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Celebrating the Women of Cape Privacy - Meet Ellie Kloberdanz

by Ellie Kloberdanz, Bessie Chu
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As an innovative tech company, Cape Privacy relies on a diverse and skilled team of professionals who bring their talents to a highly collaborative environment. Through that collaboration we are building a platform that protects security by default with a novel combination of secret sharing and secure multiparty computation.

For women’s history month, a number of our strong women talk about what inspires them about working in tech, how they overcame challenges in their careers, and their visions for what the future of engineering should look like. These fascinating conversations demonstrate the power of what’s possible when you build a diverse workforce that values the contributions of people with different perspectives.

This women in tech dialogue is between technical product manager and senior data scientist Bessie Chu and Ellie Kloberdanz.

Bessie Chu: where you from and where do you live now? Anything you want to say about your background? 

Ellie Kloberdanz: My name is Ellie Kloberdanz and I am a senior data scientist at Cape Privacy. I'm originally from Prague, Czech Republic, but I have lived abroad since I turned 18. I spent my last year of high school in Iowa, and then I went for my undergraduate studies to the UK and Austria, and then came back to the U.S. Currently, I'm living in the Des Moines, Iowa area. 

Bessie: Cool. How did you get into this career path? Were you always interested in working with technology? 

Ellie:  I actually first pursued a career in finance. I was quite interested in economics, and my mom is an accountant, so it felt like a natural career path. My undergraduate degree is accounting and finance, and after that I worked as a risk analyst in investment banking in New York. But observing my quantitative colleagues at my job, and also my husband, Kyle, who is a software engineer, I became intrigued by computer science and programming. That inspired me to go into tech.

I decided to learn how to code in my free time, and then to pursue a graduate degree in computer science. The first class that I took was artificial intelligence, and I immediately fell in love with it. AI became my area of specialty, and I ended up pursuing a PhD in it. 

Bessie:  That's super cool. I didn't realize that you made a switch from another career to technology, and I feel people who do that bring an interesting perspective. What inspires you about artificial intelligence, machine learning, data science? 

Ellie:  I really like the research aspect of machine learning and data science. It's inspiring because I get to think of and develop new ideas and methods, test them, and then implement them and facilitate their adoption in practice.

Bessie: What was it about Cape Privacy that you found compelling and made you want to join the team? 

Ellie: First of all, I find the problem that we're working on-–performing computations, and specifically machine learning, on encrypted data-–very exciting. It's a very interesting and challenging problem to solve from a technical point of view, and I'm always looking for something challenging to work on. So this definitely ticks the box for me. And also, I think that what we're working on is very compelling from a business point of view. I think that AI or any other data processing on encrypted data is a useful technology, and I want to be a part of developing it and bringing it to the wider industry. Finally, I thought that everybody that I interviewed with was very smart and an expert in their field, and it's very inspiring to be part of that environment and to have those colleagues. 

Bessie:  I totally agree. That's what drew me to Cape as well. If you were to talk about the most exciting thing in your work, how would you describe it? 

Ellie:  I really like that we're working on cutting edge technology, and bringing a brand new technology to the industry. And I really enjoy the fact that I get to build machine learning models and computations from the ground up for our encrypted learning framework.

Bessie: I totally hear you on that. It's really fun that we're able to go from nothing into something. You don't get to do that in a lot of work settings. And on that note, and with what we're all working on, what kind of impact that you could help bring about would bring you the most satisfaction? 

Ellie: I would absolutely love to be able to contribute to secure, privacy-preserving machine learning research. I really appreciate that at Cape we publish papers on our findings to contribute to the research community and society as a whole. So that's one. And then, of course, I would really like to be able to help Cape to establish our technology as the industry standard and facilitate the adoption of secure data processing in the cloud. 

Bessie: Awesome. I really hope that we're able to do so as well. I'm hoping that there are other women, especially young women, reading about what it’s like at a company like this. What’s a typical day of life at Cape for you?

Ellie: I usually start my day reading Slack messages. Since we are distributed across the world there are typically some messages from our European colleagues. I check my calendar to see what meetings are happening and see if I need to prepare for any, and then plan my day. I always like to achieve something every day, even if it’s a small task. So, I do this planning and then attend engineering meetings, where I get to learn what my colleagues are working on, and I get to give my update.

After that, I get to the actual technical work. Lately, I've been working mostly on implementing neural networks in our encrypted machine learning framework.

Bessie: What are your hopes for the future of machine learning and artificial intelligence research? 

Ellie: I've been thinking quite a bit about AI and its use in the industry, and in our daily lives. I really hope that AI research and applications will continue to grow and facilitate advances in the tech industry, and in people's lives. That's my hope. 

Bessie:  That resonates with me. I hope we can find a way to keep developing things that could be better for everybody.

Shifting to the topic of Women's History Month; women represent only 14 percent of the total software engineering workforce. I am going to guess it might be even less in terms of the hardcore research community. What was it that attracted you to the field despite there being few women in the field? 

Ellie:  You're right about that - there are not as many women in engineering and research, but I guess I didn't really think about it that way. I just knew that I really enjoyed math, and I enjoyed programming, so that's what attracted me to the tech industry. And what attracted me to AI research in particular, is that I can actually see practical uses of my research. 

Bessie:  That’s great. In terms of pursuing a career in tech, did you have any particular role models or people who helped you along the way?

Ellie:  I definitely had a lot of help and support from my husband, Kyle. He taught me many technical things and encouraged me to pursue a career in tech. And the same goes for my PhD advisor. She is very encouraging, and supports me being able to both work in the industry and also pursue my PhD research dream. 

When it comes to role models, there are a couple of researchers that I look up to. One of them is Ian Goodfellow. He is the leading researcher in the adversarial machine learning field - I read a lot of his papers. The other one is John Urschel. What I really admire about him is his work ethic - he was able to play professional football for the Baltimore Ravens while pursuing a PhD in mathematics from MIT. That is absolutely amazing.

Bessie:  It's great that your advisor lets you work in industry and also pursue a PhD, because I know that situation is relatively rare. But it's inspiring seeing people do a lot of different things. If a professional athlete can manage it, that’s a great role model. 

Ellie: Yes, whenever I'm feeling a little tired from balancing my activities, I think of John Urshel to motivate myself.

Bessie: What would you say was the biggest obstacle you faced breaking into tech and data science as a woman? 

Ellie:  The biggest obstacle for me was that I started off my career in finance, so it was a little bit challenging to break into tech from that. However, I learned how to code and took computer science classes in my free time, which helped me overcome this challenge. It can be difficult and tiring to go to work and then study afterwards, but it allowed me to get into a computer science graduate degree program. Graduate school really helped me to get the proper education and experience that I needed to get a job in machine learning and data science research. 

Bessie:  It's not easy to move from one field to something completely different. Given that context, what has been your overall experience since joining Cape Privacy? 

Ellie: Yeah, it's been great. I really enjoy my work and have great colleagues. I really respect them professionally, and I enjoy the environment they create. It is very high-performing and challenging.

Bessie: That's awesome. This year's theme for International Women's Day was Break the Bias, focusing on forging a more inclusive, diverse, and equal future between genders. What would you say is the most important action that needs to be taken to achieve this? How should it be taken by organizations, and how should it be taken by individuals? 

Ellie:  That is such a difficult question to answer. There definitely is a little bit of inequality between men and women in tech when it comes to how many there are, and also when it comes to pay. But I really don't know what's the solution to this question. I guess my approach, and the approach that I think organizations should take, is to focus on hiring a person who is the best for the job, regardless of their gender. That's easy to say, but difficult to do oftentimes. However, that's what I think we should focus on - hire the best person for the job, regardless of their background, gender, age, or race. 

Bessie: Given that, what advice would you give to a little girl who might be thinking about joining the rarefied air of being a woman in tech? What advice would you give to any woman trying to break into the field? 

Ellie:  I don't think that anyone should think about whether they are a man or woman. Just think about what you like. If you really like tech and science, go for it. My advice would be to focus on your education and on becoming an expert in your field. That's the philosophy that I have. I think that if you are good at what you do, and work hard at it, then nothing can stop you. 

Bessie: One last question to close out. Let our readers know a little bit more about you. What keeps you occupied when you're not busy working at Cape Privacy? 

Ellie: When I don't work on my PhD research, I enjoy going out for live music, especially jazz or blues. I also really like art. I enjoy painting, and I really like going to galleries to see photographs or various works of art. Also, I like to travel.

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