Excellence in Action
Michael McNally ’96
Interviewed by Monique Beals • November 14, 2019
To start, will you please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role?
I had gotten into computer game development during high school, and I continued working in the gaming industry concurrently while I was enrolled at UCLA. I did graphics, animation, music, and sound effects for games. While I was at UCLA, I supported myself with a mix of assistantships, part-time work and full-time work. The company I was with at that time was called Screenplay Systems in Glendale. They created software for the movie and television industry. My passion was in entertainment and doing creative and interesting things with computers. I grew up in Burbank and lived near Hollywood, so with southern California being the entertainment capital, I was naturally interested in the intersection between entertainment and computers.
I became interested in the behavioral aspects of games: how to make smart opponents for games and develop algorithms to play games. I enjoyed developing strategy game logic, and animating characters moving in 2 and 3-dimensional spaces. My interest in artificial intelligence grew through game development, so when I came to UCLA, I enrolled in the Computer Science Master’s and PhD programs. My major was artificial intelligence, and my minors were Scientific Computing and Programming languages. I pretty much took all of the artificial intelligence classes that UCLA had to offer. I finished the coursework and the qualifying exams and reached the all-but-dissertation stage. However, at that point, I was really involved in working and starting a family, so I didn’t finish the dissertation. I would recommend finishing the dissertation if you are that far along, so I’m not holding up myself as a role model, but that is how things played out.
When I left UCLA, I joined a startup in Silicon Valley and was with them for 3.5 years, first called iKuni and later renamed AI Live. The company developed middleware for artificial intelligence and computer games. Game developers use to plug machine-learning into the game. We specialized in “behavior capture.” The game would learn patterns of a player’s tactics and style playing a game. Then — a lucky break — in 2004 I received a call from a recruiter at Google. I do remember my very first interview at Google, and he asked me a question and the answer came right out of a course I took at UCLA with Dr. Judea Pearl. I think I aced that question with a prompt, accurate, and sophisticated answer that the interviewer probably wasn’t expecting.
When I was going to UCLA, artificial intelligence didn’t really feel completely real. There were a lot of fun things that we were studying, but it didn’t actually work very well. Now, 15+ years later, the world is totally different. Artificial intelligence was the backbone of my career at Google. All these things that didn’t work for previous generations were coming together. You tune the algorithms a bit more and have access to more data and more powerful hardware to run on. AI really reached a turning point where a lot of things I studied suddenly became practical. I was at Google for 13 years, and I was with the Search Quality team for the first 5 years. With the “behavior capture” artificial intelligence skill set that I had, I applied that to learn from users’ web-searching behavior, to make future searches better. Machine learning on top of user behavior was the central theme that connected my coursework at UCLA, my time at the startup, and the work I did at Google.
I also got involved in building web apps at Google, and those were attacked by spammers. I developed an antagonism against spammers and looked for ways to fight them. That is what I did for the majority of the time that I was at Google. I was in the Ad Spam team for 8 years. That team defends Google against click fraud. Google is a pay-per-click advertising platform, for the most part. That means advertisers pay when users click on their ads, which gets Google money and advertisers gain customers. What could go wrong? Well, if you are a malicious advertiser and you want to hurt your competitors, you click on their ads and make them lose money. If you are a publisher and you have a mobile app or website and you get more clicks, then you get more money. Sometimes people do fake clicks manually, sometimes they hire others to do it, and sometimes malware, or bots, do it and essentially spoof human behavior. So I got in the business of building algorithms to try to detect when a person is authentically interested in an ad or — conversely is trying to cheat the system. I advanced the ranks at Google and became a Director of Engineering. At Google, that was leading teams of up to about 100 engineers, so equivalent to being a VP of engineering or CTO at a smaller company.
I really enjoyed doing that for several years, but … then we had the 2016 presidential elections. There were questions of whether or not bad actors had exploited democracy or if Facebook was being abused. I switched over from Google to Facebook. At Facebook, I was also a Director of Engineering working to build up and grow the News Feed Integrity team. I started off with about twenty engineers. Over the next two years it grew into a department of about 100 engineers. My engineers partnered with other Integrity teams, and with other roles such as Data Science and User Experience Research. It was very interesting work, and we were investigating and fighting misinformation and building relationships with fact checking organizations. At the time that I left, there were roughly 50 journalistic organizations doing fact checking in about as many countries around the world, so there was definitely a sense of global collaboration. We also investigated things like click bait, fear mongering, and all the things that people do to manipulate the distribution of the feed and abusive it to go viral. Our goal was to undo the exploitation that was happening on the platform. There is a difficult balance: we wanted to respect people’s freedom of choice and let them do the things they wanted to do — yet we also didn’t want Facebook’s customers to be manipulated or lied to. While I was leading the engineering team, senior executives at Facebook all the way up to Mark Zuckerberg were leading the strategy and developing the Facebook stance on those problems.
In June, I retired after having been an executive at two of the leading internet companies in the world. It was a great blessing and great fortune. I’m taking a break from work right now and am studying theology at an online graduate school seminary. I’m volunteering my time here and there, doing some consulting, and spending time with my family and friends.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I love the science fiction dimension of computers. I love computers and computer games, and using technology creatively has been a thread throughout my career. I also enjoy adversarial problems, matching wits with an opponent. I first did that in games, and then I did that fighting organized crime and international manipulators of the news feed. I’ve enjoyed living a science fiction type of life in real life. It has been exciting and fun.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
When I was at UCLA, I was a grad student and I was laser focused on taking artificial intelligence classes. I did natural language processing, machine vision, optimization problems, neural networks, etc. The funny thing is that I ended up going to the two companies where pretty much everything that I studied was relevant. My UCLA education was basically just a bull’s eye for what I wound up doing in the future. I feel fortunate, because lots of other people may have gone to grad school and not used what they learned, but UCLA was a pretty solid start for me.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
I think that a lot of the technical work came easily for me. It was relatively easy to get straight A’s in math and science. What was really hard was becoming a good communicator. When I was young, I was painfully shy and it was very difficult for me to communicate. Eventually, became a person who leads hundreds of people and I’ve stood up talking to thousands of people in “all hands” meetings, and have been recorded for training and commercial purposes. So, I kind of got over being shy and I did that through some combination of things like taking speech classes, being involved in Toastmasters club and forcing myself to explore the human dimensions of people-management. To be a really good computer scientist or professional, it takes two kinds of skills: technical and human skills. As I became a manager and a director, people became a bigger and bigger part of what I was doing. It was challenging to exercise those different muscles.
People-skills are essential. I had to get involved in company politics and negotiating over really hard questions, such as balancing company growth and revenue against fraud-risk, possible legal liability, and potential public relations consequences. We, as engineers, were constantly negotiating with other roles to building policy and road-maps. The truth is that nobody tells you what to do, the challenges are unique and there’s no textbook for them. You figure it out, though. That was the hardest part of the job, but communication skills are professional relationships are key to that.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your field?
For students who want to break into a top tier tech company, it is hard to get into the very best companies. You have got to make yourself competitive. I think the best way to do that is to be passionate about your projects. If you do course assignments that involve coding and engineering, be able to talk about them with passion and excitement. Be able to prove in a live conversation how you took on a hard problem and pushed it forward. Show you have metrics to demonstrate your success. Be able to talk about your achievements, and fearlessly take on hard things. Don’t just do the minimum. Pour yourself into the projects you do.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
It is a high tier school that really teaches a good degree of professionalism. When I was there, they were using state of the art and cutting edge technologies that were relevant for years to come. Just being part of an innovative community of smart people was something I enjoyed. The UCLA background stands head to head with other top universities, and as I’ve been involved with recruiting within companies, UCLA has not disappointed me.
And finally, what’s next?
I don’t have a great answer for that right now, but I’m in the process of decompressing after what has been an intense career. I’m taking classes online, traveling, pursuing hobbies such as fitness and swing dancing, and spending time with family and friends. Essentially I am doing things that were on the backburner while I was in an intense career with long commutes.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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