CTO Sessions: Rob Zuber, CircleCI

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? “I'm a firm believer that the purpose of technology is to support business value delivery. It can't be the other way around…”


Name: Rob Zuber

Company: CircleCI

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: August 2014

Location: Oakland, CA

Rob Zuber is a 20-year veteran of software startups; a four-time founder, three-time CTO. Since joining CircleCI, Zuber has seen the company through its Series B, C and D, and delivered on product innovation at scale. Zuber leads a team of 100+ engineers who are distributed around the globe. Prior to CircleCI, Zuber was the CTO and Co-founder of Distiller, a continuous integration and deployment platform for mobile applications acquired by CircleCI in 2014. Before that, he cofounded Copious an online social marketplace. Zuber was the CTO and Co-founder of Yoohoot, a technology company that enabled local businesses to connect with nearby consumers, which was acquired by Appconomy in 2011.

What was your first job? When I was 15, I sold plumbing and electrical supplies at Canadian Tire, a large chain hardware and automotive store.

Did you always want to work in IT? I had no real interest in computers when I went to college. I studied engineering physics, did a little bit of software development, then afterwards went to work in a production facility analysing production defects and optimising factory processes.

I found myself really enamoured with the software part of it all. Then a couple of friends of mine created a startup, which I later joined. I started out doing things like running a QA team and then something we called systems engineering. I even wrote our first build script. I’ve been thinking about delivering software ever since.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I went to college during a time when the parameters of the software industry were less obvious than they are today. My undergraduate degree is ridiculously specific: Bachelor of Applied Science, Engineering Physics, Materials Science Option. There was a small amount of computing to support numerical analysis of large-scale physics problems. I chose to learn Fortran because that's what physics people used.

As far as certifications go, I'm not the biggest fan of them. In my experience, they tend to be focused on specific technologies or processes. The tech space moves fast, and because of that, I'm always looking for people with strong fundamentals and a growth mindset. With the right foundation, you can learn new tool sets quickly.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I'm pretty sure it's all one big detour. I started as a process engineer in an electronics factory, then joined a startup as their first quality assurance person. Since then, I've done Site Reliability Engineering (SRE), software development, product management, business development, and more.

In the last 20 years, I've started four companies and served as CTO at three, including CircleCI. Prior to CircleCI, I was CTO and Co-founder of Distiller, a continuous integration and deployment platform for mobile applications. My co-founder was Jim Rose, who became CEO of CircleCI when it acquired Distiller in 2014.

I’ve always been a big advocate for building the smallest possible thing and then getting feedback on it. With Distiller, we built the first minimum viable product (MVP) that got a successful iOS build and then went and literally walked door-to-door around San Francisco, seeing if anyone wanted it.

About six months in, we were acquired by CircleCI, and that allowed us to build a more robust continuous integration and continuous development (CI/CD) tool that could handle an entire backend system along with mobile apps and more. Prioritising product-market fit is what allowed us to get the feedback to know quickly that we were on the right track, and rapidly hone our offering.

What type of CTO are you? I’ve learned the role of a CTO at a growing company is more about managing people than tech. Because of this, I spend a lot of time thinking about structuring and communicating context. Effectively removing ambiguity. I absorb what’s happening across the business as a whole, and reframe so that my engineering organisation understands what we’re trying to accomplish, so they, in turn, can make good decisions.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? It's always more fun to think about the moonshots. As a parent, my kids keep me hyper-aware of the planet's challenges, so that's where I see the potential for remarkable breakthroughs. For example, I know a couple of folks at General Fusion, which is developing a fusion power device based on magnetised target fusion. The idea of unlocking that level of energy production is a bit mind-blowing.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Whenever I see folks adopting something because everyone else is adopting it, as opposed to because it is a useful solution to a well-defined problem, I know we're looking forward to a day of reckoning and regret.

There’s an interesting balance in the freedom of choice versus the consistency of standardisation. I’m an engineer by background, so I love to tinker and deeply understand how things work. I’m also an engineering leader and at the end of the day, I have to think about what delivers the most value to my team and customers.

Being able to use a small set of tools, or have someone manage those tools for me in a way that’s going to enable me to do what is core to my business, is always what I’m striving for.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? I don't know if I can summarise it as an initiative, but sitting here in April 2021, it's hard to speak of the last 12 months without thinking about the pandemic, global politics, and social unrest. A lot of my job has ended up being about navigating, helping others navigate, a lot of uncertainty, all while everyone’s personal and work lives collide. I was unsurprisingly unprepared for this scenario, and as a leader, had to get pretty far out of my comfort zone fast to help support our team so we all could continue to support our customers.

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? No. We *are* digital transformation. CircleCI enables companies across industries to work smarter, not harder. We’re changing how developer teams do business every day by automating testing and making software delivery more effective and efficient than ever.

CircleCI helps organisations rapidly release code they trust by automating the build, test, and delivery process. We also enable companies to quickly and seamlessly pinpoint problems in their delivery pipeline so issues can be fixed quickly. By automating manual processes, we are unlocking developer productivity and helping organisations deliver value to users faster, at a higher quality, and at scale.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Every company is a software company now. The act of building quality software, and shipping it quickly, has become core to what you have to do as a software delivery team. Writing software and delivering it to users is still an incredibly complex process and the problem is -- most companies aren’t very good at it.

CircleCI automates that complexity so organisations can focus on things that matter, like solving problems for their users. Our tools put power into the hands of developer teams, allowing them to focus on the things that matter.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? I'm a firm believer that the purpose of technology is to support business value delivery. It can't be the other way around, but that seems to be the foundation of many conversations. I believe it's my job and the job of people on my team to understand the business goals and then figure out how we can use technology to achieve those goals.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? At a macro level, I'd say no. We are a technology company providing a product to other technology companies. Our work is so intertwined with where the world of software development is going that we have to all understand that.

On the other hand, when it comes to day-to-day, we have the same tensions as everyone else between making those long-term technical investments and delivering the capabilities that our customers are looking for right now.

What makes an effective tech strategy? One that people can understand.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? Honestly, I think the role of the CTO is extremely organisation-specific and person-specific. I can't think of a job that gets done more differently across different companies, so I'm not sure it's possible to make a blanket statement about where it will go.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Working with people 20 years ago and still being great friends.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have taken more risks and tried more new things. Early in my career, I let myself get comfortable and complacent because I didn't have the confidence to stretch myself.

What are you reading now? I've recently started having a physical book and audiobook on the go simultaneously because I never feel like I'm reading enough. I'm currently reading Growth by Vaclav Smil and listening to How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates. When it comes to books, I spend more time trying to find inspiration outside of my core domain than within it.

Most people don't know that I… Am a licensed soccer referee, but I have never played.

In my spare time, I like to…Play guitar, snowboard, and spend time with my kids – whether it’s watching a movie, playing a board game, or walking our family dog. Oh, and probably making more coffee.

Ask me to do anything but… Play Monopoly.