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In a COVID slump? Algorithmia CEO Diego Oppenheimer is ready with a pep talk

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If you’re stuck professionally in a COVID-19 rut, Diego Oppenheimer, CEO of Seattle-based Algorithmia, is ready with words of encouragement.

“The way that I look at it, is just when things are hard, there is a lot of opportunity in that,” he said. “You can’t just ignore it. Understand that the situation is not normal, and sometimes you need to tread water. But don’t be shy about the opportunities that it might bring up. It’s a balance.”

Oppenheimer credits his family’s Jewish heritage and status as recent immigrants as factors that have shaped his drive to work through adversity and persecution. He recognizes that working from home — which he thinks is more accurately described as working from COVID — is challenging, but recommends that people to stay open to the positives.

Sometimes you’re going to be focused on surviving, and in other moments you’re learning and growing, alternating between the two, he said. “That’s not a bad state to be in.”

That attitude aligns with how Oppenheimer runs Algorithmia, a 58-person software startup that builds tools to help companies incorporate machine learning into their operations to increase productivity and efficiency as well as create new technologies. The approach seems to be working. The startup has raised a total of $37.9 million, most recently landing $25 million in a Series B round last year. And this year Oppenheimer was in the running for Startup CEO of the Year at the GeekWire Awards.

As a leader, he’s focused on making sure employees have the chance to grow and learn, that they’re getting something out of the job just as the company gets something from them.

“If you’re ever in a situation where you’re not growing your skill set, it’s a time to pause and look around,” Oppenheimer said. “There is likely a better place for you.”

Before co-founding his company in 2014, Oppenheimer was at Microsoft for more than five years, where he helped design, manage and ship some of the company’s data products including Excel, Power Pivot, SQL Server and Power BI. He attended Carnegie Mellon University, earning bachelors and masters degrees, the latter in information systems management and data analytics.

Oppenheimer is excited about the potential for machine learning to become ubiquitous in business operations, assisting in everything from improving efficiencies in basic functions like shipping products or managing customer relations, to groundbreaking work such as driving new drug development.

He recognizes that some people are impatient for AI to accomplish “out there” goals of functioning on par with human comprehension. But that overlooks how far the field has come and what’s possible today.

“Every year we’re light years ahead of where we were last year,” Oppenheimer said. And between now and when the moonshot of achievements are reached, “there’s a lot of really important stuff in the in between.”

We caught up with Oppenheimer for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: Mac and Windows (mostly for running Excel)

Mobile devices: Pixel

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: I essentially live in a combination of Keep (Google Notes) and Gmail. I still do a lot of my work in Excel (old habit) but I really like testing out new data tools, currently doing some of my data analysis in PopSql.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Like most, in times of COVID I am working out of the office in my house. I’ve moved my stand-up desk from the office home to stay focused. Usually my dog Borek is keeping me company, and I appreciate the windows to help keep track of time in the day.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? What works for me: Sleep just enough, drink lots of coffee and even more water. Always allow time for exercise somewhere in the day, and leave the weekends to catch up on sleep.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? LinkedIn. It helps me stay up-to-date with other companies and personas in the AI and ML world and beyond. It’s great to connect with potential customers, employees and partners and stay in the loop on current events.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? I use Inbox Zero, so ideally that number is low, but I’m probably hovering around 20 right now.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? This week I have 42 meetings on the calendar.

How do you run meetings? I like to be efficient and have an agenda beforehand to stay on track and on time.

Everyday work uniform? Usually I am sporting some form of Algorithmia swag.

How do you make time for family? This is hard during life in COVID, but typically traveling is the best way to spend time with my family. My parents live in Uruguay and it’s not uncommon to pick a destination to meet and experience together. I also make it a point to not work Saturdays unless completely unavoidable.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? The best way for me to unplug is playing for Seattle Quake Rugby. I am super involved in the rugby and LGBTQ communities in Seattle. Not only is it a physical outlet, I have a lot of close friends there as well. Lifting weights has been my stress reliever for years.

What are you listening to? More often than not Carl Cox (a British house and techno DJ) is playing in the background. On the podcast side of things, I’ve recently been turned on to “What Happened Next” by a coworker. It’s an invitation-only weekly call with academics and experts across economics, industry, medicine, history, literature and more to discuss the pandemic’s implications.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I am a bit of a news junkie and checking into news sites is usually what I do first thing when I wake up. I’m a big fan of Google News. I use Hacker News on and off and Towards Data Science.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “The Devil in the Kitchen” by Marco Pierre White is what I am currently reading.

Night owl or early riser? I’m a night owl. I have to force myself to get to sleep. I usually am awake until at least 1 a.m. every night or later if I need to be. I wake up at 7 a.m. during the weekdays. The weekends are for catching up.

Where do you get your best ideas? I get my best ideas from the people I surround myself with at Algorithmia. Intellectual curiosity is my favorite company value and I seek it in every team member at the company. I also have regular catch-ups with founders (usually on Sundays) and that’s always a source of inspiration for what’s happening around me. If I need to focus, the gym tends to my thinking spot.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I am super intrigued by the work style of top chefs. It’s the combination of maniacal perfection and intensity while still being open-minded to wild creativity — feels like they are from a different planet. I’ve read a lot about Marco Pierre White, Anthony Bourdain, Ferran Adrià.

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