Meet A Minnesota CTO: Derek Rucker, Carrot Health

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screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-1-32-24-pmThank you Andcor Companies for underwriting our Meet a Minnesota CTO series, where we get up close and personal with Minnesota’s chief techies.

The CTO: Derek Rucker, Carrot Health

How long have you been working in technology for and what is your technical background?

I’ve been in technology all my life. My 8th grade science fair project was a rudimentary database and front-end I created on my Apple IIe. My undergrad is in engineering from MIT, and my PhD and MBA are from the University of Michigan. I learned HTML in grad school, made a bunch of websites for friends and family, but chose to continue my studies rather than becoming part of the dotcom boom. Still not sure if that was a good move or a bad one.

Upon graduation with my PhD, I hired in to Seagate Technology using data science (before it was called data science) to develop cutting edge hard drives, and I’ve been working in technology ever since. My career has moved from hardware to software, and from hard drives to healthcare… but the one constant is that I’m still working in technology.

What are you focused on right now?

Several different projects simultaneously. Since 80% of health outcomes are driven by non-clinical parameters, we are testing a natural language machine learning chatbot that helps healthcare professionals change the behavior of their patients. This has involved a *lot* of API and database interactions. We’re also architecting a new data warehouse to deal with the explosion of datasets that we have had recently. The legacy systems barely keeping up, and we need to be able to continue to scale. We’re also creating an online health dashboard for those serving a patient population, providing mathematically modeled risk assessments based on non-clinical, publically available data… as well as areas for behavior improvement opportunity and interventions. And, of course, we are always continuing to create and improve predictive algorithms for various diseases and behaviors from non-PHI data.

What are the some of the technologies within your company and IT environment?

We are nearly completely cloud-based. Our entire on-premises hardware stack consists of mobile phones and laptops. We’ve got hundreds of terabytes of storage and dozens of servers… they just reside in an AWS data center in Oregon, not in our local offices. Our big data analytics is all done using R and our IDE for R is RStudio. Data is stored in a combination of Redshift, MySQL, and Snowflake databases. Along with the occasional AWS S3 bucket. Our API servers are all Ubuntu boxes running Node.js and Express. The natural language machine learning is done using Api.ai. Our security stack? I’m keeping that one to myself. Seriously, security is one of our biggest concerns, and while revealing what tools we use probably doesn’t give much away, I’m still not going to go there.

How do you ensure that IT plans, projects and objectives are aligned with business outcomes?

This really isn’t a problem for us. We’re small and flat enough that everyone in the organization knows all business prospects and needs at all times. As those change, we adjust the IT plans, projects, and objectives accordingly. Ask me again when we’re a huge multinational corporation, and I’ll have a different answer.

What is the size of your department and how is it organized/managed?

Short answer… small and flat. We work in a loose agile framework, with typically 2 week sprints. We’re a startup, and do amazing things with small budgets, tight timelines, and few (if any) documented requirements. In order to pull this off, I can’t spend too much time managing. I need to be one of the contributors as well as the leader. Most of our meetings are informal and ad-hoc, and just enough to keep us all aligned. And they always involve caffeinated beverages. This team is awesome, and I am so proud to be a part of it. I still can’t believe some of the stuff we’ve accomplished.

How does your company approach recruiting and retention for technical positions in an increasingly competitive market?

We have a major advantage on the competition: we’re a startup, and startups are cool. What I’ve found is that many of the really skilled people we want are more motivated by intangibles than by dollars. They know that their skills are valuable, and they want to get what they care most about… a chance to work on world-changing projects, develop their skills in new directions, and be valued as a critical part of an awesome and dynamic team. We can’t pay top dollar for talent, but we sure can provide the most awesome place to work. And that seems to be enough.

How do you personally keep up with the ever changing technology landscape?

I love this part of my job! I get to learn new stuff every day. Technology fascinates me, and I pull my info from everywhere I can. I would love to be able to learn every new technology and coding language myself (except maybe PHP… why bother when you could just do it with node.js?), but it just isn’t feasible. I have to content myself with learning enough about each (and its’ place in the ecosystem) to understand where I should spend my team’s limited resources. The trick is making sure I know what has already been done, and what can be quickly adapted for our needs. Developing these days isn’t coding so much as it is putting Lego pieces together. As in all Lego projects, the trick is finding, in that jumble of options, the right pieces that both do what you need and fit with your existing structure.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

Self-driving cars!!!!! Seriously? That is way too cool for words. I am *so* there. Cloud computing is also crazy cool. I can spin up a 36 core machine with 250G RAM for $1.50 per hour. And if I want more, I can turn them on or off within 60 seconds. Computing power is available at a scale and price point that is completely mind-blowing. It means that small startups (like Carrot Health, for instance) can have the computing horsepower of a Fortune 500… when they need it. And pay for it only on an as-needed basis. The implications of this are only beginning to be felt in the industry. There is so much legacy mindset about on-premises hardware that we can’t even envision yet how many ways this is going to disrupt things.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

Two things concern me most, and they are related. The first is that a mathematical model can only predict the future based upon the past. But what if there is embedded bias in the historical data used to train the model? Then the predictive algorithm will *also* have that bias. This can lead to unintentionally programming things like racism into our predictive algorithms. And this leads to my other big concern… public perception of technology, and specifically algorithms using big data. There is a growing concern and distrust of predictive algorithms in the non-technical population. This is partly fear of the unknown, but also the outgrowth of embedded algorithm bias described earlier. If this mistrust becomes too serious, it could have chilling effects on the development of technologies of all sort.

What are you into outside of technology?

I am the father of three of the most impressive girls I have ever met. That definitely takes a lot of time, as it involves being chauffeur, cook, psychotherapist, handyman, friend, and confidante. I enjoy good food and wine, and not coincidentally, I run at least one marathon a year. This year, I managed three, so I figure I’m good through 2018. I’m really just trying to keep up with my 76-year old father who can *still* outrun me at any distance, and who managed four marathons this year. I enjoy adventure travel, but don’t get to do it nearly often enough. I also love reading, mostly fantasy and sci-fi. Lastly, I am a lapsed computer gamer, and former World of Warcraft Guildmaster. Who knew this CTO thing would take so much time?

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry?

I have not had any trouble finding the cutting-edge skillsets we need. The Minnesota tech industry may not be as large or as famous as that of San Jose or Boston, but it does have something going for it. Minnesotans. People here are easier to work with in several ways. There are fewer prima-donnas. They stay at a job for more than six months. They are willing to admit when they don’t know something. They are happy to learn new skills. And they are motivated by more than just financial gain. All these make Minnesota very appealing. There is, however, a small issue of risk tolerance (or should I say risk-aversion) that holds Minnesota back. Silicon Valley is all about failing fast. Minnesota seems to be more about not failing. Or not starting until you are *completely* certain you won’t fail (i.e. never).

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I totally love my job. Where else do you get paid to keep up on the coolest stuff in tech? I mean, I’d be doing that *anyway*!

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