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Profile: Johnny Davenport, Senior Data Scientist/Machine Learning
We talk about nature, scaling solutions, and how hard science translates to the tech startup world
Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? What do you enjoy doing?
I am a surfing physicist-turned-data scientist from Northern California. I grew up playing on the beaches across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and I now live 2 hours South from there in a small coastal town near Santa Cruz. I love being in and around the ocean, and I feel very fortunate to live close enough to hear the waves crash on the cliffs.
Every chance we get, my wife Jane and I stroll to the nearby beaches to explore. We like diving in the kelp forest, searching for natural treasures in the tide pools, and collecting shells in the sand. We share an adventurous spirit and an infatuation with the natural world.
My interest in nature and adventure has always been closely tied to a love of science, math and measurement. I enjoy estimating quantities like grains of sand on the beach, droplets of water in a wave or the age of a piece of seaglass based on observations and measurements I make with different levels of precision. Away from the beach I love drawing diagrams and solving equations to build models of the outside world.
In graduate school, I pursued my interest in physical science on my way to earning a PhD in physics from the University of California: Santa Cruz. As a graduate researcher I became particularly interested in complex, correlated systems that collapse into interesting states of matter. For 5 years I studied interactions between electrons when they are confined to flat surfaces and trapped by very high magnetic fields. It was exhilarating to explore rare, counterintuitive states of matter and build mathematical models of what caused them.
While I liked the academic scientific process top to bottom–from the whiteboard to the conference hall–my favorite component was definitely experimental design. I have a perpetual little scientist in a lab coat on my shoulder asking me “how would you measure that?” or “what is a definitive experiment to prove or disprove that statement?”
One of my main accomplishments in graduate school was building a nanoscience research lab. Designing and building dozens of cutting edge materials fabrication systems and measurement tools was like a dream come true.
I realized shortly before completing my thesis that I did not want to be a physics professor. I wanted to build something or help others build something, from scratch, that redefined the way problems are solved, and positively impacted lives.
What were you doing before you found Clipboard Health?
After completing my graduate work, I swapped out lab equipment for software tools and tackled a new set of problems at a company called Pathmind. Pathmind, which was led by Chris Nicholson, is a platform for applying deep reinforcement learning– the closest technology to human intelligence–to solve complex supply chain and manufacturing puzzles. I loved working at Pathmind because, like graduate school, we faced problems that required creativity, teamwork, and hard, diligent work to solve. We spoke with customers with a wide variety of use cases, and we used our empathy for the customers to build a cleaner, more intuitive user experience for engineers and data scientists.
and puzzles wildly different environments, with very different problems, and there was a ton of variety in terms of the problems we’d see and work on. In one day I remember jumping between a problem with routing cars through COVID vaccine stations to scheduling freight ships in the south pacific, to watching robots learn strategies that no human had thought of. I felt like a kid in a candy store!
At Pathmind I learned to code and how to use machine learning. My prior experience with applied math and understanding of experimental design helped me thrive in the new environment. It was upsetting when Pathmind ran out of runway last fall, because we had an excellent team dynamic without egos or reservations to jump right into tough problems. I followed Chris Nicholson to Clipboard because I immediately got the sense that the culture and mission of the company aligned well with what I liked most about Pathmind.
Does the science experience help here the same way?
It’s interesting because in condensed-matter physics (my former area of research), unexpected breakthroughs happen all the time. With that in mind, it is critical as an experimental condensed matter physicist to let the data tell the story, and to scrutinize the data and be very observant. Experience letting data speak and scrutinizing it from multiple angles without jumping to conclusions helps me immensely as a data scientist.
In a social science like the economics of healthcare marketplaces, unexpected and counterintuitive behavior happens regularly. In those instances, it is critical to let the data speak, and not craft a storyline and hand select data to fit your interpretation. Condensed matter physics helped me build a disciplined approach to crafting arguments: leading with the data and following with interpretation.
Unlike experimental physics, there is empathy, emotional intelligence and social intuition that all help shape the solutions to customer problems at CBH. I love how my job now requires a blend of hardcore scientific method, with social intuition to help craft what the causal relationships are in the data.
What made you choose Clipboard?
It was a mix of things. I was immediately impressed by my interactions with Bo Lu. The mission of the company to lift as many people up the socioeconomic ladder as possible was music to my ears. I had spent years studying esoteric materials in an isolated lab while social injustices were right outside on the streets. The opportunity to blend science with positive social impact was not one I was going to pass on!
Beyond the company mission and leadership, I was also drawn to the pace at CBH. Everyone I spoke to during the interview process would describe what they were doing, and how fast they were doing it. I was like “ok, so you map out your goal for 6 months from now, and you ask yourself what would it look like to achieve that goal in one week?” That kind of time crunch is refreshing, because the core of an idea can ring true. In a critical rush, there is no time for extraneous features, and I was drawn toward that simplicity.
Everyone that I interacted with in the interview process seemed to handle critical projects with calm professionalism and a positive yet objective stance. Now that I’m here, I see that mentality trickling down to every part of the company. The fast growth makes people think about priorities and what matters most. It’s a different mindset in that people are very comfortable making adjustments on the fly and being flexible based on today’s needs.
That’s the “who Clipboard is'' side, but “what Clipboard does” was also a fit for me. My dad’s partner is a per-diem nurse, my two brothers-in-laws are doctors and my sister-in-law is a nursing professor. I’ve seen how outdated systems and friction in information sharing can lead to critical mistakes, short staffing, healthcare professional frustration and lower than expected quality of care. Making changes that affect healthcare workers positively and witnessing immediate their lasting positive impact is addicting!
What new skills are you trying to pick up?
I am quickly learning about scaling solutions in a way that keeps up with a rapidly growing user base, and rapidly growing data science team. I’ve been spending a lot of time on rapid prototyping and assessing software features and systems in light of that. You need to know how robust they should be for the short term, forecast where you want to be in the future and build an appropriate system not just for where you are but where you will find yourself in the next stage. At Clipboard, the next stage is always coming very quickly.