CTOs to know: Narrative Science's Adam Kanouse on natural language generation

January 25, 2016

It’s not everyday you meet a CTO that doubles as a storyteller.

But that’s exactly what Adam Kanouse is charged with at

, a Chicago-based company whose platform Quill turns mines of unintelligible data into easily understood, insightful, and organized analyses. Their natural language generation software is one of those rare technologies that transforms the tech of the future into the tech of today, and they’ve begun to establish themselves as a leader in Artificial Intelligence.

Kanouse, who cut his teeth at Accenture and OpTier prior to joining Narrative Science in 2014, oversees all of the company’s tech strategy, including building software and supporting Narrative Science customers from a systems perspective.

We caught up with him to talk tech, and Kanouse gave us the inside story of what’s going on at Narrative Science this year:

What technologies power your business?

Our main offering is Quill, an intelligent system that analyzes data and generates natural language to explain the most important and interesting insights within the data. Imagine it is as the communication layer on top of data. Quill is highly flexible and customizable, so our customers utilize Quill to generate everything from concise predictive alerts from streaming sensor data to comprehensive 20-page investment performance reports. For technologies outside our core IP, our philosophy is to use existing solutions to increase our speed to market. For example, rather than build our own API management tools, we use Kong, an open-source API management technology.

What technologies are playing the biggest roles in Narrative Science this year?

Our proprietary platform, Quill, powers our products and solutions that we take to market. Quill is an Advanced Natural Language Generation platform that utilizes core Artificial Intelligence concepts. In terms of what technologies we’re using (rather than providing), most of our software is built with Python and Node.js, and we use AngularJS to create great web apps. We also heavily use Amazon Web Services and their range of features along with GitHub to manage source code and Jenkins to power our continuous integration and release processes.

What are the biggest tech projects your team is working on this year?

This year’s biggest tech project is working on the next generation of Quill. It will allow us to launch products and solutions much faster than previous versions. The other important projects include making improvements and refining solutions currently in market. For example, we just launched Narratives for Qlik, an extension for Qlik Sense® that generates narratives alongside data visualizations, helping any business user understand the insights in their data and accelerate time to insight. It is the first version of the extension so tracking and integrating user feedback will be part of our efforts before launching another version later in the year. We’ll also continue to offer and launch new solutions in Financial Services and other sectors, similar to how we launched Quill for AML and a premium version of Quill Engage last year.

What are the biggest technology challenges you've faced in the past? How did you overcome them?

When I think about my past and working at Accenture, I faced a number of technology challenges at huge scale. A good example is a project where we were replacing a bank’s entire core banking system with SAP’s banking platform, in a “big-bang” approach. That was a difficult organization, planning, and management challenge, but technically, core banking is a well understood problem set.

My current challenge is much different. My team is building a truly transformational technology. It’s extremely exciting but also challenging because there are not a lot of examples of a smart machine that can automatically analyze data and write a story like a business analyst with domain expertise. Combine that with the scaling requirements that our customers need, and you have a pretty fun technical challenge. Fortunately for me, we have one of the leading AI experts in the field, Kris Hammond, as our Chief Scientist, and he has been invaluable to helping me and the team understand the problem we are solving and the potential solutions.  

What are lessons you've learned about working in Chicago that other local entrepreneurs can learn from?

We have 15 awesome universities within 100 miles of Chicago and they produce amazing talent. For local entrepreneurs, there is an opportunity to keep that talent in Chicago by working on innovative and interesting problems. We’ve also had a lot of luck finding talent from some of the retraining programs in Chicago like Dev Bootcamp and the Startup Institute. There is no shortage of talent in the midwest — the trick is convincing top engineers to stay in Chicago.

How will Chicago specifically continue to strengthen its tech community in 2016?

That’s probably a better question for my wife, Julia. She runs marketing and membership for the Illinois Technology Association, but from my perspective, the community is strong and getting stronger. We have access to talent, venture firms such as Narrative Science investor Jump Capital and well-run incubators like TechNexus, 1871, and Matter. We have all the ingredients for Chicago’s tech community to be successful, it’s just about connecting with others and fostering a collaborative network. I think if we can focus as a community to keep our top midwest talent in Chicago, the community will continue to get stronger.  

Chicago is known for having a large talent pool of thirsty, young workers. What are the top characteristics you look for in a potential hire?

I look for team-players who are technically curious — they don’t have to know everything coming in the door, but I want them to be interested in solving problems and open to collaboration. Having a sense of humor is helpful, too. If you don’t actually like the grind of solving problems, then Narrative Science is probably not a good fit. Other than that, we look for people who represent our core values. They need to understand that working here is a mission, not a job, and that our number one goal is to create great customer experiences through the products we build and the service and support that we provide.

How would your team describe working with you?

I hope that they say I do a good job of setting the business context for why our work is important and that I allow them to be creative inside of those business boundaries. I try to create an atmosphere of freedom to make the right technology choices combined with a sense of urgency to move quickly. I think they would also share that I am an advocate for their careers. I try hard to understand each person’s short- and long-term goals and create opportunities for them to reach those goals. One of the most gratifying parts of my job is witnessing the successful growth in one of our engineers as he or she gains more responsibility.

What trends do you see happening in your industry over the next three years? How is Narrative Science anticipating those trends and working towards them?

Gartner and the IDC are expecting an explosion of growth in the advanced analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) markets over the next three years. This continued growth of data and the need for analysis will continue to create significant demand for Quill. The trend around “data storytelling” in the BI space will continue with our technology as the cornerstone of that capability. Our Narratives for Qlik product is directly aligned with BI and analytics trends, and we’re already working with several customers on IoT solutions, analyzing and effectively communicating what’s important in their sensor data. We’ll continue our positive momentum and ensure that Quill is flexible, easy to integrate with, and easy to use.

What else do you want the Chicago startup community to know about Narrative Science?

We’re growing every day and we’re hiring. We’re also open to partnering with other technology companies focused on solving data problems and any company that could benefit from integrating our NLG solutions into their existing reporting interfaces. It is an exciting time to be in the Chicago technology world and we’re thrilled to be part of it.

Photo via Narrative Science. Some answers have been edited for length or clarity.

Do you know of any Chicago tech companies we should be covering? Send us an email at [email protected].

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