The AlphaTECH Experience: A Proven Startup
AlphaSights CTO Heath Hohwald is known for many things. He exhibits strong leadership on our software engineering team and has work experience at Amazon, Google, and Shutterstock. But what most people don’t know — largely because he keeps it under wraps — is that he worked on “All Product Search” at Amazon, spell correction (think: “Did you mean?”) at Google, and his algorithms and code were executed for the majority of searches on both platforms. Most people find that pretty cool, but according to Heath, his family just blamed him anytime they couldn’t find something online! Another fun fact? He was GitHub’s one millionth user. Sadly, he had to refuse the octocats t-shirt since the delivery fee cost more than half of his wardrobe at the time. Since starting in January, Heath has enjoyed working alongside his colleagues and appreciates the many perks of working on the AlphaSights engineering team. We sat down to get his take.
Can you talk more about the “proven startup” balance AlphaSights provides employees?
We are very fortunate as engineers to find ourselves in a “proven startup” environment. We maintain many startup advantages but within the setting of a successful company. There are several startups in our space that attack our same core problem with a heavy machine learning focus. When looking to improve and update our approach, we saw that machine learning could greatly increase team efficiency. As a “proven startup”, we didn’t need to spend half our time putting together pitch books and looking for funding. We went right to work and were able to bring in a Head of Data Science to start building out the team and dive into problem solving.
There are many times we feel like a startup and other times we feel like a well-established firm. Similar to other startups, we are able to move quickly as a tech team. We try new ideas all the time. We have bi-weekly “Sandbox Days,” where the team tests high-risk ideas to continue bottom-up idea generation. We don’t have the enormous tech debt anchors weighing us down like those typically found in more mature companies. A good portion of our technology is built for our in-house Client Service Team, who we can speak with in-person to gather direct feedback. Having a tight feedback loop really is a luxury. Our team is small enough that engineers are able to get to know one another really well and work on a variety of interesting problems without feeling “pigeonholed.”
We have been in business for more than 10 years, which is the “proven” part of the term “proven startup.” AlphaSights profitably self-funded its growth for the last eight years. We are a global company with nine offices around the world. We are a very diverse group with different skills and backgrounds. Our data science initiatives benefit from ten years of business at scale to extract signal from. Due to our large size and scale, our engineers make a large impact from day one. Having worked at a startup that didn’t make it, I can also attest to the peace of mind AlphaSights provides. We don’t have to worry about the constant pressure of making the next funding round. Instead of thinking about our “financial runway,” we focus all of our efforts on building great tech and testing a number of initiatives without fearing that the company won’t make it if we fail.
What is your professional background and experience in the industry?
I began my career over twenty years ago in financial services. I worked for BlackRock as a financial analyst back when it was 130 people (it’s now 100 times larger!). I later entered a PhD program at UCLA, focusing on AI. I actually left the program before finishing because I realized the majority of the research in the field was happening in industry, not in school. My first stop was A9, a subsidiary of Amazon. I was a member of the search relevance team and helped design and implement an algorithm that was executed on nearly every search, combining results from various store fronts. I later moved to Google, where I was part of the Search Quality team and was lucky enough to work on the redesign of the spelling correction service (“Did you mean?”). After that, I spent some time at Telefonica working as a researcher in social networks and then moved to Shutterstock for six years. There, I slowly transitioned from an individual contributor on the search team to an Engineering Manager to the team’s Director. I joined AlphaSights at the start of 2018.
Throughout my time at A9/Amazon, Google, Shutterstock, and now AlphaSights, I noticed one common denominator: my interest in search technology. While AlphaSights is not a search company per se, a large part of what we do is search. We search the globe for the perfect advisor to serve as a knowledge source and partner for our clients. It’s a fascinating intellectual and engineering problem: how do we sort through hundreds of millions of potential advisors to find the very small handful that can meet the clients’ needs?
I’m fortunate to have worked at multiple companies experiencing tremendous growth. BlackRock, Amazon, and Google all share a few common elements to power growth. I see these same growth aspects at AlphaSights: strong client focus, willingness to take chances, strong investment in technology, and an unbending commitment to continuous improvement.
How does the engineering team at AlphaSights differ from others that you’ve been a part of?
Every company is unique with different values. One striking aspect of our team is how quickly we can move. It’s surprisingly easy to align with stakeholders, due to the fact that most of our software is developed for internal consumption. Our users sit right next to us, providing an extremely tight feedback cycle. It is much easier to understand the meat of the problem and the pain points we are trying to solve.
Since joining in January, I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at how well the team gets along. We all know each other really well and are committed to helping each other solve tough problems. The team is also open to remote workers, which is harder to find in larger companies. We continue to seek the best talent and are committed to training every new hire to make a meaningful impact.
How do you encourage professional growth and bonding within the Software Engineering team?
I take the professional development of every team member very seriously. We are only as good as each of our team members, so we invest in their growth and learning. We encourage professional growth through mentorships from senior tech leaders, attending beneficial conferences, taking online courses, and dedicating our 10% time to explore ambitious ideas. Engineers are able to move between teams, ensuring a constant set of challenging and diverse projects. We also have regular team tech talks, where everyone shares their own expertise. For example, I recently gave a talk covering some learnings over the years around common gotchas in productionizing machine learning models.
In terms of bonding, we have a pretty tight-knit group. I attribute a lot of that to AlphaSights’ great company culture. Our team regularly eats lunch together, in and out of the office. We also have team outings and offsites to build trust and friendships that can be difficult to create in the office. A few weeks ago, we left work early and had some fun in the sun (and water!) at a lake house in New Jersey. We’re currently planning an international engineering offsite to encourage bonding and refresh some relationships with our engineers working from all sides of the globe.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about the software engineering team at AlphaSights?
People may be surprised that many of our team members have a musical talent or background. We have professional and award-winning drummers, guitarists, and even a ukulele player. Over the years we’ve toyed with the idea of launching an engineering band!