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Tech for Good, Schmidt Futures and getting lost in the sauce: Alanna Flores

For the second instalment of our new series, introducing you to the brilliant people behind Climate Policy Radar, we spoke to Alanna Flores. Alanna spent the last 6 months working in Climate Policy Radar’s data science team as part of Schmidt Futures Technologists for Global Transformation, a programme designed to broaden the pool of technologists working for public benefit. As we bid Alanna farewell, we caught up with her about her time at Climate Policy Radar and the programme.

Who is Alanna? Tell me a bit about yourself…

I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. As the youngest of four children, I was the last to leave home. I decided to move to California and did my undergraduate and master’s degrees at Stanford in the Bay Area. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – I thought I wanted to study policy and political science, but when I got there Computer Science was so popular (as it is in Silicon Valley) so I took the Intro to Computer Science class. To my surprise, I fell in love with it. I really enjoyed the process of coding, how logical it was, and how creative it could be. Being able to think of anything (within reason) and having the tools to create it was something that was fascinating to me. 

Tell us about the Technologists for Global Transformation programme at Schmidt Futures and how you found it?

Two years into my degree I thought to myself ‘wait, what kind of job do I want to do?’ – I didn’t want to be a Software Engineer, or necessarily work in Big Tech. As I mentioned, I arrived at university with an interest in policy. I was trying to find ways to marry what I liked doing in my day-to-day and what I really cared about… what made me want to get up in the morning. I found a position at a lab that did computational policy research and realised it was a niche I wanted to keep exploring: doing engineering-type work in a policy setting. 

I found out about Schmidt Futures and my programme shortly after. The programme is an opportunity for people who have a computer science or engineering background to work at impact organisations in six to twelve month rotations, often working in product management.  Starting out in the programme, I thought product management could be a neat fit: I could still be close to technical work, but with more people interaction. In the programme you do four placements, which gives you a pretty unique opportunity to work in different areas. It turned out that product management wasn’t as great a fit for me as I had thought, but through the programme, I’ve found my footing with data science.

What are the merits of the Schmidt programme? 

It’s really exciting that the Schmidt programme exists because I don’t think a lot of recent graduates with technical degrees see many opportunities to connect their skills to non-profit work. Rather, there is a focus on getting early career experience in a corporate setting to improve your technical skills and credibility. My programme is a fantastic alternative for socially conscious technical people to build their careers around the issues that motivate them. I hope that more people, even outside of this programme, can be open to all the opportunities social impact work in tech has to offer. I’ve found that working at smaller organisations and on close-knit teams has allowed me to learn a broad set of skills and made me feel incredibly valued as a team member. Having this realisation and these experiences early on in my career is such a blessing. 

What led you to Climate Policy Radar?

Climate change is one of the biggest issues of our time. In terms of issues that I care about, climate is clearly high up on that list. I’ve been a lifelong vegetarian, and I try to think about how my day-to-day actions impact the world around me. I’d never pursued climate in a work setting, so it felt like a natural fit for work to test it out in the programme.

I found Climate Policy Radar on Google when I was looking for somewhere to do my third placement. I was looking for an international organisation that worked in policy, was climate-adjacent, and used AI, so I hit the jackpot. When I spoke to the team I thought ‘these people are really on their game, they’re really talented’. I knew right away I wanted to work here. 

What did a day in your life at Climate Policy Radar look like?

When I started at CPR, I was primarily doing analysis work and building our new analytics infrastructure, in addition to serving as the Product Manager for the R&D team. In that work, I was spending a lot of time in meetings throughout the day. Now that I’m fully on the data science team within R&D, the structure of my day involves a lot of ‘focus time’, just me and my computer: coding, testing, iterating. I like to manage my own time, and I love working in a team that values flexibility and empowers each individual to produce high-quality work. 

What’s the most interesting thing about your role?

I’ve been able to carve out a role that is pretty interesting and unique in itself. I’m a Data Scientist, but I’ve been able to do a lot of product management work and have been able to get  involved in many different projects due to the flexibility of the team. My favourite thing about my role is that it is really creative and self-directed—often when I start a task, there isn’t a specific way of doing things, so that exploration process is really exciting. 

When sourcing a placement for the Schmidt programme, I was looking for non-profits working on cutting-edge technology and AI, which wasn’t necessarily an easy task. Climate Policy Radar is a unique place where there is tons of technical talent, amazing mentorship, and really innovative problems to work on. It’s a beautiful combination. 

This is the most talented technical team I’ve worked with, so from that perspective, I’ve learnt loads. Kalyan and Harrison in the data science team have been great to learn from, as has Alan, CPR’s Head of Product. I’ve also never worked with a leader like Michal, and I’ve found the people in leadership positions to be very passionate, focused, and inspiring. 

Spending most of your time ‘in the weeds’ of code, how do you ‘zoom out’ and connect to Climate Policy Radar’s mission?

It’s very easy to get ‘lost in the sauce’. I think, to be honest, I don’t come out of that tunnel vision until I’ve reached a project milestone. I’m working on building a machine-learning classifier at the moment, and after each stage, I’m thinking about how each feature will have a wider impact. I’ve been in the weeds of that for the last two weeks, but I think, in general, as a team, we’re pretty good at reminding ourselves ‘why’ we’re working on something. 

Where could you be found on a Friday?

I honestly used my Fridays for all my personal admin tasks: groceries, laundry, and errands. It was incredible for setting me up for a stress-free weekend and work week.

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