CTO Sessions: Madalina Tanasie, Collibra

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? “Most companies understand that data is a valuable, strategic asset. But companies are still struggling to manage their data.”

Headshot of Madalina Tanasie, CTO at Collibra

Name: Madalina Tanasie

Company: Collibra

Job title: Chief Technology Officer

Date started current role: February 2021

Location: New York, US

As Chief Technology Officer, Madalina Tanasie leads Engineering, Architecture, Production Engineering, Security, Excellence Enablement and Quality Assurance for Collibra. She brings over 15 years of leadership expertise in software engineering, cloud-native distributed systems and process management to the company. Previously Tanasie was the Vice President of Operations & Excellence at Collibra, where she led organisational transformation for Product Operations and Engineering, with a focus on engineering practices, scale and operational excellence. Prior to joining Collibra, she served as the Vice President of Engineering for Unified Platform at Medidata Solutions, a SaaS provider for clinical research in life sciences, where she held several prior engineering leadership positions. Before Medidata, she worked in software engineering roles at the NYC Department of Education and TotalSoft.

What was your first job? It was a part time job at a non-profit organisation, when I was in college. It largely consisted of moving data from excel sheets into a database and it was, honestly, pretty boring. But it gave me exposure to working in a professional environment and, as it often happens when I get bored, I turned it into a learning opportunity. I got pretty interested in database design and that domain ended up being what I chose to focus on for my masters’ degree thesis.

Did you always want to work in IT? My mother was a math teacher, and many of my family members worked in STEM. Although I did not always have a clear career path in mind, I was always interested in science and mathematics. My first serious attempt to choose a career leaned towards architecture - it combined art and geometry and the idea was very appealing to me. But I also wanted to be very good at my chosen profession and very soon I discovered that drawing is not one of my strengths. I then realised that I could use my passion for STEM subjects to pursue a career in technology. I saw software engineering as a novel way to solve real-world problems, and I am really happy to be able to use my skills to do that.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I’m originally from Romania, and the education system there encourages students to select their career path early in high school. While I can’t say there was a grand vision or master plan that got me to where I am, I have always been quite ambitious and focused on what I want to achieve, so once I decided that I wanted to go into computer science, I stuck with it throughout my studies. I now have both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I am a lifelong learner and I’ve always been attracted to opportunities that take me out of my comfort zone and help expand my knowledge and horizon. I made a few sharp changes as an engineer, moving from Java to .Net to Ruby on Rails. I also said yes when I was offered the opportunity to lead both Product Management and Engineering for a large, strategic initiative, even though I had no prior Product Management experience - it ended up being a big turning point in my career. When I initially joined Collibra as a VP of Operations and Excellence - a role that did not include Software Engineering - it came as a surprise to many of my peers. However, I have always been interested in organisational design and this was a unique and rare opportunity to drive transformation, set up the product and engineering teams for scale and to advance a vision I really believed in. It all worked out in the end and my two careers converged and I transitioned into the CTO role at Collibra. This was not the conventional route into the role, but I am really happy that it worked out this way.

What type of CTO are you? I am passionate about technology, and I often find myself in awe at the pace of change and just how much innovation we’ve had in tech in the last few decades. It was a thrilling experience for me to be an early adopter of many innovations in the cloud space and I am always interested in trying and applying the latest tech to solve big problems. But at the end of the day, I would describe myself as a pragmatist. I believe in technology for a purpose, and I am rarely distracted by shiny technology with no practical applicability.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Data mesh has become a big emerging trend in the data space. This is a result of a huge cross-vertical shift we are seeing towards data intelligence. Until recently, organisations would approach big data by bringing it into one place, structuring it and mining it through data lakes and warehouses. The idea is to become more data-driven by making data more accessible, available, discoverable, and secure for organisations. It is an interesting shift in the market, and I am excited to see it develop.

I am also fascinated by the development of healthcare and biotechnology. Fuelled by the pandemic and the need for more efficient and advanced treatment methods, data and technology have become vital to understanding the illness and working towards potential recovery. Healthcare organisations hold incredibly valuable data - I expect it to be even more valuable moving forward and I look forward to seeing how it is used to fight some of the world’s most important challenges today.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Big data is often presented as the answer to all data challenges and the key to all opportunities. The issue with setting such high expectations for it, is that big data simply isn’t enough – it is just one of many aspects that businesses must get right when it comes to data intelligence. The reality is that there's much more to it than just volume – it's about ensuring data quality and avoiding biases. In fact, in many cases, big data is not even needed to gain great insights. Businesses need to take a more holistic and intelligent approach to data management – one that enables better quality, governance, and availability to ensure they can make the most out of the data they already have.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? We have a number of exciting initiatives in progress and a few new products that will be announced in the coming months that we are quite proud of. What stands out though as I’m thinking about the last 12 months is the how more than the what. Going from a vibrant in-person culture to a fully remote world overnight and then the rollercoaster of opening-up / not opening up has been challenging. And leading a large organisation through multi-dimensional change in a sustainable, supportive, and empathetic way is not easy. I’m extremely proud that we’ve emerged at the other end with a strong, highly engaged and energised engineering organisation and it’s been fantastic to meet everyone in person for the first time recently at our company-wide event, ReUnited. We look forward to delivering great innovations in 2022.

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? The Collibra Data Intelligence Cloud is industry agnostic, integrates with a large number of data sources and is relevant in a virtually endless set of use cases. We are constantly on the lookout for ways to make the experience better and create efficiencies for various scenarios and personas. Of course, operational efficiency is a key element in evolving such a flexible platform in a way that meets the quality, stability and performance expectation of enterprise customers. A big part of my focus in the last year has been on identifying efficiencies and evolving our processes and practices in order to improve our outputs. 

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? Today most companies understand that data is a valuable, strategic asset. But unlike their other competitive assets — such as their IP or resources — companies are still struggling to manage their data.  At the same time, the number of organisations which are generating and collecting data has grown exponentially, while new and increasing regulations have forced companies to take governance more seriously. It’s a complex data landscape with many challenges, and our solution is unique. Our platform unifies all data processes into a single system of engagement for data intelligence. It means that teams are able to take ownership of the data they collect and distribute allowing them to improve the quality of the data they share and use for reporting, all while simultaneously ensuring their data is properly governed and compliant.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Misalignment between business goals and technology choices are often rooted in a difference of perspective on what the goals actually are or when various biases and conflicting interests come into play. We put a lot of thought as an executive team into making sure that the business objectives are clear and specific enough and that the measures of success are well understood. We follow that with a regular cadence to review progress, re-state the objectives and realign when needed. I’m also a big believer in fail fast and I don’t hesitate to drop plans, no matter how big the investment, when it becomes clear that the direction is no longer aligned with the vision.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? I’m in a very fortunate position of having an amazing partner in Laura Sellers, our Chief Product Officer. We are quite like minded when it comes to pragmatism, clarity and simplicity and we are very intentional about making sure that we are constantly in lockstep. We lean on each other and recognise that we each have our own areas of expertise and we and our respective teams create and revise the product and technical strategies together.

What makes an effective tech strategy? I’m a firm believer that a tech strategy, no matter how brilliant or innovative, can’t be effective if it's not closely aligned and in support of the business strategy. I’ve also found, through experience, that most effective strategies are often clean, simple and intuitive. I strive for that.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? I hope that this role will continue to connect business stakeholders and technologists and promote real change in the world. Encouraging collaboration and connection between people in the tech community is a big part of my role and I hope that this will continue in the future. I strive to make the biggest impact that I can as CTO. No matter what the role may bring in the future, I know that it will continue to advance change and bring the technologists and business people together to find solutions for problems that either group couldn’t solve alone.    

What has been your greatest career achievement? Leading Collibra’s engineering and having an instrumental role in advancing its mission is both a privilege and a great responsibility. Being entrusted with it has undeniably been the greatest achievement of my career so far. The most rewarding part, for sure, is hearing happy customer testimonials and seeing the technology I helped build be used for good. And I couldn’t be more proud of the many brilliant technologists and leaders which I have helped discover and grow over the years, many of which are now out there changing the world.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? There are many things in my personal life and in my career that I could have done better, or faster, or more efficiently or more gracefully. However, when I’m looking back, I'm not sure that I would trade the valuable lessons and experiences that I got by failing, for less pain and embarrassment. I am the result of both my successes and my failures, and I can now detect risks earlier and fail faster. I guess, if I could turn back time, I would fail faster.

What are you reading now? I am the kind of person with multiple books in progress at any given time. I started two books by Zhamak Dehghani recently: Data Mesh and Service Architecture: The Hard Parts I’m also quite fascinated by the many ways in which incomplete or out of context data could be and is often misused - I found Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World an excellent read on that.

Most people don't know that I… Would choose camping on the beach over a five-star hotel.

In my spare time, I like to…Travel when I can, garden or try cooking new recipes when travelling is not an option.

Ask me to do anything but… To fly in a small plane.