CTO Sessions: Nikita Ivanov, GridGain Systems

What makes an effective tech strategy? "An effective tech strategy is all about the people you have on your team."

Name: Nikita Ivanov

Company: GridGain Systems

Job title: Founder and CTO

Date started current role: 2007

Location: California, USA

Nikita Ivanov is founder and CTO of GridGain Systems, started in 2007 and funded by RTP Ventures and Almaz Capital. Ivanov has over 20 years of experience in software application development, building HPC and middleware platforms, contributing to the efforts of other startups and notable companies including Adaptec, Visa and BEA Systems. He was one of the pioneers in using Java technology for server-side middleware development while working for one of Europe's largest system integrators in 1996.

What was your first job? At around 16 years old, I got my first job writing bank software in Russia.

Did you always want to work in IT? Since I was about 12, I wanted to be a software engineer, and I began programming around that age. In Russia, where I grew up, the PC revolution hit in the mid to late 1980s. I got sucked into it and never really thought about doing anything else.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a pretty standard high school and university education from Russia and earned a master's degree in Electro Mechanics from Baltic State Technical University, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. No detours. I worked in software engineering throughout my education in Russia. One of my early jobs was for Daimler Benz in Russia, then in Stuttgart and Hamburg. Right after I got my university degree, I went to the U.S. and began working for a start-up.

What type of CTO are you? As the CTO of GridGain, I play an unusual combination of roles because that is what this organisation needs. I'm very focused on R&D, looking two to three years ahead, but I also lead the entire product management effort at the company and am involved in our corporate development efforts as we look at investments and M&A possibilities.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Over the short-term, I'm particularly excited about two technologies, Intel Optane and Intel SGX. Optane is the first new memory architecture since before I was born. As non-volatile memory, it will completely revolutionise how we build systems because a lot of what we do today is based on overcoming the limitation of volatile memory. For instance, we are constantly moving data between disk and RAM or distributing data across cluster nodes to make sure data isn't lost. This creates a lot of latency. All that will go away. In-memory computing will become the default, and disk and Flash memory will be used only for backup.

SGX is the first hardware solution for security and will have as big an impact on security as Optane will have on memory. Over the long-term, there's no doubt that quantum computing and AI will completely transform how we live.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Flash storage and anything related to Flash. It is a slow and limiting stopgap technology, and it will eventually go away.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? Over the last six months I conducted a formal third-party audit on the usability and simplicity of our software. This is a very unusual step, especially with a product as mature as GridGain, because you tend to think you know your product better than anyone else. But usability and simplicity are essential metrics for understanding and increasing the adoption of our product, and what we learned from the audit will have a significant impact on what we do going forward.

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? As a vendor, we are building tools to help other companies accomplish their digital transformations. We have been a digital company from day one.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? At the highest level, we are helping companies with their digital transformations. At a basic level, we are helping them take advantage of in-memory computing to enable unprecedented performance and scalability. These companies are being swamped by an avalanche of data so without this performance and scale, they are dead in the water. Nothing works faster for data processing than memory, and we are a key in-memory computing vendor.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? As a typical SMB, our technology use is predominately driven by need. Our sales/marketing typically drives the regular adoption of new tools and products while the core engineering team has its own cadence in adopting products and technologies.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Not at this point. As a SMB most of our decisions in product/service and technology strategies are driven by the same needs and requirements and implemented by the same management team hence the natural synergy between these different aspects of technology adoption.

What makes an effective tech strategy? An effective tech strategy is all about the people you have on your team. Technology is what they need to use to accomplish their goals. As a result, I have provided our team with dozens and dozens of tools and libraries and applications, and I let them decide which tools they like best. It really comes down to hiring the best people and then deferring to them to use their technology of choice, from the critical systems down to libraries.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? In the past, the CTO had a prominent role mainly at technology companies, but the role of the CTO is really growing in importance, and it has a lot to do with the sentiment expressed by ING CEO Ralph Hamers, who said that he wants ING to be seen as a tech company with a banking license. Today, every company is really a tech company, and in this paradigm, the CTO is critical to the success of every company, essentially responsible for setting the company's strategic roadmap.

What has been your greatest career achievement? It might sound strange but hiring Abe Kleinfeld as GridGain's president and CEO is one of the smartest decisions I ever made. As GridGain's founder, I was the CEO for six years, but I realised we needed a more professional CEO to take us to the next level. This type of change in a startup company often goes badly for the founder, but with Abe, it's been very easy, because it has allowed each of us to do what we do best. The company has really benefited from this, and when you think of what we have accomplished over the last six years, that decision has really benefited the entire in-memory computing industry.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? To be honest, I have a very long list of mistakes that I wish had turned out differently, but the journey of most successful businesses is that they pushed forward relentlessly, making tons of mistakes that weren't fatal. This is normal. But one important key is that you can't overreact to these mistakes. Sometimes you just need to let go and let things settle, let them work themselves out. This is a lesson I learned from Abe, and it has made it easier to keep working toward each new success.

What are you reading now? I read a lot, but nothing on computer science except a few random blogs. My favourite topics these days are astrophysics, quantum physics and the history of religion. I also like to read the latest science fiction.

Most people don't know that I… am a very good bass fisherman. You can often catch me on a local delta early in the morning, fishing for large black bass.

In my spare time, I like to… Read books and fish for bass. I also like to listen to books during long commutes.

Ask me to do anything but… Commute in heavy traffic! It's a plague, and I relish any opportunity not to commute.