Travis Oliphant - CEO of Continuum Analytics

I really engage people and listen to them. Entrepreneurs should talk to customers and employees. Email is a start, but it can’t end there. Pick up the phone, or even text someone. Texting is more personal than email, and I’ve found it to be very useful.

Travis Oliphant holds a doctorate from the Mayo Clinic and a Master of Science in mathematics and electrical engineering from Brigham Young University. Since 1997, he has worked extensively with Python for numerical and scientific programming, most notably as the primary developer of the NumPy package and as a founding contributor of the SciPy package. He is also the author of the definitive “Guide to NumPy.”

Travis was an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering from 2001 to 2007 at BYU, where he taught courses in probability theory, electromagnetics, inverse problems, and signal processing. He also served as director of the Biomedical Imaging Research Lab, where he explored satellite remote sensing, MRI, ultrasound, elastography, and scanning impedance imaging.

Travis is the CEO of Continuum Analytics, where he engages customers in finance, consumer products, and oil and gas; develops business strategy; and helps guide the technical direction of the company. He is the current director of the Python Software Foundation and former director of the NumFOCUS Foundation.

Where did the idea for Continuum Analytics come from?

It started when I was a graduate student and saw that I was much more productive using Python; I wanted to be able to provide a lot of advanced computation through it. That’s where the idea of the technology behind Continuum Analytics started.

The concept of Continuum Analytics as a company basically started in 2011, when Peter Wang went to Strata + Hadoop World and saw there were no vendors on the floor selling Python, yet at least 50 to 60 percent of the presentations were using Python to describe their workflows. So there was this big disconnect: A grassroots effort had chosen Python, yet nobody was promoting it.

So we started a company with two main goals: First, take the NumPy and PyData stack, which already works really well for vertical scaling, and scale it horizontally; second, provide visualization in a web browser accessible to PyData users.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

A typical day is usually spent actively emailing in the morning and following our internal chat room, trying to get an internal sense of where everyone is and what’s been happening throughout the day. I then look at my calendar to see who I’m meeting with during the day. The best way to make the day more productive is to work from home in the mornings and reserve time to work a little after my kids go to bed at night.

At the same time, we’re organized differently from a traditional software company or services company. We’re actually a next-generation open-source company. Our business leaders don’t just review people — we also review code. Everyone is willing to speak up, give their point of view, and contribute very differently. It’s all about getting the best of what every single person can contribute, and it also fuels a great dynamic of inspiring the team to get amazing results.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I bring ideas to life through a combination of finding the right people, a very pragmatic approach right from the customer, and a lot of vision.

It usually starts with a prototype that we build from the initial idea. Then, we find a lieutenant, a key person who is going to take the project and run with it. Ultimately, we take that initial idea and connect it with a real customer.

It’s really important to us to stay connected to the customer, even if it means we’re doing professional services. A lot of people have strong needs in building solutions, and we will help with that because it also helps us bounce our ideas off them.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

One trend is how much open-source work is being adopted by the industry. Over the past 10 years of doing this, I’ve seen a change in customers’ perception. I’ve been promoting open source and the enterprise for about seven or eight years now. When I started, there was a lot of skepticism, but now you don’t see that as much.

There are still empty pockets today, but you find a lot more people trying to adopt open-source frameworks. They may not do it very well, and they might stumble and fall over themselves in how they work with them, but they’ve at least recognized the massive value open source could bring them.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’m a voracious reader. I’m always trying to consume information. I’m a believer that all of us can be data-poor in our decision-making. Sometimes, we have to figure out how to become data-rich. Reading is one great way to fill that gap, but part of the effort is finding ways to turn it into data and context for better decision-making. I would love to see our own tools turn on our own data. I’m excited when that happens.

What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

I spent all day doing yard work during the summer for my great-aunt. I was doing things like painting and weeding. It wasn’t horrible. But it was lonely, and I wasn’t reading. I did like helping her, but being in the sun all day wasn’t a great experience. I learned that I should keep reading and stay in school.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would hire a project manager sooner. When we first started Continuum Analytics, we had these really big ideas, and I have a strong tendency to let people explore their ideas. That’s what I want to do, and that’s the way I like to be treated. But not everybody is suited for handling a lot of rope like that; they can hang themselves sometimes. A foundation of project management really helps.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I really engage people and listen to them. Entrepreneurs should talk to customers and employees. Email is a start, but it can’t end there. Pick up the phone, or even text someone. Texting is more personal than email, and I’ve found it to be very useful.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Solving customer problems has been a major strategy. We’ve had a relentless focus on building products to sell, but we always make sure to stay connected to customer problems along the way. We try to be on top of any issues in the beginning, before being divorced in the process. It’s so important to stay connected to customer problems while we work on products that can be sold.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I was trying to tackle too big a problem in the beginning. It went badly. I under-resourced in many cases. Sometimes, you start off with big plans and big dreams, but you don’t put enough of a plan in place about how to deliver in order to properly scope them.

The best way to overcome this is to stay connected to your customers. Customers don’t lie to you. Remember that it’s the customer who really loves you and is invested in your success who complains.

Plus, hiring project managers can help!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

There’s a need for artificial intelligence to help screen candidates in the hiring process. Everyone runs into a problem with screening and how long it can take. I think someone could build an AI specialized in asking the right screening questions; it would just have to be scoped correctly.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What did you spend it on, and why?

Personally, the best $100 I ever spent was taking my wife and daughter to New York City with me and going to Alfredo’s during its 100th anniversary.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I love Flowdock and think it’s really nice.

I also love Google Docs because of its immediacy, its ability to connect with people, and its ability to help you collaborate in real time. It helps us feel more together on things because we can see immediate output. Google creates employee connection and engagement — or at least simulates it.

GitHub is another great tool. We use it for our source control. Similar to Google, it’s just a collaborative way to develop software.

Also, I really like Small Improvements so far. It’s a performance management tool that’s helping us stay connected. It’s easy to begin feeling a little disconnected as the company grows, but this is helping a lot.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?

The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz is really good. This book leaves you feeling not so alone: You are not in this weird space nobody has ever been in. It gives you hope.

Another great book is “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business” by Patrick Lencioni. For me, it came at a time when I really needed to read its message. I needed to answer, “OK, what next?”

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Edwin Jaynes, Friedrich Hayek, Dr. Gary North, David Maister, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and Steven Pinker.

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