Jenny Finkel BS'02
Chief Software Architect, Prismatic
“Having a solid computer science background was great preparation for almost anything and if it’s analytical, it’s even greater preparation.

One might say Jenny Finkel took a gamble when she signed on as chief software architect at a San Francisco-based data-rich start-up.

Fortunately, the New Jersey native has found herself knee-deep in a field that she felt well prepared to handle. And it doesn’t hurt that this six-person company just nabbed $15 million in funding from heavy-hitter investors. So far the gamble seems to be paying off.

“When you start to get attention, it’s like ‘game-on,’” Finkel says. “We have a ton of work and we want to deliver.”

At Prismatic, she gets to flex the computer science skills she developed as a student at Columbia Engineering.

“Having a solid computer science background was great preparation for almost anything, and if it’s analytical, it’s even greater preparation,” Finkel says. “It teaches you to think precisely, really precisely. It teaches you to think about, ‘What are the right questions I should be asking, and how do I find the answers to them?’”

After Finkel earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Engineering School, she went on to receive her master’s and PhD in computer science from Stanford. She also did postdoctorate work at both MIT and Columbia. Finkel had her sights set on being a professor, but the tug of returning to the West Coast and pursuing imaginative, technology quests won out.

“Software engineering is a really creative pursuit. You’re building something, and it’s not like there’s one way to build a program to do a task,” Finkel observes. “There are an infinite number of possibilities of how to do it. Your goal is to think: how can I build this thing that’s elegant and has all these features?”

Being the chief software architect at Prismatic complements Finkel’s background in machine learning and natural language processing. Prismatic makes and provides consumers with an application-based newsfeed that utilizes machine-learning algorithms to suggest news and other content to users based on their activity. But don’t think of it as a big data company.

“I actually don’t like the term big data,” says Finkel. “I see myself as a machinery person. A lot of what I do is data science. I don’t think anyone who looks behind the covers would look at [Prismatic] and think big data since usually that involves where you dump everything you possibly can into your database and then you have to run these big Hadoop jobs.” (Apache Hadoop is an open-source software framework for data-intensive applications.)

Finkel credits Columbia Engineering Professor Kenneth Ross’s Programming and Problem Solving class as a big influence on her career. Students got to work on open-ended research problems that didn’t have one set solution, and Finkel relished that problem-solving approach.

“It was the realization that I can actually do this as a job, and I can actually solve puzzles and write the code to solve those puzzles,” she says, adding that Ross encouraged students who liked the class to consider graduate school and pursue research.

“That class captured my imagination in a way that propelled me onto the next step,” says Finkel, “and I don’t know if it would have happened otherwise.”

—by Janet Haney