CTO Sessions: Clément Stenac, Dataiku

What type of CTO are you? “I am and always will be a software engineer at heart. I cannot imagine my role without a strong implication in design, architecture and product…”


Name: Clément Stenac

Company: Dataiku

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: January 2013

Location: Paris, France

Clement Stenac is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at Dataiku, and has been responsible for the development of the company’s data science and AI platform since 2013. Before founding Dataiku, he was a software architect and manager at Dassault Systèmes.

What was your first job? My very first experience was a summer job selling accessories in a home appliance department store. I already knew that I was not a natural-born salesman, but helping customers and making them happy was thrilling.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, ever since I touched my first computer at 5 to “play” Lotus 1-2-3 and started writing small BASIC programs on an Atari at age 7. The thrill of solving a problem and seeing the computer do what you want is what really drove me and still drives me.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I did science and engineering undergraduate studies in Paris. I then went on to pursue an engineering master’s with a specialisation in Computer Sciences at Ecole Centrale Paris. However, I’d say that most of my knowledge on computers and programming comes from self-teaching and doing open-source development at VideoLAN and Debian.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. At the end of my studies and after my first internships doing software development, I actually thought that if I did software development all day for a living, I may end up not liking it anymore, so I took a little detour through IT infrastructure consulting. I learned a lot about working with customers and how large IT departments operate, but in the end, the need to create was too strong. After less than a year, I was back in software engineering, at Exalead, helping to create a search engine.

What type of CTO are you? I am and always will be a software engineer at heart. I cannot imagine my role without a strong implication in design, architecture and product, which always needs to be balanced with giving vast autonomy to our teams. For example, I was heavily involved designing and building our Kubernetes and cloud-native support. I also have a knack for helping and solving, so I spend significant time directly helping our customers through their most challenging issues.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Low-code platforms that allow a much larger population to automate part of their work and to focus on higher value-added tasks, or to provide additional values to their clients. This has great potential for making office work higher-value, eliminating many menial tasks.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I would probably say blockchain. This is an exciting technology, and there’s something quite magical about having a globally distributed virtual machine. However, I believe that we’re still far from seeing real everyday usage, especially given the extreme complexity and risks. Most importantly, until Proof of Work has been fully replaced by other methods, the enormous energy and environmental impact should make it a non-starter.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? We organise each year (and last year, for the first time in a fully remote setting) a one-week hackathon, the “Hackaiku Week.” Engineers and Product Managers work in teams to build something that is dear to their heart, either directly related to Dataiku’s business or not. This has brought us a lot of innovation that ended up in our products, and strongly helps the teams stay connected, even with the current restrictions.

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? Dataiku has been a digital company from the get-go so while we are not really going through a digital transformation by ourselves, we are definitely helping our customers go through theirs. Dataiku’s core mission is to help all companies, no matter their size, industry, background, or IT skills, to benefit from the power of their data. Leveraging this can be transformative to numerous industries and in this way, we are definitely a part of their digital transformation.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Our customers around the world, like most businesses, are dealing with the effects of the global health crisis. Over the past year, we’ve been working with them to remain agile in the face of uncertainty, including reframing business questions and data projects and ensuring continuity in their data strategy.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? One driving principle is flexibility and avoiding dogmas. In addition to constant interaction both with the Revenue and Customer parts of our organisation, being involved hands-on in customer issues helps uncover the real problems and where you need to focus.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? It’s not easy, but it’s the core of our job as software editors, and it’s the core of my job as a CTO. We need to have a view of all customer pains and needs, and we need to constantly balance them with technological constraints, resources constraints, while still being able to take leaps of faith that make Dataiku innovative and a leader in its space.

What makes an effective tech strategy? I would say “not having a formulated and written tech strategy.” Focus on how you can bring value to the customer, on what you think you need to do and where you need to say “no.” Also, keep a balanced approach to everything rather than envisioning yourself as “all-in on this” or “entirely driven by that.”

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Not sure if it’s predictions or wishes, but I think every CTO, especially for software companies, should have one leg in the creation of the technology and one leg with the customers, understanding their everyday needs and aspirations.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Without a doubt, co-founding Dataiku and helping grow to where it is now. I’m particularly proud and happy about how we created a very united team with a shared sense of belonging and purpose.

One of the strongest moments of my career is a day in 2015, two years after the company was founded. We were about 30. I was walking in the office and looking at various groups of people working together, and for the first time, it really dawned on me that the company was “alive” and autonomous. In the first months, behind every action, every meeting, every group, there had been a cofounder driving it. But it was not the case anymore. People were making the company go forward on their own. It was very powerful. I believe that you become an entrepreneur for moments like these.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have tried to break out of the “tech-only bubble” sooner while working at Exalead / Dassault Systèmes. At that time, I was only focused on technology, not enough on customers, and this left me blind to many things.

What are you reading now? I mostly read fiction, and actually rarely read nonfiction books. I am currently reading through Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn series.

Most people don't know that I… am sometimes the person they are talking to when they write to Dataiku Support. I still handle a small fraction of the support tickets coming in, in order to keep direct contact with our users and customers and to keep a view of their problems and pains.

In my spare time, I like to…Play video games, particularly action-adventure and open world genres.

Ask me to do anything but… Put me in the middle of a room full of people, none of which I know, and tell me to “network”. Building great relationships takes time.