CTO Sessions: Danny Fields, Avalara

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? “We’re solving the 5,000-year-old challenge of tax for our customers by applying automation.”

Headshot of Danny Fields, CTO at Avalara

Name: Danny Fields

Company: Avalara

Job title: CTO

Date started current role: May 2018

Location: Palo Alto, CA

Danny Fields leads Avalara's global engineering team, and guides product architecture, design, development, and reliability in the complex world of transaction tax compliance. He was previously senior vice president of engineering and chief software development officer with MobileIron, a leading mobile security company, and before that he was a group VP with Oracle, responsible for building the Oracle Service Cloud. Fields also served as VP of engineering at RightNow Technologies before it was acquired by Oracle in 2012.

What was your first job? My first job ever was working in a grocery store in Dublin, Ireland when I was a teenager. I worked as a bag boy where I spent my day bagging groceries and helping customers with their shopping carts. That’s where I first learned how to interact with customers.

My first professional job was as a software engineer with Oracle in Ireland right after college. I was part of the team responsible for connecting client applications with the Oracle database. Back then, everything was client-server. There was no internet.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not always. When I was about to graduate from high school I asked my physics teacher for some career advice. I was stuck between pursuing something with languages and international marketing or engineering. As a European, I was around a lot of different languages all the time, so a career where I used an education in languages would be something I could do in my sleep. Engineering would be the harder path, but we can see which route I chose! As an engineering leader working in a global company, I get to travel to many international destinations.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a bachelor's degree in electronic engineering from Dublin City University in Ireland.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I started in software engineering immediately after college working at Oracle. I spent 17 years during my initial stint at Oracle before taking on the role of VP of engineering at RightNow Technologies. RightNow was eventually acquired by Oracle and I spent four additional years working as VP of engineering for Oracle Service Cloud. After that, I was SVP of engineering and Chief Software Development Officer at MobileIron before taking over as CTO at Avalara.

What type of CTO are you? As a CTO, I put tremendous value on putting people first. I’m committed to building personal connections with those that I work with – especially with those who are on my team.

I’m also a CTO that welcomes challenges and isn’t afraid of the most daunting ones. At Avalara, I love the fact that we’re building the next big cloud no one has heard of. We’re taking on one of the most complex business functions and applying technology to make it as simple as possible for businesses of all sizes. This is a big goal that comes with big challenges, but I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Avalara is a fintech company, so we handle sensitive data daily. Because of this, I’m really excited about the new secure storage options offered by public cloud companies. We’re leveraging these technologies to secure our customers' data, which is critical to providing our customers with the best service possible.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? It may sound strange, but I would say that the public cloud is overhyped. The reason I say this is because many companies go into the public cloud thinking that they will have access to all of the benefits – scalability, security, elasticity, reliability, and performance – immediately. Unfortunately, that’s not the case and companies must do a significant amount of work to get the most benefit from the public cloud. As CTO of a company that is cloud-native and relies on the power of the public cloud, I cannot deny the value it provides, but the overarching hype around the benefits of the public cloud may be overstated.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? Avalara engineering has been on a multi-year journey to take our main tax calculation software from a legacy monolithic application to a true cloud-native application. This has been the most complex engineering project in the history of the company. What’s really impressive about this initiative is that we’ve been able to make this transition happen behind the scenes with no disruption to our customer experience. I like to equate the project to changing the engines on a plane in mid-flight without it falling from the sky and those onboard never knowing the change happened.

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? I am leading digital transformation at Avalara and it emphasises all of the above. We have to balance customer experience and revenue growth alongside operational efficiency due to the high-growth nature of our business.

To achieve this balance, we have dedicated teams focused on customer experience, growth, and efficiency projects. By focusing teams on specific areas, we are able to effectively balance all three.

When it comes to customers, we have two audiences – internal and external.

Internally, we support other teams across the company who use technology to do their jobs more efficiently. We call this “autonomation,” or automation with a human touch. These teams are still touching the work they’re doing but are now able to do it more efficiently thanks to automation.

Externally, our team is focused on building better experiences for our customers. We’re constantly evaluating our existing services to see where we can create improvements, while also working in tandem with our product teams to bring innovative new solutions to market.

One of the key customer experience areas we’ve focused on is onboarding. In the world of tax, you must be able to assign product codes to the appropriate tax rule in order to get the correct tax calculation. This can be a time-consuming process when done manually. We’ve employed automation to assist our customers in assigning their product catalogue to tax codes for a better onboarding experience.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? We’re solving the 5,000-year-old challenge of tax for our customers by applying automation to it. Our CEO always says that of the two things that are certain in life – death and taxes – that we’ll probably solve death before we solve taxes.

Managing tax is a huge burden for businesses of any size. Without automation, they have to know where they have to register their businesses, what correct tax to charge on sales, where and when to file tax returns, and more. This is a process that takes hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars a month, depending on a business’s tax liability.

That’s why Avalara is here – to take the pain out of tax management through technology.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Two of our main business goals are growth and efficiency. Since my role is responsible for leading the technology teams that are creating products for both growth and efficiency, I work to learn as much about the needs of our customers (internal and external) as possible. By understanding their needs, we can design and align our products accordingly.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Our products are designed with specific customer pain points in mind. Whether it’s tax calculations or managing compliance documentation – we align our product strategy to those needs. Our tech strategy works in support of and in tandem with the product strategy to ensure that we’re addressing the pain point and making the lives of our customers easier.

What makes an effective tech strategy? An effective technology strategy enables the business strategy. At Avalara, we are deploying technology that enables growth, efficiency, partner and customer success, and corporate excellence. We build some of this technology ourselves. We also buy some of this technology, like databases, services, compute, and storage from third parties and from public cloud providers. To be effective, we carefully prioritise everything we do, and we only deploy technology that fits the purpose of our company.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? The role of the CTO is evolving. In addition to the traditional focus on architecture, software development processes, design, delivery, and so on, I see a bigger focus on people, culture, and employee engagement. CTOs have been focusing more recently on diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Coming out of the pandemic, we are now focusing on the future of work, hybrid and remote working, and work-life balance. CTOs won’t be able to build great technology without a diverse team of great engineers who are happy, engaged, and are capable of working in a hybrid work environment.

What has been your greatest career achievement? There are many things that I’ve been proud of throughout my career. I’d have to say that what I’m doing today to educate myself on diversity, equity, and inclusion is what I would consider my greatest achievement.

I’m 30 years into my career and taking a step back to learn about the diversity of my global team and how to create a more inclusive and equitable engineering team. Have I learned all I need to know or made all of the changes needed for our team? No. But I’m confident that we’re on the right path and making meaningful change. 

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Early in my career, I was an immigrant to the U.S. with just a couple of suitcases and a small amount of cash in my pockets. I was the first person in my family to go to college. At that time, I had told myself that failure wasn’t an option. I had to succeed in my career and always do the job in the best possible way. Today, I know better.

Failure can be a good thing for us as individuals and in our careers. If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself and others that you will make mistakes — it’s inevitable. However, you will also learn from them and become better. Your career is a process, and a critical part of that process is failure and learning from your mistakes. You’ll likely come out of the other end a better leader and person because of the mistakes you’ve made and learned from.

I think this is an important lesson for engineers and techies to capture early on because failure should also be built into engineering processes. At Avalara, we’ve built a program around learning from mistakes in our engineering process. If something goes wrong in our software or developers make mistakes — we have a session that isn’t for blame, naming, or finger-pointing, but to figure out what went wrong so we can make our processes better. Just as I had to learn from my mistakes, we as a team have to learn from our collective failures as well. It makes us better.

What are you reading now? I recently read two great books – Measure What Matters by John Doerr – and The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations by James Jouzes and Barry Posner.

Most people don't know that I… am an ironman triathlete and that I signed up for my first ironman competition in Kona, Hawaii without knowing how to swim. That was a stupid thing to do, right? I had to take swim lessons every day for a year to learn how to swim over a mile in the ocean. And I had to overcome my fear of swimming near sharks!

In my spare time, I like to…all of my time with my family.

Ask me to do anything but… skydive or swim far out into any body of water where there are sharks.