CTO Sessions: Sameer Tiwari, MariaDB Corporation

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? "...the unregulated nature of cryptocurrencies ends up helping out bad actors and is definitely overhyped."

MariaDB Corporation

Name: Sameer Tiwari

Company: MariaDB Corporation

Job title: CTO of Infrastructure

Date started current role: October 2019

Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Sameer Tiwari is CTO of infrastructure at MariaDB and leads the development of SkySQL, MariaDB’s database-as-a-service (DBaaS) platform. Prior to MariaDB, Tiwari was at Salesforce, where he worked on modernising the Salesforce cloud architecture to move thousands of on-prem machines to the cloud. He also architected a distributed, scale-out platform for high-speed transactional workloads to replace a proprietary database. In earlier roles, Tiwari served as a storage architect at Pivotal and a platform architect at Yahoo.

What was your first job? My first job was straight out of college. I started working at Unisys on their MainFrame computers, writing code to debug OS components that were being re-written as a move from 16 to 32-bit architecture. At the time, the move to a 32-bit architecture was a quantum leap for computing, so it was exciting to be a part of it in the early days of my career.

Did you always want to work in IT?  I originally thought I would end up working on hardware, but during my undergraduate and Master’s education I fell in love with coding in assembly and C. I was completely blown away by how much can be accomplished without soldering a single component, and doing everything from a keyboard. Since then I have been in the IT industry and working on hardware circuits still remains my hobby today.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a Bachelor’s in Electronics and a Master’s in Computer Science (BSc and MCA) - both from India.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My career has been in the software industry since day one, starting out as a systems engineer and growing from there to my current role today. I took a slight detour when I created a security startup that took a hardware solution approach based on radio frequency, propagation and modulation techniques (Wireless perimeter security device and network using same, Patent number: 8161542). I was passionate about helping to solve the increasing number of security breaches that were popping up in the news, even though it veered from my previous background in software. I believe strongly in following your dreams even if it’s unrelated to your current career path, it’s important to go for it. 

What type of CTO are you? Besides my responsibilities of leading technology and architecture, I spend a lot of energy focusing on customer needs. The field of data storage/retrieval is evolving at a rapid pace and adding the complexity of moving to the cloud at the same time makes things very difficult for customers. I maintain a deep relationship with our customers. I’m constantly working with them to distill features that helps them and delivers the biggest impact.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? The large-scale evolution of cloud technology is a quantum shift that has and will continue to reshape the future of computing and software development. Be it work on AI, traditional apps, large scale ecommerce apps or Mom and Pop shops, cloud technologies come in so many shapes and sizes that can easily be tailored to individual needs. Cloud computing has democratised the availability of computing to the masses, and especially with tech being built as-a-service, frees users from worrying about the underlying infrastructure, letting them focus on business and value creation. 

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? It’s common and easy to blame Quantum Computing as the number one hyped tech, but I strongly believe that it is the future. On the other hand, the unregulated nature of cryptocurrencies ends up helping out bad actors and is definitely overhyped.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Six months ago, we launched our new database-as-a-service (DBaaS), MariaDB SkySQL. So much of building that product was a first in the industry. We leveraged Kubernetes as the orchestration layer which allows us to port the service more easily across various public clouds. This was no easy task and I think we were one of the first to build a stateful application on Kubernetes. We worked closely with Google engineers who built the Google Kubernetes Engine to help us optimise SkySQL on Kubernetes and Google Cloud.

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? Building and running a DBaaS for customers across multiple clouds, regions and services has taught us one major thing: “Any time a keyboard has to be touched to fix an issue, it’s a BUG.” 

Automation and moving away from human-based processes has led us to define these four digital transformation pillars.

  • Automated recovery and remediation of outages/crashes lead to better customer experience. That’s where basing SkySQL’s design on Kubernetes helps tremendously.
  • Better customer experience has a direct impact on revenue growth.
  • In any hosted as-a-service, the OpEx quickly catches up to the CapEx, and focusing on digital transformation of operations is a key differentiating factor that we continue to focus on.
  • A focus on automation also helps keep our employees happy. We’ve built state-of-the-art automation into SkySQL to help fix or remediate issues without the need for human intervention. It not only lets our customers have restful nights, but our employees don’t get a 3am phone call to deal with a customer issue.

SkySQL is proving to be a game changer for digital transformation for our customers.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Companies are having a greater need for better scale performance as they grow and do business around the globe. This has traditionally been a hard problem for relational databases to solve and has in the past involved more of an expensive hardware approach.

For the last few years, we’ve been working on a new software solution that enables extreme scalability with MariaDB, called Xpand. What’s so great about Xpand is it doesn’t require customers to change their database or make application changes. It’s the same MariaDB that they’re familiar with and by turning on Xpand, customers can turbo charge their database. We recently made this capability available in our cloud database MariaDB SkySQL so getting started literally takes a few clicks. This is a game changer for companies that see spikes in their workload, such as holiday shopping or open enrollment to purchase insurance. SkySQL lets them easily add capacity whenever they anticipate a surge in traffic or business and then scale back when it’s not needed.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? In my last job, I learned the V2MOM method to create organisational alignment, where you define vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures. I’ve found this method to be valuable to gain alignment on goals with other stakeholders I’m working with.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? This is an ongoing, never-ending balancing act that every engineering leader has to do. Customers and the market pretty much drive our overall strategy, and technology has to be made flexible enough to adapt to ever changing market conditions. There is always a balance in building and launching the perfect technology, and time-to-market. For SkySQL, a clean architecture, well defined interfaces and service level abstractions have been a core part of the design. This lends us to be less rigid and allows us to deliver fast and create high impact for our customers.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Leading our DBaaS team, success of our product is when our end customers succeed. The only effective tech strategy is that which directly aligns to the customer goals and makes them successful. And as I mentioned in the previous point, tech strategy has to be adaptive to ever changing environments. When COVID-19 sent the world into an economic shutdown, we were ready to help our customers adapt and solve their problems quickly.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Given the nature of computing moving to the cloud, CTOs will have to take on more responsibility about understanding the complex nature of customer applications and not just focus on building general-purpose technology that used to work great with well-behaved, stable, on-prem data centers. CTOs will have to keep ahead of the innovation curve and continuously be on the lookout for bleeding edge technologies to make their own companies and their customers successful.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Inventing new technology has always given me the greatest sense of achievement, and it’s hard to pick one over the other. I really enjoyed building the Scale out Storage system for the Salesforce database, the pluggable storage system at Pivotal and the Wireless company I created. Of course, building SkySQL at MariaDB has proved to be an immense achievement as well.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I feel that my overall career path has provided me with a well-rounded set of experiences. Even though it might seem that removing the negative experiences from my career would be great, each one of those experiences was a learning experience and has added value to my career path. I’ve made the mistake of staying too long at a company where I should have cut my losses earlier. Having that experience early in my career taught me to stay focused on my passions, not to get too comfortable and lose sight of what’s important. If I could go back in time, I’d go back to get a PhD in Quantum Computing, a lifelong passion of mine.

What are you reading now? I love keeping on top of the latest tech trends, new advances in hardware that are expected to impact the software industry and deep science innovation. Popular Mechanics is one of my favorite sites to get my daily dose of the latest inventions changing our world.

Most people don't know that I… Love working with my hands and tinkering, building model planes, working and riding on motorcycles for fun.

In my spare time, I like to…Spend time in the backcountry, hiking and backpacking.

Ask me to do anything but… Slow down and take it easy.