Michael Barnathan

Polymathic Tech Entrepreneur

Michael Barnathan I'm a complex person, and I feel keenly the passage of time. By nature, this summary is going to leave many facets of my personality, skills, talents, and philosophies out. I'll try to paint a more complete picture in the following sections, but no number of words can completely characterize something as ineffable as a life.

That said, what do you want to learn about me?

  • Who are you?

    My name is Michael Barnathan. I guess you could call me a computer scientist, though that's sort of incomplete. I actually believe in doing many things to excellence while leaving a trail of accomplishments behind, and CS was just the deepest of many academic interests. I've had an interesting traditional CS career, including senior positions in leadership, engineering, and machine learning, a stint as a Senior Software Engineer at Google, a PhD in ML and computer vision applied to medical imaging, and many startups, one of which led to a rapid acquisition that partially emancipated me and enabled me to exercise a greater degree of discretion in my direction. Behind it all is the drive to make an impact on society and create a world closer to the ideal I envision. If I'm ever empowered to do so, I hope to one day start a university that will train polymathic thinkers at scale, unleashing a modern renaissance upon the world.

    I was born in NYC and spent much of my life in the northeastern US, but now live in Silicon Valley. So far my impression is nice mountains, nice weather, and lots of people running their companies into the ground in completely avoidable ways.

  • What do you do?

    It's varied over the years, in part because I constantly and deliberately seek out situations that will stretch my capabilities. I began writing software when I was 8 and released my first large scale successful app at 12, working on it after school hours. Since then, I've also learned several skills to professional levels of competence, including teaching, several branches of medicine (neuroradiology in particular due to my doctoral work), and most construction trades. Now, with over 20 years in software behind me, I spend more time managing teams of engineers and data scientists, and have generalized my approach in order to stand up large engineering teams to product launches really really fast. Twice I've directly recruited teams of 25 engineers and led them to launch a flagship project, all within 6 months, with everyone working happy, flexible, and short schedules. I generally accomplish this by radically cutting time overhead, closely managing project scope, and empowering my team members to make technical decisions.

    I sometimes apply this to entrepreneurship, where I last launched a startup to a 7 figure acquisition by myself in 8 months, scaling to survive two appearances on the front page of TechCrunch in the process. In total, my work has been featured in TechCrunch (x2), Wired, HackADay, EdSurge, Android Police, VentureBeat, and The Huffington Post. I've also published roughly 17 academic papers and gave roughly 10 leadership talks at colleges around the US. Many of these efforts are in diverse fields outside of computing, particularly medicine and education (which I believe are the fundamental things people need for human progress to manifest beyond access to food, water, and shelter).

    The fast speed at which I can operate as an individual, as well as assemble and organize teams, subverts assumptions. This has sometimes unsettled people who weren't expecting it; I operate best in environments where I'm given a mission and a complete green light to implement it as a result. The larger my area of responsibility and fewer gatekeepers I've had to haggle with, the bigger my impact has been on the organizations I've worked with.

  • What are your credentials?

    I've got a PhD in Computer Science from Temple University, applying tensor decompositions and wavelets to machine learning on medical images in 2010. I've held two Director level jobs, one at a ~1000 person company, and have managed teams of up to 75 people throughout my career. I was also a Senior Software Engineer at Google, working on Bazel and crossing over to three other adjacent projects. I graduated first in my college class, returned two years later to teach at the same college, and started 4 startups, of which two can be said to have succeeded. I managed a 10,000 player online game when I was 12, used REST two years before it was invented, and attained a 7 figure acquisition for myself in under a year. I've played my own compositions at famous concert halls, designed medical devices for monitoring breast cancer and parkinson's disease, and sold my nature and landscape photos commercially. I've founded two nonprofits, both educational.

    I have over 20 years of experience in software across the entire stack, 15 years of experience in machine learning, and 10 years of experience in engineering management. For more detail, see my resume.

  • Are you looking for work?

    I'm sometimes open to positions at or above the Director level - let's talk!

  • How about research collaborations?

    A lot of my research is in complexity theory, bioinformatics, and evolution from both biological and computational perspectives. I have a number of novel ideas in these domains which I've been pursuing over the span of years to decades. I'm open to collaborating with researchers who share the same view of doing great things over moderately long spans of time (and I'm happy to allow for checkpoints midway if needed to do so practically or secure funding; I understand the need for that).

  • Will you help me learn to code?

    I used to do this routinely, but I've become too swamped with these requests and too many of them recently are seeking entry into the workforce without a true passion for the field. I'm going to have to stop doing this for the time being, unfortunately. Thankfully, there are plenty of online resources you can refer to now.

  • What are your philosophical beliefs?
    • I am a nondeterminist and believe strongly in the existence of free will. Even in a universe governed entirely by deterministic laws, the universe is so large that it remains effectively nondeterministic because the number of possible states is overwhelmingly vast (there's no name for this, but “effective nondeterminism” sounds good).
    • Like Poincaré, I dislike formalism and believe intuition a more useful tool than logic (like any mathematician, I use both in tandem more often than not). I despise overcomplicating ideas or being forced to wrap them in meaningless, unnecessary, or unrelated prose, despite my prolix tendencies in general. In the current style of academic writing, this is unfortunately a necessary evil.
    • I believe that ideas are the most powerful things in existence, and that the existence of any idea, even an incorrect one, has worth because it brings us closer to a universal truth. Therefore, the only truly bad idea is suppression of other ideas. At the same time, I acknowledge that ideas are relatively perceived within the mind and articulated in reality through mental processes. This is what I call the “Panidealist duality” in my “Treatise on the Objective Reality of Ideas”. I even consider the physical universe a composition of an infinite number of abstract ideas, and consider concepts found within the physical world mere utterances of various subsets of these ideas (think “linear combinations of a basis”). This is not Platonic; the ideas are here, to be approximated as best they can by our senses and mind. I express this philosophy here, if you're interested.
    • I am generally a Renaissance Humanist and believe that specialists voluntarily limit their own nigh-boundless potential (which I am dedicated to nurturing wherever it is found), though my philosophy diverges on a few points. I don't think that expert proficiency requires specialization, but I do believe that utilizing one's full range of talent requires a thorough education - at least the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree - in multiple areas. However, in keeping with my general educational philosophy of “swiftly promoting the capable”, I believe that most can accomplish this in the 4-5 years already reserved for a traditional degree in a single subject if we aim higher and use the student's own goals as objectives.
    • I believe that one's accomplishments follow directly from one's philosophy (thus the breadth of what I've set out to do) and that both must ultimately be self-determined (thus my relative nonchalance on issues such as employment, receipt of awards, and how others perceive me in general). The actions that I take, the decisions that I make, and the skills that I possess are the most important determinants of my future. The rest is noise, and will average out with time.
    • There are three core Panidealist ethics that I follow: knowledge is an inalienable right, creation is the highest virtue, and choice is the root of power. Consequently, I value knowing, teaching, and learning and set these among my most valued goals. Creation is the act of setting knowledge into a tangible form and is the only way to contribute back to the knowledge base, and is therefore an activity which I value greatly. Finally, the ability to truly choose one's own path independently from societal expectations and physical instincts requires a great deal of stress to realize, but is the highest level of human development (see Positive Disintegration). Because true choice necessitates a highly developed value system and a consequent vision of how the world should be, leadership entails setting forth a vision and narrowing the gap between that vision and reality through action. This is how society advances.
    • I view education as absolutely foundational in nearly every area of life: Education allows for upwards class mobility, reducing poverty; it drives advances in medicine and agriculture, improving healthcare and quality of life and reducing hunger; it allows leaders to make better, historically informed decisions, promoting peaceful relations between nations and improving the general welfare of citizenry through effective governance; it enriches the arts, philosophy, and humanities, allowing us to probe more effectively our own natures and purposes; and – most importantly – it encourages dreaming and discovery. And yes, it gets you jobs, though I consider people who pursue it for that reason to be depriving themselves of most of its benefit, both by my standards and by their own.
    • I have a deep appreciation for nature. It gives beauty freely, placing no demands beyond one's own survival. I deeply respect both the beauty itself and the abundance of it despite the ultimate inevitability of its passing. I take comfort in the fact that demise and renewal often run side by side in nature.
  • What's with all of this “polymath” stuff?

    I'd like to be known as a polymath through my work one day, though I certainly don't currently merit the title.

    My thought processes most closely echo those of Henri Poincaré - like Poincaré, intuition rather than logic is my primary foundation of understanding, with deductive reasoning playing a strong supporting role but not a starring one. The universality of both my approach and Poincaré's is likely a direct result of this, and in fact, I strongly believe that anyone who is able to think in this way can learn nearly anything because intuition is intrinsically universal.

    Anyway, I believe that I've demonstrated that the pursuit of breadth does not entail a sacrifice of depth. Quite the contrary - the perspective that a multidisciplinary approach brings can enhance proficiency in almost any field of study. For example, I've used examples from photography to promote philosophical relativism (there is no one true photo of a tree; change the exposure and you get a different photo of the same object. Digitally manipulate the photo and it's still recognizable as the same tree, but it no longer appears the same way. The line is drawn in our perception, but our perception does not alter the fact that the object in question is still a tree, or might appear that way to others). I could not have derived this without studying both photography and philosophy. My philosophy in general also makes use of several linear algebraic principles, including ranks, bases, kernels, the rank-nullity theorem, spans, and images. Finally, I'm also doing some research that may link the fields of sociology and oncology: for all the laws governing city growth, and the lack thereof governing tumor growth, cities and tumors exhibit quantifiably common growth and texture patterns, and it is thus possible to use social theories in cancer research (and vice versa)! Most think these fields are wildly disparate, but they share a thread of commonality.

    Quite simply, no specialist could think of that. Specialists simply lack the required interdisciplinary background to make the connection. And even if an ambitious bimath were to notice the pattern and make the connection, he could not quantify his findings without a background in digital image processing.

    Despite this, the sad trend in our society is towards hyperspecialization. Even worse, most specialists tend to converge on whatever fields are “hot” at the time. Such things are invariably social constructs. In other words, the vast majority of potential fields of study are completely neglected because most people are focusing on a few “nifty” subfields (or those that are simply well-funded). Society is starting to acknowledge that interdisciplinary work is a good thing, but it proposes to perform it by assembling teams of specialists, none of whom have the background to completely understand what they're doing. Not only is there no synergy in such an arrangement, but the communication problems inherent in large team projects make this a very questionable practice to begin with.

    In my opinion, this needs to change, and the sooner the better. It's a better idea to broadly educate the individuals, especially because sacrifice of depth is not a necessary tradeoff. Thus I have made it one of my life's goals to see the implementation of Project Polymath, a plan for a new type of university with a heavily interdisciplinary curriculum. The ultimate goal of this extremely ambitious vision is nothing short of a second Renaissance.

  • How can I contact you?

    If you'd like to get in touch with me, you can email me at michael@barnathan.net.