CTO Sessions: Deepak Giridharagopal, Puppet

What type of CTO are you? "My job as CTO has three, major components: technical strategy, technical leadership, and technical evangelism."

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What was your first job? When I was in high school I worked in a software retail store, where we sold software and video games. It involved a lot of playing video games with the customers…

Did you always want to work in IT? Once I finished high school, every job I had was IT related. Whether that was a programming internship, working in research labs, or doing systems engineering and feature development at startups.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a bachelor's degree in Computer Science from the University of Texas, Austin.  

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I've always been in IT. I went to university during the peak of the dot com boom. But I graduated right in the middle of the dot com bust. The startup I was working at folded after just 6 weeks on the job.

Programming jobs became very few and far between; options were limited. I took a job with a Department of Defense research laboratory in Austin. I sat in this room - with no windows - working on naval research projects. The lab worked on planet-scale problems in the truest sense - things like geological analysis and GPS infrastructure. While I learned a ton, I longed for a faster-paced environment.

Once the tech economy recovered, I went back to the startup world. Even though it was a lot of late nights and we weren't exactly sure whether we would make payroll, I had fun and applied a lot of the stuff I learnt from my time working for the government. After this startup I met Luke [Founder of Puppet] and I've been there ever since. So all in all, I took a huge detour as a result of economical calamity, but it did allow me to establish what I was interested in and what I valued.

What type of CTO are you? My job as CTO has three, major components: technical strategy, technical leadership, and technical evangelism. Different CTOs in the wild combine these roles in different proportions (including not doing them at all). I end up spending time on all three, with the mix changing quarter-to-quarter depending on current priorities.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I'd have to say the increase in computing power at the edge. A much larger percentage of planet earth now has access to more computing power than I ever had as a kid. That's had tremendous impact. Technologies that enable cheap and easy connectivity to countries and communities who don't currently have it...that will be great to experience.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Blockchain, and to a lesser extent AI / ML. There is some substance to the buzzwords, but the level of hype is massively out of proportion with near-term, practical applications.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? I recently helped revamp how the company handles big, business-critical technical problems that span any single product or business unit. I've been trying to balance how to enable small groups of folks across silos to swarm on these kinds of gnarly technical problems, but in a way that doesn't inadvertently create an ivory tower that, itself, ends up becoming one of the silos I'm trying to break down.

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? For my own company? No… we have always been a digital company. But there is always a desire to refine our systems and processes. In that sense, the "transformation" never really stops.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Customers know they would like to do things more automatically and efficiently, but they're struggling with how to get from point A to point B. We look at how we can democratise automation, so everyone can use it, but also benefit from it at the same time.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? It's easy for a technologist to succumb to this fallacy that the best, most advanced technology is what will make you win. This is wrong - technology is just one part of the overall puzzle, a means to an end. I think deeply about how to take a business problem and derive from it the minimal, most important technical constraints. This helps keep me grounded.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Yes, this happens a lot. Technologically, we can move fast and take advantage of a lot of bleeding-edge tools and platforms. That's incredibly seductive to the systems architect in me. But if the customer has constraints or policies in place that don't match up with our wish-list of technology and platform choices, then we have to make compromises in order to give customers the best experience.

What makes an effective tech strategy? I like to look ahead, make tech decisions that give us good options and agility, to better deal with what the future may bring. The most effective tech strategy needs to provide as many options as possible, but only so far as the customer experience isn't negatively impacted. It's easy to over-architect things, to spend too much energy on future-proofing, and lose sight of the problems that are right in front of you, right now. You have to find that balance.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I don't see the role being any less defined in the future than it is now. However, a good CTO will need to be a good evangelist, be strategic, can impact the business meaningfully and set the tone for how technologies are developed within their company. One thing the CTO will have to think about in the future is about the ethics of the technologies their company is building.

What has been your greatest career achievement? When people have worked for me, left, then gone on to do great things at other companies. I genuinely enjoy seeing them succeed!

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I am a product of my experiences, good and bad. The present is the only place I can be. I can't change the past, so I tend not to look backwards and say, "what if". As is said often in operations circles: you can't really roll-back, you can only roll-forward!

What are you reading now? I read a lot of comic books and speculative fiction. I've been re-reading Lone Wolf and Cub, one of my favorite comics of all time. I'm also working my way through a series of sci-fi books called Legend of the Galactic Heroes by Yoshiki Tanaka.

Most people don't know that I… I'm really into modern art.

In my spare time, I like to…Read and go climbing… I'm also a big film nut.

Ask me to do anything but… Cook. Unless you want me to make you a bowl of cereal, or toast. :)

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