CTO Sessions: Derek Knudsen, Alteryx

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? "I think I would have moved into the open source movement a lot earlier in my career."


Name: Derek Knudsen

Company: Alteryx

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: August 2018

Location: Broomfield, Colorado

Derek Knudsen is the Chief Technology Officer of Alteryx, responsible for all technology and technology initiatives at the company, including Engineering and IT. He brings more than 20 years of experience helping companies leverage technology for strategic advantage, as well as leading technology organisations as they scale for growth. Before joining Alteryx, Knudsen was a partner with Credera, focused on technology and business strategy.

What was your first job? My first IT job was doing basic Windows NT administration in support of a ten-person development team. Not only did I know zero about things like DNS, DHCP, and WINS but this is 1995 when Windows NT was emerging so not a lot was available in terms of education but that’s what made it so interesting. Luckily the team I was on was really supportive of my learning which not only encourage me to learn and explore but also tolerated my mistakes which were plenty.

Did you always want to work in IT? Like many young adults in college I wasn’t too sure about what I specifically wanted to do but after attending an information session with Anderson Consulting during my senior year I knew that consulting was something that interested me greatly. I loved the idea of helping companies address their business challenges. Luckily Anderson thought my background was a great fit for them and provided a broad swath of opportunities, one of which was in technology. From that point on I knew it was the path for me.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have an MBA from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Arizona.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Like many young people first entering the workforce I was a bit lost in terms of really knowing what I wanted to do. Being an engineering graduate, I naturally thought spending time doing process work would make a lot of sense, but I quickly found doing business process work felt amorphous to me, that I needed to be solving what I thought were more tangible problems versus just capturing business process on paper.

I was fortunate to have enough programming education to get an opportunity to pivot into technology, which felt more tangible, and even more fortunate to find two mentors that made me fully realise that I had a passion for the space.

What type of CTO are you? What fires me up is driving organisations to be high performing. Becoming high performing requires more of a focus on people and process than on technology as you can have the world’s greatest technology strategy but if you can’t deliver it what does it matter. While I obviously do spend time on technology especially technology strategy, I spend more of my time working on culture and helping lean out our software delivery processes.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Two things. First is serverless computing. While not emerging our ability to leverage it is critically important. What powers our products is a proprietary engine and taking that engine and the workloads it serves, some of which are long running, and accomplishing it through serverless is a great challenge for us. Second is .NET Core 5.0 and its promise of delivering a rich and powerful cross platform experience. It will be interesting to evaluate it versus Electron and Qt.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? While I don’t think it is overhyped the one technology, I have learned that people oversimplify is Kubernetes. Ask anyone who has implemented Kubernetes and they will likely tell you how difficult it can be to operate the environment. We have suffered through that first hand. Lucky for all of us it is a solvable problem but if you are considering Kubernetes be sure to understand and appreciate the operational requirements before jumping in.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? We have made a massive push into Lean. Like many organisations we are focusing heavily on DevOps and injecting automation everywhere but to me that is putting the cart ahead of the horse as I can have the best automation in the world but if each developer has dozens of items of Work In Progress (WIP) that automation isn’t going to help as my Cycle Times will be terrible. We have implemented a Delivery Dashboard at the team level to help our leads understand WIP, Queue Sizes, Cycle Times, Throughput, etc. which with education will allow them to tune their process so all that automation can pay off. 

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 Alteryx, especially at this stage of growth, we will heavily bias towards the customer as our success as a company has always centered on serving the customer first (our first core value is “Customer Emphasis”).

We actually just hired a new Chief Marketing Officer less than a month ago and in the first conversation we had we discussed how to transform our external digital assets and properties so as to create a cohesive, consistent customer experience, something that we feel doesn’t exist today. While we won’t ignore opportunities to improve efficiencies, something that when you grow as fast as we have you are naturally going to have, it won’t be our focus.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Working with IT on implementing our technology at the enterprise level to meet their ever-increasing business needs. Much like Tableau we initially targeted the department or business decision maker as the business case for our software could be made really obvious to them. However, as they use more and more of our software it becomes more business critical and departments are not in a position to operate business critical software so enter IT as well as InfoSec. We spend a lot of time now educating these groups on how-to stand-up enterprise implementations including tuning, capacity planning, security modelling, etc.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? On the IT side we have started to really focus on Business Architecture as our decision framework. In the end the purpose of IT is to serve the business. Having clear, aligned definitions of what the business is via things such as value streams, capabilities, and organisation structures and the relative maturity of each allows company leadership to identify where investments should be made to support the business strategy. Without a Business Architecture you can’t make educated decisions on what to invest in and maybe more importantly what not to invest in.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? When it comes to supporting incremental innovation or even adjacent innovation, we don’t tend to run into too many issues with strategy but more with aligning expectations on velocity, something every high-tech company deals with. When it comes to disruptive innovation or transformational innovation then you almost can’t help it especially if you want to connect that innovation into your existing product set eventually. The only way to mitigate this is to communicate as early as possible. We conduct a twice-a-year strategy offsite as a company leadership team which not only helps Engineering and IT get as far ahead as possible in terms of technical strategy but also ensures alignment across the C-suite. 

What makes an effective tech strategy? I am a big believer in John Doerr’s OKR philosophy. Without having specific objectives and associated key results technology strategies can wander or not react to changes in the marketplace, something I have seen numerous times in my career especially as a consultant doing Enterprise Architecture. We are actually in the middle of finalising our own three-year technical strategy and are leveraging a Lean Startup mindset in our approach. 

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I think you will see more CTOs move into CEO positions. The role of technology continues to increase in importance in organisations and having a leader with a strong grasp of how to leverage it for strategic advantage will become more desired. CTO business acumen is ever increasing and this to me is the next logical progression.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I tend to be pretty bad at looking back at my achievements other than to learn from the mistakes I have made. That said I can definitely say that being CTO of Alteryx is the greatest career opportunity I have ever had. It is just an amazing company with an amazing culture that from top to bottom is committed to the challenging journey of becoming the world’s next great analytics company. When my day comes to step away from this place, I am quite positive I will look back at it as the pinnacle of my professional experience.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I think I would have moved into the open source movement a lot earlier in my career. I grew up professionally building enterprise software with Microsoft technologies and so missed out on much of the open source or even open standards movement. What open source has done for not just the evolution of technology but for accelerating adoption has been nothing short of remarkable.

What are you reading now? I just got done reading Actionable Agile Metrics for Predictability by Daniel Vacanti. He covers the Lean Software Development process from a bit of a different perspective than luminaries like Don Reinersten. I especially liked the sections on SLAs and forecasting. If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest you do.

Most people don't know that I… I am much less social than those that know me realise. I really cherish time alone, especially to think. It can frustrate my poor wife who is a school teacher and thus starved for socialising with other adults, something I completely get so I do my best.

In my spare time, I like to… Outside of spending time with my family I love to fly fish. The tranquillity it brings as well as the fact that you never stop learning is what keeps me coming back. Luckily Colorado isn’t a bad place to live when it comes to fly fishing.

Ask me to do anything but… Well these days I would say manage my own calendar. I used to think I was OK at this until coming to Alteryx where the asks on my time are more than they ever have been, something that comes with this role in a hyper growth, software company. I was recently convinced by my EA to let her handle it from now on, something that didn’t take much convincing considering how poor of a job I was doing with it.