Geek Speak: Avi Bryant, Twitter analytics team

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      In two months, Avi Bryant is moving to San Francisco to work at Twitter. On June 10, Twitter announced it had acquired Smallthought Systems, the Vancouver-based company that Bryant cofounded in 2005.

      Smallthought is the developer of Dabble DB and Trendly, products that “made data more accessible to people who are not data experts”, according to Bryant. Dabble DB is an on-line database application, while Trendly helps customers make sense of Web site data collected by Google Analytics.

      A 30-year-old University of British Columbia graduate, Bryant is the author of the Seaside open-source Web application framework. Along with Smallthought’s Andrew Catton, Ben Matasar, and Luke Andrews, Bryant is joining Twitter’s analytics team.

      The Georgia Straight reached Bryant by phone at his home on Galiano Island.

      How did your company end up being bought by Twitter?

      So, we were in San Francisco actually having talks with another company and happened to have lunch with a friend of mine who works at Twitter. I think the outcome of that was sort of him going back to Twitter and saying, “You know, it’d be really awesome if these guys worked here. Is there any way we can make that happen?”

      At first, I think the fit wasn’t obvious to anyone. But I then had another talk with them at South by Southwest, where we sort of realized that the advertising platform that they were going to be building could hugely benefit from some of the data-visualization and analytics stuff that we were working on. We kind of all got excited about that and made it happen.

      What do you get out of the deal?

      You know, as I think I sort of said in my blog post, it’s really interesting to us, having developed tools and developed techniques, to be able to scale those out and let them help the largest number of people. Twitter just has this huge scale and huge audience.

      Although I think we were doing really cool things at Smallthought, the impact that we were able to have on the world was relatively small. At Twitter, we can be part of something that’s much bigger and bring our kind of sensibilities to a much wider audience, and that’s really appealing and really exciting to us.

      Do you know what you’ll be doing at Twitter?

      We’re working on the analytics team, and specifically what we’re working on for now is analytics for the advertisers who are going to be running ads on Twitter with the Promoted Tweets and related products. But one of the things that’s exciting about Twitter is there’s so much going on and so many other things we could be working on. You know, that’s what we’re working on for now. Who knows what we’ll be working on six months or a year from now?

      What features or ideas from Trendly and Dabble DB do you think could be used to improve Twitter?

      So, I think there’s a lot of the stuff that we did in Dabble DB and Trendly not that can be kind of directly used unchanged but that can be adapted. You know, Dabble DB and Trendly were about making it easy to explore data and to drive insights from data.

      Basically, there’s a lot of data at Twitter, and there’s a lot of people—whether those are advertisers or anyone else—who are really interested in exploring that and understanding it. So, what I think we’re going to be able to do is take a lot of the same techniques and algorithms and approaches that we developed for Dabble DB and Trendly, and apply those to this kind of vast, exciting data set that’s growing everyday—that is Twitter.

      As a Twitter user yourself, what do you think could be changed about Twitter?

      I think one of the things that I like about Twitter is that it’s very simple and it’s very focused. So, I’m hesitant to sort of say, you know, we need to add these 10 things, because one thing I’ve been really impressed by with Twitter is how sort of careful they’ve been about adding things that change the user experience. I think that that’s exactly the right thing for them to do.

      I think that one thing that does need to happen with Twitter is Twitter does need to start supporting itself from revenue, and obviously the advertising platform is going to be an essential part of that. I think there’s a lot of possibility to do that. Not even that it’s possible to do it without making the user experience worse, but that it’s very possible to do it in a way that makes the user experience better.

      I’m very excited to see what that is. For example, with Google, I often find that the advertisements that Google shows me are things that I’m happy they showed me, rather than that I’m annoyed that the ads are coming up. I think that Twitter stands a chance to be like that even more so.

      What do you think of the ways that Twitter has tried to approach this already, like with Promoted Tweets?

      I think Promoted Tweets is exactly the right approach. It’s been interesting to watch how Twitter has become this platform for companies and sort of, I guess, brands in general—because that kind of includes celebrities too—to have much more genuine interactions with their fans or customers than happen really in any other channel. Promoted Tweets is sort of building on communication that’s already going on between commercial entities and their customers.

      At the sort of ideal is really that you’re only ever seeing stuff that you would have opted to see if you had known about it. So, not that I know that this is necessarily something that’s going to happen, but I can imagine sitting down at a café and sending a tweet, and somehow ending up seeing a Promoted Tweet from that café that would be of direct interest to me because I’m there.

      I already follow a lot of companies whose product I use or services I use on Twitter, because I genuinely want to hear what they have to say. So, I think Promoted Tweets is a really kind of natural extension of that, and it’s cool that it still has to obey all the usual constraints of Twitter. These are ads but they’re tweets that are trying to be engaging in the same ways that tweets always are.

      How does it feel to be going down to work at Twitter?

      I think working at Twitter is hugely exciting. Yeah, I think the whole experience I’m going to enjoy a lot. I am a little bit sad to be leaving my home on Galiano. But it’s an adventure, and it’s going to be a fun one.

      Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at