GeekWire’s Monica Nickelsburg featured our very own Mike Christensen in Geek of the Week:
Mike Christensen is a life-long software engineer — a career that began remarkably early. While most of his kindergarten peers were mastering their ABCs and 123s, he was programing his first computer to count to 10.
When he was 18, Christensen began working for Microsoft as a software engineer. After his 11-year tenure there, he began pursuing his passion for machine learning.
“I spent three years trying to teach a computer how to understand recipes; what they taste like, if they’re sweet or spicy, would you make them for breakfast or dessert, what ingredients you’d need to buy, etc.,” he said. “This involved natural language parsing and artificial intelligence.”
That startup, KitchenPC, didn’t find the right fit in the consumer market, and Christensen decided instead to open-source all the technology behind the project. He now works for data solution startup BoldIQ. He balances his highly technical work life with CrossFit, hiking, and travel.
“I love nature, and I love helping elephants. (I’ve adopted about 20!) I’ve hiked everywhere from the Pacific Northwest, California, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, Peru and Hong Kong,” he said. “I have a hiking bucket list a mile long.”
Meet our Geek of the Week, and continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What do you do, and why do you do it? “I’m currently a Senior Software Engineer at BoldIQ. We optimize things – in other words, we take your problem, look at all your data, take into consideration all your constraints and then use software to figure out the optimal solution. In aviation, we can find optimal crew schedules that eliminate unnecessary flights. In ground transportation, we can figure out what order you should pick up and drop off packages. We can continually optimize these scenarios as conditions change or new data comes in.
I do this because it lets me explore so many different and fascinating industries. I also think as businesses scale, a lot of unnecessary waste is created. This waste can have an adverse effect on the environment. Plus, when the engineer in me sees something that’s inefficient, I can’t help but want to fix it.”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Data is messy! So many problems could be solved in an elegant and straight forward manner, if only the data was clean, accurate and organized. A lot of the problems I face involve teaching a computer how to interpret what a human probably meant, and not look at things as either a zero or a one. Most frustrations people have with computers or technology can be traced back to different ways of thinking. As technology truly integrates with our daily lives, I think this will be the number one problem to solve.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “I’m a UI geek. I’m always checking out futuristic user interfaces in movies, and I’ve been known to try to emulate them in my own products.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “My smart phone. I have no idea how I got through 30 years of my life without one.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “Lots and lots of monitors. Both at work and at home. I also keep my desk immaculate and free of clutter. I work best without distractions.”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Find hobbies that balance out the technical aspects of your job. My love of hiking helps prevent my life from becoming too one sided. Getting in touch with nature allows me to see the earth as a whole.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “As more applications move into the cloud or become web based, I see less and less distinction. I use all three.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Picard. I believe Voyager would have been a single episode under Picard’s crew. Ok, maybe a season finale cliff hanger.”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter for sure! I think of all the places I could travel to, mountains I could climb, and restaurants I could dine at. Plus, I’ve already had a Cloak of Invisibility; I call it my high school years.”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would: “Investigate the viability of using unmanned aircraft to stop poaching and protect endangered wildlife.”
I once waited in line for: “I tried to get Mariners postseason tickets in 2001. The media was there, pretty much making fun of everyone crazy enough to stand in line. I never did get tickets.”
Your role models: “Bill Gates – one of the smartest men alive, and he created an entire industry. There’s a lot of billionaires that just want to see how rich they can get. Gates is devoting his life to eradicating disease, eliminating third world poverty and improving education. He’s using his geek skills to accomplish all of that.
And, Nathan Myhrvold. Sure, the patent system is screwed up and this guy takes full advantage of it. However, he’s a polymath of da Vinci caliber. He not only started Microsoft Research, he’s been everything from a paleontologist to a world class barbecue champion. He’s searched the skies for extraterrestrial signs of life, created lasers that can zap mosquitoes and researched geoengineering techniques to end global warming.”
Greatest Game in History “Tetris. It’s a deceptively simple game with an absolutely fascinating history.”
Best Gadget Ever: “TiVo/ DVR has changed the way we watch TV. Time slots have very little meaning anymore. I’m also really loving the Amazon Echo (I now own two). It’s the first device that’s actually made me feel a real human interaction with a computer.”
First Computer: “TI-99/4A. Though I was never cool enough to have the ‘Extended BASIC’ add-on.”
Current Phone: “Nexus 6. I find the Android platform much more open and configurable. I can get things working exactly the way I want, though sometimes it takes a bit of work. The Nexus doesn’t have a lot of the ‘bloatware’ associated with manufacturers like Samsung and HTC.”
Favorite App: “GPS Navigation, such as Google Maps. It’s gotten to the point where it works so well and is so seamless, we forget how much awesome stuff is going on behind the scenes.”
Favorite Cause: “David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. They rescue orphaned elephants and help combat poaching in Africa.”
Most important technology of 2015 “The Cloud. We’re now finally seeing devices as a commodity, and real innovation happening on the back end.”
Most important technology of 2017: “Mining an asteroid would be pretty cool. I think this will be key to eventually building large objects in outer space. Another technology I’m interested in is self-driving cars, which I think will come in several stages. Eventually, I don’t think there will be a need for everyone (or even most people) to own a car. There will be a network of cars, some owned by companies such as Uber and some owned by private individuals. You’ll be able to lease time on that network for your transportation needs. After your car drops you off at your favorite restaurant, it will drive around tending to other passengers and then pick you up when you’re done. Things like parking will be a thing of the past, and only an exact number of cars will need to exist to meet demand. Concepts such as ‘rush hour’ will also be made obsolete, as this network can be optimized intelligently. In fact, BoldIQ has some real potential to make this a reality.”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Connect what you are truly passionate about to what you are good at. Don’t focus on what jobs will make the most money, or your career will turn boring.”