Get to know: Robert McKeon Aloe ’06, using science in pursuit of perfect espresso

Story subject is a young dark-haired man with a beardRobert McKeon Aloe draws from his day job at Apple, his University of Detroit Mercy education and a passion for data science in creating a tiny cup of perfection.

McKeon Aloe, a 2006 alumnus of Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Sciences, works as a manager for Apple in California, but when he’s not working for the innovative tech company, he’s using data science to experiment with espresso.

“I fell in love with coffee while living in Paris for two years as a high school student,” McKeon Aloe said. “When I came to America, coffee was Starbucks coffee, but I didn’t want to drink a latte. I really liked a straight espresso shot, very strong.

“I want my coffee to taste like I melted a piece of chocolate in my mouth. It’s not that you can’t have good coffee in other forms, but I’m not one to sit and drink a cup of coffee. So, I got a coffee machine and have been making my own espresso.”

And two passions became one as his career in data science assisted in his pursuit of the perfect cup of espresso. McKeon Aloe bought an espresso machine and refurbished it as part of the experiments, to improve consistency and the brewing and drinking experience.

“I started using the data sheet because it became very helpful. It just kind of took off as I started questioning — these are what I was told were the best variables or these were what I thought were the best variables, but are they really the best?”

McKeon Aloe’s curiosity eventually percolated into writing articles that he’s been publishing on Medium.com. He produced article after article until he realized he had more than 1,000 pages of content that he could turn into a book on how to make better espresso.

“I started writing articles back in 2018 because I realized that I have a lot of work from professional and school experience that may be interesting to people,” he said. “So, I started writing about it and then I wrote about a few coffee experiments that I thought were interesting or unique to someone with my background. Then I started to expand to where I now publish about two articles on coffee a week and I write less on other things.

“I can identify, here’s your set of variables and here’s what you can change for each variable to get some improvement on your espresso. I didn’t intend to turn it into some big data science experiment,” he said. “It just kind of evolved into that.”

Some of the variables he’s tested in his espresso experiments include variations on grind distribution and the ground beans themselves, the filters used, and sifting time and methods, just to name a few.

McKeon Aloe’s goal is to have his book — “Engineering Better Espresso: Data Driven Coffee” — published this summer. He also releases many of his findings on social media, @EspressoFun on Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

He also uses data science for more than just espresso research.

“Obviously, it’s what I use at work, but I also use it wherever there is a place to apply data,” he said. “I had to collect a lot of data while at Detroit Mercy to help evaluate how my algorithm was working and then in graduate school, it was the same for biometrics, it was how well was the system performing, how to improve the system and how the system would generalize to a larger population. It was all about getting more data and to look at it better.

“So that bled into the rest of my life. I’ve used the same method for buying a car.”

McKeon Aloe graduated from Detroit Mercy, where his grandfather went to school, with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Electrical Engineering in just four years and followed his education in Detroit with a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering from Notre Dame.

He said his education at Detroit Mercy has helped pave the way for where he is now.

“What I really liked is the professors all had industry experience and the curriculum was really tied to helping you succeed as a generalist in the industry,” he said. “My feeling is that when I graduated, I could do any electrical engineering job at least in the auto industry and then it set me up to be able to learn any of the skills that I needed for other jobs. I appreciated that mindset and it just felt like a very holistic education.

“The teachers really did care and I was friends with a few teachers outside of my department. It wasn’t just solely like the teachers in one department cared about you, but other professors were watching out. The level of instruction, the attention to detail that the professors made; I felt important and I saw that other people felt important too.”

He pursued and “fell in love” with the field of computer vision and worked on a 3D face recognition system for his doctorate while at Notre Dame.

McKeon Aloe’s first job took him to the east coast, but with few face recognition jobs in that part of the country, he eventually landed a job with Apple, moving across the country to work for the tech giant.

“We came out west because we were limited in opportunities and then the field blew up,” he said. “The past couple of years it really has gotten big. It’s been interesting to see from my perspective.”

Having spent more than seven years with Apple, he’s learned to maintain a healthy work-life synergy, with espresso being one of his interests away from his career. When he’s not engineering good espresso, he’s also got three young children that keep him busy.

“Part of my interests now lie in helping newer engineers develop their career and develop a good culture where people can have some balance and solve these challenging problems,” McKeon Aloe said. “I’ve found a great interest in how to cultivate a good work-life balance.

“I think it’s good to have hobbies. My interest in coffee, there’s something outside of work that I really want to do to where if work is my entire life, then it’s hard to have anything else.”

Like that perfect cup of espresso.

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