Thinking Big

Michael Barnathan’s expertise in machine learning has taken him from Google to Facebook and beyond.

Michael Barnathan ’06 spent two years working as a software engineer at Google before finally striking out on his own. He longed for a leadership position in which he could leverage his technical expertise and also have a positive impact on the world. But when his first startup—which aimed to use artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically detect breast cancer in mammograms—failed, he pivoted and launched an AI-powered mobile app, Clipless, instead.

“The experience taught me that it’s OK to take risks and do things that aren’t necessarily on the prescribed path,” says Barnathan, who sold Clipless, an app that enables users to find hyperlocal deals, to a larger company in 2013.

“If I had stayed at Google, then right now I’d still be a software developer—maybe at a higher level of seniority but still locked in to the same career, not using the rest of my skills,” says Barnathan. “I knew I wanted to explore leadership, so I had to change something.”

Since graduating from Monmouth, Barnathan has moved between academia, industry, and entrepreneurship. His first stop after West Long Branch was earning a doctorate in computer and information sciences from Temple University, which is where his expertise and interest in machine learning, a branch of AI that gives computers the ability to learn without explicitly being programmed, started to blossom. When he shifted gears from academia to industry, his knowledge of machine learning led to high-profile jobs at Google, Niantic, and Facebook.

It was during this time that a pathway to leadership finally opened for Barnathan. At Niantic, developer of the popular augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go, he oversaw all machine learning aspects of the company. When he later joined Facebook in 2020, he led the team that prioritizes ranking in the news feed, which takes all the diverse content on the platform and recommends them to users in one unified stream.

His current position as director of applied machine learning at Cash App, a division of the financial services company Square, requires more of an eagle-eyed view of the company. Instead of managing a single group of developers, he coordinates the activities of multiple teams and translates high-level business goals into a tactical plan his teams can execute.

Barnathan, who has been working remotely from the Colorado home he shares with his spouse, Jiao, recently welcomed identical twin daughters, Athena and Aurora. When he’s not spending time with his family, he finds solace in a hobby that is completely removed from his day job: composing music.

“Computer science is all about hard logic, and answers are either completely right or wrong. Music is much more fuzzy, and some things that might be considered mistakes in one form of music are totally interesting in a different form of music,” he says. “I think it’s good to have something you can take refuge in that changes the way you think a little bit.”