CEOs / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Ky Harlin, CEO at ESK Enterprises

Ky Harlin is the CEO at ESK Enterprises, where he provides consulting services in data science and engineering across a variety of industries.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

My first job started as a part-time role while I was an undergraduate.  It was with a small (at the time) biotech company that performed analysis of small animal medical images, mostly for the purposes of pre-clinical drug testing. 

I already had a strong math background and this job helped me round this out with some coding skills.  At some point I became tired of looking at images of rats and mice all day and decided to start looking for opportunities that fit my background in different fields.

Through my thesis advisor at Columbia, I was hooked up with a consulting project at a media company called BuzzFeed. I quickly fell in love with the project and the company and decided to take a full time job there.

The company consisted of about 15 or 20 people at the time and I was the sole person working on data and analytics there.  It was a tough transition because I knew so little about media and digital measurement technologies. 

Luckily, it was an incredibly supportive environment to work in and I had some great mentors and co-workers who helped guide me through this. 

Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s founder and CEO (and my boss at the time), was particularly helpful.  He is a visionary leader with a keen understanding of media and a very analytical way of looking at things.  I owe a lot to that guy. Without him, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today.

During my first few years at BuzzFeed, the company was just exploding with growth, both in terms of the company itself and our audience.  This presented a lot of new challenges on the data side. 

It quickly became obvious that this was too much to take on personally. Thus, I began to build out the data teams there, which ultimately would fall into three categories:

  1. data engineering, which concerned the collection of data
  2. analytics, which mostly concerned reporting and dissemination of data throughout the company, and
  3. data science, which was the research wing of the operation, doing deeper analyses and building algorithms to be used for strategic and practical purposes. 

When I left BuzzFeed, I think there were about 50 people working across these three areas.

My next gig came at Conde Nast, where I was basically tasked with building the data and analytics teams there at the corporate level.  This meant across the plethora of brands that were under the Conde umbrella. 

The company was at a point where they really needed to focus on growing digital audiences because print readership was declining so rapidly.  It was an interesting time and an important step in my career to work there. 

I was able to connect with so many bright and interesting people and work on big projects.  Ultimately, though, I found it difficult to make much of an impact in such a large company with so many disparate brands, so I was not there for very long.

Through connections from these previous media jobs, I was able to start my own data science/analytics consultancy, which is what I still do today. My clients mostly fall into two categories:

  1. small technology companies/start-ups that don’t have internal data teams
  2. larger, non-technology focused companies that do a lot of digital marketing. 

With the first group, I sometimes go back to my early BuzzFeed days and do some straight-up number crunching, but more often help them plan for future growth in terms of how they should build their data teams and what problems will be most impactful for them to tackle. 

With the second group, I mostly help with more high-level strategy–what data sets are out there (or what they might already have) and how they can use them to spend their marketing dollars more efficiently. 

I’ve really enjoyed working on the consultancy because it has afforded me the opportunity to learn about so many different industries.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

One thing I’ve realized since starting the consultancy is that I need to structure my days to be efficient in what I do.  I’m the type of person who has so many different interests and passions that I will accomplish very little if I just let myself go with whatever I feel like at any given time. 

To that end, my days are often what one might describe as very typical.  I’ll usually set a block of hours to work on nothing but my consulting work, and it is usually something like 10am-7pm. 

Depending on the number of clients I have and forthcoming deadlines at any given time, it may be more or fewer hours.  The important thing for me is that I assess what needs to get done at the beginning of the day and block out the time I feel is necessary to accomplish these things. 

For many projects, this means not just doing it at the beginning of the day but planning out whole weeks and months.

It’s really hard to take you through a typical workday because this varies so much.  In addition to the consultancy, I have been doing some real estate work. I will often stop taking on new clients at the consultancy to work on houses/apartments that I’m renovating. 

For example, I just got back to New York from a 10-month stint in Detroit fixing up a 112-year old house that we bought there.  Those days were filled with running electrical cables and drain pipes. 

Now that we have the place rented, I’m back in NYC doing some normal consulting work.  This means regular 10-7 days, although I am pretty conscious of trying to get outside for some exercise, or even just a walk, on a daily basis.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

My current role is extremely flexible and 100% remote.  I think starting the consultancy 4 years ago now put me at a big advantage when the pandemic hit, because I was already so used to remote working. 

As I said, advance planning on blocking out time to do what I need to get done is paramount to my success.  Additionally, though, I’ve found it so important to spend time having fun regularly. 

For me, that’s usually playing tennis, doing a crossword, reading, or having a long call with a friend. These things keep me sane.  I get extremely bored and restless when I do too much of one thing.  I’ve always been a huge believer in balance across all areas of life.  The pandemic has made this belief even more deeply rooted for me.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I’m a real believer in working on things that you are truly passionate about.  I’m not the type who’s looking at the clock all day, waiting for work to finally be over.  I truly enjoy what I do for a living. 

Thus, I could theoretically never stop working and still be happy.  However, I have realized more and more as I have gotten older that working all the time comes at the expense of other things in your life that you are passionate about. 

For me, these things are family, friends, and hobbies.  So, like I said in response to your previous question, making sure that you have some time to fun stuff, side projects, whatever, is super important.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I’ve started reading a lot more.  Partially because the latest real estate project I embarked on (in Detroit) required me to do a lot of things I hadn’t done before, so I had to learn a lot.  Particularly about residential electrical work.

Since being back in NY from Michigan, I’ve also started exercising again.  I’m pretty tall and I like to eat a lot.  When I get out of shape my whole body tends to get achy.  Working on the house in Detroit, this wasn’t a problem as I was so physically active every day. 

But when I came back, the aches set in quickly so I had to make an effort to start exercising again.  I try to every day.  Sometimes it’s just a long walk, but often I’m going for a bit of a run or doing some simple body weight exercises.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Anything with a viewpoint that’s obviously different from your own.  For example, I read Fox News every day even though I am a life-long Democrat. 

Sometimes I’m infuriated by the nonsense I find there, but often I find things that really help me empathize with those on the other side of the aisle. If the Trump era has made anything abundantly clear, it’s that there is an extreme lack of empathy in America, on both sides.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

My #1 is very low-tech: a tennis racquet.  If I could never play tennis again, it would be like someone cut off one of my limbs. 

I also have a nice set of comfortable wireless headphones that are a mainstay.  Especially on the jobsite, these were critical.  I honestly do not use many apps besides email, browser, and the NYT crossword app. 

I find that the vast majority of apps are designed to keep you mindlessly engaged for as long as possible in the name of ad impressions. 

Also, it’s just so much easier to do stuff on the larger screens of laptop and desktop computers. Especially since I’m not on the move as much anymore, I find myself often forgoing the mobile experience for the desktop one.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

Novak Djokovic.  Mostly because I know how much he has dedicated himself to optimizing every aspect of his life to be a better tennis player, so I wonder how he still manages to have a life at all.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Obviously balance is important in life.  I doubt many people will disagree with that.  What I think is equally important is flexibility, i.e. the ability to adapt to changing circumstances in life. 

People love to talk about how their success can be attributed to doing the exact same thing at 6:11am every day, but I find such thoughts to be highly overrated. 

I’m more interested in the people who live rapidly evolving, dynamic lives, but still manage to consistently do interesting and successful things. 

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.