When you first meet Aaron Kalb, you are immediately struck by his boundless enthusiasm for meeting human challenges with bionic solutions. Speaking with Aaron sometimes feels like you suddenly woke up a decade into the future (only he’s already there and you’re struggling to keep up).
Born into a world where information often seems more overwhelming than helpful, Aaron was inspired, along with Venky Ganti, Feng Niu and myself, to build a collaborative software platform that helps people find, understand and take advantage of data to make better decisions. Using data to solve a problem involving too much data isn’t unique in itself. What is unique is that we thought there was an opportunity for software to teach people how to better use data (and to use it more often). Today, we call this data literacy. Aaron’s background in Symbolic Systems and Linguistics was critical to our realization that data was just another language—comprehensible to machines, but hard to understand for most humans.
I was thrilled to hear that he is being honored by the Silicon Valley Business Journal by being named to its prestigious list of 40 under 40 rising technology stars for 2017. Every founder wants a co-founder who believes when it’s hard to have faith, who brings energy to every interaction, and who infects others with his intelligence and insight. For me, Aaron is that cofounder and this recognition could not be better deserved!
A human-centric approach
Aaron graduated from Stanford University with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Symbolic Systems, concentrating in Human Computer Interaction. Prior to graduating with distinction, he landed a role at Apple, where he started as a software engineer on iOS, inventing patented computational linguistics technologies. Later, he was a founding member of the Siri Advanced Development Group, responsible for features like hands-free text messaging, “Hey Siri,” and third-party app integration. Throughout, his role was to conduct data-driven research into users’ behaviors and interests, and figure out how to use cutting-edge techniques in natural language processing, machine learning and computational semantics to make Siri faster and more accurate.
This prior work helped Aaron home in on the problem he wished to solve: making it easy for humans and computers to work together to solve problems — without the humans having to learn the computer’s language. At Alation, we are united around the idea that anyone in an enterprise should have the ability to understand and gain insight from data. Today, Aaron’s vision has come to fruition through Alation’s offerings, which leverage machine learning to help humans find trustworthy data in an “English in, Answers out” interface.
In order to “take the ‘labor’ out of ‘collaboration’”, the Alation team implemented algorithms for “Behavior I/O”: observing prior behavior to improve future behavior. These techniques use machine learning to parse patterns out of usage logs and recommend best practices for which data sets to use for particular tasks, how to blend and filter them, and how to interpret results. Rather than having to be explicitly taught, the computer can learn from watching people do their jobs and “eavesdrop” on their interactions. An instantiation of Behavior I/O is SmartSuggest — one of several patented technologies Aaron co-invented — which, in user testing, has been shown to empower analysts (even those with little experience) to write SQL queries on complex, unfamiliar data sets in a fraction of the time and with fewer mistakes than with their previously preferred tool.
At Alation, we have always promoted a culture that is flat enough to allow innovators like Aaron to thrive while still benefiting from the collective experience of the rest of the Alation team.
Aaron’s passion for data literacy, technology and education is contagious and extends far beyond his role at Alation. He has worked tirelessly to give back to the community through his work with educational non-profits, including the Stanford School Redesign Network, Stanford Splash!, and StartX. We’re particularly proud of the role he is already playing to help enable the next generation of entrepreneurs by breaking down barriers to entry. If you’ve ever heard Aaron speak publicly, you’ll have a sense of how informative and fun he can be as a teacher.
Congrats Aaron! We know the future accomplishments ahead of you will dwarf what you’ve done in the past!