CTO Sessions, Karan Khanna, Mediaocean

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? “Overhyped might be too strong, but I definitely think that machine learning is a bit of a double-edged sword.”


Name: Karan Khanna

Company: Mediaocean

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: August 2020

Location: Seattle, Washington, USA

Karan Khanna is Chief Technology Officer at Mediaocean, serving previously as Chief Technology Officer and co-founder at 4C, which built the leading Closed Ecosystems Platform (CEP) for marketers to gather intelligence and drive business outcomes.

What was your first job? My background is actually in software engineering all the way back. I started out in Boston, working as a software development engineer at Digital Equipment Corporation. This is where I got familiar with microcomputers, VMS, and all those precursors to the machines we use today.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, I was always an engineer at heart and started out my career as a software developer. People club IT and software development together, but IT is all about software for back-offices of banks, or infrastructure for large media corporations, and so on – I am more product-oriented. Developing a technology product is a very different skillset, and that’s what I’m passionate about now.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied computer engineering to start with, for both my Bachelors and my Masters degrees at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science and UMass, respectively. After my time at DEC, I also went to Dartmouth to study for an MBA.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After finishing my MBA I joined Microsoft, where I ended up working for 14 years. That’s where I got really pulled into the product development challenge, joining teams working on Windows, Office, business solutions, and learning what it means to really ship products at scale. I then spent five years at Amazon as a Director on the Kindle team, managing the growth of the Kindle eBook catalog and launching services like eNewspapers and personal document reading. After Amazon I worked at Salesforce as the VP for the Force.com platform. Overall, not a career with lots of detours – apart from the MBA, maybe, which I don’t use that much! – but a career with a lot of broad, immersive experience in different product challenges. It was great training for co-founding and taking on the CTO role at what was then called 4C Insights, and which is now Mediaocean, where I’ve been working since 2013.

What type of CTO are you? The CTO’s goal now isn’t really about the nuts and bolts of the technology – it’s about setting up a culture for developers where they can take risks, where they are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, where they can move fast. Something I learned very quickly at Amazon was the value of continual incremental improvements and consistent delivery of value to customers. It’s important to make this regular and predictable: the train leaves the station each week, and if your feature or your bugfix or whatever is ready, it gets on the train, but if not, that’s fine, maybe it gets on next week. Either way, the train leaves on time, every time, giving teams the freedom to work on really good solutions for their own areas. I see my contribution in this kind of process setting, as well as bringing in the perspectives of the sales team, the customer service team, and so on, and making sure that that’s infused into the engineering organisation.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? There’s not just one, and I’m resistant to thinking there is a particular technology that will serve as a silver bullet for many problems. Instead, we’re looking at a whole slew of technologies which are going to have a big influence. The funny thing is that most of these have been with us for quite a while. It’s like with operating systems, where what we’re running today mostly sits on technology developed in the late eighties. If I had to pick out one emerging technology today, then, I would look particularly at containerisation – Kubernetes, Docker, and so on – which I think still has a lot of potential to make working with different codebases easier and more scalable.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Overhyped might be too strong, but I definitely think that machine learning is a bit of a double-edged sword. Used right, it can deliver great results, but too often we see people or companies faced with challenges and responding with ‘oh, just use machine learning’. So much goes into getting the right training data, making it scalable, labeling it properly, and even if you get all of that right and solve the problem, customers don’t always like this approach. Ultimately, with machine learning, you can’t fully predict what results it will deliver – and if you’re used to processes where everything is very visible and comprehensible in an Excel spreadsheet, that’s a big culture issue.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Moving from working at Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce to being a co-founder and CTO in more of a start-up style culture was a really engaging challenge in terms of translating my approach and bringing the best practice of those huge companies to bear in a very different environment. Up to 50 or 75 employees, you can be reasonably ad-hoc about process, moving fast and finding what works as you go, but beyond that there’s a risk that chaos starts to set in. There’s probably always a fairly visceral negative reaction when you start solidifying process in a start-up culture, so we did it with a focus on cross-functional teams, where each area has sales and customer service representatives installed alongside the developers and product specialists. Breaking down those silos at the ground level has been really successful at making the culture of process feel like an accelerant, not a brake on what people want to achieve.

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? Mediaocean has been a digital technology company from its inception, so there is no transformation to be done. The focus is more on making sure that we’re skating to where the puck is going to be, in terms of putting our technology and products on the right future trajectory.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? We can never underestimate how important culture shifts are when it comes to introducing new tools. You can build the optimal solution to a problem, do all the research and verification you like on how much time it saves or how much it improves revenue by, but if a customer’s employees don’t use it once it’s implemented, it doesn’t do anything for the business. Aligning the technology with how people actually work is always at the center of things.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Similarly to the issues that we help customers with, this comes down to understanding who employees are and how they like to work. Business goals – whether that’s a revenue target, an efficiency saving, a boost in market share, or whatever – are never the full picture. Achieving them is a matter of change management, and getting a good understanding of what you’re trying to change from is as big a part of that journey as understanding what it is that you’re trying to change to. By the time you are introducing new technology to make that happen, a lot of the real work of alignment should already be in place.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Not trouble, as such, but this is definitely one of the big things that a CTO can do for a business. The development teams need insight from the rest of the business, yes – to make sure that the way they are building solutions has the context of the business, or the context of their customers, in mind, but the CTO also has the job of doing that in the other direction, educating the rest of the business about what’s happening in the development teams. Four or six developers moving fast on a feature won’t always be in the best position to communicate that back to the marketing team: keeping those links healthy is a constant task.

What makes an effective tech strategy? This would depend on the stage of the company and the product. Typically in an early to mid stage startup, the tech strategy revolves around the product/platform architecture and the choice of the components to build it. The components should be relatively mature, well supported, have broad market adoption and have a “half life” of 4 to 5 years. In a more mature company that has products in market, the tech strategy revolves around maintainability, removing tech debt and evolving the existing architecture to newer components and technology.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Talent is a rapidly changing environment right now. A lot of what I see as my most valuable contributions as a CTO relies on finding the right people and putting them in the right place: cross-functional teams need a really good balance of personalities so that nobody is drowned out and different business needs get properly considered and infused into the end product. With shifts in government policy and the move to distributed remote working, that challenge looks very different, and frankly gets a lot harder. Having everyone working in the same office, getting around the same table and talking face to face every day, is still the best – that’s the gold standard. Nine times out of ten, it’s not possible any more. CTOs are going to find themselves doing much more on the people side of culture and process, making sure that what the business needs to achieve is being fed with the right talent, and that the talent is well-connected.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Maybe it’s just because it’s the most recent thing in my mind – but the ramp up from startup culture to a much bigger team, then making sure that that culture works well in a remote context, and that those cross-functional teams are still really driving each other forward in a productive and exciting way, is something I’m hugely proud of.

What are you reading now? I’m reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Hariri. It’s a history of humanity which has a lot to tell us about the future of the species.

Most people don't know that I… love wine, and I try to learn about wine from different regions of the world – particularly New World wines!.

In my spare time, I like to… golf. That’s another thing I’m learning, still, but it’s been great for getting out while maintaining social distancing.

Ask me to do anything but… Play an instrument! I went to a boarding school in India, and I was so sports-oriented that I never really picked up any more arty hobbies.