For the newest instalment in our series of interviews asking leading technology specialists about their achievements in their field, we’ve welcomed the CTO of Halla, Inc. Henry Michaelson.
Tell us about the business you represent, how did the idea come about to found your enterprise? What is the vision?
Halla started with one simple question, “how do people decide what they want to eat?” Is it mostly about taste? Budget? Health Concerns? Brand? Rarely is it a preference for just one thing for one person.
It’s a multitude of factors weighted differently and changing from moment to moment because we’re human, and human behaviour is incredibly dynamic. We started Halla to help connect every shopper to the foods that meet their personal tastes and goals.
What notable IT challenges have you overcome?
Grocery is more complex than any other retail sector and properly categorizing items in a way that AI can leverage them effectively can be quite challenging. There are about 30,000 SKUs in an average grocery store, and if we take cheese for example, there are so many types of cheese and different uses for each kind.
It was important for Halla to be able to classify food items according to a complete and logical ontology in order to build complex machine learning models that really understand how humans use food products. Ultimately that required parsing more than 100 billion food characteristics and behavioural data points.
What do you see as the hottest trends within your industry today?
If 2020 was digital grocery’s “debutante party,” then 2022 will be its genuine coming of age. We are going to see digital innovations that were considered experimental or innovative becoming very mainstream. Those will include:
- "Dark stores" are supported by micro-fulfilment warehouse operations.
- Aggressive adoption of A.I. in online grocery to deeply personalize search results, recommendations, and substitutions.
- Scale-up of digital grocery carts and contactless checkout at virtually every sizeable grocery in the USA (see Instacart's acquisition of Caper AI).
- Mobile-first dominance in both online and brick-and-mortar channels of grocery.
- Turbulence in the grocery digital commerce ecosystem as independent grocers struggle to stay competitive against Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, and Instacart.
Being the CTO, what does your day to day responsibilities look like?
My day-to-day involves meeting with a variety of Halla stakeholders including various members of the development team, sales team, marketing team, founding team, along with active clients, new prospects, existing investors, new investors, etc.
As we are a startup, I have to be the liaison between the technical team, other internal teams, and the outside world, constantly redefining and communicating the product roadmap and delegating work accordingly. It is a very creative role, but one that requires a lot of people skills and project management expertise.
What advice would you give aspiring CTOs and entrepreneurs?
Success is very non-linear. There are long periods of time in which it is impossible to see how your project will work and where failure seems like a certain outcome.
However, things have a remarkable ability to change very quickly. It is thus very important to be flexible, to be open to ripping up your current product, and mostly to be able to keep on chugging through the doldrums.