CTO Sessions: Shivnath Babu, Unravel Data

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? "The CTO's role will become more and more vital to the success of a business and is then likely to shift to become closer with the CEO and strategy at the highest level."

Name: Shivnath Babu

Company: Unravel Data

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: 2012

Location: California, USA

Shivnath Babu is Co-founder/CTO at Unravel Data Systems and an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Duke University. His work focuses on ease-of-use and manageability of data-intensive computing systems, automated problem diagnosis, and cluster sizing for applications running on cloud platforms. Babu co-founded Unravel to solve the application management challenges that enterprises face when they adopt modern systems like Spark, Kafka, RedShift, and Elasticsearch. Unravel was inspired by the Starfish Auto-tuning Hadoop platform built by Shivnath's research team.

What was your first job? My first job was as an Assistant professor of Computer Science at Duke University.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Computer Science but started my education back in India where I completed my Bachelor's degree in Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I always wanted to take one idea all the way from a concept to a high-quality product that can serve the needs of millions of people. This goal has steered me throughout my career; from joining IIT, to a highly-educational internship building "supercomputers" at the SuperComputer Education and Research Center (SERC) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, to building a new breed of Data Stream Management Systems (DSMS) during my PhD at Stanford University, to working on several innovative research projects as a professor of Computer Science at Duke University, and now to founding a company to radically simplify modern data application performance and operations.

What type of CTO are you? I am a very hands-on CTO who can balance day-to-day tactical leadership needs with longer-term vision, and adaptively focus on the areas where the business needs my attention the most.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Artificial Intelligence (AI) applied to the multiple, continuous, huge, and time-varying streams of monitoring data from modern applications and systems.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Hype is really a matter of perception.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? Creating the ability for a small suite of Artificial Intelligence techniques to be applied to a large set of systems to solve modern data application performance and operations in these systems.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? The primary focus is on customer experience and revenue growth. I keep a close watch on operational efficiency -  be it the productivity of our employees, the cost efficiency in how we use resources on the cloud, etc. What I have learned over my career is that careful planning and execution, accompanied by breaking down a long-term vision into a series of milestones, helps balance competing goals over a period of time. 

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Migrating to the cloud is one of the biggest challenges that our customers face. There are so many unknowns and so much guesswork today to move applications from on-premises to the cloud or hybrid environments. Customers across the board are struggling to find the right path that balances agility, cost, reliability, and performance.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? By implementing focused planning, starting with a clear definition of the business goals and measurable performance indicators.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Such matching may not always be very easy, especially when decisions have to be made quickly and multiple choices exist. The answer once again lies in creating a framework with well-defined goals and measurable performance indicators, and evaluating the choices in this framework.

What makes an effective tech strategy? One that helps meet the business's goals in the best way.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The trend I am seeing is that the technology that powers most enterprises is becoming more complex and sophisticated. Think about Artificial Intelligence, security and privacy measures, bitcoin, etc. Business, product, and engineering leaders who do not grasp such technology well enough are unlikely to succeed. I see CTOs becoming the key decision makers in these environments. We are already seeing the trend of CTOs leading engineering and product in new as well as established companies. Going forward, the CTO's role will become more and more vital to the success of a business and is then likely to shift to become closer with the CEO and strategy at the highest level. 

What has been your greatest career achievement? Being able to take one idea from a research paper through numerous iterations of implementation to a product that can serve the needs of millions of users worldwide. 

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Put together a team of highly experienced people early on.

What are you reading now? High Output Management By Andy Grove.

Most people don't know that I… am as young as I look.

In my spare time, I like to…play with my son.

Ask me to do anything but… ignore the point a fellow human being is making.