Wild Geese: ‘I have been angling towards this position all my life’

Katherine Bailey, principal data scientist at Acquia headquarters in Boston

Katherine Bailey: “The theoretical underpinnings of machine learning and the implications of it are what fascinate me.”

Katherine Bailey: “The theoretical underpinnings of machine learning and the implications of it are what fascinate me.”

 

Katherine Bailey is the principal data scientist at Acquia, a company that provides software services including leading cloud platforms for building, delivering and optimising digital experiences for a range of global organisations.

Acquia’s customers include the BBC, Nasdaq, Johnson & Johnson, Stanford University and the Australian government, and Bailey has spoken at some of the world’s largest technology gatherings including Acquia Enagae 2016, DrupalCon Portland 2013 and DrupalCon London 2011.

While some people leave Ireland and find themselves in a particular place and settle there, building their life and developing their career, Bailey left Ireland and found her home within a company.

“Yes, I never thought about it like that before but that’s true, I have been incredibly lucky and I feel like everything I’m working at now is exactly what I’m meant to be doing,” says Baily. “I have taken a winding path to get here but I have been angling towards getting to this position all my life.”

Having studied marketing and languages in Dublin City University, Bailey worked for a short time in marketing in Dublin.

“I realised pretty quickly that marketing wasn’t for me,” she recalls. “My husband and I moved to Vancouver in 2007 and I started working in a local software development company. I had been interested in machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) for years, particularly some of the philosophies behind AI. I started attending open source Drupal meet-ups and I began to get more involved in that community.”

In 2011, Bailey joined Acquia as a software engineer. As well as learning on the job, she began taking more courses and moved into data science within the company, becoming principal software engineer and later site factory team lead.

“I love the mathematics and science that’s involved. I couldn’t get enough of it to be honest and I read everything I could get my hands on. The theoretical underpinnings of machine learning and the implications of it are what fascinate me.

“People have a tendency to be over impressed by machine learning and there’s a lot of hype about it at the moment. I think we need to distinguish between when machine learning is interesting and when it isn’t.”

Machine learning

Bailey became so passionate about machine leaning and AI that, in 2016, she approached Acquia to start a machine learning team and she assumed the role of principal data scientist.

Bailey now leads Acquia’s machine learning strategy and has driven the company’s shift towards integrating contextualised capabilities into its products and helped to bring competitive web features to their clients.

“Data science is a very broad field and, while there’s an increase in tech companies, there’s a huge shortage of professionals in machine learning,” she says.

“I think Jennifer O’Connell’s recent article in The Irish Times did a really good job of cutting through the hype of AI. Some of the most successful technologies that people might be familiar with are image recognition and voice recognition software or self-diving cars. Those areas are blossoming at the moment. However, we shouldn’t forget that these are being created since the 1980s and we have made huge strides since.

“But the possibilities of AI are not limitless. There are constraints and I think there is sometimes a lack of awareness of that.”

According to Bailey, understanding what’s possible and what’s not with today’s AI technology is essential.

“If you’re not sceptical enough about certain claims being made, businesses could waste a lot of money. However, if you’re too sceptical you could risk missing out on opportunities in extremely profitable ways.”

Bailey and her husband lived in Vancouver for six years before moving to Montreal, and then Tucson, Arizona.

While living in Tucson, Bailey started a data science meet-up which now sees hundreds of academics and data scientists coming together each month to share ideas and best practices about machine learning and AI.

“I was very lucky that I was able to work remotely for Acquia through all those years,” says Bailey.

Now based in Boston, she works in Acquia’s headquarters there.

“It’s the right place for me to be for the work I’m doing now. The Boston area is a real hub for this area of data science at the moment. There’s a lot of communities like the Boston AI meet-up group and there’s a lot of research happening in MIT and Harvard.”

Having developed a reputation as a leader within the industry, Bailey writes her own blog as well as contributing articles to TechCrunch, Backchannel.com and Dzone.

Katherine Bailey will be speaking at the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) annual conference on May 19th in Boston. Her talk is entitled, “Baffled by Brilliance; Machine Learning as the next great UX challenge”.

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