Whether you’re the President of the United States, a CEO, a young commander on the battlefield, or a data analyst — great leaders know how to assess risk quickly and make good decisions at that moment in time, based on the data they have.
Matt Carroll was serving as a US Army intelligence officer in Baghdad when he got his first inkling of the power of information.
Carroll, whose tour of duty in Iraq lasted between 2006 and 2009, recalled that “everything changed” when the military began to figure out how to make sense of the flood of seemingly disparate pieces of information flowing in over the transom each day. “It changed how we carried out counterinsurgency operations,” he said. “The intelligence apparatus had changed forever due to technology — the technology created data and the data changed how we operated.”
Fast-forward to the present and Carroll is the CEO of Immuta, a four-year-old automated data governance software company he co-founded that helps data scientists do their jobs more efficiently — and compliantly, no small consideration in an age of increasing data regulation. Immuta, which went to market in the summer of 2015, brings together data owners, data scientists, and lawyers into a single framework that lets teams write condition-based policies dictating who on the team can access pieces of data.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I’m from Swampscott, MA. It’s a typical, small coastal town. My parents both grew up there. My dad was a state trooper and my mom was an engineer. I went to high school at Saint John’s Prep, a Catholic school in Danvers, MA. I was this Jewish kid out of Swampscott. I think I was one of the two Jewish kids in the graduating class, but I also had the highest GPA in religion. I knew the Torah so maybe I had an advantage.
Q: When did you get into technology?
I got my first PC, an IBM 286, when I was four. I was always on a computer. I never dreamed of being an engineer or anything like that. But I knew how to design a website and do the basics of running a web server since my early teens. So, I knew how to do things that I guess most people didn’t.
Q: When you were young, what did you want to become later in life?
A doctor. But in high school, you could take electives in neuroscience and, I loved it. Oliver Sacks’ book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” made a big impression on me. I became very passionate about the sciences, and I loved neuroscience to the point where I became obsessed with it.
Q: How did you wind up getting a degree in chemistry at Brandeis University?
My dad went to West Point, and he wanted me to go to West Point. I liked the military, but I was thinking about becoming a neurosurgeon. That’s not something West Point does. I tend to take the hardest road possible, and I knew that a neuroscience degree wasn’t going to prepare me for the MCATs (Medical College Admission Test). The hardest thing to do was chemistry for the MCAT because it prepares you for organic chemistry. I was like, ‘I’m going to major in that.’ I also chose schools where my then girlfriend and now wife was applying. I could also play baseball for Brandeis, so that was the deciding factor.
Q: What position did you play?
Q: Any dreams of one day pitching for the Boston Red Sox?
I had surgery on my elbow in my junior year of college. I knew that the end was there. So, I accelerated all my classes in chemistry, biochemistry, and biology and graduated early.
Q: And from there you joined the US Army and wound up in Baghdad?
Yeah. I went through basic training and did Officer Candidate School, then a military intelligence officer course, and I got deployed to Iraq.
Q: When did your ideas about the use of data start to take form?
In 2006, a couple of things changed everything. One was the debut of the iPhone, which changed our expectations about how a smart device could be used to communicate. The second was that the world was processing data faster than ever before, and we were starting to analyze data differently. When I was in Iraq, I learned firsthand about the power of connecting information about people and data — and the difference it can make. I can’t go into the details, but it changed everything that we did in the military for active counterinsurgency operations.
Q: When you think about this transition from a business intelligence-based world to more of an AI paradigm, where do think humans fit into the equation? And how do they navigate that transition without causing an even bigger mess?
The reality is that it comes down to a pendulum of risk, which is about understanding and quantifying how much risk you’re taking on at any particular point. I have this saying that if you can trust the data, then you can start to trust the algorithms. If you can trust the algorithm, you can start to believe the outcome. If you can trust the result, you can trust the business.
A machine can’t just go and do things. I don’t care what anyone says. I don’t believe in this whole robotic “Skynet” future. I think at the end of the day software will augment humans. Humans do things, not the data.
Q: OK, so humans make decisions, not the data, not the algorithm. Where do you see the challenge?
What is missing right now is the movement from analytics, which is statistical in nature, to AI, which can give you some predictive analysis. The challenge is understanding how AI came up with that decision and reproducing that. Our future will be shaped by building the hooks necessary within the AI to decide whether or not this meets your criteria.
Q: You’ve brought your experience and leadership skills to the private sector. Do you think that the attributes of being a successful entrepreneur are different from what you had expected when you first started out?
I don’t even view it as entrepreneurship. The skills to be a leader in a company are the same as the skills of a leader required for anything else. It comes down to holding core values and sticking to what you believe in. The pivot to that is understanding how to involve other people. Great leaders don’t put themselves on pedestals. Great leaders have teams around them and they build them up.
Q: Has your understanding of what’s needed to be a great CEO evolved over time or did you nail it from the start?
It took a while to get a complete understanding of how companies evolve. It’s like a relationship. There’s the honeymoon phase where everything is fun and great. Then you grow and have kids — that’s a different phase where you need to think about things differently. Then your kids grow up and go to college and things change all over again. When it comes to running a startup, there are different types of expenses, controls, and everything. Until you do it, you can’t really understand it. There are different phases of a company that require a different focus, different people, and different traits. I believe great entrepreneurs can predict when a company is starting to move to a transition point and know when they need different types of people and personalities and skills — and when to insert them at the right time. Each time, there’s a chasm that you’ve got to cross, and it isn’t always easy.
Q: Do you have any passions outside of work that you can reflect on?
If I’m not working, I’m with my family. I have two little boys, so I spend a lot of time with them. And then, of course, the New England Patriots and the Red Sox.
Q: Your favorite book, I’m assuming, would be “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks.
Q: One movie that you would pick to watch over any other?
“Black Hawk Down.”
Q: Is there a certain saying or motto that you try to adhere to?
Always do the right thing. It’s kind of how I’ve always lived my life.