Meet Bobby Johnson, Interana Co-founder & CTO
Q: Tell me about what you and your team built at FB; how do you leverage that expertise at Interana?
BJ: At Facebook my team-built software to give everyone in the business access to the information they needed to do their job better, whatever that job happened to be. We ended up building a lot of tools, some of which were great, and others not so much. The most important things we learned were what made some tools really valuable, and therefore loved, and which things caused tools to go unused. This was often surprising, and not in line with the conventional wisdom of data processing. But we had a very immediate pressure to answer the questions the business needed to move forward, so we tried a lot of things that seemed a bit crazy at the time, and some of them worked out really well.
We ended up with more than half the employees in the company as active users of data tools, which had a huge effect on the culture – we were able to make decisions based on real information, and not just gut feel or things people made up. We were able to measure success or failure of everything we did, and react accordingly. I really believe that this culture of truth and information was a huge part of our success.
Q: What have you learned about how other enterprise companies are doing with your platform? How does Interana's technology work?
BJ: Every business is different, and the specific things they need to measure and understand are different. But it became clear pretty early on that there’s a common thread of questions about behavior. These are often the most important questions to the success of a business: what do people do on my app when they are engaged vs. not, what kinds of behavior lead people to purchase instead of just look.
Interana’s technology is all about making these kinds of questions fast and easy. With legacy tools it’s really hard to even express questions about behavior, so we invented new concepts for how users express questions about behavior, that map much more closely to the way they think about it in their business. Then we built a custom data analysis engine that it optimized to answer these kinds of questions extremely fast. It doesn’t really look like any other database engine, because it’s built to answer this new and different kind of question.
With legacy systems, a lot of the time people end up just asking the questions that the system they have is able to answer. We started from the questions people really have, and built a system from the ground up to answer those easily.
Q: How have you been able to combine the power of all the data with the ease of use for business people?
BJ: The most important piece is a language and a mental model that is simple, and maps closely to the way people think about their business. We have honed this over many years of working with users, to have concepts that are familiar and comfortable, and map directly to the questions people actually have.
A second factor is transparency. We let users look at every bit of the source data, down to a single user or a single event. This is in contrast to most other systems that roll up or summarize data before the business user gets to it. One of the problems with summaries is that the end user doesn’t know exactly how that process works, so it’s a lot harder to understand and trust the numbers you see from the tool. With Interana, users are able to see the raw data, and formulate whatever questions they want. This transparency leads to greater trust in the data.
Q: Tell me about one specific customer and how they got a competitive advantage with your product?
BJ: One our customers makes network-connected speaker devices. People love their product, and one of the reasons they love it is that it’s really easy to set it up and quickly start listening to your favorite music. This is no small feat, because the setup experience involves connecting the device to unreliable networks and third party content services, and cleanly handling the interaction between the device and the mobile app that controls it. Product managers and Customer Support teams there use Interana to look at how users flow through the process – what sequences of events lead to quick success, and what places users get stuck. With Interana they are able to quickly and iteratively look at hundreds of scenarios, without having to change code or change their data pipeline each time they have a new question.
Q: AI is clearly on everyone's mind these days; how does AI fit into Interana's vision and future?
BJ: We’re really strong believers in humans making good decisions based on the values they hold, their ability to reason about ambiguous situations, and their context for the particular situation. We believe these decisions are also much better when informed by data, and AI can play a role in that. There are some things that computers are better at finding than humans, and they can guide humans to valuable information. So our vision is that AI plays an important part in helping humans understand their world, but we see it as an augmentation of the human, not a replacement.
Five Things About Bobby Johnson
1. If you could have lunch with someone famous who would it be?
2. What book are you currently reading?
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
3. What inspires you?
Seeing someone learn something new that they didn’t know before
4. What is one thing you would change in Silicon Valley?
More women and people of color hired as investment partners at VC funds. These partners are the gatekeepers to a lot of Silicon Valley, so the lack of diversity has a really negative impact on the rest of the ecosystem.
5. Do you have a favorite sports team?
Synapse Middle School Cross Country