Robbie Allen is a serial entrepreneur, the youngest Distinguished Engineer in Cisco history, and a big UNC hoops fan—and not necessarily in that order.
After Cisco (or during it, really), he combined his love for data, programming, and Carolina blue to create StatSheet in 2007. StatSheet later moved beyond sports and became Automated Insights, with the same basic mission of turning data into a written narrative automatically. AI was purchased by the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners in 2015 and Allen stepped aside as CEO in 2017, though AI itself is still going strong in Durham.
After a (very) brief, bucolic stint as a PhD student in computer science at UNC, Allen couldn’t help himself from jumping at the opportunity to be the CEO of Infinia ML, the Durham-based machine learning company started by Duke scientist Dr. Larry Carin. That’s where Robbie was when we cornered him with some questions.
Q. Like a star college athlete, you basically turned pro early—leaving school after your junior year to work fulltime at Cisco in Silicon Valley. How did that come about, and would you make the same choice again?
A. I like that analogy! I did an internship my sophomore year at the now defunct, IBM-Networking Hardware Division in RTP (my office was in the same building as the Frontier is now.) That summer I heard about a company down the road called Cisco that was eating IBM’s lunch. I applied to intern at Cisco the following summer and was accepted. Things went so well that my Cisco manager told me they needed programmers as fast as they could hire them. They wanted to move me to Silicon Valley and let me finish my degree in my “spare time.” It ultimately took me 10 years to complete my bachelor’s degree, but I’d do it all over again. I always thought the point of going to college was to get a good job, so why would I let completing my degree get in the way?
Q. You were the youngest-ever Distinguished Engineer at Cisco (age 31) and the first to work all the way up from intern. So, as an expert, tell us what’s more distinguished: hair that’s graying at the temples, or a tweed blazer with elbow patches?
A. I have both!
Q. When you were getting two master’s degrees at MIT, you made a list of the things that you were most passionate about. Why, what was on it, and what was the result?
A. I went to MIT to learn what it took to build a company. I’m an engineer by background, so I thought I’d take a couple of classes and learn everything I needed to know to create a startup. Turns out there is a little more to it!
There were tons of business leaders that would give talks at MIT. I even blogged about it (archived site available here.) The speakers had great advice, but it varied dramatically in terms of the “best” way to start or run a company. The one pretty consistent tidbit I heard was you need to be passionate about your business. When the going gets tough (and it inevitably does with a startup), if you aren’t passionate about your business, it will be too easy to close up shop instead of persevering. That really resonated with me because any time in my career that I was passionate about something, I’d put in the time necessary to be successful at it.
After I completed my degrees at MIT, I moved back to NC and made a list of the things I was passionate about. The one problem with that advice is by definition you aren’t passionate about many things, and how many of those are great business opportunities? Anyway, my list in 2006 was: 1) doing interesting things with data, 2) web programing, and 3) UNC sports. The intersection of that became a sports-focused website I built for stat geeks called StatSheet (the precursor to Automated Insights.)
Q. Who was the most successful chief executive among Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Dean Smith?
A. That’s a tough one. I’m not sure whether Gates or Jobs would be 2nd after Dean.
Success is a very subjective term. It depends what you consider as the measuring stick. Bill Gates was a ruthless businessman, but one of the greatest philanthropists of our time. Steve Jobs was a visionary, but by all accounts, very difficult to be around. If I had to pick one person on the list to have a conversation with, it would be Dean Smith. He certainly was successful in his field, and I think I’d learn the most from him and his approach to building teams.
Q. You were pretty early on Twitter with Statsheet (later Automated Insights). What was that like?
A. It was a computer geek’s version of the Wild West. It grew very rapidly, but no one really knew where it was going. There were very few rules. You could do just about anything (until Twitter decided you couldn’t.) I had a couple run-ins with Twitter that TechCrunch covered. See here and here.
Q. At GrepBeat, we definitely understand the challenge of monetizing editorial content. How did Automated Insights solve that problem?
A. The original concept behind Automated Insights was that for certain types of content, namely quantitatively-based content like sports recaps, you could create hyper-personalized, automated stories. Instead of the traditional media model of trying to write one story that a million people read, I thought through automation you could write a million stories that were read by one reader each.
Q. If you could make a secret deal with the Devil—not the Blue Devils, but Satan—to guarantee a national championship for UNC hoops, what would you be willing to give up in exchange, whether monetary or barter?
A. Considering we just won a championship in 2017, I don’t feel the need to give up too much. That said, just to show how much a championship is worth, I’d take losing to Duke at home AND away in exchange for a championship. But just barely. Actually, I take that back.
Q. After a decade running Automated Insights, you stepped aside and started a PhD program in computer science at UNC—which usually takes 4-5 years to complete. But midway through your very first semester, you took over as CEO at Infinia ML. What was it about the Infinia opportunity that convinced you to give up the cushy life of an independently wealthy PhD student to run another startup?
A. It was the initial founding team.
It wasn’t the idea behind the company or the fact that we had $10 million in initial funding. I was already formulating ideas for my next company. And I was in the fortunate position to have investors that were interested in funding my next startup. But when I met Infinia ML’s chief scientist, Dr. Larry Carin, I was blown away not only at how brilliant he was, but also very humble. And the same went for the initial team of data scientists. They were extremely smart, but they were all good people that I thought I could work with and learn from. Over a year later I’m happy to say the team is incredible and we’ve only added to it! At times it feels like I’m still getting a PhD by what I’m learning from our team.
Q. What’s the next big thing for Infinia?
A. World Domination™. And, slightly before that, helping companies deploy machine learning to make real business impact.
Q. Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, or This is Us?
A. Alaska: The Last Frontier
Q. How much do you love the GrepBeat Newsletter?
A. This much:
$ grep -i GrepBeat bookmarks.html
[Editor’s Note: We’re going to take that as a compliment.]