Alumni Spotlight: Kicho Yu
Kicho Wants to Build Bridges
by Marcelle Santos
“Did you go camping?” I asked. He had mentioned going to the Sierra Nevada, and I was just making small talk before our interview.
He looked up, scratched his chin, and did this thing that would become habitual throughout our chats. “Well, it depends on what you mean by camping. If by camping you mean not sleeping in a modern housing structure, then in that definition, no.”
This was my first time meeting Kicho Yu, the data analyst-turned-computer-scientist-after-two-years-at-Northeastern. I wasn’t sure if his considered reply had anything to do with him being unfamiliar with camping, or English being his second language, or if he was just particular with words.
As I got to know him more, I realized that’s just what he does when you ask him a question that’s open to interpretation. He looks up and thinks about it. He paraphrases and clarifies. He’s trying to figure out what it is you actually want to know, or, as he would say, the nature of your question. This, he tells me, is what “data people” do — the good ones, anyway. They identify the real needs behind requests for information so that they can “ask the right questions from data.”
The questions we ask Google, our systems, and one another tend to be vague; sometimes, they’re the wrong ones. He gives me an example: When a prospective NU student asks for the Silicon Valley campus address, what they’re actually looking for is information about housing.
It takes curiosity and empathy to grasp the intention beneath other people’s inquiries. Having spent most of his adult life transitioning between radically different contexts — between Korean culture and American culture; college life and the Army Special Forces; Christian church and Burning Man; the tech industry and academia — Kicho has plenty of both.
A people person
Growing up in Korea, Kicho wanted to come to the United States as early as possible. He didn’t want to get comfortable living how he’d always lived and speaking just his mother tongue. He ended up staying until he finished high school, though, for one (rather endearing) reason: he kept getting elected student leader every year.
Although he’s quiet and reserved (only his closest friends and family know his age), Kicho is great at listening to groups of people and acting as a go-between for them. He’s also really good with names. “I value people, and one of the ways to show that is to memorize their names,” he said.
Recently, when he threw a party to celebrate three important milestones — his graduation at Northeastern, his birthday, and his move to Los Angeles to pursue a PhD — his biggest concern was making sure his church friends and his Burning Man friends and his NU classmates would mingle. (He devised a bingo for this purpose just in case.)
Even though managing friendships isn’t always easy, Kicho knows that nothing broadens your perspective like getting to know people, especially those who are different from you. It’s why he loves Burning Man, the festival based on community and self-expression that happens annually in the United States. “It’s the safest place to meet all types of people.”
Bible (and math) studies
Although Kicho’s parents weren’t religious, his grandfather was a theologian and mathematics professor who liked to teach him math using the Bible.
As young as three years old, Kicho remembers learning that there were hidden stories in numbers if you looked. Why does the Bible have 39 old testaments and 27 new testaments? his grandfather would ask him. Because three times nine is twenty-seven. Why did Peter catch 153 fish? Because if you assign a numerical value to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet (where A=1 and Z=26, and AA = 27 and so on), 153 spells out something meaningful. (Kicho can’t remember what it is anymore, but he thinks it might be “people”). His grandfather even had a jukebox at home where you would input a number to play a religious hymn.
This way of relating to numbers stayed with him. During his undergraduate studies, when he had to be up before 6 am, he set his alarm clock for 5:26 am — because May 26 is his father’s birthday, and because 26 sounds like “takeoff” in Korean.
Finding meaning in numbers
It only made sense that Kicho would choose to make a career out of finding meaning in numbers. “I feel like I’m reading Mother Goose or Brüder Grimm’s fairy tales when I uncover compelling stories from data,” he wrote on his LinkedIn profile.
While working as a data scientist at Lyft, the second-largest ridesharing company in the United States, he created “the first sustainable data pipeline” for drivers in the US and Canada to file their taxes. It was an enormous undertaking, considering that cities in different states can have the same names and that drivers can go out of state by driving just a couple of miles.
“I had to create a guardrail to detect whether a city/state combination such as Seattle, Florida, was for a Florida tax return or a Washington tax return. I had to create an algorithm based on drivers’ patterns.”
Having completed his Master’s in Computer Science at Northeastern, Kicho is getting ready to pursue a PhD in Computer Science at the University of Southern California. His research will investigate how privacy and security can be preserved as data gets transmitted through network nodes and communication protocols.
Kicho’s goal is to become a professor like his grandfather. His passing, four years ago, was one of the hardest moments in Kicho’s life, and significant in his decision to leave the industry and go back to school.
Already he’s living his vocation: while at Northeastern, he worked as a teaching assistant and research assistant. In his free time, he volunteered as a coding instructor for elementary to middle school students at a Bay Area nonprofit (where later he became program director and vice-president).
He wants to continue helping people ask the right questions and provide them with information beyond what they can see. He thinks people become biased when they see just one side of the story and not the whole picture. “That’s when fear kicks in.”
He describes it as building bridges. “I want to be a bridge person between the US and Korea. Between Christianity and other religions. To show people that they don’t have to be scared of the side they haven’t seen — the world isn’t black and white.”