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Inspired BlogUncharted Territory: Building Charlotte’s Data Science Empire

From textile town, to Big Banking’s second-in-command, to the South’s undisputed tech startup capital, Charlotte has put itself on the map as one of the most dynamic cities in the United States. And everyone knows it

Meet John Thomas (known around here as JT). He’s our VP of Data Science, a 2019 40 Under 40 Award winner, and the visionary who’s grown our data organization from just 3 people to more than 150 – in less than five years. 

Still not impressed? He can also recite the first 50 digits of Pi in just 25 seconds.

Goodness bakes, that’s a lot of pi!

Since moving from Boston to Charlotte just four years ago, JT has seen a TON of change within Red Ventures’ organization and the city’s broader tech community. We sat down with him to get his story and his perspective on leadership, the future of data science disruption, and Charlotte’s booming tech scene. Read the full interview below:

Q: Hi JT! Take us back to the very beginning. How’d you get into data?

A: By accident. I was a Math/Computer Science major in undergrad, and like many Math/Computer Science majors, I thought I wanted to be a professor. So I went to grad school for my Master’s degree, where I studied Scheduling Theory. It was theoretically very cool, but practically very useless. My adviser suggested that I get my PhD in Machine Learning, and I said “Psshh, no way – that’ll never be a thing.” So, I ended up switching to computational biology, where i just used machine learning on biological data.

Q: 👀 Did your adviser happen to be named Dr. Emmett Brown? (Actually… Don’t answer that.) What’d you do next? 

A: When I graduated, interviewed at a few pharmaceutical companies. A lot of what I saw was big and bureaucratic. Everything seemed to move really slowly. So, I decided to pivot altogether.

I got a call from someone at a Boston-based startup that spun out of Harvard, asking if I’d come help them commercialize an algorithm they licensed. I became the first employee at the company. While there, data science really started to take off and another company called  asking me to start their data science team. I was like, “Data science? What is that?!” He said, “It’s using data to solve business problems.” And I was like, “Oh, that has a name now? That’s what I’ve always done.” I went on to work there and, ultimately, one other startup in Boston. There’s my foray into data – a complete accident.

Q: For context, everything you’ve mentioned so far happened within the last decade. When did ‘Data Science’ actually become a thing?

A: DJ Patel coined the term “data science” in 2008… I first heard the word in 2009. And by 2012 it was called the “sexiest job of the 21st century.”

Want to go on a… data?

Q: With all this demand for data science talent, what do you think will happen?

A: History repeats itself. Right now in the data space, you’ve got super-smart people with specialized skills. It’s not dissimilar to what we saw twenty years ago – when we had a highly specialized group of people, who were highly compensated and in high demand. We called those people “software engineers.” Over time more people became software engineers, products were introduced to make that process simpler, and education spun up to be able to produce more software engineers. Now, supply is closer to demand. We’re seeing the same thing happen with data. And I’m sure this will happen to whatever the next hot thing is, too.

Q: Do you have any predictions about what that ‘totally new’ something might be? Within the realm of data, or beyond…

A: I don’t know if I’d consider it totally new, but the trends in Artificial Intelligence are certainly disrupting many industries. For example, look at Fast Food. It’s basically been the same for 50 years, right? McDonald’s just bought a 300M dollar AI company to revolutionize their business. I think that’s an interesting indication of where we’re going. People might wrap it under “digital disruption,” but over the next 10, 20, or 50 years most industries will fundamentally change as techniques from AI become more pervasive.

Q: Excellent segue. Speaking of ‘disruption’ – what made you leave your life in Boston and come all the way to Red Ventures?

A: I worked at three startups in Boston – some successful, some the opposite. The last one was imploding in spectacular fashion (as startups will sometimes do), and it was time for a change. My wife asked if I’d consider moving to Charlotte, and I thought I was being clever by saying “yes.” (It was 2015, and I never imaged there’d actually be a Data Science job for me in Charlotte.) But she found Red Ventures, and six weeks later we were here.

Q: How has the Red Ventures data team changed since you’ve been a part of it?

A: When I joined RV, there were just three people on the whole data science team. Now, our team is nearly 150 (and includes several things beyond data science). It’s been awesome – and a little terrifying – to see that evolution. We started as “data science,” and that grew into “data analytics,” “data engineering,” and “data operations.” We also have entire teams devoted to building out proprietary tech products that leverage data. 

Q: That’s awesome! How about changes within Charlotte’s larger data community?

A: The really interesting thing about Charlotte today is that there are a number of organizations (spanning all parts of the economy) that are built on an analytics base. It all started with traditional banking, and that ultimately brought in FinTech. Now, you see more disruptive “unicorn” companies like Movement Mortgage, AvidXchange… and Red Ventures, of course. Businesses that are moving here (like Honeywell) or growing their presences here (like Lowe’s) are doing so with a more digital lens to their industry. And that’s all being driven by data and analytics. 

Bottom line: we’ve created a deep, enriched talent pool for data science here in Charlotte that will continue to pull in new industries and create new opportunities. 

Q: What are some of the most exciting opportunities you’ve been a part of so far?

A: To be perfectly honest, when I moved from Boston to Charlotte, I thought I was committing to moving twice. But that’s absolutely not the case. In Boston, there are tons of interesting things going on, and you can make random connections or luck your way into them. There are equally interesting things going on in Charlotte – you just have to be more intentional about seeking them out. It’s much more of a “big fish, small pond” feel. I don’t feel that I’m qualified to do half the things I do. Charlotte gives you big opportunities, faster.

For example, I help out with Wake Forest’s Masters of Business Analytics program. I’m part of their advisory board and I help design their curriculum. In any other city, I’m not sure I would have had this opportunity at this stage in my career.

Q: In addition to educating the youth of the future, you’re very involved in Charlotte’s community…

A: True. I’m the President of the Charlotte’s Analytics and Big Data society, which plays a matchmaking role between worthwhile causes and smart, energetic people who want to make the world better for everyone. This year, we held the Queen City Hackathon here at Red Ventures. We had a couple hundred data scientists come in from all across the city to work on two problems – the national opioid epidemic and homelessness at a local level. 

In Charlotte in particular, there’s this really interesting gap where there are lots of people with great nonprofit missions, who don’t have the funds or technical skills to really move the needle for their cause. Red Ventures does a lot to fill that gap. As one person, there’s only so much you can do. Everyone has to come together to create lasting change.

Q: That’s what we’re all about. What’s the secret to creating leaders and cultivating skills that can help us leave the woodpile higher than we found it?

A: Something I’ve learned over the course of my career (and that Red Ventures does really well) is this: if you give motivated people more responsibility than they think they deserve, they tend to surprise you – and themselves. We create leaders at RV by giving people a lot of autonomy. I find it funny to see the boxes that people put themselves in: “My role is to do X, Y, and Z.” The reality is that there are no boxes. You’ve got to be somebody who’s always searching for new experiences and pushing yourself beyond the boundaries you perceive.

In terms of developing your skills… I’m going to throw a math analogy at you. If you look at a career as having a starting point and an ending point, your ultimate ending point is dictated by the slope of where you started. Early in your career, it’s very important that you invest in yourself. Say yes to every opportunity.

Q: Brilliant. Looking back, would you say Red Ventures was an opportunity worth saying ‘yes’ to?

A: I’m going to give you a long, meandering answer – but hear me out. I’ve learned that a startup is basically a bet on three axises: 1) What does the future hold? 2) What is valuable in that future? 3) Can we get out of our own way to make our goals happen?

Startups typically fail because one of those three things don’t happen. 1) The future you predicted never comes 2) The thing you thought was going to be valuable wasn’t 3) You can’t get out of your own way, and you fail.

Red Ventures is really just a big startup. But instead of making one bet, we’re making 20 at a time. We’re very comfortable with the idea that 10 of them won’t go as planned – we just aren’t sure which ones. We have this robust portfolio across multiple industries that allows you to achieve innovation at scale. And that’s what keeps me saying “yes.”

About the Author:
John Thomas | EVP, Data Science
John Thomas

John Thomas joined Red Ventures in 2015 to launch Red Ventures’ data science team and has overseen a dramatic, machine-learning powered transformation of the Red Ventures digital marketing funnel. Prior to joining Red Ventures, John launched and led data science teams for several Boston-area startups in industries like social media analytics, online advertising, and telecom analytics. Outside of Red Ventures, he serves as the Data Science Committee Chair of the Analytics & Big Data Society in Charlotte and is a member of the advisory board of the Wake Forest Masters of Business Analytics program.

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