Join the rest of the Tellius family in giving a big welcome to John Aven to Head of Engineering at Tellius!
John is reporting to CEO and Founder Ajay Khanna and will focus on expanding capabilities for Tellius Decision Intelligence to help every company quickly analyze millions of data points and obtain insights that power better business decisions.
Based in Houston, Texas, John has 12 years of experience in creating ML and data-driven solutions across both major enterprises and startups that deliver successful digital, analytical, and cloud transformations. Prior to joining Tellius, he was the VP of Engineering at Mercury Data Science, where he led building out Data Engineer and Machine Learning Engineering consulting practices, focused on internal product development and overall IT operations. In his new role as Head of Engineering, John will focus on transforming product engineering and extending the benefits of automatable infrastructure, security, and DevOps practices & culture to the Tellius platform.
Let’s get to know John Aven a little more, both professionally and personally!
What was your background prior to joining the Tellius team?
This is a short question with a long answer. I wish it were shorter, but it really can’t be – so bear with me. My career path really started out in college – my plan had always been to be an academic and to go the Professor route. And I started this path by taking a PostDoc at NIMH – working under Arnold Mandell (MacArthur Fellow) and Richard Coppola. But, as life’s journey takes you, felt this life was just not for me. I had become jaded on this path. Around this time I recruited from that role to join a company by the name of Vialogy as their Sr Nonlinear Signal Processing Engineer/Mathematician/… (Data Scientist). That turned my life to the product and engineering side over the time I was there – leading R&d (little dev – I wasn’t formally an engineer and we had some brilliant engineers that drove the big D) and built my first ‘product’ – an internal test bench to rapidly test new analytics components and compare results.
Well, as life goes, startups unfortunately don’t always take the happy path and change happens. I moved on to a geophysicist role – wanted to stay in oil & gas and that was a natural path forward. Ends up the service side just churning cranks wasn’t for me and I shortly found myself back in the health sciences as a Computational Scientist at MD Anderson Cancer Center. It was here that I really started to spread those engineer wings. I played many roles in tandem: Data Scientist (researcher), Data Engineer, Software Engineer (Fullstack) – all while working with an amazing team and an amazing mentor – Clift Norris (Check out Norris Numbers and geek out a bit).
This was a stepping stone into my next journey as a Data Engineer at Sanchez Oil & Gas – where I lead and developed a team of amazing engineers – many of which I still work with today – all of whom are doing great things. It was a unique opportunity to greenfield the data engineering effort within a well established company. We worked closely with the Data Science team and played a mixed role of data engineer and what became known as an ML engineer – those were great times.
But I am a restless soul – always looking for a challenge – and growth. The challenges there were not enough for me anymore. I moved on to the consulting world – I wanted to be exposed to as many problems and business genre’s as possible. I went to work for Joe Caserta at Caserta as a mix of data engineer, data scientist and architect. While working with customers from finance to health sciences I got to see alot more of the business side of things and greater cloud exposure – plus the chance to work with Joe and his team of data assassins developing and even leading the work with customer from the technical side as well as for internal products / tools. The amount of travel here was not great for my family and so I had to make a change.
I wasn’t ready to move away from consulting – and took a job with Hashmap – later to be acquired by NTT Data. There I started as an Enterprise Architect working with some of the largest oil & gas companies in the world – the business was focused in Houston where I live so that was a bonus. After a very short stint I moved on to lead the sales engineering team and manage most all of our IT operations – all while taking ownership of internal product development – and still engaging with clients! This was a few too many hats to wear – so made a change with moving the sales engineering to the sales & marketing team and gradually moving away from active consulting – now as the Director of Engineering. I focused instead on product development and IT operations. I built up my team in India & the US to support these needs – building tools to help the consulting engagements and brand marketing.
Again looking for growth – I wanted to stay in the product vein – I moved on. The next venture was with Mercury Data Science. A great company full of amazing people – the PhD per capita would spin your head. I was brought on as the VP of Engineering. The plan was to build out a core data engineering practice and head up the product development side. Young company with many dreams. After some time the focus naturally shifted – or better matured and took a new form. The product vision was no longer the same – so – while a short stint – was a great visit and had the opportunity to work with many amazing people and to help bring in some out-of-class engineers – and even turn some data scientists to the dark side of ML engineering (maybe you are welcome?).
Why did you choose Tellius?
My mind was still firmly set on product and was ramping up to start my own company – and then came Tellius. A few quick conversations, Ajay Khanna’s energy and vision and the potential of what Tellius is to what Tellius can be as the arrow of time moves forward – I was hopeless – this is where I needed to be. And there is absolutely zero regret for putting my projects on hold. I get to work with an amazing team of engineers in India – and gladly spend time early AM or late PM conversing, planning, building and discussing what we are doing. The growth here is just astounding – folks are driven beyond compare and the work we doing is … well let’s just say – it is what many teams dream of doing, it is what we are doing.
What are your primary objectives at Tellius?
To put it simply – to grow the company from within. To build a product engineering center of excellence that far exceeds others – this may seem like a reach – but this is the goal and we won’t stop short. In the time I have been here we have transformed the engineering practice in key areas – project management, code management, DevOps and automation, and many more – and this change is the constant – we will never stop changing.
What challenges are you helping Tellius navigate in the industry right now?
Challenge? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder and in what scope are you considering ‘industry’. Do you mean software industry or data analytics industry? I can answer both really, since they both heavily apply for me.
In the data analytics industry there is a continuing need for business users to
- Get access to data
- Visualize the data
- Get insights from the data
The issue that Tellius solves is putting this in the business user’s hands. I don’t personally like the ‘democratization’ language used in industry as it pins the business against the engineer – as if the engineering side is holding data hostage – it is just that they needs never had a common ground. There are still needs for data engineering & core data science and all they do – but there is an equal need for the business side to get answers quick when the engineering side doesn’t have everything put together. This is adding agility to the business – think of it that way.
And what we are doing is building more tools to further and continuously empower the business to make quicker decisions with less hassle. This means building in new capabilities, with simple and clear functionality, that are performant and push the boundaries of possible. This means continuously improving the UI & backend, improving how solutions are implemented or even changing how they are implemented – this could go on… But this is also where the engineering side comes into play.
The engineering function – in all of its non-glorious incredibleness – has many hurdles – hurdles we are jumping and looking for more obstacles to manuever. The vision for the engineering department can be characterized as “Bridge the divide – shore up weaknesses – share accountability – automate all the things”
But what does this mean:
- Bridge the divide – There must always be opennes, transparency and collaboration between engineering and other functions of the business. If we can not be transparent, then we can not function.
- Shore up weaknesses – all engineering organizations (and I would argue any business function) is full of weaknesses. The process of change and improvement is to identify the greatest of these weaknesses and make corrections – and then iterate. These weaknesses are constraints.
- Share accountability – it is all too easy to point fingers, especially in engineering. Any failure, misunderstanding, etc… It is only human nature to point the finger. But here we work together – it aint perfect, but we are working towards blamelessness.
- Automate all the things – yes that sounds buzz wordy, but it is also a mantra. Many if not most bottlenecks in software come from repeating processes manually that can fully be automated: QA, testing, packaging, deployment, event remediation, security, etc…
The challenges come from all of these four areas in engineering – and it will never be perfect. Business grows – evolves – iterates … and so must the solutions that are put in place. We are still a relatively small team – and going through growth – so how, when and to what extent we solve issues in each iteration has the unique constraints that come with this cycle at Tellius.
What made you want to work in data analytics?
If you ask me I have always been in data analytics. That’s what mathematics and statistics is, right! I have always loved working with data – throughout my entire career I have been working with it in one capacity or another. You can say I work my dream job.
How do you spend your free time outside of work?
A mix of many things, honestly. I love spending time with my wife and sons. Going to museums, parks, to see a movie, whatever. Playing video games with my oldest, horsing around and wrestling with the kids, just doing dad things.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am an avid bowler. If my wife allowed it – I’d be at the bowling alley every second I could… Some folks have the same ‘issue’ with golf – I don’t see the issue. This is where I get away from it all – where I clear my head and keep my sanity.
Hit me up if you wanna know more about the bowling world – I can go on for days. Ever the scientist in me pops out.
If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you would buy?
Depends on how much money we are talking about. But, without hesitation, a bowling ball company – or I would start my own. Then a new house – cause Lottery. The rest go into investments (well… amount dependent maybe a car).
If you had to eat one food every single day, what would it be?
Okay, hear me out. I know folks can get all basic with this. Not gonna say Pizza, Ice Cream, Sushi – nothing pedestrian like that. Maybe this is a little extra, but my favorite dish I can only get when visiting my in-laws in China. The spicy dumplings you can get in my wife’s hometown at various restaurants/eateries/cafe’s (honestly not sure the correct term) for breakfast are absolutely to die for – I have to have them multiple times when I visit. I could absolutely eat these every single day!
Thanks for taking the time to chat John! We are so excited to have you in the Tellius Family!