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Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence Director of Engineering Michael Schmitz and his wife, Lia. (Photo courtesy of Michael Schmitz)

For Michael Schmitz, working at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) is arguably the best of all worlds.

Schmitz, who is a director of engineering at the Seattle-based organization, loves being able to marshal teams of engineers to tackle a problem, compared to the more limited resources and individual projects common in academic research. He gets to work on multiple projects at once. AI2’s goal is to make a positive difference in the world by creating tools for AI researchers, a mission that resonates with Schmitz. And it all takes place in the mossy Northwest, not far from family and his hometown of Everett.

“We’re an organization funded by (Microsoft co-founder) Paul Allen, who is an engineer at heart, and he was open to a company that had a strong financial investment and a good balance between researchers and engineers,” Schmitz said.

Schmitz joined AI2 soon after it launched in 2013. As a computer science undergraduate at the University of Washington, Schmitz had worked as a research programmer for Oren Etzioni, AI2’s CEO.

“As an early employee at the company, I’ve worn many hats,” Schmitz said. “I bootstrapped the engineering team when our company started, designed the early architecture of project Aristo, and led the engineering team on Semantic Scholar.”

Aristo is an AI system that can read, learn and ultimately reason about scientific information. Semantic Scholar — which earlier this week hired former Amazon Alexa engineer Doug Raymond — is a tool for academic literature research.

Schmitz’s current projects include managing AI2’s infrastructure team, which is focused on strategic investments, and the Beaker team, which is building a product for researchers to run and organize experiments in the cloud. Most of his time is spent on AllenNLP, an open-source research library that will allow academics and others in deep learning to more easily share their work.

“What I think is really motivating about working for the company is we’re very collaborative. We’re not competing with people internally, or even really with people externally,” Schmitz said. “People are passionate and that is contagious and makes it a great place to work.”

Keep reading for more from our latest Working Geek: Michael Schmitz.

Current location: “My office is in Seattle near Gasworks Park on Lake Union”

Computer types: “A MacBook Air because I walk with my laptop a lot”

Mobile devices: “Google Pixel”

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “GitHub. We started using it five years ago when the company began, and nobody has ever considered changing. We have pretty divergent technology stacks on different projects at AI2, but everyone uses GitHub. It has completely transformed how software engineers collaborate in the industry.”

Michael Schmitz’s lakeside workspace at Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (Photo courtesy of Michael Schmitz)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “I have a desk that’s right on Lake Union so it gets plenty of natural light, which keeps me energized throughout the day. Beyond that, my workplace is just a mess of paper that is periodically recycled in batch and I have a laptop, monitor, phone charger, headphones, wooden bowl and spoon, and a ceramic mug.”

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “Keep a list of what you need to get done each day, stick with a task until you’re blocked or it’s done, and don’t push off to tomorrow what you can get done today.”

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “I use Instagram a bit, but not for work. We use Twitter for company and project announcements, such as publications that win awards or new releases of our open-source software.”

Michael Schmitz, a Northwest native and engineering director at Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. (Photo courtesy of Michael Schmitz)

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “I currently have 1,363 unread emails, although that’s more because I have an unorthodox (bad) organization strategy for emails, not because I don’t read them. I have around 10 or so emails presently that I need to respond to.”

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “16 so far.”

How do you run meetings? “I send out an email laying out the motivation for the meeting and the agenda, as well as clearly communicating the action items at the end.”

Everyday work uniform? “If it’s cold out, a plaid shirt and jeans. If it’s hot, maybe a short-sleeve button down and casual slacks.”

How do you make time for family? “I just do it.”

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “Turning wooden bowls on a reciprocating foot-powered lathe.”

What are you listening to? “CBC Music radio (Rich Terfry), funk on 90.7 FM KSER (Saturday), and the roadhouse on 90.3 FM KEXP (Wednesday).”

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “Y Combinator”

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “I’m reading ‘The Collector,’ a biography of the Northwest botanist David Douglas, for whom the region’s Douglas fir is named.”

Night owl or early riser? “Early to bed, early to rise. I feel great in the morning, especially after a cup of tea. It’s not unusual for me to wake up and tell my wife ‘it’s a brand new day!’ She likes to sleep in.”

Where do you get your best ideas? “I develop most of my ideas slowly. I start by discussing problems with a diverse set of colleagues and then mulling over them in the back of my mind. Then, if I’m lucky, I get a great idea the first thing in the morning after waking up.”

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