 2014/15, I took classes in classic oil painting — since then, I’ve improved my skill significantly and developed a new appreciation for it. It may sound easy, but I learned to really see shapes, colours, and tones that I didn’t have the skill to see before. When I paint, I push myself to see past what is clearly visible, which takes effort and focus. This makes me even more excited about painting, as I feel I’ve unlocked new areas of possibility.

I think there’s something beautiful or thought-provoking in most art. I love going to art exhibitions, even to those where I don’t know the artist or their work, to learn and to see things that I may not have gravitated towards before. One artist may inspire me by their shapes, another may have used black lines in a nice way, and another may provoke my thoughts with a radical use of colours. We recently visited the Guggenheim in New York, and I discovered Kandinsky for the first time — I was really taken with his use of colours and lines. I’m eager to try to create some pieces inspired by him, which would be a huge change from my current project, a copy of a classic portrait by Largillière.

Because my current project is a copy of a Largillière painting, the technique and the outcome were both already set, and I am learning to do it as Largillière would have. In the first stage, I traced very rough proportions onto the canvas to help with the fact that it’s quite large. Then, I painted the whole painting in a brown colour with shading, which is called a camaïeu. This serves to highlight the light and dark areas and helps colours to have stronger light or dark shades when you eventually apply colours. Then, you apply colours in many layers. The technique is what Renaissance artists used. Funnily enough, it reminds me how Photoshop works; both work by adding lots and lots of layers. I must have over 30 layers in certain areas of the painting — with each layer, the portrait becomes more realistic, the skin becomes more alive, and the scene gains more depth.

I’m particularly proud of this Largillière portrait — it’s the first time I got formal teaching in fine, oil painting and realised the power of formal instruction. I’m proud that I was able to learn how to paint portraits with realistic skin, eyes, lips, and ears. Now when I go to art museums, I can see portraits in a new way and I’m not intimidated by the skill. It’s all just technique and practice, and anyone can develop it with teaching, practice, grit, and (of course) an interest in it.

Looking at my other activity, I also get a thrill out of Long-Distance Running for its sense of adventure. I’ve been running since primary school, both with my local athletics club and by myself on Sundays. I was never very fast and I couldn’t understand how people could do cross-country distances or anything over 5km without stopping. Then, I moved to Paris in 2014 and was invited by a friend to come and join a group called Let’s Run Paris (LRP) to run 10km. I thought I’d never finish 10km without stopping, but I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, I ran the 10km and really liked it. Then, I joined the Saturday long runs and ran my first 15km, 20km, 29km … and recently, the longest I’ve run was a 50km race. I was able to train and run these distances purely because it was in a group, like a wolf pack. This changes everything. You run faster and longer, and it’s so enjoyable. And of course, you see beautiful, new places and connect with the city or place you’re running through. One of my favourite things to do on a Saturday is a long run. I see my friends, I feel the city, and my body is all kinds of happy afterwards. And then, I look forward to the next one.

The most rewarding thing for me about running is the feeling of power and autonomy. You can get so far and so quickly to a lot of places with just your legs. My partner and I love to run to visit new cities. We get to see a lot of sites without figuring out transport routes. We can just point and run, and the feeling is amazing. I feel that we really connect with cities this way, both by seeing what’s going on and by connecting with different neighbourhoods. You realise that most cities are not so big and are quite ‘conquerable’. So overall, my mentality to run is for fun and to discover new cities; I’m always just happy and impressed with myself for finishing and having fun, not for getting certain times.

One achievement that I’m proud of was running in a five-person team race and coming 3rd out of about 90 teams. This two-day race was in the Alps — because it was a team race, I pushed myself so hard and breathed so heavily that I got a hoarse throat. During these two days, I absolutely blew the expectation of my limits. If my perceived limit was 100%, it felt like I got to 180%. I felt very proud that I was able to push myself this hard and have one of my most memorable and powerful running experiences. It helped that we were in the Alps, which may have played a role in me being breathless most of the time!

With running, I’d like to do more races in cities and places where I’ve never been before: Rome, Valencia, Vienna, all of Eastern Europe, Korea, and Japan. Running, feeling the city come alive with supporters, and passing 42km worth of sites and beautiful scenery — it is all quite special.

I think both my passions and my profession have been beneficial to each other. Painting and Running have taught me grit and long-term thinking in my product work. As with painting, building a product requires building on many layers — first, you make an outline of the product and its objectives, then you test your riskiest assumptions that could make the product fail, you build a simple version of the product, get feedback, and iterate with many layers. It’s very much like painting because you can’t expect to see results immediately. You’ll see them in time and after many layers. It’s the same with running. To run a marathon, you probably won’t reach your objective of running a certain time or enjoying the experience by training over a few weeks. Product, painting, running: they’re all long-haul games. They’ve also taught me to enjoy the whole process; otherwise, I wouldn’t do well in them. The medal, finished painting, or product is just a memory of the experience.

My advice to anyone interested in painting & long-distance running is to just do it. Something that’s been observed in human psychology is that children are a lot more likely to throw themselves into activities and not be concerned with the result. As adults, we seem to become less likely to jump into activities, learn from doing, and make mistakes. I suggest that if you have anything you’d like to do, including running or painting, just do it and don’t start by labeling yourself as a bad runner or artist. Just do it for the experience of doing and learning something from it. Marathon running may not be your thing, but you may enjoy a 2km run. You may think that you’re not good at painting, but you may just have a laugh at painting a rock with patterns and colours. Try things out and see which version of it suits you.

Finally, I’d just like to say that there is always more than tech. I really love what Otia Magazine is doing by showing the other sides of technologists. I’m an AI/ML product manager on paper, but no two of us are the same. There is another world of connections that people can make between each other and traverse cultures, genders, and races. Let’s take the example of running: because I have this hobby, I now can connect and have a common understanding with anyone in the world who runs. We don’t even need to be able to speak the same language, but we’ll understand each other. The more we are able to show all the different parts of people, technologists and beyond, the more connections we can create. This will drive both empathy, so that we’re kind to each other, and innovation, so that we can solve more complex problems and make the world a more interesting place.

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