Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Brightloom’s Jacqueline Nolis wrote the ebook on methods to turn into a knowledge scientist

Jacqueline Nolis. (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Nolis)

Jacqueline Nolis hasn’t just made a career out of working in data science, she wrote the book on making a career in data science.

Nolis, a principal data scientist at Brightloom, leads a data science team that helps restaurants improve their marketing with data. She’s been at the restaurant tech startup, with hubs in Seattle and San Francisco, for eight months, but she’s been a data scientist for 15 years.

(Manning Publications Image)

Our latest Geek of the Week has worked with many different companies, including Boeing, Airbnb, and T-Mobile, and she has a PhD in optimization — “I did research into how electric vehicles should find routes to charging stations,” she said.

She loves what she does so much she wants to help more people break into the field.

“I recently co-authored the book ‘Build Your Career in Data Science’ with my friend and data scientist Emily Robinson, specifically for people wanting to become data scientists or grow in the role. We also have a new podcast with the same name.”

At Brightloom, Nolis is helping to create a set of machine learning models that choose the best offers to share with customers. After almost a decade of consulting she wanted to find something a little more stable than working from client to client.

“I liked the opportunity Brightloom provided by having such an interesting data science problem to work on,” Nolis said. “Since we’re such a new company not much has been decided yet so I get to help people understand data science better and make informed decisions.”

Nolis’ geek cred includes winning the reality TV show “King of the Nerds,” in which 12 contestants competed in nerdy contests. She’s into hiking — but not too aggressively — and spending lots of time with her son. For fun, she likes doing watercolor and oil pastel art.

A Seattle waterfront painting by Jacqueline Nolis. (Courtesy of Jacqueline Nolis)

“Art is just a really nice change because I can focus solely on what I’m doing right at that moment,” she said. “With data science I have to constantly be thinking about how each decision is going to impact the next 50.

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Jacqueline Nolis:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m a data scientist and I’ve helped many different companies use data to be better. I’ve done things from analyzing data with statistical models to help businesses make complex decisions, to creating machine learning models that run in production and are hit a million times a day by customers.

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I really like working at Brightloom because it’s thrilling to be at a startup. We have a great team of data scientists who are collaborating together to build a cool product. It’s also great that due to our company size, I don’t have to base my decisions on the whims of an executive so many levels above me that I’ll never meet them.

I wanted to be a data scientist before the term even existed. During my Masters I heard that there were people who used math to solve business problems and that just sounded really cool. In my head I would get to be in an important business meeting with people in suits at a large oak table. While they’d be too busy discussing “business politics” I would bring out a chart of data and make them all impressed and listen to me. It turns out that’s not quite like what data science actually is, but it’s not wildly off either.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I think people hear data science and think of a person who uses magic to take spreadsheets of data and finds secrets within it to run a business. You give a data scientist a big dataset, the bigger the better of course, and they will find something useful to do with it. And the more complex the math they use on the data, like neural networks, the more accurate the results.

In practice, data science is more about coming to data with a clear objective. A question a data scientist might answer is “among all of these customers, who is going to come back for another purchase?” It’s not that data scientists are better at understanding human behavior (generally the people who have made a lot of purchases will make another), but instead a data scientist can do this calculation across millions of customers at a time. A data scientist also has to spend a lot of time communicating with other people — you don’t just do math in the background, you have to know how to collaborate with others.

Where do you find your inspiration? Social media, mostly. I primarily use the programming language R for doing data science and there is a welcoming and vibrant community of R users on Twitter. I also follow a lot of artists on instagram and that’s a great place to draw inspiration for my art.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I absolutely adore my Surface Pro laptop. I take it everywhere I go and I like to use the pen to doodle. My toddler son also loves using the pen to write the Russian alphabet which is a nice bonus.

(Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Nolis)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? As a data scientist, I have to spend a lot of time on Zoom calls. Since I have to look at a picture of my own face all day, I want it to look good, and so my workspace has three lights surrounding me for optimal lighting. One of them is a circle light.

Besides that I have three different computers with me (two laptops and a PC), a kindle and a recently purchased Nintendo Switch. I also have three keyboards, and one is in Russian. The Russian one is for my toddler son, Amber — he loves alphabets of foreign languages.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I’ve been taking a lot of walks during the quarantine and it’s helped a lot. I happen to live in Issaquah, Wash., which means if I walk in any direction I’ll start walking up a mountain. So I suppose that means I’ve been into hiking, too.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I use Windows on a day-to-day basis and periodically use Linux for particular projects (or when I’m using Docker). I only use Macs under duress.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I am so devoted to the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot that I have no choice but to answer with Commander Adama. I have a massive oil painting of the Galactica hanging over my fireplace. So say we all.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? I don’t have many places to sneak into, so there is no practical use for the cloak of invisibility. The time machine seems like a temporal paradox waiting to happen. By process of elimination I suppose I’ll take the transporter.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … For several years I co-owned a small consulting firm. It was really rewarding but also very difficult because if you couldn’t find more work you’d be out of business. With $1 million I would try to do that again, but more relaxed this time.

I once waited in line … all night in the cold to get a Wii the day it launched in 2006. It’s less geeky because it wasn’t even a Wii for me, but it was more geeky because it was one for my college’s Game Development Club.

Your role models: Having lived in Seattle, I love our local activist Nikkita Oliver. She’s doing so much to try and help the Black community and the city as a whole. She has had to deal with a lot of hostility in Seattle City Hall and she keeps going. I’m just constantly inspired by how difficult the work she is doing and yet she still stays with it.

Greatest game in history: In an unusual answer I would say the mobile game “GRIS.” It’s a beautiful little game you can beat in two hours, with amazing visuals and music. It’s a story about a person experiencing grief and has helped me in hard times.

Best gadget ever: Crossfire Rapid-Fire Game.

First computer: An NEC desktop in the early ’90s. I remember it came with 1.5gb of hard drive, but when we got the computer half of it was already filled up.

Current phone: iPhone SE 2020. I had an iPhone X that had an unfortunate run-in with a swimming pool recently. Otherwise I would have waited for the iPhone 12.

Favorite app: The Starbucks app.

Favorite cause: Being trans I feel pretty strongly about trans rights. I’ve been lucky enough to have a career and life that hasn’t been as inhibited by me being trans as that of other trans people. I don’t think this should be a problem that trans people should ever have to deal with.

Most important technology of 2020: The vote.

Most important technology of 2022: The vote if we still have it.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: If your projects are never failing then you’re not trying to do ambitious enough projects.


Twitter: @skyetetra

LinkedIn: Jacqueline Nolis

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