An Intuition for Scale

Bobby (BS ’98) and Ann Johnson (BS ’99, MS ’00)

Bobby (BS ’98) and Ann Johnson (BS ’99, MS ’00)

Bobby (BS ’98) and Ann Johnson (BS ’99, MS ’00) today announced the public launch of their company, Interana, a data analytics startup in Menlo Park.

We interviewed the Johnson's for the winter 2013 issue of E&S.

“A lot of the things that you think a company like Facebook is doing with its data right now, it turns out that it can’t,” Bobby Johnson says. “The tools  that exist just aren’t good enough.”

He ought to know. Bobby served for six years at the social media giant, rising through the ranks to become director of engineering, charged with scaling the technology as the site grew from hundreds of thousands of users to nearly one billion.

With its exponential growth, Facebook was often in jeopardy of being crushed under its own digital weight. Bobby helped develop software, build infrastructure, and grow an army of engineers to keep the site humming as hundreds of millions signed on. Then, to collect the massive amounts of data  coming in from servers around the world, he wrote a program called Scribe, which was so effective that Facebook eventually made it open source.

Starting a business isn’t some magical thing, it’s a real skill to be taken seriously. It can be learned, but it’s important to find the people you trust to give you support and advice.

“Most people don’t have a good feel for scale,” says Ann, who met Bobby while the two were students at Caltech in the late ‘90s; they married right after graduation. “Many think that after a million, the next large amount is a billion, without understanding how enormously different those numbers really are. Bobby has a strong intuition for it.”

Now that the race is on to analyze the huge troves of data collected by services around the world, Bobby’s intuition tells him there’s a flaw in  the existing system for doing so. 

“Most information still ends up in standard databases,” he says. Such systems were built to put data into neat boxes, making them less useful for  finding relationships in these large, amorphous, and interconnected streams. “You can track statistics, but you can’t really draw meaningful patterns.” 

So Bobby and Ann joined with one of Bobby’s like-minded colleagues from Facebook to form Interana, a company created with the goal of designing a next generation platform capable of analyzing extremely large and loosely structured data sets. Ann serves as the chief executive, while Bobby directs the technology development. 

Still in its early stages, the company has grown quickly, quietly generating buzz. “Caltech trains us to take an unknown, break it down to first principles and solve it,” says Bobby. 

“Starting a business isn’t some magical thing, it’s a real skill to be taken seriously. It can be learned, but it’s important to find the people you trust to give you support and advice.”