CTO Sessions: Stephen Brobst, Teradata

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? "Deep learning technology has huge implications across many applications and many industries."

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What was your first job? The literal answer to this question is that I delivered newspapers as a kid for my first paid job.  But if you want to know my first paid job in technology it was at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL).  I got an Associated Western University (AWU) scholarship to work at LLNL and was lucky enough to be assigned into the High-Speed Computing Group where I had some great mentors that got me interested in parallel computing with huge amounts of (scientific) data. I vividly remember being in a lecture given by Seymour Cray and focusing on every word that came out of his mouth - I consider Seymour to be one of the most brilliant computer architects that ever lived.

Did you always want to work in IT? When I was a kid I dreamed of being a history teacher. I read a lot then and I still read a lot - not just about technology - but also about history, politics, philosophy, and science. By the time I was in high school, my interests had shifted to maths and science. I first programmed a computer in my senior year of high school back when it was done with cassette tapes. Once I started at UC Berkeley, I took every computer science course I could fit into my schedule. At that point, my career path was definitely directed toward computing, but, initially, my interests were more toward scientific computing than commercial computing.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? My undergraduate degree was in electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley. I also took a ton of courses in math, science, and economics at UCB. I then switched from the west coast to the east coast to pursue graduate studies at MIT. My masters and PhD research focused on resource management in massively parallel computing environments at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (now called CSAIL - Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab). I also did an MBA with joint course and thesis work at the Harvard Business School and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Teradata is the first company that I have worked for since leaving academic life that I did not start myself. I co-founded one software start-up that was acquired by IBM and became part of the DB2 infrastructure. Another start-up that I was involved with, together with one of my best friends, created an advanced rule-based system for automated claims adjudication and provider payment - , and was acquired by Healthedge. Another of my start-ups focused on services for systems integration in the high-end transaction processing space(e.g., Fedex package tracking) and we took this company public on Nasdaq.

How I came into Teradata was through acquisition of yet a fourth start-up that I had founded to deliver consulting and systems integration services for high-end analytics and data warehousing. With the Teradata acquisition I had three year golden handcuffs and the plan was to "do my time" and go on to the next start-up. That was twenty years ago. I decided that I loved the Teradata culture of innovation and flat structure that encouraged a start-up atmosphere, in terms of creativity, but with ample resources and appetite to get stuff done when a good idea emerged. I have loved working with the Teradata people over the years - we are like a family. I also love to teach and have done so at TDWI since 1996 at their World Conferences in the USA and Europe. In addition, I frequently lecture at academic institutions such as MIT, UC Berkeley, Stanford University and Oxford University, in both the Engineering and Management schools. 

What type of CTO are you? I am the type of CTO who makes a point of spending time with customers and prospects as well as in academia. Not just big customers and not just customers in the United States. I make a point of understanding the nuances and needs of our customers across different industries, sizes, and marketplaces. Erik von Hippel, a mentor of mine from when I was at MIT, has done extensive research that points to the value of co-innovating with customers who are not necessarily the biggest on the block, but rather the most agile and creative in their execution. It is tricky because many customers will give insight into only what their immediate problems are - so it is critical to ply beneath the surface and get to the real strategic opportunities that create long-term R&D investments rather than tactical thinking.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Deep learning technology has huge implications across many applications and many industries. Although the mathematical theory for multi-layer neural networks has been around for many decades, the practical use of this technique at enterprise scale has only recently become feasible through advances in both algorithms and hardware. I believe that we are still in the beginnings of understanding the full-on implications of the predictive power of deep learning and the importance of unsupervised and transfer learning techniques.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Although I would not classify it as a single technology, the term "Artificial Intelligence" has definitely been hyped far above the peak of over-inflated expectations. AI has become an umbrella term for almost any piece of software that is going to "save the company money and make it smarter". It has become more of a marketing term than a description of a meaningful technology, per se. Underneath the umbrella of AI there are lots of interesting technologies (e.g., Deep Learning), but there is also a lot of abuse of the term to attract investments for getting projects or companies funded. I am concerned that some vendors in the marketplace are over-promising and will end up under delivering, which will give a black eye to the whole industry.  It is important for customers to be business outcomes driven rather than hype driven when deploying AI technologies. 

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of? We have made a big transformation with our customers moving from an old-style perpetual licensing model to a subscription model with the possibility to move to consumption-based pricing down to the millisecond level. This was a joint initiative involving cooperation between R&D, finance, and the go-to-market team within Teradata. This initiative is coincident with the re-branding of the Teradata software to "Vantage" - which is much more than a name and logo change, but rather represents a dramatic shift in how we do business as a software company versus a hardware company and an analytic answers-as-a-service company versus a database company

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 Executive Leadership Team (of which I am a member) takes ownership of the digital transformation initiative within Teradata. Of course, we pay attention to each of customer experience, annual recurring revenue growth, and operational efficiency. These areas represent a three-legged stool in our business and we must have all three legs be strong to thrive as an enterprise.

Our biggest emphasis right now is on improving upon and providing a great customer experience. We believe a great customer experience will drive continued revenue growth. As for operational efficiency, this is an ongoing process of improvements and optimisation within the business. We make use of techniques adapted from lean manufacturing best practices to ensure methodical and sustainable results in operational efficiency improvements.  

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Many of our customers are in the midst of making the transition from on-premises deployment of solutions to a cloud first strategy.  The Teradata Vantage software is capable of executing both on-premises and in the cloud with hybrid as well as multi-cloud deployments across AWS and Azure. Helping customers understand the advantages of cloud deployment and working with them to develop transition plans for deploying Teradata Vantage in the cloud is a very popular topic in my recent customer interactions. We have a special cloud team specifically formed to help our customers move into cloud deployment and we are seeing an acceleration of this activity. Customers like the agility and consumption-based pricing models available in the cloud. Customers are starting to realise that the cloud is actually a "safer" for their data than in their own data centres. They are also better understanding the data gravity issue and how that impacts the economics of cloud deployment.     

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? At Teradata we start with the business goals, not with the technology. This ensures alignment from the onset. Technology for its own sake is not interesting - we always drive from a business outcomes perspective. 

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I originally came from the systems integration world before joining Teradata, so services is in my blood. I believe, strongly, that a strong professional services organisation is critical for creating the thought leadership to help customers be successful. Within Teradata we talk about being "Business Outcomes Led…Technology Enabled…and Architecture Driven".  The R&D labs create the technology, but it is the professional services organisation that ensures that the technology is used to effectively create business outcomes and is deployed with a robust architecture that is extensible and facilitates re-use of data across multiple business improvement opportunities. The core of our professional services organisation is composed of both business consultants as well as solution architects.

What makes an effective tech strategy? An effective tech strategy anticipates future trends in technology and leverages emerging technologies to create differentiation and barriers to entry versus competition. It focuses on creating business outcomes rather than pursuing new technologies as "shiny objects" with no clear alignment to customer needs. It does not align to a single technology, but rather pursues continuous innovation and continuous value creation as new technologies and business opportunities emerge. A tech company must re-invent itself every few years to maintain its relevance.  

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? It will not be not good enough to be great at technology, alone. CTOs will need to be adept at business strategy as well as keeping up on emerging technology trends. The CTO must take the helm for re-inventing the company over and over again.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Being part of the team that took Teradata technology from fragmented and unprofitable corners within NCR into a stand-alone, profitable, and growing company that eventually had a very successful IPO on the NYSE and has held the leadership quadrant in the Gartner Magic Quadrant for 20 years. 

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I graduated from UC Berkeley in just three years by taking very heavy course loads. I loved my courses and academic work - and did extremely well. However, I did not have a very well-balanced undergraduate experience. I made up for it at MIT where I was a resident assistant at an MIT undergraduate dormitory for many years, which I absolutely loved. But I probably should have stopped to smell the roses a bit more often while I was at Berkeley.

What are you reading now? I am a voracious reader. The books I tend to read cross a wide range of topics aligned to politics, philosophy, science, history and lots more. I rarely read technical books because by the time something in my fields makes it into a book, it is already old news - I prefer academic research papers and blogs for technology topics. I multi-task in almost everything that I do, including reading. The book I pick up at any moment must suit my mood and desire for knowledge at that moment. Right now I am (re) reading Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf and reading Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Lean Thinking by James Womack and The Fear of Insignificance by Carlos Strenger for the first time.

Most people don't know that I… am a certified Black Rock Ranger at Burning Man.

In my spare time, I like to… climb mountains. Play chess. Visit art museums. Go to live music concerts and festivals.

Ask me to do anything but… wear a suit and tie.

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