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31 July 2020

Juan Sequeda, Principal Scientist, data.world

Juan Sequeda Photo
Juan Sequeda

Tell me about your background and where you grew up.

I was born in San Jose, California, when the Silicon Valley was about Silicon.  Both my parents were IBM people.   Both my parents had graduate degrees.  Dad was a material Scientist at IBM and later opened the IBM research lab in Rochester Minnesota.  Both my parents are Colombian and in the mid-90’s the government there wanted the brain drain from the country back.   Dad retired from IBM and moved back to Colombia because he wanted to give back to the country. It was a Beautiful opportunity for myself and my brother to understand our culture.  My last year of high school I did an exchange year in Switzerland and finished high school there.  I went back to Colombia and did the first part of my undergrad in CS in Colombia.  My parents were both University Professors and came back to the US on sabbatical.  I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin as an undergrad.  I ended up doing my PhD at UT Austin and I’ve been in Austin ever since.

How did you become involved in Computer Science?

My Mom is the business person in the family and builds companies while my dad is on the research side.  I spent a lot of time around my parents and learned from both of them.  Even though I learned how to program when I was around 7 or 9, I wasn’t a real coder as a kid, programming was what I got into in college.  I liked that it was a clever way to solve a problem. 

What are the key projects you are working on today?

As an undergrad in 2005 in Colombia I attended a seminar from an invited professor on Semantic Web, which is now known as Knowledge graphs.  When we think about how we search on the web, without semantics, when you look up Paris Hilton, how does the system know if you are looking for the person or the hotel in Paris.  I found this so intriguing when I came to Austin, I was looking for a professor working in the area.  I met my advisor –   Dan Miranker who was starting to get involved in this area.   As part of this the question that changed my life was asked “What’s the relationship between relational databases and the semantic web?”  This became the topic of my undergraduate thesis.  I wanted to continue working on the topic. At the time I already had a company, had lined up a job just in case and I didn’t get accepted in the PhD.  I wanted to work on the problem and work with Dan so I began my PhD and looked at an opportunity to start a company later on.

Dan was a true mentor and trained me to be a scientist, he made sure I wasn’t just starting a company but that I would be an independent critical thinker.  As part of my work on my PhD I became involved in a standards committee for the web and helped to create the theoretical foundation for the standards. 

I continued to be motivated to start a company in this space and after I completed my dissertation Dan and I started the company, Capsenta.  The company grew over the next four years and a year ago it was acquired by data.world.  What we liked about data.world is it was aligned on our mission and vision on the future of data management.  It was also a Public Benefit Corporation that focuses on both shareholder value and a public benefit mission.  

Your panel is focused on the impact the Tapia Conference has had on your professional life.  Tell me about your first experience with Tapia.

Richard Tapia came to UT in 2007.  I realize now I came from a very privileged background and did not recognize the problems underrepresented minorities face in STEM. Richard explained Under representation to me and I realized I was the only Ph.D. in CS in UT Austin who was Hispanic.  We need leaders to represent the population.  We need to understand the value and importance of diversity.

The Tapia Conference connected me to people who look, act, eat and dance like me.  I realized I was not alone.  I met people in 2007 that I still see, like Christan Grant, and see them every year.  In 2009 we had the first gathering of the Hispanics in Computing group which I helped organize.  I go back every year to make sure I can meet with this group.

Why should students attend the Tapia Conference this year?

What is important is that you want to know there are more people out there that look and think like you and you are not alone.  Talking to people creates connections and shows you that if someone else did it, I can do it too. It is a place for inspiration and role models. You can learn about a range of topics that may change your whole career path.