CTO Sessions: Stijn (Stan) Christiaens, Collibra

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? "Outside of Collibra's domain, I'm quite excited by biological engineering such as CRISPR."

Name: Stijn (Stan) Christiaens

Company: Collibra

Job title: CTO & Co-founder

Date started current role: September 2015

Location: Brussels, Belgium

Stijn Christiaens, also known as Stan, co-founded Collibra NV in May 2008 and has been its Chief Technology Officer since September 2015. Christiaens is responsible for product management and UX; Collibra Center of Excellence; Collibra University and Collibra NV's online learning platform. He served as the Chief Operating Officer at Collibra NV from 2008 to 2015. Christiaens has been a R&D engineer in the supply-chain and warehouse management industry and a researcher at the Semantics Technology and Applications Research Laboratory (STARLab) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, Belgium.

What was your first job? As an early teenager I was eager to get stuck into working and so I ended up with a variety of after school and summer jobs. My father had a local computer shop in our hometown in Belgium where I helped out during my early teenage years, and I spent my summers working as a lifeguard.

I did some additional contractor web projects together with a friend during the very early days of the web, where our first project was an online shop for an industrial bakery. My first "real" job was as a software engineer in a Belgian supply chain software company. I had variety of tech heavy jobs even from the start, as long as you don't count the one summer I cleaned floors in a slaughter house…but let's not go there.

Did you always want to work in IT? I've always wanted to create something, and since I grew up around computers during the rise of the web the computer became my de facto instrument. Guess that is how I ended up in IT.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? Funnily enough, learning is a real passion of mine. I believe that there is always something more you can learn, and that if you're not learning something new, then you're not growing. Because of that, I can't seem to stop learning and have collected a few degrees and certificates over the years. I currently have:

  • Master of Science in Information Technology in Ghent.
  • Master's Degree in Artificial Intelligence in Leuven.
  • Postgraduate in Industrial Corporate Governance in Brussels.
  • Certificate in Business Process Management (by Intalio)
  • Certificate in Optimal Product Management and Product Marketing (by 280 Group)
  • MIT Certificate in Big Data and Social Physics
  • MIT Certificate in Fintech: Future Commerce Online

I am also currently wrapping up an MIT Sloan Certificate in Corporate Innovation: Strategies for Leveraging Ecosystems.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I started as a software engineer in a Belgian software company. I liked working there and learned a lot, but at the same time felt as though I needed more opportunities to grow further. After a year I became a research engineer at a Computer Science lab at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (STARLab). I worked there for three years until the future co-founders of Collibra and I realised that we needed to seize the opportunity of going "off campus" and the roots of Collibra were planted.

In the very beginning - as with many startups - it was all hands-on deck, with everyone trying their hand at everything. From developing to trying to figure out strategy and financing, my role in the early years (2008 - 2014) was COO and the responsibilities gradually focused on presales, post sales and partnerships. I moved to New York in 2014 to help set up the US office and gradually transitioned my responsibilities to seasoned professionals in their domain. I then became CTO with responsibilities for product management, research and education, marketplace and technology partnerships. As of 2019 Collibra hired a seasoned Chief Product Officer so my role will continue to evolve. When I look back at my career path it all makes sense, so I don't see any detours although others may see my whole career path as a collection of detours.

What type of CTO are you? Hard to put a label on it but I think I will have to borrow from Werner Vogels' CTO roles classifications. I believe the closest description is a mix between the Externally Facing Technologist and the Big Thinker. Somewhere between being the main influencer in the development of the product portfolio as well as spending my time evaluating how technology can be used internally to develop new business models and business lines.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Outside of Collibra's domain, I'm quite excited by biological engineering such as CRISPR. Within our domain: probably decentralised web technology as it provides a new potential paradigm shift for data and the web.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I believe AI is at risk of being overhyped again, with potentially another mild AI winter following it. There are great reasons why it is so popular right now: from autonomous vehicles, instant translations, and even beating human players in nearly all of our games. However, some of the algorithms are not novel, and part of the progress is due to more data and more computing power being available. We are still quite some time away from Artificial General Intelligence where the "robots" go beyond highly specialised tasks.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? At Collibra we are always trying to become more data driven. Product management itself is an evolving discipline and I am proud of the product analytics we've set up so far. We are working with a tool called Pendo and can use it to measure usage of our software, learn what features are being used by who, when and in what sequence. This information is crucial for our product work inside of Collibra, but also to assist our customers in their own data journeys, as it enables us to give focused, context-specific advise on how to grow adoption.

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? While we're not leading a digital transformation, if we were, I would first focus on revenue growth, then customer experience (which will further support revenue growth) and then on operational efficiency.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Data and analytics are everywhere, and they are causing business transformations (e.g., digital disruption). Everybody agrees that data is crucial, but most organisations struggle with how to best manage data as an asset. We help our customers with data intelligence so data citizens (people who use data to do their job) can find, understand and trust data in their organisation.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? It starts with collaboratively setting the business goals so there are no wrong expectations on what technology can or cannot enable. From there out it is about setting the right objectives and metrics, and being open to iterate, try, fail and repeat.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I believe the hardest element is the collaborative part, where you have to get the different stakeholders on the same page, so the strategies stand a chance of being aligned while being executed upon according to the alignment.

What makes an effective tech strategy? One that is executable, iterative and driven by business goals set in the business strategy. For some companies a business strategy cannot be made in isolation of the technology strategy.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Technology seems to be evolving more rapidly than before so the CTO of the future will have to be open to this rapid change, be able to build teams that are open to this rapid change, and will have to include this rapid change in the strategy. Even with these skills it is near impossible to keep track of everything, so it will become more important to strongly collaborate within an ecosystem of partners.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Building and growing talented teams, and of course co-founding Collibra.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Unsurprisingly from my answer to question three, but I always wish that I had learnt more. My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and so with hindsight, there were many opportunities to learn - academically and from peers - that I potentially missed out on.

What are you reading now? One of the last (hopefully) Dune series books.

Most people don't know that I… …. don't actually hate cats.

In my spare time, I like to… …enjoy a wide variety of things, but definitely learning (unsurprising I know), and reading books and comic books.

Ask me to do anything but… … don't expect me to do it unless I say I will.