Actual Interview Text

There is an interview with me floating around the internet. It was modified quite a lot for publication on NYU’s site, especially in question #4; here’s what I actually said.

My Journey into Ad Tech

Interview with Aleks Navratil, Data Scientist, Collective, Inc.

What did you study in school?

I was an undergraduate double major in Engineering and Mathematics, and my graduate degree is in Mechanical Engineering.

2. But you’re a Data Scientist at Collective…how are those degrees related to what you do?

Computationally, the toolchains and techniques are very similar. During my graduate research, my title happened to be “mechanical engineer,” but I was really doing something very close to data science. I worked in an aerospace technology lab, researching things like the friction and wear of aerospace materials. And the computational tools used in that research area turned out to be the best tools for work with medium and large data, which is exactly what I do here. The only difference is that instead of an aerospace application, it’s advertising. The mathematics doesn’t know what it’s being applied to. It’s the same whether we’re counting ad impressions or turbojet compressor revolutions.

3. What was your original plan for your career?

During school I had a lot of internships and worked on a bunch of projects: startups, government research, tunnel boring machines, a Fortune 500 business, academic research, you get the idea. But I still didn’t have a set plan for my future. I figured the best thing to do was to talk to a lot of smart people who were excited about their work and who were having a good time while doing it. I wanted to be where they were. And pretty soon I realized I was cut out for computation science more than mechanical engineering. 

4. What made you want to get into Advertising?

Basic research is a long-cyle business, and I’m really better suited by temperament for more applied work. Had I stuck with University research, my work wouldn’t have come to fruition for 20-30 years. I knew that in advertising, my work would effect the business in real time. And for someone who has spent most of his life tinkering with machines in basement laboratories, it’s a very refreshing change to participate in our cultural narrative and to be relevant to the construction of the public discourse. Advertising shapes our lives so many ways, for better or for worse; it’s been very interesting to see that process from the inside.

4. What made you join Collective?

Collective was recruiting on campus, and they invited me to come in, meet the team, and see what their technology and culture were like. It was a great experience from square one, and I realized pretty quickly that the tech org was filled with smart people who had very rigorous technical backgrounds: physicists, mathematicians, engineers. People were (and are) very excited about their work and about solving problems in an elegant way. It had the laid-back, fun culture I was looking for. It felt like I’d find the computational and intellectual support I’d need to be successful working on interesting problems. But the thing that sold me the most was actually more philosophical than strictly technical. Collective’s tech org had a very particular design ethos, a sense of craftsmanship that pervaded the systems they’d built – much more Shigeru Ban than Jackson Pollock, with attention to detail in compositional balance and a keen understanding of the roles of minimalism and simplicity in good design. And it’s a real pleasure to work in an environment where everyone walks in the door knowing there’s as much art as science in technical work.

5. What advice do you have for students looking to join Collective?

The most important thing is to have the kaizen mentality, wherein at all times you view the current state of your project (or skills, or knowledge, or whatever) as a starting point for a process of improvement and growth. Your rate of improvement is more important than your current position. You should come with a positive outlook and be results oriented. Be relentlessly resourceful. Tolerate ambiguity in the specification of problems, and develop an intuition for when you can get away with the 20% solution that gives 80% of the results. Being comfortable with having detailed creative control of your work is a huge plus; we definitely aren’t one of those huge organizations who have a commanding officer telling you what to do every minute of the day.