CTO Sessions: Ravs Kaur, Uplevel

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? "I’m really excited about the prospects of machine learning and AI, especially the impact that it can have on education, healthcare, and even agriculture."

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Uplevel

Name: Ravs Kaur

Company: Uplevel

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: January 2019

Location: Seattle

Ravs Kaur, Chief Technology Officer, is responsible for leading Product and Engineering at Uplevel. Prior to Uplevel, she spent a decade in the Developer Division at Microsoft building tools to make the every-day lives of developers easier. Following her time at Microsoft, she was at Tableau and led the core Visual Analytics teams to help people discover and share their insights through data. She brings together her empathy of developers, passion for data, and experience with engineering leadership challenges in her current role at Uplevel to build the product she always wanted for her own teams.

What was your first job? I grew up in an Indian household where it wasn’t common to hold a job in high school — they wanted us fully focused on our studies. My first job was in college in Michigan where I was a C++ consultant at a university helping students with their homework and assignments on C++. It was really fun to see a student get unblocked when I helped them to solve a problem.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, not at all. I actually wanted to be a doctor. During my final years in high school, I enrolled in biology classes and realised it was not my cup of tea. I took my first CS class in college and knew right away it was a better fit.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. I did my first two years at Oakland University in Michigan.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I started off with an internship at Microsoft during my senior year of college and joined full-time job once I graduated from college. I started off as a software development engineer in test building automation frameworks. While I was officially in that role, I was able to take on many other responsibilities, including product development, product management, feature specing, UX design, and more. When I moved into a management role while at Microsoft, I realised that I loved leading teams and watching people grow. After Microsoft, I took a position at Tableau and worked on the first version of storytelling with data. Overtime, I transitioned into a management role overseeing product managers and software developers in the visual analytics space. Two years ago, I took a leap and jumped into the start-up world as the CTO of Uplevel. 

What type of CTO are you? I’m a CTO that naturally gravitates towards customer needs and the business problems at hand. I want to use technology to solve those problems. In my experience, sometimes CTOs tend to start with technology. I like to start with the customer first. I love building teams that are mission-driven to solve problems with real impact.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I’m really excited about the prospects of machine learning and AI, especially the impact that it can have on education, healthcare, and even agriculture. I think the promise of helping people gain insights from data that are then transformed into knowledge and wisdom is very exciting. I’m most excited about giving everyday people (without extensive data science knowledge) the ability to leverage insights and access learnings that come about because of the technology.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I also think that AI is one of the technologies that has been most overhyped. Because of that, I don’t think we are thinking enough about the possible negative side effects of these new technologies. For example, we love the use of technology in healthcare to more accurately make a diagnosis or predict health risk, but there may be consequences to our privacy, more harm done due to incorrect outcomes, or even loss of jobs unless we think through all the transformations that are needed. In addition, AI has shown that it can disrupt our social fabric and we should think very responsibly about the uses and the implications.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? In the past year, I’ve been part of the team that has built and launched Uplevel to the world. I’ve been able to take my love for data and teams and put that into a product. We’re on a mission to enable all engineers to do their best work. And we know they can’t do that without clear insights into why things are getting in their way.

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? Uplevel is a team of only 20 people and two years old, so thankfully we don’t need a digital transformation. But we are constantly thinking about the way we build and sell. We are always trying to balance the customer experience, our revenue growth and being operationally efficient. At this point in our company lifecycle, we are putting the most focus on delighting our customers and their users.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Removing roadblocks from the day to day lives of developers. Our customers are engineering teams. As software development has evolved, customers now expect continuous innovation and improvement. Teams now work in short milestones. When one ends, another immediately begins. Because of this, everyone is trapped in meeting hell. Priorities are always moving. The roadblocks sometimes seem endless. Our product helps teams manage this new normal and find ways to make work effective and productive.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? At this point in our company, our business goals are in line with our technology use. When we are discussing technology, we are always asking “what is the problem that we are trying to solve?” - this helps ground our technology decisions in what is best for the business.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? As a small team we have huge aspirations that we know we can’t get to as fast as we want. So we are constantly trying to balance the speed at which we deliver with the inevitable tech debt that we accumulate. As mentioned above, we are always putting our customers and business goals at the forefront of every technical discussion, so we try our best to keep them aligned.

What makes an effective tech strategy? An effective tech strategy creates alignment on how technology will be used to solve customer and business problems. It touches not just on the technology but also on the process, people, and systems that are all involved. You have to consider emerging trends, the talent you have, and the support and infrastructure in place. You have to think through how our business and product strategy will evolve and account for that. All that said - it’s important to try and keep it simple.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I think that the CTO of the future will have to think much broader than just about technology. They will have to think not just about the use of technology but about the effects on society at a broader level. Future CTOs will also have to get much more serious about data privacy and the implications for how someone might use a product in a way that wasn’t the original intention.

What has been your greatest career achievement? When I look back on my career, I feel that my greatest achievement has been to learn and adapt as I have taken on new roles throughout my career. I’ve been able to take lessons learned along the way and implement those into each new role. Most recently, translating the Uplevel product idea from powerpoint slides and turning it into an actual product that people use is very high on that list.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I wish that I had held a stronger line when deciding to accumulate more tech debt. It always comes back to haunt you. It’s really hard when you’re trying to find product market fit and you want to iterate quickly. But it inevitably causes you to slow down later.

What are you reading now? With everything going on in the world, I’ve put down my business books for a bit and have been trying to unwind and relax with a light fictional read. I’m currently reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Most people don't know that I… that I am trying to learn the piano. (I’m not doing so well at it).

In my spare time, I like to…spend time with my family and friends. In normal times I love to travel.

Ask me to do anything but… wake up for a 7am call.