CTO Sessions: Atul Chadha, Affinity Solutions

How has the CTO role changed and how will it continue to change? “I think the CTO role used to be a more technology-driven visionary role … I think the role has transformed to be closer to the business, the here and now.”

Affinity Solutions

Name: Atul Chadha

Company: Affinity Solutions

Job title: Chief Technology & Operations Officer

Date started current role: January 2018

Location: San Jose, CA

Atul Chadha is Chief Technology & Operations Officer at Affinity Solutions. He heads the Engineering, Data Science, Analytics, Program Management and Quality functions at the company. Prior to joining Affinity Solutions, Chadha held various senior leadership positions in Big Data and Cloud technology and strategy at IBM Silicon Valley Lab. He has authored nine patents in data mining and related areas, including one which was rated among the top 5% of most valuable patents for IBM. Chadha is a data focused entrepreneur having co-founded a behavioural data platform startup and has over 25 years of experience in the field of software engineering, data engineering, data mining and cloud technologies, with senior roles at Wipro, Good Technology (acquired by Blackberry), PeopleSoft (acquired by Oracle), and IBM.

What was your first job? My first job was as a customer support engineer at a company named WIPRO. I was supporting UNIX workstations, Windows desktops and conducting training on the associated software. I was responsible for customer experience you could say, which has served me well throughout my entire career.

Did you always want to work in IT? In my younger days, I wanted to be a forensic scientist or a detective. That changed when I was in high school where I discovered I had lot of interest in software and just continued down that path. I would say, yes, I've always wanted to be in IT and I found a passion for technology early on.

Where did you go to school and what are the specific degrees or certifications that you have? I did my undergraduate study in India at Birla Institute of Technology Mesra. I came to the United States to continue my studies abroad and have been in the Bay Area ever since. I completed my Masters in Computer Science at University of California, San Diego. I also earned an MBA at Cal State, East Bay. I have also received numerous certifications over the years, related to databases, UNIX and analytics software.

How did you begin your career and were there any unexpected detours along the way? I’ve always had a passion for technology and innovation. After my Masters, I went straight to work for IBM. The first half of my career was purely technical. I did take a quick detour and started my own company, which led me to more business-related roles. As an entrepreneur, I was playing every role, spanning fundraising and everything that needs to get done within a startup. The second portion of my career has been a mix of business and technology, but the constant has always been data and software, and these are the key areas I still focus on today in my role as CTO of Affinity Solutions.

What type of CTO are you? My approach is very hands on. I like to think of myself as a ‘lead by example’ type of leader. I would say I do lean towards a more participative or democratic style. I like engaging the teams, but obviously I am always mindful of staying agile and making decisions quickly. I do take my team along in the decision-making process and I think that has always led to very positive and productive work environments. As a CTO, my focus is always on use cases that can solve customer or client problems. Everything I do is customer-centric and that is what I engage my teams around.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about? In general, I'm really fascinated by genomic research, which, as we've seen recently, has led to very quick COVID-19 vaccine development. I believe there's a lot more to come and a lot of potential in this area. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are an important part of genomics that are needed to analyse the vast volumes of data the genome produces and discover useful patterns. Pattern discovery using artificial intelligence is obviously very important for any data-driven field and any company in today’s environment, let alone a company like Affinity Solutions where we are so heavily focused on data and the cleansing, integration and analysis of it.

Are there any technologies that you think have been overhyped and if so, why? I think blockchain technologies are overhyped. With the advent of cryptocurrency, these technologies came to the forefront, and perhaps their potential was overestimated. I think they're really overhyped in terms of real use cases where they've been implemented thus far and dramatic results using the technology have been few and far between. Perhaps the concept may still succeed over the years, but I think there is a long way to go.

What is one unique initiative that you've worked on over the last 12 months that you're proud of? We launched a partnership with Harvard’s Opportunity Insights (OI) as part of our Data for Good initiative at the start of COVID. This partnership has helped track the economic impact of the pandemic in real-time, to solve for important policy issues. That work has focused on things related to income disparity and led to advising the new Administration on stimulus relief. We are very proud of the consumer insights we are able to produce and the fact that they have been recognised by OI and featured regularly in top-tier media outlets.

We have many examples of our spend behavior insights being leveraged by the academic and nonprofit community, including a weekly Employment Index which was launched in the state of Texas. Everything that has been a part of this initiative has had a positive impact and I am very proud of the work my team and I have contributed to this effort. I’m also proud to be part of a company like Affinity Solutions which has chosen to use its resources to help people during these uncertain and difficult times. Our company’s purpose is to use data to improve people’s lives, and I feel this a great proof point of us living up to our promise.

Are you leading a digital transformation and does it emphasise customer experience and growth? And how do you balance the two? As far as a digital transformation, we are already part of that evolution, which happened years ago at our own company. Today, we are really focused on helping many of our customers and partners take a similar digital transformation journey. Our current set of solutions provides insights based on consumer behavior and allows customers to act upon those insights as well. This type of data really enables other organisations to easily digitally transform, particularly because of the hyper personalised experiences our data helps unlock.

We work with our customers to enhance whatever customer experience (CX) they have, because with our help, they can personalise all interactions with their consumers and better align with their interests and motivations. This type of work is very important and can obviously have big incremental impact on revenue. We are working on launching a data platform code-named Panorama which will take this thinking a step further and enable partners to build their own applications, designed to enrich CX, on top of our data.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? Currently, our insights product is being leveraged by retailers, and consulting firms that engage with retailers in defining the move forward strategy amidst the significant impact from the pandemic. It's very important for our customers to understand how consumer behaviors have changed and which are temporary versus permanent. We help them understand where they should be investing more and where they should be holding back or cutting down. It’s all about optimising strategy related to engaging with consumers, understanding their current behavior and predicting their future behavior.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? There is oftentimes some tussle between the business side and technology, however, we have our decisioning methodology within the organisation where collectively, all functions come together around major decisions to ensure both sides are aligned. It’s really about teamwork and we work to ensure whatever decision as a business we make, it lines up with our current thinking and strategy in a synergistic way and is designed for optimal outcomes.

Do you ever have any trouble matching product strategy with tech strategy? With a company of our size, there are always revenue pressures which may lead us to rejigger our roadmap and develop certain capabilities or features on a more accelerated pace. We are pretty agile in that regard and able to adapt quickly to our business needs.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Alignment with business strategy is critical. As I said, my own leadership style is more around working with the use cases and solving business problems that matter to our clients and partners. Any good tech strategy has to really be driven both by innovation that's happening in the market, and by the business’ goals.  For example, if we have customers who, from a business perspective, would prefer to work with a certain cloud provider, then that’s an important factor, not just which cloud provider is providing the best-in-class technology capabilities. We bring our approach to business alignment to our customers and our partners, which is especially important in light of our partner-led go-to-market strategy.

How has the CTO role changed and how will it continue to change? I think the CTO role used to be a more technology-driven visionary role. CTOs needed to be thinking ahead, thinking of innovations, which obviously remains one of the goals of a CTO. However, I think the role has transformed to be closer to the business, the here and now. It’s not only about the vision, but also about execution and taking into account many of the new things which are happening out there in the world, like privacy, security and being nonbiased. There is so much for CTOs to stay on top of today because of the accelerated pace of change going on around us.

If you look at the area of artificial intelligence, I think, one of our key roles right now is to take something complex and make it explainable. Certain decisions are made automatically based on algorithms, maybe neural nets, or whatever it might be. However, I think it's important to look at why certain decisions are made and ensure that no unpermitted attributes were considered, even if they are made by the machine. CTOs have to play a much more central role within the leadership team today and be much more closely aligned with strategy versus just technology or infrastructure.

What has been your greatest career achievement to date? This is a tough one. In different phases of my career, there have been milestones I’ve been very proud of. If I were to look back at my pure technology days, I built an extremely fast loading mechanism for IBM's DB2 database which had a big business impact. At that time, IBM DB2 running on workstations was competing with Oracle, which was very far ahead in this area. Oracle ran ads showing IBM as the snail. The loading mechanism I built as a prototype and then introduced to customers, had an enormous impact on our ability to be a top competitor in the market.

The second one was product-focused and more around data mining, which is now part of the overall DB2 umbrella. I built a data mining lab and worked with customers on their real business problems. My work had a big impact in the data mining arena moving forward. As you know, there's a lot of research papers and algorithms that came out of the IBM labs on this topic and I was proud to be a part of putting all this innovation to practical use.

Looking back in hindsight, is there anything that you would have done differently throughout your career to date? I would have put a greater focus on building a personal brand in terms of my professional achievements and the impact they had. I didn't really lay much focus on it in the early days, but I think it's important for every leader to be a visible thought leader and certainly a critical component of the path to the C-Suite. If I were to do it again, I would probably have done that much earlier in my career.

What are you reading now? There's a book recommended by my colleague called Play Bigger, and it’s really about, in addition to product design, also focusing on category design and company design. How can a company be scalable, or be the winner in a category, is what it is generally about.

Most people don't know that I… was at one point a patient transporter in a hospital. This was when I had a gap year between when I went from WIPRO to doing my Masters. I had a few months of gap when I arrived in the United States and working at the hospital as a patient transporter was a very fulfilling way to help others and see the joy in people’s eyes when the patients were discharged from the hospital, for example.

In my spare time, I like to…like to cook. I do a lot of that at home. I also like to just drive or even fly to see places of natural beauty. I'm very interested in that. Both of these things allow me to step out of my day-to-day which is so important to do on both a personal and professional level.

Ask me to do anything but… If it's personal, then do not ask me to join in a dance at a party, or sing, or anything like that. If it's more professional, than don't ask me to attend a 6 a.m. meeting. That's kind of hard for me!