A photo of me at an executive luncheon

Why I Joined Featureform

Shabnam Mokhtarani
August 5, 2021

Hi everyone! I’m excited to announce some big news but before I get to that, I’d like to introduce myself to those who don’t know me. My name is Shabnam Mokhtarani and my career has been far from a straightforward journey. I studied neuroscience as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz (yay banana slugs) to attend medical school but realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I made the switch to chemical engineering and then joined Slack as an early employee, where I worked as a project manager. After almost three years, I found a new career as a software engineer. Now I’m delighted to announce that I’ve joined Featureform, an MLOps startup, as Head of Operations! 

My career path up until this point looks hectic and at times it has felt hectic too. I took a lot of unexpected turns and ended up places I never imagined going. However, I’ve come to learn that every step was crucial, every step made sense looking back.

“Do the best work of your life”. That’s something Stewart, Slack’s CEO, would say a lot, even when the company was small. It might sound a bit cliche but something about those words resonated with me. I wanted to do the best work of my life, and at that time and place, I was. Slack was my first taste of the tech industry. I went into it with little knowledge of what it was and why it was special. Lucky for me, my career flourished there. By the time I left, I was managing the second-largest budget in the company besides headcount. I had rolled out an entire security and access control system globally, from Dublin to Melbourne to HQ. I wrote business continuity and pandemic plans and helped conduct compliance audits for SOC and ISO 27001. The balance of challenge and novelty was a sweet spot for me.

Something close to my heart, Slack's All-Hands Award 2016.

It felt good to grow with the company. But career growth wasn’t my favorite part. What I miss most were the little things that come with working at an early-stage startup. Technically, I started at Slack as a receptionist before working in project management. Working my way up exposed me to a lot of different aspects of the business. On my first day there, we had interested applicants sending us cakes along with their resumes to stand out. I once had to order and deliver Doughbies cookies and Philz for a meeting with Mark Zuckerberg. I threw a Li’l Sebastian Memorial-themed company happy hour with carnival fixings and a life-size plush replica of Li’l Sebastian. I rolled out a chic security robot that roamed the floors and startled many employees (it was a great option for after-hours facility management). Before the pandemic, I’d still see references to the robot on Twitter and the reactions to it still make me chuckle. These small, random memories are my favorite parts when I reflect on my time there.

Me standing next to the Cobalt Security Robot
At Cobalt HQ. I deployed their security robot for after hours monitoring.

Slack had a magic to it that was hard to explain unless you were there. Once after a board meeting, I was told to make sure all board members got swag bags- this was very important business. I ended up chasing down John Doerr to an elevator bank to give him the swag, swag he had no interest in. I remember not even knowing who he was before that moment and reading about him with awe when googling him. Every day I was meeting new people and trying new things. I loved the company and the people I was surrounded by. But as Slack grew, roles became more narrow and specialized. This is natural for a company as successful as Slack. This is what needed to happen for the company to move forward. But growing with a company means that you can outgrow that company. For me, becoming more interested in the engineering work happening there than in my department was the sign.

Slack was a product-focused company. We had to “dogfood” the product and everyone became a superuser. We were encouraged to attend product and engineering all-hands, and over time, my interest in those subjects grew. My only engineering experience involved programming the access control system and running bash commands to resize company photos. My first pull request there was more a formality than a hands-on experience. 

When I decided to leave Slack to pursue Hack reactor’s Advanced Software Engineering Immersive, people thought I was crazy. I had a great job at a company that was surely going to go public, working on interesting projects and traveling the world. Why on earth would I give that up? It was the only way to do my best work. So back to the bottom of the ladder I went. It was like the time I took a receptionist job after abandoning the medical school track. Something about it felt kismet and I had to follow my intuition.

A plush alpaca wearing a pink wig
Meet Palpaca, the resident therapy plushie at Hack Reactor in 2018.

I spent the next two years looking for something that would give me that feeling again. The feeling of possibility. The feeling of flying. I was looking for an interesting and kind group of people. A product or a vision that was doing something different, something groundbreaking. I wanted to throw myself into my work again and apply my skills- to build something and contribute in a way I hadn’t before. 

Fast forward to spring 2021, I met a person named Simba Khadder. He was looking to hire the founding team for an MLOps company and luckily, I took his call. I knew nothing about feature stores and honestly, I found the subject matter a bit daunting. Simba made the topics accessible and encouraged me to explore them. His vision for the future of MLOps was unique- it was driven by practicality and empathy; two things that are a big part of how I live my life. Simba saw something in me and after a series of meetings, I decided to join him at Featureform.

Four months in and the dots in my career have been connected. I’ve been fortunate to learn about the pain points of feature engineering through the eyes of an engineer and an operations specialist. I’ve immersed myself in Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning Coursera and spoken with data scientists to understand their struggles with feature engineering and management. In a felicitous way, they confirmed that I had made the right decision. We’re making ML teams more productive and freeing up their time for more meaningful work.  

At Featureform, we’re not trying to mimic pre-existing MLOps solutions. We want to avoid high adoption costs and make the workflows of data scientists and engineers efficient and productive. Our goal is to reduce the time-consuming work of feature management, without limiting our users as their pipelines evolve. We take on the burden of work involved in orchestrating powerful ML workflows instead of passing them along to our customers. We designed our product to be flexible and scalable, regardless of the frameworks and tools involved. At our core, we’re driven by empathy and innovation. 

I wake up every morning grateful for the ability to bring my whole self to work, for the ability to make an impact on space that has gone too long without operational efficiency, and for the brilliant people I get to work with. I’m doing the best work of my life again.

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