Geek of the Week

Kaskada knowledge scientist Charna Parkey likes to work in areas that may ‘dramatically change the world’

Charna Parkey is the data science lead for Seattle startup Kaskada. (Photo courtesy of Charna Parkey)

Growing up, Charna Parkey was always the “tech person” in her house. In high school she started getting IT certifications, and by the time she got to college, she took as many engineering classes as she could.

On a referral from a professor, Parkey, who grew up in Florida, landed her first job when she was 19, at a small startup in the defense industry. The professor had introduced Parkey to signal processing, which she quickly realized was the intersection of everything she wanted to do.

Ten years after starting in defense, Parkey got her PhD in signal processing.

“I moved to Seattle and jumped into the startup world, starting with a senior software engineering role at Textio,” Parkey said of the augmented writing startup. “Over the next four years I was lucky enough to gain immeasurable experience, starting our customer success engineering discipline, then account management, and customer experience as the VP of customer success.

In her last year with the company, she served as Textio’s applied scientist.

“When I was considering my next move, I was considering founding but met the VP of product at Kaskada, Emily Kruger, and I was fascinated that they wanted a data science lead on a product team,” Parkey said.

Founded by ex-Google engineers, Kaskada’s software is geared primarily toward enterprise companies outside the tech world that still rely on some form of data science for their products. The startup wants to make it easier for the two main roles involved with machine learning products — data scientists and data engineers — to work together.

“I had always been product adjacent so this was a new discipline to learn,” Parkey said. “Finally I found someone building a product for data scientists — by centering the data scientist.

“Plus, I like to work in areas that can dramatically change the world and the way we interpret it,” she added. “That could be signal processing, data science, or machine learning. One key component of these areas is addressing human problems and how we measure and represent people.”

When she’s not working, Parkey considers herself “a collector of hobbies.”

“I love learning new intricate things from how materials interact in woodworking, robotics and construction, to watercoloring or using fibers to create beautifully woven blankets,” she said.

Learn more about our latest Geek of the Week, Charna Parkey:

What do you do, and why do you do it? As a data science lead at Kaskada, I have three parts to my job.

  • One part is defining what we should be building right now and working with our developers to design solutions with a deep understanding of the data scientist’s needs when they build.
  • The second part is around connecting with and building the data science community. I do a lot of speaking engagements and public writing on key issues in our industry. We have to be having conversations to have a chance to solve these problems.
  • The third part is working directly with our customers as a data scientist. When we have someone who is using or might want to use our product, I work with them to understand the ML models they’re trying to build and how to implement them with Kaskada’s end-to-end feature engineering platform.

I joined Kaskada so I could not just solve individual data science problems, but the problems that every data scientist runs into when they’re trying to solve problems. How do we enable data science, not make data science behave like a different discipline.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Data science is ultimately a human problem. It’s not a data problem in isolation. When we remove time, or how the world changes around us, or our analysis or representation of people, that’s when we make mistakes.

Where do you find your inspiration? My mom grew up in a huge family, and finances were always a concern. She had me promise when I was young that I would never have to rely on someone else’s money so I could make my choice of partner based on who someone is and whether or not I wanted a family. From there I just kept going down the path people said I shouldn’t go down.

I had some amazing teachers whose support helped get me ahead, but I also had teachers and other people who constantly said I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. When I started taking high school IT certification classes, I walked in and the professor handed the books to my brother. When my brother said, “I’m not taking the class, she is,” the professor looked at me and said, “you can’t, you’re a girl.”

For a long time my drive came from proving people wrong. Then I had to get out of the survival mindset and find my other drive, which comes from really wanting to make an impact with the work I’m doing — empower individual people to understand the impact they make on other people, not just the business impact.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I just bought a house last year, and the first time I introduced a gas stove in my kitchen — it was like, what have I been doing my entire life without one?? I knew I’d like it, but I didn’t realize what a difference it would make.

(Photo courtesy of Charna Parkey)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? With the pandemic, I’ve been working primarily from my art studio a few blocks away. That’s where I keep everything that’s not home-related. My computer is also set up there, and it’s usually covered with a tarp so I don’t get sawdust or anything on it. It’s also where I collaborate with local artists to reimagine how they can create art with technology. We’ve done things like a robotics installation of an inverted pendulum that responds to you — visually it can “see” you and if you move, it moves.

It works for me because I’m surrounded by creative people in my friend group who think differently — architects, nannies turned musicians, multimedia artists. When I’m in the middle of trying to figure out something in the world that might require change, we talk about it, throw it around the room and work it out. We use sticky notes, draw on the walls. Even now, I can walk there, and it helps me transition from home to work and back.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) 1. Therapy! 2. Boundaries and communication. Set them, enforce them. Something is always on fire, and there’s no being “done” in this world. Trust me, people will be happy you have boundaries and communicate them, it’s so much easier.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac.

Favorite superhero or sci-fi character? Current favorite is Grogu. I’m looking forward to the next season of “The Mandalorian.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … pick my dream team, put them in a room and facilitate a session about what we should go after. I don’t want to solve an individual problem I’m interested in.

I once waited in line for … groceries. We’re in a pandemic 🙂

Your role models: a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others. I often hear folks use the term as a box to place someone in or a pedestal.

I like to think of each interaction with people as possible moments for inspiration. For me, this allows me to be inspired by someone in a moment in time without the need to put them on a pedestal in my mind that requires them to be a “role model” in all parts of their life for a long duration.

I’ve been inspired recently by my mother in the pandemic and how she has found beauty and peace in gardening and other activities when she couldn’t be with others, including myself. Children, before they have restricted their behavior by society, are particularly inspiring today.

And of course, people in my community, coworkers and leaders often inspire me as well. And people like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Amanda Gorman, Mae Jemison, M.D., and Vice President Kamala Harris inspire me every day when I get to read about them or think about the path they’ve walked.

Greatest game in history: “Invisible Sun” by Monte Cook Games.

Best gadget ever: My iPad Pro with Pencil.

First computer: It was a DOS-based computer, and I played some sort of text-based game where you could go into a certain mode with different colors.

Current phone: iPhone 10.

Favorite app: Hue — it connects to the lightbulbs in my house, and lets you set “scenes” like “arctic aurora” and “sunset.” You can even upload photos from a vacation and it will set up the same lighting mood.

Favorite cause: Instead of a cause I’ll highlight two nonprofits working on intersectional causes in Washington state. The two I think about are TAF and Got Green.

  • Technology Access Foundation (TAF) is a Seattle-based nonprofit leader redefining K-12 public education throughout Washington state for all students and teachers, particularly those who identify as a person of color and are from traditionally underserved communities.
  • Got Green organizes for environmental, racial, and economic justice as a South Seattle-based grassroots organization led by people of color and low income people. They cultivate multi-generational community leaders to be central voices in the green movement in order to ensure that the benefits of the movement and green economy (green jobs, healthy food, energy efficient and healthy homes, public transit) reach low income communities and communities of color.

Most important technology of 2021: The machine learning models that helped with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Most important technology of 2023: If it were possible, I’d love for it to be something around climate change. I think instead it will be around a method of monitoring the impact of AI on people. Right now people have to catch companies — for instance, with photo apps, sometimes friends are bucketed in with photos of gorillas. I think someone will find a way to third-party monitor these things and expose it for the general public.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Stepping away from the things that have become your new normal is even more important than it was pre-pandemic. Finding creative ways to have moments of awe — whether it’s in nature, listening to profound music, or watching something that lets your brain remember that whatever is going on in this moment is small in comparison to the big picture. This will help more in achieving your next goal than anything else.


Twitter: @Charna Parkey

LinkedIn: Charna Parkey

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