This is a part of a series of posts introducing team Iggy. Meet Luke Zachmann, data scientist, former ecologist, and mountain biker!
Talk to me about your background - how did you get here?
My background is mixed. I was an English major originally, and pivoted to environmental science and biology later in college. In graduate school, I got interested in quantitative / computational ecology and testing ecological theory using historical observational data, experiments, and computer simulations. I worked as an applied ecologist at Northern Arizona University for a couple of years, before co-founding a company called Conservation Science Partners in 2012. We had a tremendous amount of success over the last 10 years, but I was feeling ready for a change in focus.
Working as a research scientist, I saw the power of the big planet-sized datasets we work with here at Iggy. My central professional passion has been, and continues to be, modeling and model building. I'm interested in understanding where models perform well, and where they don't. At least in my career, spatial data have always been a non-negotiable aspect of building better models. So I was thrilled to bump into Iggy online and discover that they were doing a lot of the same things in a different application – the fit was there from the jump.
Without using complete sentences, can you describe what’s going on in your life at the moment?
Continually learning to be a dad. Gardening. Podcasts. Riding bikes. Decluttering our home and lives, generally.
If you could choose a career besides the one you have now, what would it be?
I've always really liked carpentry and enjoy building furniture.
Where’s your favorite place in Los Alamos?
I have really fallen in love with our little ski area, it's about 10 minutes from home and it's called Pajarito. It's a mom-and-pop type place – they run one to two lifts. Skiing in winter, but in the summer it’s all about mountain biking. It's a community gathering place. You'll bump into your friends and other families up there. Those unplanned connections are fun. The view of the valley between Los Alamos and the Sangre de Cristos is sort of jaw dropping. It drops probably 5,000 or 6,000 feet to the Rio Grande valley. Lots of empty desert beneath big mountains as far as you can see. At sunset, the sun casts long shadows, and the badlands are brilliant pink and orange, it's a special spot.
What quality do you most admire in someone else?
Humility and a sense of humor. Maybe these are just different words for the same thing?
If you could eat only three dishes/meals for the rest of your life, what would they be?
Al pastor burritos. Any Thai food. Waffles.
What’s your favorite clothing item you own?
This is silly, but arm warmers, which are used for cycling, they're basically sleeves without the shirt. They don't take up any space, they hardly weigh anything, and they've saved my life before on rides or runs when I needed a little extra protection from the elements.
What’s the first app or website you open when you wake up, and the last one you close before you go to sleep?
Sadly, lately, it's been InciWeb to monitor the ongoing fires in New Mexico. It's like a government clearing house on wildfire and other emergencies of various sorts. Before bed, it's often podcasts, something quick to wind down at the end of the day.
What do you hope the epitaph on your tombstone says?
I could probably come up with a more serious response than what's coming to mind. Right now, it’s a quote from, I want to say Dorothy Parker: ‘excuse my dust’.
What’s your worst habit at home?
Probably that, in any given window of time, I start more projects than I finish. Whether that's landscaping, or gardening, or painting, or other projects around the house. I'm constantly biting off more than I can chew.
What was a formative turning point in your life?
Personally, the most meaningful change was leaving the Midwest for the West. I had this energy that found a more focused expression in the mountains and I really felt at peace for the first time. I don't know why. I love the Midwest, and I love the people there. But for some reason, I was a much happier person in the mountains.
What is a current podcast that you’re listening to/book you’re reading that you are enjoying or ones that you connected with recently?
Reply All is my favorite running podcast right now. I wish they had more episodes. They're too far and few between. They focus on stories that are at least adjacent to the web in some way. That means they can talk about almost anything, but let's just say mysteries that crop up online in discussion threads, or in real life situations that occur because people met online or had an experience online that was unexpected, something like that.
Singing or dancing?
Beach or mountains?
Tattoos or piercings?
Movies or Theater?
Weightlifting or cardio?
Hot tub or hot spring?
Sunrise or sunset?
Fiction or nonfiction?
Horror or comedy?
Leon Bridges or Sofi Tukker?
Both, I need them both.
I thought I wanted to be an engineer for a Formula One team (kind of ridiculous in retrospect), so at the time I majored in mechanical engineering. Long story short, I was programming every night instead of doing my mechanical engineering homework, so I eventually decided to leave to find a job building software.
As I was finishing my PhD, I did Insight Data Science and got hired at Airbnb where I hoped to use geospatial data to work on host growth or something. I was working on the host team as a Data Scientist and I realized that we didn't have any concept of the “context” of our listings… we knew a lot about the listing and its specific characteristics but we didn't really have a way to understand what was nearby. That matters because if you know what’s nearby you can market listings differently (which is sort of what Airbnb is (finally) doing w Categories), you can price more accurately, and you can drastically improve search. That became really compelling to me. I tried to work on an internal project there, but it didn't get a lot of support. So eventually, I decided to leave Airbnb and start Iggy to solve this challenge.
I am an astronomer by background - I did a PhD in astronomy. I studied the evolution of the galaxy since the Big Bang. Very different from what I do today. My interest in astronomy was motivated by the discovery process. You get to discover something interesting that no one's ever discovered before. But as I was going through that, one thing that I realized - and it led to my transition to data science and ultimately to product - was that I liked working on these sorts of big questions, but I wanted to do so in a bit more of an applied way.