Geek of the Week: Olly Downs on stats, science and racecars

Seattle tech veteran Olly Downs, senior vice president of data sciences at Globys, has made a habit of turning data into useful applications — including a past role as principal scientist at INRIX, working on technologies to predict traffic jams. So it’s only fitting that he likes to spend some of his off-hours speeding around an open track in a racecar.

The native of Budleigh Salterton, a small coastal town in England, was introduced to the sport by his father and started racing go-karts when he was 13 years old. He progressed from there and picked it back up after he moved to the U.S., becoming a regular at Pacific Raceways south of Seattle.

Racing is “very much like doing the mathematician part of my work — it requires 100 percent of my focus, so there’s no room for anything else to creep in,” says Downs, who has worked for a variety of tech companies, large and small.

Meet our latest Geek of the Week. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

What do you do, and what does it mean to you?

I invent advanced technologies based on mathematical and statistical science and bring them to bear in technology solutions that impact people in the real world.  What I very much enjoy is the connection that it is possible to create between a nuanced piece of mathematics and a capability that has a very tangible benefit or impact on an experience in daily life.  What I’m working on at Globys actually changes customer behavior, which is fascinating to observe!

What’s the single most important thing that people should know about your field? 

Get rid of the notion that mathematicians and statisticians can only be actuarists!  You’d be surprised how broadly technology from my field – which is a hybrid of computer science, applied mathematics and theoretical physics – is being deployed in daily life.  Technologies that I have worked on;  stop unnecessary marketing to customers and deliver relevant messages through the right communications in the right context, optimize route calculations in your navigation system to minimize journey time and avoid traffic,  make it cost effective for small businesses to advertise online, improve the accuracy of medical billing, trade commodities and currencies to maximize the value of an investor’s portfolio, amongst other things!

Where do you find your inspiration?

Somewhere between turns 5A, 5B and 6 at Pacific Raceways in Kent. (See picture.)

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why?

It’s my iPhone for sure – the only place where many aspects of my digital and physical life come together.  I have multiple calendars that only converge elegantly on my iPhone, I access social media almost exclusively via my phone, and I frequently use it to actually talk to people!

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? 

Everyone on my team sits together in a small sunny enclave of our office on the Ship Canal.  We have very open and dynamic collaboration on a daily basis, a ton of whiteboard space and I think we’re very productive because of it.

Inside the Globys Data Sciences workspace

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.)

I’m still learning! With life – nothing is more important than your family, make sure they come first and that they know it!  With work – find the time and environment in which you are most productive and prioritize ruthlessly to make the most of it.

Mac, Windows or Linux?

Tough one.  I use them all daily, but my ideal setup is:  MacBook Pro running Windows 7 via Parallels Desktop, and a hefty chunk of Amazon AWS instances running Linux for crunching Big Data!

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko?

Definitely Kirk – although I’m not of the original Star Trek generation, by a long way, I grew up in the UK on Original Series repeats and Next Generation!

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility?

I think we might find all three of these end up being the same thing, they all involve warping actual or perceived space-time in some way — so I’ll take pushing forward our understanding of the quantum world to make these possible.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: PAST GEEKS OF THE WEEK

Bill Sleeper

Beth Goza

Jared Roach

FULL GEEK OF THE WEEK ARCHIVE

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would …

Pour it into the new business we’re incubating here at Globys.  Every business has the opportunity to leverage what they know about their customers in order to be more relevant in how they engage with them, particularly when doing so via a mobile device.   At Globys we have the opportunity to help businesses enhance the experience of millions of customers around the world by making the technologies of my discipline effective and easy for businesses to bring to bear in delivering those experiences.  The result is a much lower friction interaction between customer and business that results in deeper engagement.

I once waited in line for … The standby audience for the Letterman show in NYC – Summer of 1997, the guest was Julia Roberts!

Your role models:  

  • John Hopfield – a great interdisciplinary scientist, not afraid to dive in and think about a new problem space and innovate in it!  Truly humble about his great and at times controversial accomplishments.
  • David Heckerman – great mentor, one of the pioneers in bringing Machine Learning to software at Microsoft Research, another great interdisciplinarian, now bringing these technologies to bear on HIV vaccine design and genomics.

Greatest Game In History: Any Varsity Rugby match where Cambridge beats Oxford!

Best Gadget Ever: I’m still waiting for it!  I’d like a light, responsive tablet that works for business applications, not just for media consumption and entertainment apps!

First computer: Sinclair ZX Spectrum (48K)

Current phone:  iPhone 4

Favorite app: INRIX Traffic – Never Be Late Again!

Favorite hangout:

  • Mojito and Mint Hookah at Rhumbar at the Mirage Hotel, Las Vegas
  • 6am Coffee at Milstead & Co. in Fremont

Favorite cause: Programs addressing need near and far and making it personal – DonorsChoose and Compassion.

Most important technology of 2012: D-Wave One.

Most important technology of 2015: Well, I hope it’s something to do with scalable clean energy!

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Don’t be an incremental thinker, have the confidence to approach a problem that is “well understood” differently rather than conventionally and see where it takes you.

Sites: GlobysPersonal SiteLinkedIn

Twitter: @mathandporsches


Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more.

Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to tips@geekwire.com.