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Trupanion Chief Data Scientist with his dog Lily.
Trupanion Chief Data Scientist with his one of the office dogs, Padfoot.

TJ Houk leads data and analytics for Trupanion, a Seattle-based health insurance service for pets.

“We study trends to make sure our prices are accurate across the many characteristics of our policies (breed, geography, age, etc.) and also work with our partners across the business to use data to optimize operations,” he explains.

To unwind from all of that, Houk likes to listen to live jazz — and that’s not his only retro quirk. He also buys CDs, though often doesn’t unwrap them. For Houk, the CDs serve as reminders to check out new musicians he sees.

We caught up with Houk to find out what he’s listening to, how he unwinds, and more, for this installment of Working Geek. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current Location:  “We just moved our offices to Georgetown.”

Computer types: “HP laptop.”

Mobile devices: “LG.”

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools:  “Uber has been one of the greatest services for me – it makes travel much more pleasant and efficient. We have two main goals driving our data analytics team: Transparently sharing information to users around the company and using advanced analytics to identify big value-add wins. Sisense is a great tool for sharing data.  DataRobot helps us efficiently use machine learning to come up with big wins.”

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “I’m highly mobile, so my workspace is my laptop wherever I happen to be. I have a desk in an open environment with my team, which facilitates collaboration.”

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Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “Surround yourself with people you trust, and preferably ones who are forgiving. My team keeps my work life manageable, and life is much easier to manage when sharing with people who are easy to live with.”

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “Twitter. I like the broad network and reading what’s being discussed by the leaders in their fields helps me stay on top of mine.”

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “A handful. I generally clear it on a nightly basis but try not to get in my head that everything must be answered immediately – I have to force myself to keep from checking and responding to email constantly.”

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “22.  It’s pretty typical to have about 75 percent of my time during typical business hours scheduled up.”

How do you run meetings? “I insist on having a clear purpose for the meeting and can be annoying about driving people back to that specific purpose. Some people are surprised to find that I used to be the quiet one in meetings and felt talked over, so I try to help everyone have a voice, without always succeeding.”

Everyday work uniform? “Jeans and button down shirt.”

How do you make time for family? “Just do it.  It’s how one makes time for anything. I’m single, so it’s a bit different for me, but managing relationships takes commitment.” 

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “I like a dark bar and a good saxophonist. Music allows me to get out of my head and get caught up in the experience.” 

What are you listening to? “I make sure to buy CDs from local artists when I travel so I remember them; often times, I don’t unwrap them, but I do remember to track down their music. I have some great jazz from Chicago and New Orleans that has been getting a lot of play time.    

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “My daily reading list is pretty sizable. For general media, it’s Quartz and Vox. I stay up with a number of VCs, including Fred Wilson, Mark Suster, Ben Horowitz, Marc Andreessen. Moz and Neil Patel are favorite sources for trends in digital marketing.  Favorite data science sources are Hilary Mason, ODSC, fivethirtyeight, Yhat, kdnuggets.” 

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “I’m reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. Studying behavioral economics has been extremely valuable to me; understanding behavioral economics helps with understanding customer behavior, understanding how to build collaborative teams, and helping to be self-aware of my own biases (I hope).  As an analytics professional, understanding behavior is crucial to building strong models. Ariely, Daniel Kahneman, and Stephen Levitt are good places to start.”

Night owl or early riser? What are your sleep patterns? “I tend to be up late. That’s when I can focus on big things. In the mornings, I focus on getting my small tasks out of the way. I can’t focus on the big stuff until those are out of the way, which usually means starting to dig in around 10 in the evening.  It’s not uncommon for my team to come to work in the morning to find a long list of emails sent roughly 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. the previous evening.” 

Where do you get your best ideas? “Talking to other experts. Explaining a challenge I’m facing often triggers for me a solution.”

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “Jeff Bezos.  Few are great at both innovating and process optimization, and I think that comes down to habits and focus.”

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