CTO Sessions: Junaid Saiyed, Alation

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? “Low code… the most disruptive technologies have been the ones where they have democratised access to technologies that were previously only accessible to a few.”

Headshot of Junaid Saiyed, CTO & SVP Engineering at Alation

Name: Junaid Saiyed

Company: Alation

Job title: CTO & SVP Engineering at Alation

Date started current role: May 2021

Location: San Francisco

Junaid Saiyed is Chief Technology Officer at Alation. He leads the engineering efforts across the globe. Saiyed is highly experienced in building cloud BI products for enterprises and growing globally distributed teams that deliver products at a rapid pace. Prior to joining Alation, he was VP of engineering and product management at Birst. He has also served as senior director of engineering at Domo Inc., as VP of engineering and product at Elastra, and has held technical leadership roles at EMC and Sun Microsystems. He holds a Bachelor's in computer engineering from Purdue University.

What was your first job? Following University, my first job was working for Sun Microsystems in the Solaris QA team. There, I was tasked with the maintenance of a server, which meant ensuring it was healthy and always functioning. Rather amusingly, we didn’t actually know where it was, so we couldn’t do any physical maintenance. After two years of searching, we finally found the server behind a false wall. Thinking back, it was quite amazing that the operating system that we worked on was so robust that we managed to keep the server up and running for that long without needing to do any maintenance.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, originally, I wanted to be a day trader - this was not born out of a passion, but rather because my mum’s brother and sisters all needed their portfolios managed! It turned out to be quite a lucrative gig, so much so that I thought maybe I could do this as a job. My parents had other ideas, so I applied for universities in America. Got a degree in computer engineering, got into software which is a perfect blend of creativity and hard engineering and I have really enjoyed the journey of building products that thousands of businesses use.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a Bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering from Purdue University.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. It’s been a real mix! For the last decade and a half I have worked at companies that I consider to be at the intersection of providing data services in the cloud to enterprises. I really value diversity of experiences and so have pushed myself to try out new things. Over the years this has led me to working at startups as well as bigger public technology companies. I have held QA, development, product management, and user experience roles. I have been an individual contributor and have held leadership positions.

I have held roles that were more day to day execution focused and I have worked on two areas that are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum: server operating systems, which is low level software that puts a premium on reliability and stability and barely has any user experience, through to data visualisation software at the other end of the scale, which puts a premium on simple, intuitive user experience. I feel like it is this diversity of experiences that has made me a better CTO because I can see things from different perspectives.

What type of CTO are you? I would consider myself to be pragmatic, bold, and hands on. I’m very focused on building high performing teams, and love harnessing the power of technology to solve customer problems instead of just dabbling in technologies for technology’s sake. Having said that, I do still geek out a little when it comes to new technology, which is totally fine!

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Low code. In my opinion, the most disruptive technologies have been the ones where they have democratised access to technologies that were previously only accessible to a few. Think PCs and cloud computing as a prime example. Similarly, low code has the potential to make the joy of building software available to folks that don’t have a technical degree. I think this can be another outlet for the creative talent that each one of us has.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Web 3. It is built using open-source technology, utilising blockchain technology to be trustless and permissionless and is designed to take power away from Big Tech. I love the premise but there’s still a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built and more importantly adopted. Also some of the early apps like NFTs built on top of web3 are overhyped and the recent crypto crash proves that.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? At the beginning, Alation was an on-prem company, and since the pandemic we’ve seen that it would be better to move to the cloud. Last year, we launched our first cloud offering to our customers which saw a huge uptake, which was incredibly reassuring. In the background, we’ve also been working on our architecture, trying to optimise it for the cloud so our customers can get the most out of it. Trying to deliver service to customers whilst also making big changes has been difficult to say the least: it’s been a bit like flying an airplane whilst also trying to change the engines, but I’m incredibly proud of the results.

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? In a sense yes and no: at Alation, we work with customers to help them become a data driven organisation by empowering them to create a data culture. We want our customers to have the best possible experience and make the transition to a data and digital driven business as easy as possible, which is why our catalog, unlike others, is built to be used by non technical folks. We’ve learned that if you make your product difficult to use for non-data engineers, you won’t see the adoption that you need in order to create and sustain a data culture and to become truly data driven.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Definitely building a data culture. We’re helping our customers to infuse the power of data into their day to day decision making, which then unlocks all of the other cool stuff that data can do to transform a company.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? I like to re-engineer it. You start with the outcome you are seeking and then you find a technology that will help you solve the problem and meet the business goal. Too often, people fall into the trap of getting enamored by a piece of technology before actually considering whether it is actually needed by their business. By starting with defining your end goal, you will avoid wasting money on a technology that provides a solution you don’t need.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I haven’t come across this issue yet in my time as a CTO. I think if you can align your business goals alongside your technology, you shouldn’t find your product team and technology team butting heads too often. It should be noted, though, that there is always room for tension between your product team and your software engineers because your product team is always wanting to add more and more capabilities, whilst your engineers want to focus on ensuring the foundation of the product is working as it should. But this is an issue unique to software companies, so not all organisations will come across this.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Externally, something that delivers real world outcomes to your customers. From an internal perspective, something that allows you to innovate at a quick pace and gives you some longevity. You want your strategy to stand the test of time so that you can innovate at a sustainable pace.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I think it’s still going to be how you can align and inspire your teams to do the best work of their lives.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Seeing what people who have worked under me have gone on to do. I’ve had the pleasure of working with lots of very impressive people, and seeing those people working for organisations like Google and Amazon and as C-suite execs for startups, or as architects on really exciting projects, makes me feel really proud. It’s an under appreciated luxury, the ability to help shape some of your colleagues and help them achieve their potential.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I am an enterprise software person through and through. But some of the most interesting enterprise data technologies were born at consumer tech companies. I regret not joining a consumer tech company when I had the opportunity.

What are you reading now? I’m reading Amp it up by Frank Slootman (Snowflake CEO). I have fought against mediocrity my entire career and this book gives insight into Frank’s framework for waging war against mediocrity. Fascinating read.

Most people don't know that I… Love chatting politics.

In my spare time, I like to… Invest in tech companies. Please get in touch with me if you are seeking an angel investor and have an early stage company focused on solving data problems! Spending time with my kids - watching all the Marvel/Star wars shows/movies, playing board games. And eating good food!

Ask me to do anything but… Go on holiday to a cold environment. As a person who grew up in India and now lives in California, the last thing I want to do is go on holiday somewhere cold when I could go somewhere warm.