“Classically, a central purpose of education was to get folks thinking more broadly than just taking care of our own personal needs while we’re here on the planet,” he said. “Instead, getting them to think about the larger human narrative—that we should, collectively, end up in a better place than where we started.”
It’s the same perspective that carries him through his workdays as Zillow’s chief analytic officer and the brain behind “Zestimate,” Zillow’s estimated market value for an individual home. It’s an important part of the mission-driven company that strives to create a more transparent and democratic residential real estate marketplace.
“Everyone has a different motivation for why they get into entrepreneurial pursuits, but my perception is that, for successful endeavors, it’s rarely about just chasing money,” he said. “I got into it in order to work with friends and do something fun together, but it was the notion that we were entering a market that could be radically improved that was most appealing. And that this improvement was directed toward something as fundamental to humans as housing and shelter – the opportunity to do something big in an area that affects almost everybody.”
In the late ’80s, Humphries was an aerospace engineering student at Georgia Tech. He loved the academic work, but as time passed he found he did not want to become an engineer after all. He transferred to Davidson, studying political science and economics through an interdisciplinary major, with an eye toward science and technology policy. His wife, Katherine Bagby Humphries ’90, transferred to Davidson from Emory University at the same time.
Following time in the Peace Corps and positions with NASA, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Clinton White House and Expedia, his big data-focused career with Zillow kicked off in 2005. The company launched in 2006.
“I’ve always been passionate about the open data movement,” he said. “We don’t try to keep our data behind a wall, and even from the early days, we’ve made it so people can download enormous amounts of data and do their own analyses—consumers, academics, folks in government and in other companies. Those decisions spring from the mission orientation of our company and what we’re trying to do.”
Even bigger than the data is Humphries’ belief that the proper nature of analytic work is finding the fundamental truth in a given situation—a critical piece of the puzzle as the way Zillow does things has been controversial at times.
“Some people may wish we didn’t put a value on every home or make it easy to review real estate agents,” he said. “But we want to focus on what’s most helpful to consumers. There’s a better way to price homes. There’s a better way to help real estate agents be even more helpful to buyers and sellers. There’s a better way to find the right place to live. In the end, it’s probably inevitable that you’re going to create friction for a few market participants when making things easier and better for a lot more people.”
In recent years, Humphries’ position has grown to include writing opinion pieces on public policy and working on financial planning and corporate strategy.
“It’s great to be pushed outside your cozy comfort zone, learn new areas and discover new ways of adding value to an organization,” he said. “It also gives me a wider perspective about the business, beyond data and analytics.”
Humphries says he has Davidson to thank, in part, for the approach he takes at Zillow.
“Education so thoroughly shapes one’s character that it ultimately becomes difficult to distinguish the person from their education,” he said. “The liberal arts taught me how to frame questions and think about which questions are the essential ones, in a given situation and in life overall. That’s one of the most important aspirations we can hope to impart through education—to strive for what’s noble and good in the work we’re doing.”
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