CTO Sessions: Alex Heneveld, Cloudsoft

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “I’m most excited by the opportunities presented by the richness and growing maturity of cloud and online services — serverless, data services, analytics, front ends…”

Headshot of Alex Heneveld, Co-founder and CTO at Cloudsoft

Name: Alex Heneveld

Company: Cloudsoft

Job title: Co-Founder and CTO

Date started current role: Day one! April 2008 (co-founder)

Location: Borders, Scotland

Raised in Georgia USA, Alex Heneveld came to Scotland to pursue a PhD at the University of Edinburgh after a Maths degree at Princeton. He co-founded Cloudsoft in April 2008.

What was your first job? Aged 12 my aunt put me in touch with a home automation company in New Orleans - they were working on IoT in the home and they needed someone who could write Pascal. As it was remote, they didn’t know my age and I continued to work with them until I went to Princeton. I took other programming jobs on the side of my studies, working on AI and neural network projects and some voice recognition software at Bell Labs.  

Did you always want to work in IT? I’ve always been interested in the possibilities of new technologies and was able to explore this from an early age. I continued to do some freelance consulting work throughout my PhD too, so I always had a foot in the ‘real world’ outside of academia.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? Undergraduate degree in Maths from Princeton and a PhD in Informatics from the University of Edinburgh.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. The PhD was a detour really, and I realised that academia wasn’t really where I wanted to be. Market feedback — whether people will pay for your ideas — is a better fit for the types of problems I was interested in solving.

What type of CTO are you? We’re a relatively small company, so I'm fortunate to be able to be more hands-on than CTO's typically can be at larger enterprises.  This suits me as I think it’s really important to stay connected to the work our teams are doing. It helps inspiration to flow both ways and to generate excitement about a vision for what our software can do and where we can go next.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? I’m most excited by the opportunities presented by the richness and growing maturity of cloud and online services — serverless, data services, analytics, front ends — and the ability for developers to create robust applications quickly by connecting these services.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? This might be controversial but Kubernetes: at a time when cloud services are expanding so rapidly, doubling down on VM-like deployments misses out on the bigger paradigm shift in IT.  Docker and Kubernetes absolutely have a role, but where it's possible to leapfrog that layer by consuming as-a-Service offerings or higher-level platforms, that's likely to be quicker to develop and much less work to operate and maintain.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? As we’ve grown over the last year, we’ve created more leadership roles in our Engineering teams. I gave these new roles to engineers who I felt were ready even if they weren’t so sure! It was a great decision, as stepping-up has not only developed their technical and managerial skills, but they’ve grown in confidence and our team's productivity has also benefited.

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? We were born in the cloud, so our digital transformation efforts are on behalf of our clients. Enterprise clients with really complex technology estates are finding digital transformations can actually make things even more complex, and threaten their overall resilience, so we are involved in their digital transformations by helping them to have better control over their technology estates.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Our biggest customers operate hugely complex technology estates in highly regulated industries. We help them with ensuring that these hybrid IT estates are resilient and agile despite the complexity they’re facing. There were quite a few high profile outages last year (Fastly, Facebook, AWS), but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Our customers are fighting a constant battle against application failures, and Cloudsoft AMP is one of their best weapons.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? It's important to judge where technologies have evolved enough to justify the cost of switching:  specific recent changes have been switching to Serverless Framework, TypeScript and to CircleCI, which paid big dividends in terms of our speed to develop and reliability of the result.  It's also important to spike and reject things which, although shiny, aren't going to move the needle or are more work than required.  (Using Java in AWS Lambda and AWS DynamoDB are one painful example here -- switching to TypeScript let us go much faster!)

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? No — a tech strategy which isn't dedicated to the product & services strategy is a fool's errand.  Identifying the right tech strategy isn't always easy, but it's usually easier than identifying the right product/service strategy which is where we put a lot of energy.

What makes an effective tech strategy? See above! But an effective tech strategy is one which understands the product/service strategy, considers both long-term needs and short-term speed, and takes into account the team’s skills and ability to learn.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? As more and more technologies become available, understanding the breadth is going to become harder but more important.  A good CTO will have to be even more able to listen and learn from trusted engineers.  There will be times they have to accept it is too time-consuming to understand the subtle technical details, and they will have to become more adept at translating the requirements of the business into language that engineers closer to a particular technology can understand.

 What has been your greatest career achievement? The first go-live of Cloudsoft AMP with a major international bank.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Early versions of Cloudsoft AMP were focussed on power; with hindsight I would have focussed first on simplicity and ease-of-onboarding, and built the power in later.  (Although if we'd done that at the time I might now be using hindsight to have done it the other way around!)

What are you reading now? TACOS reviews for technology, Luckenbooth for my own fiction, and Iggy Peck Architect to my kids.

Most people don't know that I… See #19

In my spare time, I like to…Make chocolates. I tend to make very dark chocolates with runny salted caramel inside.

Ask me to do anything but… Go to Las Vegas.