Ever wondered about the humans behind our leading artificial intelligence startup? Our new blog series is just for you. We’re excited to announce “A minute with…” where we give you a behind-the-scenes peek at the people working to provide you with world-leading AI solutions. That’s right: an in-depth, personal Q&A with some of the foremost minds in the world, telling us all about themselves and what they do!
Today, meet Ulas Bardak, our Vice President of Engineering. Ulas came to Clarifai with over ten years of engineering experience, joining from Whisper, where he previously served as CTO and Chief Data Officer. Before that, he worked as the Principal Architect of Personalization and Associate Director of Applied Research at a company called StumbleUpon and was a research assistant at his alma mater Carnegie Mellon University, where he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, as well as his PhD in Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing.
As Clarifai’s VP of Engineering, Ulas leads our rapidly expanding team of software engineers and machine learning engineers, driving new breakthroughs in Clarifai’s products while ensuring the ongoing quality and reliability of our platform.
What’s your story? What were your early years like?
Let’s see if I can summarize it really quick… I am from a tiny island in the Mediterranean with a population of less than a million (Cyprus). I lived there until I was 16 years old, got a scholarship through the Fulbright Commission and came to the United States to study. Then I spent ten years in Pittsburgh, PA at Carnegie Mellon. After that, I was off to Japan for three years, SF for three and a half years, LA for three and a half years, and now in NYC.
Growing up in Cyprus was nice – the weather is great (blue skies all the time), 15 minutes to the beach no matter where you lived, etc. It was also stressful though as I had to go through entrance exams for middle school and then apply to scholarships to the US later, so I think from three years in the elementary school on I always had a lot of tutoring, etc. I had to attend.
What does a typical day look like for you and what’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?
Usually, I try to be in before 10 am. I typically have lots of meetings regardless of the day though I would have fewer meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When I have time I mainly focus on hiring and current processes for the engineering team in order to identify what’s keeping us from being super effective.
Coolest thing I am working on – I touch quite a few different things, so it’s a bit hard to order them by coolness, but I will go with the hack day project I am working on at this moment 🙂
How would you describe Clarifai to a child?
“You know how some people need glasses to see because they can’t see otherwise? Clarifai is like glasses for a computer; it helps it see and understand the world around it.”
What advice do you have for prospective Clarifai candidates?
I would say get ready to work on some pretty cool, cutting-edge stuff that not many people (if any at all) have worked on before. Yes, it will seem chaotic sometimes, but things usually do when you’re working on things like this. As long as you remember to take a step back sometimes and look at the big picture and ask for help when you are stuck, you will do just fine.
What’s the essential leadership advice that you would give to a mentee?
“Engineers are reasonable people. You just need to help them understand how what you are asking for is not only good for the team or the company but for that engineer’s progression and growth as well.
What’s your most memorable facepalm moment?
Showed up at the airport the day before my flight to the US from Cyprus after the winter break, managed to get to Istanbul which was the first destination on the way then got denied boarding there and got stuck.
How do you keep a healthy work/life balance in startup life?
I started being more strict with when I leave the office so I can hit the gym as often as I can and more strict with when I go to bed – using actual calendar events to remind me now 🙂
What is the most rewarding thing about your job? What makes it all worthwhile?
For me it’s all about seeing my direct reports grow in their roles, learn how to be more effective, avoid burning out, and just, in general, be happier as a result.
What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?
I don’t have a car anymore, so this is a bit harder to do these days.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Granola/Muesli + milk
Top 3 highlights of your life?
Getting a job and living in Tokyo for three years
Meeting and discussing life with Desmond Tutu
Becoming the first person in my family to have a PhD
If you’re not at Clarifai, what are you most likely doing?
Spending time with my wife and our dog, Gavé likely watching a movie or reading a book.
What’s one question that you wish people asked you more?
“Can you tell me more about Clarifai?”
One leader that you admire & look up to and why?
Desmond Tutu – his message of “no future without forgiveness” resonates heavily in all areas of life for me. When someone wrongs you, you don’t need to forget about it but if you don’t forgive you will always be stuck.
Two truths and a lie.
I shook hands with Bill Gates
I used to sleep with the lights on because I used to read until I fell asleep until college
I have three sisters