CTO Sessions: Charles Yeh, Persona

What makes an effective tech strategy? “One that strikes a balance between building for what’s happening today versus a longer-term vision.”

Headshot of Charles Yeh, Co-founder & CTO at Persona

Name: Charles Yeh

Company: Persona

Job title: CTO and co-founder

Date started current role: July 2018

Location: San Francisco, CA

Charles Yeh is the CTO of Persona, the identity infrastructure company offering businesses the building blocks to create personalised identity verification experiences. Yeh cofounded Persona in 2018 with CEO Rick Song with the mission to be the identity layer of the internet. Before Persona, Yeh worked at Dropbox, where he was a tech lead on the Data Infrastructure and Growth teams. As CTO, he works with the engineering team to architect Persona’s modular identity infrastructure and enable its adaptability to any use case.

What was your first job? I initially joined the data infrastructure team at Dropbox straight out of college. Later on, I transitioned to product growth where I focused on extending our monetisation flows and improving web performance as a technical lead.

Did you always want to work in IT? Yes, I always had the inclination. Before Dropbox, I was very into creating games—Flash games, actually, back when Flash was still a thing. My most popular project was the Animator vs. Animation Game, and it was licensed on a site, ran ads, and generated decent revenue. We ran a tournament and shipped a trophy; it was cool to see a lot of people engaging and enjoying it. This was all when I was middle school and that interest in building and engineering has continued since.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I earned a Bachelors of Science in Computer Science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Then I went straight to my first job in tech.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. My path is probably not typical. I taught myself computer science starting in middle school. I enjoyed using older technology to create games. But my parents wanted me to focus my attention elsewhere and uninstalled all the programming editors on my PC. That ultimately led me to learn web technologies and venture deeper into computer science.

What type of CTO are you? I am a people-focused CTO. One of my daily goals, for example, is making sure my department of 57 engineers work and collaborate well. That requires me to be in close touch with my people and know their inclinations and capabilities. That enables me to match strengths among teams for maximum productivity. Picking teams where people fit together is critical to organisational success.

Like everyone at Persona, we’re about camaraderie as much as we are about work excellence. Someone asked if it’s by design that their entire team is a little quirky—and in fact the answer was yes. That’s by design. When a team can be open and act as themselves, they are more likely to be aligned, and thus more productive.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? This is likely not your expected CTO answer. I really enjoy finding new ways to drive innovation, but through using existing technologies creatively rather than applying creative technologies. We deal in identity at Persona, which is incredibly complex and cutting-edge, and evolves constantly.

There is a part of what we do at Persona that does involve taking known tools and making them blossom with new use cases. This is exciting to me. Graph tech isn’t new, for example, but to allow customers to pull in any type of data, and draw insights from any data—that is a powerful extension of how it’s used.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Machine learning is very powerful and it can be effective in specific use cases. But I think its benefits are overstated today. There’s significant pressure to use ML but we look for what’s most effective for our customers right now. Machine learning is very specific, and it’s still hard to make it work reliably. That’s why we don’t over-index on it at Persona.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Attracting and retaining the highest calibre talent is one of my biggest focus areas given the sensitive and complex space we're in. It means a lot to me that everyone is happy and productive and I think we're on the right track—only one person has left Persona's product teams.

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? Yes, absolutely. Our customers are challenged with confirming the identity of every user, consumer, or applicant that goes through their systems. These are tasked with providing a seamless experience, while also protecting them from fraud. This is quite the balancing act. And you have to be able to provide a highly customisable paradigm—because every business and user has a different risk profile—for it to work otherwise you can quickly lose customer trust. The customer experience bar is higher than it’s ever been.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? To add to my previous comment, every company we serve has a different set of use cases and risk appetite. For example, what works for a payments company like Square might not work for a marketplace company like Postmates. Yes, they both process “transactions” but the nature of the product they offer is very different, and therefore requires surgical customisation. Even within those same companies, the use cases and users vary. We help our customers navigate through these complexities via our customisable platform.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? We provide the tooling and building blocks for our customers to adapt to their specific security needs and that of their users. ID verification is complex and most companies don’t know what they are getting into. We strive to build all the building blocks that anyone will need to build the optimal identity verification and operation process.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? It can be challenging, but we always think of these elements as tied closely together. Our technology should always represent the real world as accurately as possible.

What makes an effective tech strategy? One that strikes a balance between building for what’s happening today versus a longer-term vision. We’re building for today as well as for the future. That’s the strategy behind making our platform as flexible, dynamic and customisable as possible.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? That the CTO will continue to align more with the business, not just the tech. That’s certainly the case with my role at Persona. It’s critical for growth. But it depends on the company and leadership. A CTO’s mission isn’t to create technology, but to create value through technology.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I have a few, in no particular order. First, to really understand identity verification and to build the leading platform in the market. Second, to build the stellar team we have at Persona today. Third, to gain the trust of some of the most prominent high-growth companies as customers, including Square, Coursera, Robinhood, Gusto, BlockFi, Sonder and Brex.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? A ton of small things come to mind. But I think perhaps having done more research into a broader set of verticals might have helped us generalise our platform earlier. No major regrets, though!

What are you reading now? I’m an avid user of Pocket, the article-saving app, and I’m always up to date on Software Lead Weekly.

Most people don't know that I… keep a calm and steady demeanor, so they are surprised that I do get stressed about deliverables and critical path tasks.

In my spare time, I like to…I used to cook a lot. Now, it’s all about building Persona, though, so I cook less than I used to.

Ask me to do anything but… drink black coffee. I wish I was classy enough to enjoy coffee without cream but I love lattes too much.