Harvard in Tech
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Harvard in Tech

Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Heath Hohwald, Head of Data and Data Science at AlphaSights

I spoke with Heath Hohwald, Head of Data and Data Science at AlphaSights, a global leader in knowledge search. AlphaSights is pioneering a novel knowledge-on-demand offering, assisting professionals with highly specific research needs.

Heath has spent the past 20 years of his career in machine learning, data science, and search, straddling the intersection of industry and research. He has always been fascinated by the application of statistics, computing, and math to novel problems.

After graduating from Harvard, Heath started his career at BlackRock as a financial analyst and later studied AI at UCLA for graduate school. After UCLA, he worked on search problems under multiple guises: product search at Amazon/A9, web search at Google, multimedia search at Shutterstock, and now knowledge search at AlphaSights.

Heath joined AlphaSights in 2018 as CTO and now leads the company’s data and data science efforts, applying tools from machine learning and data science to help build a better knowledge-on-demand offering. He is excited about tackling the complex challenge of organizing and structuring knowledge.

Heath shared his advice for technical leadership, hiring, team building, creativity, and cultivating relationships.

Be a facilitator, not a hero. When asked what he has learned about technical leadership, Heath highlights the importance of taking the “leap of faith”. Individual contributors transitioning into leadership roles are used to checking every line of code and knowing every last detail. As a result, it can be very difficult to learn to delegate and to trust those around you to take the reins, which quickly leads to team friction and a sense of being overwhelmed. Instead, transition from trying to be the hero to being a facilitator. Nudge and guide rather than take over, even if your instincts from time as an individual contributor pushes you in the other direction.

Pay attention to the failure response. When asked about empowering and vetting team members, Heath shares the importance of seeing people in action and particularly noticing how they respond to failure. Beyond navigating their own response, your team will also look for how you respond to their mistakes. Do you give them a slap on the wrist? Or do you help them find ways to learn from their mistakes? Look for people who are self aware and can talk openly and thoughtfully about failure, and be one of those people yourself as a leader.

Find your style. There are many types of leaders, and a leader’s success hinges on the proper matching of leadership style to opportunity. Trying to impersonate a different leadership type is not typically successful. Heath, for example, is not a natural extrovert who can deliver rousing speeches to an audience. Instead, he realized that he is more naturally suited to lead by example, through showing his genuine care for his team, and by demonstrating real passion for his work. Identifying and doubling down on his strengths has helped him overcome his weaknesses. Being authentic and leading in the style best aligned with you is always your best bet. People can tell when you are not being genuine. The truth is always preferred.

Spend time on hiring. When asked what he has learned about hiring, Heath underscores its importance. There is a lot more demand than supply for well-qualified talent, and that likely will be the case for quite some time. Hiring is crucial on account of its force multiplying effects. It also dictates future team culture, so positivity and collaboration are more important when making hiring decisions than just smarts.

Storytell. When asked about hiring and team building best practices, Heath highlights the role of storytelling. For example, he has really enjoyed working with the marketing and communications teams to think through how they can excite potential candidates to interview with AlphaSights within 60 seconds or less. Even if you have a great team culture and exciting technology, if you can’t succinctly communicate that, you can’t properly attract and close talent.

When managing a team, Heath notes the importance of sharing the why, the backdrop, the larger context. A great team needs to understand and be excited by the why so they can effectively build the “how” (the solution).

Focus. When asked about honing creativity, Heath recommends carving out time with no interruptions. Go for walks. Step outside of the daily whirlwind of pressing needs. What is urgent is usually not as important as it seems, and what is important long-term is usually not seen as urgent. He recently read Deep Work, which articulates much of what he has learned on this topic.

To this end, Heath keeps a log of where he spent his time. He regularly reviews the log and reflects on whether his time allocation is in line with his own priorities and those of his company and team. He also works to get other team members on board with the focus on importance over urgency to ensure everyone is able to prioritize with the same framework.

Foster cross functional discussion. Creativity comes from combining different people’s experiences and viewpoints in unique ways, which is true in academics as well as industry. Radical specialization and sheer depth of knowledge often requires collaboration. Brainstorming with someone from a different field or department can lead to unexpected innovation.

Build relationships with professors. Reflecting on his time at Harvard, Heath would have spent more time getting to know the amazing faculty. Harvard is such an incredible place where you can be taught by some of the world’s best thinkers. Now, Heath sees many of his professor’s names (Chernoff, Dempster, etc.) almost daily in his work. He would have liked to work more closely with them and benefit from their guidance on research projects while on campus.

Take care of yourself. Health underpins your life and all that you do. Incorporate good sleep habits, a healthy diet, and regular exercise. These are often forsaken when under time pressure, but probably should be the last things to skimp on.

Stay in touch. Heath reflects on the importance of staying in touch with former colleagues and fellow alums. Get together for virtual reunions, share war stories, discuss how your shared experiences have shaped your perspective since school, and trade notes around best practices in your field.

Disregard the cult of genius. When asked for his advice to his younger self, Heath shared his initial insecurity when transitioning from high school to Harvard, where he was surrounded by many people who knew much more than him. At first, he attributed their knowledge to some inherent “genius gene” they had that he did not, but after some time, he realized that success is a healthy mix of hard work, natural ability, and good fortune. Good things happen if you plug away in a steady direction for a long time, not just a few inspired hours. Pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward requires intense, consistent effort, genius or not.

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