CTO Sessions: Labhesh Patel, Jumio

What type of CTO are you? "I make sure we have the right pace and keep people motivated, as well as making sure we keep progressing on the initiatives that have been laid out by the company."

Name: Labhesh Patel

Company: Jumio

Job title: Chief Technology Officer and Data Scientist

Date started current role: January 2018

Location: Palo Alto, California, USA

As CTO and Chief Scientist, Labhesh Patel is responsible for driving Jumio's innovation in the identity verification space with deep learning, computer vision and augmented intelligence. Patel is an accomplished leader with over 20 years of experience in corporate and entrepreneurial settings. He has proven experience leading engineering teams, launching new online services (from concept creation to customer delivery), and developing ground-breaking technologies, and has filed 175 patents, with another 135 patents issued under his name.

What was your first job? Straight after I graduated from college, I joined a company called Schlumberger working as a field engineer. Interestingly, that was the job that developed my foundations in leadership and empowerment.

Did you always want to work in IT? After a year or so of working at Schlumberger, I saw that the whole new field of the internet was emerging - this was at a time when companies such as Netscape and Amazon started forming and gaining recognition. I was convinced that this was the future and I wanted to be a part of it.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? After my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, I went to Stanford to pursue a master's in EE with a focus on CS. My IT career started in 1999 when I graduated from Stanford. In terms of certifications, I believe that it is incredibly important for anyone in the technology field to constantly upskill themselves and try to find time for online classes, something I also instill on myself.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After Stanford, I joined Cisco where I worked in the Voice Technology group, which was an emerging field. In this role I worked on the Cisco 7960 phone and system, and it was my first role of working on IT to enable people to communicate better. There was a lot of innovation to be done, and it was just the start of the voice over the internet revolution. I spent several years working there which culminated in me leading the intellectual property strategy at Cisco. I was very active with the Cisco patent program and have around 135 approved patents. After a while in Silicon Valley, as with many others, I joined a startup that later got acquired by Apple. I then went on to another startup where I headed up technology and data science, before being recruited by Jumio.

What type of CTO are you? I can't categorise myself into just a single type. I act as a coach for the team as I can recognise someone's strengths and weaknesses very early on and help them move past the blockers to ensure they are working towards their strengths.

At other times, I find myself in a pace-setting mindset where performance is key, especially for companies like Jumio where we are going through a tornado growth stage, and every team is working at full capacity at all times. I make sure we have the right pace and keep people motivated, as well as making sure we keep progressing on the initiatives that have been laid out by the company.

I am also very involved with the technology. Since my background involves both machine learning and traditional software engineering, and you can't do the former without the latter in a production setting, I find myself in a unique role where I can connect the dots between the two teams.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? While AI is still in its infancy, there are a lot of bigger companies such as Google and Amazon that utilise AI and machine learning immensely, and are making a lot of strides in making models available to other companies. But AI hasn't really seeped through the fabric of most organisations. Even though we hear a lot about it, the penetration of AI to improve day-to-day business is something that has not happened. I see a lot of potential out there, and at Jumio, we are going through a transformation in this area, which I think will be very interesting.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? AI is also one of the most overhyped technologies out there. I think the hype comes from not understanding the capabilities or limits of it. When you really drill down into AI models and machine learning, it is easy for the trained eye to see that it is reasonably simple math that is producing the results that we are looking for. As of now, AI is really shining in narrow domains, so there are tons of subtasks for each specific business problem that you are trying to solve — for example, extracting surnames is a subtask for businesses that need to verify IDs. AI is exceptionally good at solving these specific subtasks that have been broken down cleanly, and at Jumio we have conducted over 180 million transactions. As such, we have a lot of data to base our models on.

The hype comes from people exaggerating this into thinking that AI is going to take over the world and models are going to get sentient and destroy everything. Because that leap is so huge in the eyes of people who have a decent knowledge of AI, they aren't fazed by it as they don't see AI as a threat. But if we don't understand the tech, we don't understand what is happening and thoughts escalate to cars becoming killer robots.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? We went through a major transformation of our architecture where we moved all of our artefacts to the cloud. This was done for a couple reasons. When we make our services in production available on the cloud, it gives us a lot of elasticity in responding to the changing demands. Also, we changed our architecture into a microservices based architecture - these are small, well-defined services that independent teams can own end-to-end.

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? I think the whole world is going through a digital transformation. A lot of millennials have never visited a physical bank because they want to do everything on mobile and web. This is something that we, as a company, and the world in general, experience. When we think of a bank digitising the onboarding of users, one of the things they need to do is verify that the user is who they say they are, and this is one of our offerings. Our company is truly based on the premise of digital transformation - if people were still visiting physical banks, there wouldn't be a need for Jumio's technology.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Our biggest issue right now is helping customers with digital identity proofing. It's a huge problem for new age digital companies, such as challenger banks, crypto exchanges, sharing economy and other financial institutions. Nobody does it better than Jumio because we are the most accurate provider for identity proofing in this space and I am proud of our product.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? When we look at a corporation of our size, and the size of the technical stack and the various teams working on various initiatives, it's all about ensuring that the tech stack is responsive and elastic to the changing business needs. Change is the only constant in today's world and we want to make sure the business is not limited by the tech stack. Part of the architecture transformation was aimed at making sure if the business changes, the tech stack can cope and it doesn't become the limiting factor.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? When we talk about aligning product and service, the big question is always how many more features are we building versus how much of the tech debt are we eliminating? There is always a balance whereby we need to keep on working on tech debt but need to keep releasing new features. It boils down to effective and rational negotiation between the product and the engineering teams.

What makes an effective tech strategy? In my opinion, the tech strategy must be elastic and take changing business requirements into account. It shouldn't be limiting and we need to be able to organise code bases and tech stacks so that multiple global teams can work on them simultaneously. If you have a monolithic tech architecture, it becomes very difficult to do so. CTOs must think about how the market will evolve, then bring these considerations back into today's architectural decisions.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? With the emergence of cloud services and daily tech advancements, a lot of new paradigms are emerging that completely supersede previous ones. This will result in the CTO needing to get more done with much smaller teams, and they will need to stay very close to the technology. Just a few years ago,  the role was almost all management. In addition, a lot of services are being made available to organisations through technology companies and web services, and CTOs always need to look out for them and determine if they can use them or build similar services in house. This is something that will continue to increase.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I'm proud of the work I have done in intellectual property generation. I have 135 approved patents and innovation is something I really enjoy and bring to the table even in my current role at Jumio.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Even when I look back at a startup I worked at that didn't work out, I wouldn't have done anything different, because the learnings were so valuable for my career. What I've learned is that, in the moment, many things that are seen as failures turn out to be our biggest assets. As such, if I were to look back with that perspective, I'd probably make more mistakes and would have made some decisions faster even though there was a risk of failure.

What are you reading now? On a weekly basis I read at least one recent publication in AI, but I am currently also reading an interesting book called The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.

Most people don't know that I… …am addicted to my morning routine of meditation, followed by 35 minutes of workout. That really sets me up for the day.

In my spare time, I like to…Read up on technical articles - I have subscriptions to sites where I can access multiple technical books in one place. I also like to watch conference videos to learn about new innovations that are happening in technology. My family is very important to me, and playing with my 5-year-old in the backyard brings me unbelievable joy.

Ask me to do anything but… ...clean the dishes.