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July 10, 2018
A conversation with Ryan Fay
Ryan is the Global CIO, currently leading ACI Specialty Benefits global business and technology strategy across 170 countries in over 180 languages via multidisciplinary technology teams radically disrupting the corporate benefits experience leveraging decentralized applications, blockchain, and smart contracts.
- Episode Transcript
Mark Thiele: Hello and welcome to another edition of the IDCA to Infinity Paradigm and Beyond where we bring to the most organized faces and thought leaders of the technology industry and have candid discussions on topics pertaining to digital transformation, cloud, IoT, Edge Computing, Data Centers, Big Data, Infrastructure, and more. This time I am joined by Ryan Fay, CIO for ACI Specialty Benefits and a 30 under 30 top CIO’s in Forbes. Ryan, welcome to the show.
Ryan Fay: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Mark: I'm really happy to have you on. You guys are doing some really exciting stuff and I think our listeners will gain a lot from the experience you have, not only in rapidly growing a business, integrating other companies into your business, but successfully bridging the gap between what most companies have in the form of IT and Engineering into one larger value ad technology organization that's helping you approach some serious problems both at the Edge, and through digital transformation, etc. But before we get into the tech stuff, tell us a little bit about Ryan. What do you like doing on the weekend? Where did you come from? How'd you get into IT?
Ryan: Yeah, absolutely. So on the weekends, I'm not sure what that is. So I mean, running a global organization is quite the challenge and I think a lot of times... I really enjoy what I'm doing, you know, from a technology perspective.. I mean I love technology. I love learning about new technology. I love implementing technology, but beyond all that I just love business and I've always just been drawn to how businesses scale and how they're able to do what they do. So for me, a lot of times, outside of my day to day operations of my job, I am on a lot of different startup boards, helping different startups be able to understand, scale effectively use both public and private cloud technologies. I am married. So whenever my wife and I do get some time together, we love to go out to good restaurants, we love eating, we love traveling. So we try to travel as much as possible. Beyond that, it's really just being able to, share some time with friends and family and have the ability to unwind a bit and then let the mind rest a bit so that way you can kind of disengage from a lot of different mobile devices and being able to have time to reconnect. How I got into the space, my father was the president of AVNET, so they're a pretty big company and I grew up in a space surrounded by hardware, hardware, hardware. In fact I would never get a gaming console or anything I wanted. It was always hardware, build your own console, do this. And there was a paradigm shift, when I started going to college and my father said, hardware was great, but software is going to rule the world so you really should be looking to software. So I really focused a lot of my efforts on the software aspect side of that, which has paid off quite well. For my first job, I was a network administrator, started where a lot of folks start in the industry. I was pulling and running cables, doing a lot of drops, understanding the whole infrastructure side, the networking side, and then from there I just kept evolving and I realized I really loved the business side of the operations. So I was able to shift over to more of a business role and then from there now it's just leading a global business and technology strategy for essentially a company that we're growing at roughly 30 percent per year. So it's been a really fun and exciting roadmap for what I've been working on, but it's also just been a really exciting time to be a technology expert in the space.
Mark: You've managed in a 10 or so year period of your primary career to encompass what most IT organizations take 30 years to go through. And I think it's not only an amazing story, but an incredible goal post for other companies that are struggling with many of the big decisions that IT and businesses face today in moving forward and trying to become a platform or going through digitization. And frankly I know one of the topics we're considering talking about today is Edge Computing and I'm just gonna jump right into that Edge role and you think about one of the things that I've noticed relative to a modern companies that are attempting to be global and trying to be really in every country, not just have a name in every country and when they're in every country and building something that is accessible and usable uniquely in maybe what somebody would call an Edge compute to type of format, it requires a much more comprehensive ability to address the norms and requirements of each specific country. Whether it's around data protection, whether it's around network access, whether it's around working with local telcos, whatever it is. So what have you done from an Edge compute standpoint? Thinking about Where ACI Specialty is going, what have you guys done to try to accommodate that? I mean, I'm sure you're not trying to build 10 person teams in every country to handle Edge infrastructure questions and stuff. How do you work that?
Ryan: So Edge Computing was something that we started looking at last couple of years here and we had a lot of these centralized data centers and we have a lot of storage repositories, but we're also using a lot of different CDNs, content delivery networks through GCP and AWS to cache a lot of these low balancing for HTTPS, we had Edge points that were distributed on presence. So we're trying to figure out was what's the best way for us to be able to deliver strategy that was streamlined, effective and efficient, but also to ensure that we had the ability to, if needed, scale out, a mesh network, if you would, of micro data centers that'd be able to help us with latency, help us to ensure that we had the right repositories in place and that we're able to deliver devices that were may have ranged from IoT devices all the way to increasing the user experience when it came to Edge local processing from a multi-cloud strategy. You have to process that and be able to process a lot of different high intensity data that was coming in from wearable devices because you don't want to push a lot of this very highly latent sensitive data throughout entire workflow you had throughout your network. Because as soon as you do that, as you know, the IO capacity, it's going to be able to have a lower output which is going to increase your cloud costs if you're using cloud technologies. It's also going to slow down the pipelines depending on what you have going on. So we created a fog network that essentially will be able to have, information spread between multiple different connected Edge devices. So that way we could focus on creating the best use case for each one of our client experiences. So if someone came in one of our clients and they were able to deploy something, we wanted it to be deployed as close as possible to where they were coming from. So obviously having geographic location and the same region for compliance and regulations. Being able to make sure that the data is being stored in the right area, maybe it's being stored as close as possible to where it's being gathered for compliance and regulatory issues, but also to create the best user experience possible when it comes to security. So part of this is really around, the Edge security and how do you make sure that you have the right fundamentals. Is it the Edge devices, the Edge itself, the gateway to the clients, there's so many different aspects. And as you create a lot of these mini data centers that you're rolling out, it's very difficult because things becoming more converged and systems are becoming more storage based. So if you're using stuff like Snowball from AWS for example, you can employ that on Edge, in real time. But as soon as you start looking at, different use cases around 5G scenarios, obviously that built out, it's going to change and need to figure out, okay, what devices in my collecting this data from and how can I optimize that collection to ensure that we have the best user experience as possible possible.
Mark: It's such a big problem to solve. One of the things that I go back and forth on and I think I even covered it in one or two of the blogs that I wrote about Edge recently is the thinking ahead of time for some of the challenges that trying to do not only massive scale in small bites, but geographically distributed infrastructure and applications. What you have to solve ahead of time so that you're not setting yourself up to effectively say, every time I add five new locations, wherever those locations are or a thousand new devices, etc... I've got to add this many new people or this many new skillsets or whatever the case may be. So how did you guys approach that from the beginning to try to make sure that what you put out there, you could have completely manage without putting yourself in them?
Ryan: Yes. We actually did it probably in a different way than most companies are deploying Edge. We looked at it from more of a data governance perspective. So we figured out, first of all, where do you want this data to be stored and if we this data to always be stored in this geographic location at all times for regulatory issues and we're looking from a data gravity perspective to have this data stored, you know at x, y, z, whatever it may be, and let's build out a network here and then we can kind of get rid of what we're using before, which was a content delivery network that was essentially pieced together by multiple globally distributed Edge points; and then we could get rid of the caching issue that we were having, thus we could increase the throughput which would decrease latency and would increase our user experience for our customers worldwide. So that's how we first went about it, it was what areas are we having the biggest issues right now when it comes to caching content on Edge. And then from there we initially partnered with companies like Google Cloud Platform and we've partnered with AWS, Amazon Web Services, and we essentially decided to say, okay, we can look at what they’re doing, we can leverage from the technology that they're using potentially, but they didn't want to solve the root issue and even if you're using the technology, it's what use cases is actually going to give you long term storage and how you're going to be having local Edge compute systems that can compile and make sure that they're doing what they need to do in real time. So as you start building out more and more Edge, for lack of a better word, networks, you know, you start creating more fog computing, which is then connecting all these Edge devices together and then you're having more complexity. So for us it was more just about trying to create the simplest network as possible in areas that we needed to keep data secure. We needed data to be stored or maintained for regulatory issues and then from there we work backwards to creating what we refer to as our Edge-first Compute; and then from there we did focus on Mobile Edge Compute, and then now we're partnering with telecom providers to have 5G scenarios, connectivity to then build out even faster, better Edge compute systems.
Mark: That's awesome. It's obvious you guys put a lot of thought into how you were going to address the market rather than just attempting to throw something into the market. When I've thought about Edge Computing in general I see for the average company trying to approach new product or [inaudible] Edge, uh, trying to refine their deliverable, their total cost of ownership and their customer experience requirements against what is a literally a define-as-you-go set of technology capabilities. It seems like an almost overwhelming problem for some. Did you use any kind of way to break down the problem with your team to try to really focus on addressing individual core requirements first rather than saying, wow, thIs is a big, painful picture, how do we approach it?
Ryan: Yes we were actually probably pretty uniquely positioned to attack this problem. So one of the areas that we actually had a competitive advantage in is that we actually would house employees, our employees, onsite at corporations and they would give us a small area where we would have essentially, our employees to be able to be have offices in or they'd have access to networks. So what we started doing was that we started scaling out essentially one by one, these small, almost micro data centers that we'd have onsite at the firm that we were servicing so we hire our employees but they act and feel like they're employees at the company that they're working for because they had drive engagement, but then we have access to their networks which gives us the ability to create our own mesh network with them essentially. The use case that we had was, a lot of it was due to latency. So if you're trying to store data in real time, pass the data that was coming from a client back to us, it's much faster to cache it on point, “at the Edge”. Then we wouldn't have any kind of data locality issues when it comes to actually reducing, you know, backhaul traffic or we wouldn't have to worry about repositories where we had distributed. So from there that was kind of the first use case is just network connectivity, giving the smallest possible and then trying to centralize as much of the processing or storage repository as possible to ensure we had almost like a colo that we created ad-hoc. Then from there we realized this is such a great use case and we were saving about 60 percent total cost ownership when it came to savings, what we were actually creating. And then the global economy just kind of took off when it came to creating huge opportunities for us. Because we were managing, not only US companies now, but international companies and through acquisition we expanded to over 15 million lives. Now that we cover worldwide, so for us we had the opportunity to now go into even more areas I guess you could say, or geographic locations. You software-define those data center environments and then from there we just started to manage this huge data we had from wearable both medical and nonmedical devices and then we slowly built it out from there and then we created a fog network to be able to manage all those networks we had and now we're kind of where we're at today. But a lot of it is due to compliance and it was due to latency Issues we're having. That's kinda how it started.
Mark: Outstanding. First of all, just as a fellow practitioner, I would say congratulations on your efforts so far. One of the things we talked about before we even got started on the call, which I thought was kind of too bad we can’t include it in the in the overall podcast, but I'll try to bring up some of it again. What you just explained to whoever's listening is how the CIO in combination with his team has deployed what for most organizations would be considered external customer facing applications and for an organization that's attempting to really make themselves a platform for their customers and partners, that oftentimes ends up being an engineering organization or what's euphemistically called an engineering organization that might be under a CTO or something else. How did manage that and what kind of struggles have you had trying to maintain your focus on the external customer while still delivering the traditional IT requirements that your internal ACI Specialty Benefits employees require?
Ryan: Yeah, it's a great question. So I think what happened is we had a paradigm shift in the marketplace where we were going towards a route of having engineering folks being able to deploy up to a more central CTO type person to be able to deliver technology. What we realized very quickly is by doing that, we're losing touch of the business applications use cases and overall desire of the business to be able to scale out and deploy. So what we started doing instead, and it worked actually really well for us, is we included a lot of these dev ops, sec ops, engineering folks, all the way down to data scientists e have to pretty much anybody that falls under more of the technology umbrella, to be able to understand the business use case first. We pass it through business. So sitting in some of our executive meetings or board director meetings or whatever it is, we'll get a problem and nine times out of ten it's actually not a technology problem. It's actually a training problem. And if you're passing things directly through to engineering, they're going to try to engineer it to be better, faster and more resilient while maybe creating a better user experience in the process. But I wanted to ensure whatever we were doing created the App. So the best user experience. So that's where we start. And then only starts with business units, stakeholders to ensure that we understand the use case 100 percent and oftentimes we don't even when we feel like we do, so we're constantly iterating to ensure we're having a better user experience. So that's kinda where we started and we realized that engineering, a lot of the folks that are doing data operations, they really don't care about the big picture operating. What they really care about is their siloed area of what they want to create. This app connects to this area. This connects to this different operation or this cloud native product or that it's localized for this area, you know, for whatever it may be. And that's great. If you want to run a siloed organization. We're trying to break down as many silos as possible and create a more flat organization. So for me it's really challenging or folks who say, why are we doing what we're doing? How can we do thIs better and what do you think we're doing wrong? And as soon as you ask those questions, at least in my experience, what I've seen is people they want to go above and beyond and make it an even better experience. So we've kind of got out of that whole mentality of engineering under engineering and now engineering is kind of spread throughout the whole entire organization. We're slowly turning into technology company. What's happening is, you know, everybody needs to be somewhat tech savvy and it helps us to then make sure we're ensuring the product and the entire comprehensive core competencies that we deliver are not only efficient, but we're hoping they go above and beyond to create the absolute best user experience as possible.
Mark: Thinking about what you just talked about Ryan and the importance of thinking from the business perspective, and I'm going to throw you a little bit of a softball question relative to what I'm working on with IDCA as chairman of the technical committee there and the application framework in which you and I talked about that a little bit. What's your perspective on the importance as you go through this kind of major transformation of your company and thinking really about how technology is and should be driven from the business first and how the application is what's important from an IT perspective, not specifically the data center or air conditioning or server type or OS type. What do you see as the importance of being able to use something like the application framework to really better understand what you have, how to build it to a why you're building it and how to measure it.
Ryan: Yes, absolutely. So I think IDCA obviously hit the nail on the ahead by being able to say you need to be able to find, promote and essentially be able to have a centric nature when it comes to the entire technology stack. And I think you all were the first one to actually formally recognize this. So this is definitely something that's becoming more and more important and I would say it's definitely becoming almost the center of the business is having application centric ability to not only have an ecosystem that essentially defines what's going on, but the whole entire workflow, the process, and just the overall outlined procedure that you all have. I think it's an instrumental when it comes to defining both infrastructure portion and also being able to have a framework as you spoke to it earlier that makes sure that you are focusing on what actually matters. Each layer is gonna be different aspect that matters more and more. And if you're not aligning those from the getgo and having good fundamentals, it's becoming harder and harder to align those as time goes on. It's almost like when you shoot a rocket into space if you're off your trajectory by so much at land, it becomes even more by order of magnitudes as you get further and further out because of the way that you're trying to hit moving target, then that's the way I look at this as if you're not get on from the ground level, you're going to get worse and worse as you’re trying to move to your target.
Mark: I obviously agree with that. When I first started working with Mehdi Paryavi, the founder and president for Techxact and the founder for IDCA who's sponsoring my efforts where I volunteer on the Technical Committee. It really was that top down perspective that gave me hope. I see it as a very lofty goal. But, one that IT industry as a whole has been lacking for the most part. And that shows up in everything from failure to make proper transitions to failed architecture over time to buying too much or buying too little, or not having the right contracts with partners and maybe even not even having the right people in the organization for the transitions or changes that you're planning. So I see it as very critical. I appreciate your perspective on it. Going beyond that a little bit and you hinted at it this next question I'm going ask, when we were talking about your efforts with Edge and your work to try to combine what would be considered engineering in a company like Yelp or ebay or Paypal or something like that within the larger technology delivery scheme of IT. Talk a little bit about what you see as the importance of having a top down from a leadership standpoint. Having a top down and I'm not talking about just the IT leadership, but I'm talking about leadership in the entire company, having a top down focus on what this transformation means what approaching a net new strategy for market access and really trying to turn your company into a platform. What does that mean? Because to me, and I know you agree with this, but I'm going to ask it anyway. To me it's not so much a technology transformation as it is a company transformation that's supported by technology.
Ryan: Absolutely. I mean, you couldn't have said it better. The technology is actually the easiest part of the transformation. It's the culture. It's the understanding of what you're doing. It's the right sizing. Everyone likes to use the term right sizing of technology. I think it's the right sizing the entire organization. How is leadership making sure that we're setting a strategy and that we're able to execute on strategy, but also how are we making sure that we're confident that we're going to be able to hit these different milestones, KPIs, SLAs that we're promising our clients we're going to be able to hit because we're taking suicide calls, we're doing a lot of stuff around regulations, compliance. So for us, if we're not right, it's not a matter of oh we had an outage, it can be a matter of life or death literally for us because that's the kind of calls we're taking in from an EAP perspective. So for us we need to be 110 percent certain is it going to work and that that's kind of the message I've been really trying to relay and over the last eight years that I’m at the company is that we can't just be sure it's gonna work. We need to be certain it's going to work and then we need to quality assure that it's going to work and from there then we can tell our clients that this will work, but I think as you said, it's got to be top down approach because what's happening is if you try to trickle from the bottom, you know it's obviously not going to work because there's such thing as gravity unfortunately. And when it comes to data gravity, and I think it’s the same thing when it comes to leadership gravity. How are you ensuring the right teams have the right access to the right folks at the very top to ensure that we're having pragmatic change that's sustainable. Anybody can go through a digital transformation. That's the easy part. The hard part is what do you do after that and how do you sustain that momentum, that culture, that environment to ensure you don't have to go through another one in three years because only thing worse than going into the transformation is going through multiple digital transformations because you want to make sure that whatever you're creating or whatever standards are in place, is something that can actually scale out as well. Just like the technology.
Mark: I realize I'm over simplifying sometimes, but to me attempting to do a digital transformation from the technology side first is almost like saying I don't have a company, but I'm going to build an IT organization and then I'm going to put a company on top of it, right? I mean that it just obviously in separation from actual work effort. That sounds ridiculous. Nobody would do that. But we find all too often that IT organizations get themselves into position, whether it's something as fascinating and new as approaching Edge or approaching digital transformation or as old and perceived as boring as disaster recovery. All too often it seems like there's a lack of momentum from the top and push from IT to educate to the top and in the end people are demanding technology solutions for an ill defined or even completely undefined vision of the future. And it sounds like you guys have really solved that problem.
Ryan: You know, we're trying. It is a battle every day and I think part of the process was I was just explaining to our board and our executive team that we can't have a 10 year strategy for technology because what was happening 10 years ago in technology. We are in a completely different place but marketing and finance every department is expected to have these long roadmaps. So I think it's explaining we can have incremental bite size change and that's the best way to go about it is to have these we refer to as sprints we're very agile and we have multiple sprints going on, multiple different environment from multiple business units and of multiple different engineering groups and we'll do different from a high level of even leadership sprints. So I think most people think sprints as a dev ops thing, I think almost as a mindset. So even from a leadership team, we're having many sprints, at each of our executive meetings where we're trying to solve these issues and we're trying to break down barriers because at the end of the day, [inaudible] break down barriers and ensure that you have pragmatic scalability. So I think it's that fundamental mindset from the top up and that then translate all the way down. Unfortunately all the way down means normally infrastructure level and then we're able to architecture out and right size that functionality because we've already right sized the business. And then from there it's just connecting the dots which sounds easy but it's still difficult but a much more easy to connect the dots and it is to find the dots. So that's what we're strategizing for 2020 is being able to have this master roadmap that's actually not even a roadmap. Maybe it's just a list of maps that we've used in the past that then when we want to go another one of these endeavors, we were able to then look back and say, oh we made a pit stop here. That was a good idea or we really should have sprinted a little harder here or we went too far here. So it's truly that just making sure you have sustainability and a framework to go back to [inaudible]. So ensure that you know what you know, because unfortunately you don't know what you don't know. And that is really what hurts most organizations the most because they dont know everything, right?
Mark: Absolutely. As we get towards the end of this podcast, and I wish we could just keep talking. I know how busy you are and the reality is nobody can afford to listen to it two hours podcast. This is such fun stuff. And where you are and what you're doing is so interesting to me and I'm sure it's interesting to pretty much everyone that would listen. But if you could do one takeaway or three takeaways, whatever you feel comfortable with. As we close this out what would you tell folks, some of the things that I think about and you can decide whether to play off of this or come up with your own answers, but how do you incent the people in your organization the right way? How do you get them to not succumb to following what is the easy route for most technologists? The easy route is head down at the monitor had down on their phone, not going out and exploring the business, not looking at how, as you even mentioned earlier, their technology is influenced by or influences other parts of the organization or other parts of the infrastructure, etc. etc. Again, pick whatever you want, but I'm looking for some tidbits to take away that might help other people that are attempting to go through the same thing that you are.
Ryan: Yeah. I think the highest tip, it's just gonna be proofs in the actual deliverable that you are able to deliver. So for me when it comes down to is a lot of folks in my team, they don't want to be in meetings and presenting their ideas and taking credit for what they're doing, you know, in reality they really want to be able to keep their head down as you said and be at the monitor and be able to get work done. So it's taking everybody out of their comfort zone, which at first is very difficult, but then showing them there is value, because that's the main key. There's no value, no one's gonna want to do what they're doing, but there's value to be able to be showing what you're working on, how you're working on it, coming in and presenting. And I think what happens is there's a shift then in both the ideology but also in just the fundamental, I would say, culture of the company where if you can get technical folks talking about non-technical folks and you're solving problems that may or may not be related technology, the outcome in my opinion, is always going to be something that's gonna be greater than if you had just two technology folks talking or just two business folks talking. So for me it's trying to connect again the dots of the two different folks that can really solve the root problem, you know? So that's, that's the first thing. The second thing is make sure you understand the business problem better than you think you do. And what I mean by that is everybody thinks they understand the problem that they're having from business perspective. Nine times out of ten we spend so much time and energy trying to understand from technology perspective and how we can fix that. That really the problem is around training. So I think training is a huge area that almost every organization can improve on, is having built in functionality for help files, built in functionality for frequently asked questions, built in functionality when it comes to anything that may be related to training aspect. And then lastly, encourage your team to, I wouldn't say fail, but encourage your team to learn. Learning sometimes involves failing. So I hate saying, you know, we encourage people to fail because I don't think anybody ever wants to fail, but we encourage you to learn and if you happen to fail while you're learning, then that's great, but now let's help other people in the organization not have to learn the same lessons you've learned so they don't fail. And we can ensure that we have an organization that is creating a 1 + 1 = 3 relationship which is at the end day where everyone's trying to create. They want to go to a place that is exciting, that they feel like they're adding to the bottom line. But also people feel like they can actually have a say and that what they say goes. So it's involving stakeholders early on and you're going to do the exact same thing that you were going to do without their input. Asking for input is a very valuable lesson for a lot of folks and even if you don't take their feedback and putting in the end product in the final production environment, it's still making people feel like they have a say in what's going on and a part of the bigger picture.
Mark: Right.I couldn't agree more. I think that's great advice for anyone that's listening. there are a lot of nuggets in what you described there and this is a complex time. I just want to say congratulations to the work you're guys are doing I certainly for one hope that we can stay in contact and I can follow your progress as you continue to move forward and really, expand on what you started turning ACI Specialty Benefits into a platform company as opposed to a product or just a traditional service company. And I think it's fantastic and really you are becoming in my mind anyway, you're becoming one of the bellwethers for the companies that need to make that transition. And I've been known to say that the companies that don't make that transition over the next five years are likely to not be in business anymore. I think it's vital that if you're not on that path already, you should take some of the advice that that Ryan has passed along today and, and use it to your benefit. So, Ryan, anything you’d like to say in closing.
Ryan: Before we wrap up. A couple of things. First off Mark I appreciate the opportunity to speak and talk about some of this really exciting stuff that's happening right now. Also, I want to say thank you again. I mean I follow you on a lot of social platforms, so you always share knowledge. You're always going above and beyond. You're always answering questions that people have and you partake in a lot of different groups on both twitter and linkedin. It's folks like you that really encourage other folks and you definitely encouraged me in the past. I definitely appreciate you going above and beyond to help explain a lot of these complex problems and a lot of these complex strategies. So I wish there was more people like you in the world. So thanks again for sharing your knowledge.
Mark: Oh man, you are too kind. And the check is in the mail buddy.
Ryan: Absolutely. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Mark: Alright, so again, folks wrapping up today with this fantastic call with Ryan Fay I'd like to thank Ryan again for joining me on the episode and join us next time where we are joined by Scott. Noteboom, longtime data center guru and founder and CEO of Litbit. If you'd like to nominate anyone to join me in a future podcast, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, I'm Mark Thiele and you can find me on twitter at @mthiele10. And Ryan, as we wrap up where can folks find you online? because you gave me all kinds of compliments about my online activity but you're no slouch yourself.
Ryan: : Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Yeah. So I'm on twitter and my handle is just @ryancfay, and I'm on linkedin under ryancfay. Yeah, those are the main two areas that I like chat to other folks in industry. So I appreciate it. Thanks so much Mark.
Mark: : Yeah, absolutely. And folks, if you haven't already started following Ryan, you absolutely should because he gives out fantastic advice and is always business focused, which I think no matter how many times we tell ourselves that we need to be more business focused, we almost always fall back on the easy part, which is technology. So follow him and keep yourself reminded that that's where we need to start and end our day as IT folks. Ryan, thanks again and I appreciate it.
Ryan: : I appreciate it. Thanks so much.
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June 13, 2018
A conversation with Mehdi Paryavi
Mehdi is the Founder & Chairman of IDCA. He is the inventor of Application Ecosystem concepts and methodologies and the author of Infinity Paradigm AE360 Standards Framework. He actively promotes genuine specialization across industry verticals suited to the precise application needs. His initiatives and notions have formed strong pillars for the information technology industry and reshaped the way our industry foresees its future.
- Episode Transcript
Mark Thiele:: Hello and welcome to another edition of the IDCA to Infinity Paradigm and Beyond Podcast where we bring in the most recognized faces and thought leaders of the technology industry and have candid discussions on topics pertaining to cloud IoT, data centers, AI, Big Data, Infrastructure, and IT among other things. This time I am joined by Mehdi Paryavi, Chairman and founder of IDCA. Mehdi, it's a pleasure to have you.
Mehdi Paryavi: Pleasure is all mine.
Mark: It's funny that you and I have been working together for awhile now and this is the first time we're doing something that approaches an official interview and I think it'll be fun. I'm hoping that I'm going to learn something new about you even after all the discussions we've had, even occasionally over a game of ping pong. Well, watching the game of ping pong.
Mehdi: I hope so, just take the questions easy on me.
Mark: You're the founder and chairman of IDCA among other things, and we could chat the whole time about your work accomplishments and their impact on our industry. But before we get all businessy, tell the audience a little bit about Mehdi. What does Mehdi do when he is not trying to influence the direction of the technology industry?
Mehdi: Well Mark, I come from an immigrant family. While I was born in the US, I spend most of my childhood abroad. When I came back to the US at the age of 14, I could hardly speak a word of English. Regardless, I advanced, fairly quickly, academically and I graduated at a very early age with double degree in Finance and Information Systems. Towards the end of college I was kind of bored. I felt that I'm not quenching my thirst for knowledge enough. The knowledge that I was looking for was too basic and I wanted a way out. So I started working outside, but because I was a finisher, I finished college, with awesome grades of course. But as soon as I finished my school, I landed my first full time job and then living and breathing Information Technology since then. I'm happily married for 20 years. I'm a father of three, brilliant college kids. I'm a world traveler. There is hardly a country on the map that I haven't been to. And when I travel, I don't just pass through the streets to do my business. I'm an observer. I try to stay a couple of days before and after my meeting to live and experience different cultures, societies, and learn from people, the details of life and secrets of this universe. At Least I try. Due to our family’s involved with technology and my personal interests, all my life, I've lived and breath Information Technology and then worked in diverse, but focused, areas of IT. I consider myself a good table tennis player. I've done martial arts, soccer, archery, and horseback riding. I read a lot, but I spend more time digesting than actually reading. Nature and history are my top two favorite destinations. And... I'm not too fond of our politics and way of life these days.
Mark: It's funny you mentioned all those things and I did know most of those things about you. But you mentioned at least four maybe five things that are very aligned with me which must be part of why we get along so well. I'm also not very excited about current politics. I've also been married for 20 plus years and have a daughter in college. As my passions, I mean we both obviously share a passion for the technology industry, but my passions outside of technology are also about history.
Mehdi: This is why you and I spend a lot of time talking about everything. Solving the world’s problems...
Mark: Yup. Everything. And it doesn't have to be about data centers or routers. That's right, that begs the question. I'd love to start just hammering you on a IDCA and what the goals and objectives are and stuff. But before we start that one more philosophical question. I know you are a very philosophical person based on our conversations, and pick something that you would like to share. It could be philosophy as you see it relative to our industry, philosophy as you see it relative to your travels. Is there something common about humanity, or our industry. Pick something that you interested in that you think our audience would be interested in as well.
Mehdi: What I can do is I can give you my perspective on IT, as someone who is an IT guy himself, but with a philosophical perspective on its impact to our families and our society. So basically, my best time, even though I've lived this industry to its fullest, my best hours of my life is when I'm away from phone and I am sitting on my terrace or in my library pondering upon philosophical, sociological, economical, religious topics. That's my gig of the day. My kids, for example, were not allowed to have phones until they were 16. Because I believe there's so much in life you need to learn and observe before you get into IT, cause once you get exposed to IT, your world is constrained by your selection of apps and media. So I wanted my kids to have a more unbiased, naked-eye and up-close perspective of the earth before the world of gadgets put upon them. You see Mark, today we have abundance of information but a severe shortage of thinkers. You can pretty much google everything, I mean anything. However, because of that abundance, because of such huge amount of knowledge wondering around and feeding us with with our every breath, there isn't simply enough people out there that think and try to make sense of everything that's surrounding us. A lot of it is due to the fact that we're constantly being fed with data and information. Therefore, we hardly have time to take a step back and digest them in order to find their application or relevance in our lives. So a lot of things we read on daily basis or the things we do are just routines. We don't have to have those routines, but we do. We can go on and talk about this stuff...
Mark: Yeah. I'll just end by my short to paraphrase because I largely agree with everything you just said. My short paraphrase of that when I talked to other people about this same subject is that although I don't get a newspaper to my home anymore, one of the things I regret about not reading the newspaper everyday, is with the newspaper when you open it, you're not predisposed to the content, to your point about what you're fed based on your choices, via the web, via your Google news feed or your Yahoo News feed or whatever it is that you use, your flipboard, etc.... I would read about anything that affected our lives as opposed to the only those things that I found or already believed to be industry.
Mehdi: We are all boxed in today. We choose what we want to read, and that by itself automatically blocks any opposing opinions and therefore we lack diversity and we lack comprehension of opposing views.
Mark: Yeah. It's another good reason to champion the phrase of challenge your assumptions on a regular basis.
Mark: Okay, so now we'll get onto the more technical aspects of the conversation or at least the more industry specific aspects. And tell me how did you actually start the whole IDCA campaign, what got into you and, what made you get it going?
Mehdi: I basically felt the need. I’ve found us driven by forces of supply. I, actually, wrote a blog about this: “supply and demand”. You would learn in school that demand governs and drives supply. Whatever you guys are demanding is what us suppliers will supply to you. But in our world today, I think supply is brainwashing the demand. By that I mean, there's less people using their creativity and power of imagination to foresee what they would need than people looking at nice brochures and say, “oh, this is what I want for my infrastructure”. So this is why we tend to go the extremes at times. You know, you remember the days where everybody was putting all their eggs in one basket with absolute redundancy and high-maintenance facilities, and then times when people wanted cheap facilities and now that the ultimate goal is to just outsource everything. And all of these notions have been the flagships of our industry in their own days. There was no common core. There was no common understanding. There was no simplified definition or outline metrics of usefulness of anything that's out there. So, I felt the ambiguity and I don't like vagueness. I like everything to be crystal clear. And I think having those clarities embedded in our industry is important in order to set the pillars for what's coming because what's coming is much greater than what's already amazing us. We are the players in the biggest industry mankind has ever created. We're impacting trillions of dollars in terms of currency. We're impacting billions of people in terms of lives and citizens. We're impacting everything. Our politics are affected by it, our healthcare is affected by it, our oil and gas is affected by it. Everything is affected by information technology, by data, and by data centers and by the platforms that run and facilitate applications.
Mehdi: Therefore, it's important that we clarify everything and set things clear and create outlines, create policies, create the right procedures, create common understandings. When people move from Amazon to Apple to Google to Microsoft, they shouldn't have to go learn a whole new field. We've seen too many times, you and I have seen it so many times, that people in times of panic or emergency, subconsciously they do what they did in their previous job or whatever they have been doing the most. So if, I don't know, pink was the color of upload or red was a color of something else, that's what they would unplug, even things as simple as a coloring schemes in the data center, if they are not universal, they can cause problems. That all sparked the idea of the IDCA project. So the way we went about it was we start with education. I believe that you cannot make a great impact without having an educated audience. So we spent years educating the industry. We trained thousands of professionals around the world. We spend a lot of time addressing the modern issues, the modern topics of our industry to the professionals who have attended our programs and obviously our ultimate goal was to get into the standardization and, you know, provide clear-cut venues for people to understand and make sense of things. And this is what we're doing today.
Mark: Yeah. Obviously from our very first conversation about joining in and helping out with the technical committee, you know that I feel the same way about the need to be able to process what IT is and process it more effectively and be able to react and respond to the business more effectively and efficiently. All of those are, along with everything you just said, are key to, understanding what you have and understanding what you're building and why you're building it so that you're building what the business needs and building something that you can continue to support and ideally building it from the perspective of being able to do the same thing somewhere else, at least in technical capability, if not in perfect alignment from a strategy standpoint. So you know, when you first got this going, did you find it difficult? I mean, raising the idea in the industry, did you face resistance from folks?
Mehdi: Whatever it was, it was normal. It was expected. You know we are making history for our industry, just like Carnegie and Rockefeller and JP Morgan pioneered theirs. We’re paving the way for people to come after us for our industry. With every new wave there has always been historically some resistance. Fortunately, our industry is one of the most educated out there. Therefore, we're blessed to have a tuned audience. Of course, some people said, “we like what you guys are doing, let’s see where you guys ending up in a decade or so.” Some said, “no way you cannot go against the status quo”, and some were neutral. But when people saw the progression of our message, the consistency of work and the successive developments, they came in flocks. And we're blessed by it.
Mark: Yeah I agree. I found, even in the time that I've been a part of the program, that more and more when I’m out and about speaking at events or talking to folks even with other companies and I'm getting asked about how people can participate. And so I realized that half of that is awareness to begin with, but it’s also to some degree an awareness of the deeper opportunity associated with the goals, so that's fantastic. When you think about, of course we talked about the training, etc. but let's dive a little bit more specifically into the Application Ecosystem, otherwise known as the Infinity Paradigm. Could you tell the audience a little bit about what sparked the idea specifically around building that and calling it the Application Ecosystem and then maybe we can go onto a more detailed question about how you see this directly helping certain parts of an organization.
Mehdi: What sparked the Application Ecosystem was the lack of practical effectiveness of everything else that existed before it. We basically failed to address the modern issues of our industry. The “data” center industry is supposed to be belonging not only to the power and cooling people, nor the cabling nor any specific group. In reality the term “data center” refers to the fact that the most important commodity in your data center is that is the data itself and everything that deals with data. So your application, your platform, your compute, cloud analytics, all the way down to your physical IT gear, routers, switches, SAN, blades and so forth are your top priority. They are the driving force that define how a data center should look like where it should be and what it should deliver in terms of levels of capacity, efficiency, security, resilience, and so forth. At some point of time, we got things reversed and our industry looked at things upside down. So definitions were a polluted and the people could not make sense of what they were doing. If you had a data center that was led by someone with heavy electrical background, you could see it walking into the data center that this data center is electrically-heavy. If you walked into the center who's architect was someone with cooling background, you felt it coming in. Whereas, data center is an infrastructure that supports the application ecosystems. In an ecosystem you cannot say which component is more important than the other. They're all as important and they all have to work in harmony and they all have to be unified and they all have to be bundled in a way that the business or the institution that is the stakeholder of the application or the data benefits from it in an optimum way. That was not there before.
Mehdi: People thought, okay, we will just build a shelter, we put a ceiling on our heads and put a bunch of racks, some cabling and some power, cooling, generators and UPS and we have a data center. That's not how it works and it hasn't worked in the past years to nobody's surprise and that's why we came up with the Application Ecosystem notion. By that we're emphasizing that if you're a cable technician or a UPS technician or a data center manager or NOC technician, you're all as important. You're all part of one team, not separate teams, you all have one mission, not multiple missions, and you are all part of one ecosystem that fulfills your organizations promise. Having that mindset and having that educated background, walking into a facility, walking into a data center, sitting behind a computer, gives you a sense of purpose and gives the organization a way to quantify things that need to be measured that haven't been measured before.
Mark: Right. Absolutely. You bring up so many good points and I know that outside of this podcast, we've had some of these conversations already, but I think it begs repeating. One of the things that drove me and my interest in what you were trying to do with the Application Ecosystem, was, some of my experience just specifically in the data center considering the definition you’ve just provided for data center saying just the data center seems pretty stupid. But it was in the sense when I was out to build a data center. I'd owned and operated several data centers in the past. I'd refurbished a couple of small data centers when I was at HP, but at Gilead, in around 2003 I think, was the first time I was building a significantly sized data center from scratch to a particular tier standard to a particular business requirement, etc. as opposed to just trying to modify or add on to something I already owned. And what I found, which I found was fairly distressing, was that there was no single place to go. There was no place to go that told me how to own what I was trying to build, right? And when you think about owning, right? You talk about a puppy, you can talk about a pool, but if you're going to own a pool, then you have to realize that you're going to probably need a fence around the property based on local law. You're going to need insurance. You're going to need to think about how you keep it clean and what kind of maintenance you do and so on and so forth. And those are all part of owning a pool. Anybody can have a pool, but own owning it requires those things. I couldn't find anything even at that simple what appears now to be a very simple thing. I couldn't find anything that helped me understand what it meant to actually own a data center. And what we had was we had facilities people that thought they knew what they were doing. We had different parts of IT that thought they knew what they were doing. We had a business who have no clue and no understanding about the importance of what we were building to what they wanted for their future as far as technical capability was concerned, and that was a recipe for disaster.
Mehdi: So Mark, without a Bible you would have no church. So the lack of content was evident. We didn't have content to go by. This industry lacked it. None of the prevailing standards at the time talked about cloud, talked about Big Data, AI. None of the modern topics were addressed by the so called data center standards. That was a big gap. It was a gap that needed to be addressed, which sparked our enthusiasm for the work and for the effort and what we're doing here is bringing everybody together. We're trying to bridge the gaps by not diminishing anybody's role. On the contrary, by emphasizing on the importance of everyone's role and giving them a further purpose into the bottom line of the organization. And this by itself, that the notion of the Application Ecosystem alone, just that terminology, is such an eye-opening phrase that if you think about it, it gives you a peace of mind, when you talk about data centers.
Mark: I agree. I mean it's the closest thing to thinking about it from the pure customer perspective and I think that's fantastic.
Mehdi: One other thing that it does is, as an end user, whether you're outsourcing your actual facility or not, you are part of the Application Ecosystem still. You are the stakeholder of this ecosystem, so whether you choose to outsource a part of it or do everything yourself, you are still maintaining the ecosystem. You're just outsourcing different segments or different components. But you see the big picture. And the big picture is what was missing.
Mark: That's right. You may not have grown the tomato, but you're still responsible for how lunch tastes.
Mehdi: Exactly. I remember somebody one day commented that if you can build anything that flies and call it an airplane, why would you need a standard for airplanes. We're not making a standard for airplanes. We're making a standard for the aviation industry, if I want to make a comparison. The Application Ecosystem. It's not about how do you run a UPS? It's about how do you run your Application Ecosystem and people could read up on that and understand what we're talking about here in further details.
Mark: Yeah and I’ll maybe make a link available for folks and certainly they can go to the IDCA website, and look for the Infinity Paradigm there to get to more detail on this, but you know speaking and raising the level of discussion a little bit higher from a consumption standpoint, you know, if you were to talk to a CIO or a CEO in business terms about why the Infinity Paradigm might be important to their business, and you could pick a particular business if that makes it easier. But you know, what are two or three of the things that you would tell them to help them to understand?
Mehdi: Well what we're doing here helps everybody far and wide. In short, I guess the biggest take you can have from all of this is being able to analyze and address the bottom line, which can only be achieved by translating the magnitudes of intangible facets to an Application Ecosystem that must be quantified and touched. Remember, you can't measure something that you can't manage. A lot of CIO’s out there, a lot of government institutions and a lot of conglomerates are managing things without being able to measure their full effectiveness, without being able to measure all the detail that is involved in their ecosystem or without having an integrated model for measuring them, or monitoring them. So one of the issues with segmenting your work by having facilities and IT and virtualization and cloud, all different groups and different monitoring systems is that you will never be able to come up with a bottom line that makes sense to the organization. I remember in one of the speeches I made, I had a USB stick in my hand. I said, what is this? Everybody said USB stick. I said, no, this is a data center. A data center could be as small as a usb stick if you have critical information on it. Or it could be as big as a Facebook data center. So we don't measure data centers based by its size or square foot. If it's holding data it is a data center. So when people's view about data center is a UPS center or a chiller center or the CRACs center or a structured cabling center, obviously a USB is just a USB. But when a USB to you becomes a data center, then from a point of view of CIO, you have to think about the ROI of that USB, the security of data on it and the movement of files and the connectivities and so forth. How you plan to host the data or transmit the data or facilitate the data, that's a different story. But the definition of data center is very clear. It has to become clear to everybody so that we don't end up with all these security hacks and all these inefficiencies at work and all these expensive bills that we pay for, for facilities that we don't even consider data center, but we are praying for them regardless.
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, so that’s a pretty compelling from my perspective. and again that's part of why I joined up in the cause, but you've also spoken about the digital economy in general. And you've done that pretty regularly and you've even mentored institutions on what the digital economy would mean to them and what it means in general. Can you tell us a little bit from your perspective what you see there and maybe elaborjate on how you started the conversation earlier about how technology is pervasive everywhere. How do you see those being aligned and what do you see as coming next?
Mehdi: Well, mark, I came up with the term digital economy when I looked around myself and realized that our traditional wheels of economy are not churning our economy as they used to. What’s fueling our economy today is the digital fusion. It’s the likes of Googles, Apples, Facebooks, Microsofts. So it's kind of hard to not realize that we are living and operating the world's largest digital economy. So why not capitalize on it? Why not share our experiences with the rest of the world? Humanity, historically speaking, started with the agriculture economy, then the industrial boom, then the post industrial stage and in my belief, we are in the digital stage right now. So there is no reason for emerging nations or developing countries to go through all four stages of economical evolution before addressing the merits of digital economy. Therefore, I believe we stand on crucial grounds. What we do and how we do it can shape and greatly impact the lives of billions and leave a social-economical impact that are far beyond anybody's comprehension today. So digital economy should be this country's flagship in my opinion. If I was the chief marketing officer of this nation, I would walk around with brochures of digital economy success stories. And that would be our number one, that is our number one source of economic lucrativeness today. It will be our national pride and it would be our number one export. So, how we capitalize on it and how we address it and how we help other nations achieve it, is I think a business that's up for grabs.
Mark: Yeah. I think that makes sense. I know I'm frustrated on occasion when we don't recognize the importance and value of science and the appropriate use of technology in getting us to where we are today and how to farm as it were to use a baseball term. How do you create the farm team that we're going to need for the next 10, 20 in 100 years and right now I think we're doing an okay job, but certainly not doing everything that we could. I totally agree. So when I first joined you had only just recently opened up the Technical Committee to a group of outsiders as it were and instead of trying to own this application framework yourself and just pay people to create what you wanted them to create. What, what made you decide to try to pull in a wide range of industry folks to create this new paradigm?
Mehdi: We opened up Mark because we know better. Because this is not an undertaking that can bear fruit without everybody's involvement. You need to bring in diverse experiences from diverse industries and pull their insights to ensure you address the issues that they're concerned about and mitigate them for the years to come. This is what should have been done before, but it wasn't done from the beginning. Whoever did it with the right message, would have been successful. So we did it and we were successful and we were fortunate enough to receive the excellent reception that with we’ve received. I mean without having this vision that you need to bring in all the stakeholders, especially end-users, the people who run the cloud, the people who run data centers, the people who run a infrastructure that is important to them and to the rest of the world and coming from different norms, different cultures, different backgrounds, different industries, you cannot build something that's universally acceptable nor something that can sustain the evolutions of technology and be dynamic enough to address the changes of time. One of the best decisions we ever made was opening up and allowing the greater community to be part of this. We're blessed to have a community that's so passionate and exerting efforts and what we're trying to accomplish. But we couldn't do it before because you have to have something in place because before you could invite others to come and join you. So we had to create the foundations and we had to put the concepts and the notions in place and once we opened up it was just a no brainer and everybody was coming in.
Mark: Yeah. that's awesome and it's certainly, been fun to help put together the team. So as we get close to wrapping up our discussion, but if you were to pick a few things as advice for practitioners in the industry what would you tell them? Whether they were someone racking and stacking in a data center or a determining the typology for a new cloud oriented application or something in between. What would you tell them?
Mehdi: Honestly? ...I will say, go to any IDCA education venue and read up into Infinity Paradigm A360. I think the combination of the two will open a lot of doors for you to stay ahead of the curve.
Mark: Yeah. Well, I think that's good advice. I would recommend the same. So where do we expect it to be in the next five years?
Mehdi: You don't mind if I keep that as a surprise?
Mark: Well, no. Isn’t that that like you're supposed to tell everybody the room you were in at the hotel after you get married, right? Isn't that the same thing?
Mehdi: I don't know. Honestly, I enjoy planning my life and planning my business and planning everything I do. But I've learned through experience that nothing you ever plan will ever turn out to be exactly as you planned it. In my case, it has always been better than what I planned. I've been blessed by meeting fortunate events that have always evolved and elevated even my own visions. So, we're ambitious to have an industry that is fertile enough to absorb everybody and to elevate the lives of everybody that's a stakeholder within it. Our mission is truly to impact the lives of people who are putting effort into building not only the standards or educational material, but also racking and stacking, designing, architecting applications and cloud and virtualization, people who are in charge of our national security, people who are governing our day-to-day use of apps and data, all of these people, they deserve an industry that can sustain them and their families. Our goal is really to make that more and more available and make it more and more sustainable. Where I'll be in that ballgame is something that, we'll have to wait and see.
Mark: Yeah. Well, I think that's fair. I've certainly found, I mean, one of the, it's less personal, but the same thing applies and I'm always surprised when somebody comes to me and says, let's work on the three year business plan. I always tell them, I said, okay, I'm happy to help you with your three year business plan, but let's keep in mind that this is a guideline. This is not anything written in stone. If you think this is written in stone, then we might as well not start now.
Mehdi: That's a good thing about having a target in mind or a guideline or an outline or a mission statement is that at least you have something to work towards, where do you end up, can be very far from where you aimed that from the beginning. Something people always tell us you are the International Data Center Authority, you guys deal with data center. What do you guys have to do with cloud and Information Technology. And we're like, “well data in quotation marks.” It's data center and we deal with everything that deals with data and information and everybody evolves from that.
Mark: Agreed. Well Mehdi this has been fantastic and I appreciate you taking the time. I mean, I know how busy you are and I appreciate you taking the time today to talk with us.
Mehdi: Thank you very much Mark. It was a pleasure.
Mark: Hopefully we'll get a chance to do it again sometime. Maybe pick something more esoteric and chat for half an hour or so about it but again, thank you and folks this is it. I want to thank you for listening and thank you for joining me on this episode. Join us next time where we are joined by young star Ryan Fay 30 under 30 top CIO's in the world. And if you'd like to nominate anyone to join me on a future podcast, email us at email@example.com. Until next time I am Mark Thiele and you can find me on twitter @mthiele10. Thank you very much.
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May 23, 2018
A conversation with Derek Collison
Derek is an industry veteran, entrepreneur and pioneer in large-scale distributed systems and cloud computing. He founded Synadia Communications and Apcera, and has held executive positions at Google, VMware, and TIBCO Software. He is also an active angel investor and a technology futurist around Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, IOT and Cloud Computing.
- Episode Transcript
Mark Thiele: Hi folks and welcome to the second edition of IDCA industry luminary podcast, otherwise known as “To Infinity Paradigm and Beyond”, and this time with Derek Collison. Derek, welcome to the show.
Derek Collison: Thanks mark. Great to be here.
Mark: I appreciate you taking the time. I know that you're a busy guy between travel and your love is outside of work and the work that you do, which you seem to always be finding something interesting to do. But before we get into the geek speak, tell us a little bit about what Derek's been doing for fun lately.
Derek: Oh, well, I don't know about fun per se, but I still love travel, obviously. I was just in Rome for a conference on human longevity, which is a great topic that I love to explore and tinker with a little bit. Living in San Francisco and L.A. Starting to really enjoy the L.A. life and decided to get a boat. I have enough cars so I got a boat and I'm really enjoying it.
Mark: Nice! Alright, well one of these times I'm going to have to talk to you more about the boat itself. But Human longevity thing is interesting. I know you and I have had conference or discussions in the past about A.I. and the influence on humans in the future and you know all the different impacts on potential human life and a longevity conference sounds interesting. Was there anything in particular that you pulled out of it to that you've found new?
Derek: Well, I'll be honest with you. I really think that the overarching theme which might sound funny is don't die stupid in the next 10 years. I think the advancements are coming so fast in terms of genetic modification with CRISPR technologies around mRNA, which actually is the worker bees inside your body that actually are replicating the hard DNA usually isn't doing that. It's telling the mRNA how to do that. And we got access to some folks in companies that are just on the brink, and stage two clinical trials to solve all degenerative diseases to solve cancer or to do some things that are really mind blowing and I think most people feel will take 10 to 20 years to come and I think there'll be here in two to five.
Mark: Oh, that's, that's really good news. I mean, we've all had those, friends and relations that have gone through difficulties with terrible diseases, cancer being one of them and watching them struggle with that and the idea that we might actually now in real terms be close at hand to solving that at scale, across the wide spectrum of cancer types as an example is awesome. You know its testament certainly to advancements in tech research and A.I. among other things I would imagine.
Derek: Yeah. You and I have known each other for some time and you know that I'm an eternal optimist, but even I was short-sighted in the timeframes where some of these technologies will be ready to be used in humans and like you said, affect people's lives in profound ways. So I would imagine now all of your listeners know someone that has gone through something like this or lost a loved one. And so it was great to be there and to see it first-hand. And so I do a lot of that, try to make sure I think outside the box or outside my day to day subject matter.
Mark: Yes, I think it's important. I mean it's funny, I was just talking to a friend the other day when I was in San Francisco, we met for lunch and we were talking about the value of hitting topics outside what would be considered the norm for a bunch of geeks to hit. It never hurts to have influence on your thinking from areas that you wouldn't normally consider as you worry about what to do with your technology next door. The technologies around you. Good stuff.
Mark: One of the reasons we got you on is because you've got a really impressive career in the tech space and you're one of the people that could effectively say, have left a mark on the industry that a wide portion of industry participants would know about. One of the most obvious ones are of course, is starting a couple of companies “Apcera” and now Synadia. But before that, even some of the things you did at TIBCO and then Google and then the founding of Cloud Foundry. Anything during that period, what are some of the most important things from your perspective that happened to you during that period and how do they relate to what you're doing now or what you're seeing now?
Derek: That's a great question. I think as you get on later in life, you start to reflect a lot on the things that influenced you and sometimes you see things that you didn't necessarily see in the moment. So one of the very earliest things that ever happened to me was my grandmother, I think it was like in 1980, got me a Commodore 64 and no one in my household knew what a computer was. No one had ever gone to college. And my grandmother had the foresight to actually get this for me. And kind of peeked my curiosity at playing with these things.
Derek: Fast forward to getting out of college. I was in the applied physics lab at Johns Hopkins University and probably one of the most profound things happened to me, which is I got selected by the second best physicist at the lab, not the first best and the reason that it was such a profound moment in my life and career was that the top physicists got all the supercomputer time and my physicist had 12 spark pizza boxes that they then looked at me and said, you figure out how to make those things do the same thing as a supercomputer. And at the time, I mean, it sounds very kind of general, of course you could do that. But back in the day, 1990, it was always scale up - vertical scaling, not horizontal scaling. And so I was kind of at a whim thrown into, you know, distributed computing when that wasn't a thing. And I wanted to do, you know, artificial intelligence, visual representation, graphics types of things with my career. And I continually just kept running into distributed computing problems. Even when I moved to Silicon Valley in 91, the first job I had, I immediately was confronted with the same problem and so I'm a little slow sometimes, so it took me about three years to realize that maybe this is what I should be concentrating on. But it was a huge opportunity for me that I probably didn't realize as much as I do now looking back, but getting early on into how you scale out horizontally and utilize lots of computers to complete tasks is obviously kind of at the forefront of infrastructure technologies and cloud infrastructure for sure. But in 1990 people were like I'm so sorry you have to do that. We will just keep going up with our supercomputers.
Mark: That's huge. I mean realistically to some degree you could argue that was a foundation for the reason why I joined your company Apsera in 2016 was ostensibly really helping people. I mean to extrapolate from where you started in 1990, to extrapolate from there a more efficient use of distributed compute capacity. Right. I mean, I’m really simplifying, a very amazing tool that the team created, but still in the end, that's what we were doing, right?
Derek: Yeah exactly. When I moved to Silicon Valley, I was trying to do advanced, large data analytics and visualization for a medical trial, right? FDA medical trial for a health startup. And I was very excited about that. And again, like we were talking about, I got run into just distributed computing problem. And kind of said, okay, fine, someone's trying to tell me something. But since 1992-93, my whole career has been spent on essentially horizontal computing; either how they communicate with time at TIBCO, what types of systems can be put together that are extremely resilient, but based on a lot of lossy type systems, again, at TIBCO and then at Google. Vmware was cloud foundry, which is, “hey, if we want to deploy these things into production, it's kind of hard to do right now with lots of moving pieces. How can we make this easier?” And of course all of those trends have continued and had gone well beyond anything I probably could have come up with or figured out. And that's a testament to the industry. But yeah, since 1992 I've been working on essentially the same technology area and that's quite a bit of time.
Mark: Yeah, no kidding. That's awesome. That's funny because you know, 1992 is when I first started in client-server. Before that I was working on a mainframe in an old data center. I kind of restarted my career in 1992, just coincidentally. Extending from there, let’s talk a little bit about your newest, love and startup. Synadia Communications came out of the NATS.io project which is now part of CNCF. Right. So, uh, what do you guys do in there?
Derek: Yeah, exactly. So for the listeners that might not be aware of NATS is a low level messaging system that allows digital software and systems and services to communicate. It's very different from the things I've designed in the 90s and 2000s. It goes back to a very simplistic model of at most once delivery and protecting itself, kind of like a utility, right? So if you think of a utility like electricity, obviously the electric company's job is to keep your lights on, but one of its other jobs is to make sure that any one bad actor doesn't take down the utility for everyone else. And I was seeing a trend in an enterprise messaging systems where they were trying to do so much for any individual client that a lot of times the system could become unavailable for the majority of the users.
Derek: So NATS was created actually as an underpinning for Cloud Foundry, which was a platform as a service effort that I had designed and created at VMware, which is now extremely successful. So NATS is actually new to some people, but it's been around for about 7 years. We built Cloud Foundry with it. We built Apcera’s platform technology with it. Again as a underlying substrate to do command and control discovery, location, addressing and things like that. And so Synadia was essentially an opportunity coming out of Apcera that I wanted to push the envelope a little bit on where I think NATS as a technology might be able to serve a larger population, a greater good. And where that comes down to is that if you look at open source in general, there are some challenges around the way it's commercialized, especially if you're not a very large company that has other sources of revenue.
Derek: So startups trying to be in the information technology and the cloud infrastructure space are mostly forced into open source and then you're running into a consumer bias that has to be free. That's a difficult place for the market to be in but that's where we are. So I thought quite a bit about NATS and a technology offering that that might be different, might be ambitious, but might capture the attention of both myself and some of the early team members and hopefully a larger market. And then that's essentially to connect everything. So every digital systems, service device, a single URL that will work in any cloud provider, any ego cloud or edge is secure by default, right? So we don't have to wait like we did with the Internet for the green lock to appear after 10 to 15 years. Promotes a sharing of data, but also gives you very strict and proper, you know, cryptographic abilities to do account isolation.
Derek: But again, just ubiquitous single URL dial tone just works, right. And we think that there's an interesting angle to making this decentralized. So a global utility that's decentralized by design. So I think blockchain is getting a lot of news and press, but I think there's two different versions, right? There's the cryptocurrency fiat ICO type of conversations where I think there's some challenges there and I think you're going to see a lot of regulatory involvement from state agencies and such going forward, but there's something I think very appealing to the notion of decentralized architecture, meaning there is no one owner of a global utility. It's actually a decentralized managed system that has both a notion of command and control that's on a public blockchain, but also provides for a transparent reputation system to allow other people to put resources into this global utility.
Derek: The way it works on the back end is that it's a utility, meaning you have to pay for it, like electricity, water, all that kind of stuff. But Synadia doesn't take all of that revenue. That revenue is actually put out on the blockchain and immediately redistributed in three big buckets, right? Eighty percent goes to the operators and of course that's divided up by how much traffic and how many people you're serving. Ten percent will go to publishers who are sharing data that the network finds extremely useful. Meaning there's a very large fan out and 10 percent will go back into the OSS community, again, Mark and I have known each other for awhile and he knows I feel that OSS is both a great thing, but it's also presenting some very interesting challenges that I don't think the market and the community will really understand until a decade later.
Derek: But I think there are challenges that, as much as I can as one person in one company try to show a path that might be a little bit different way of thinking about OSS instead of charity or as a support contract tax from big companies. That 10 percent, is kind of like a tax on all of the collected revenue from the consumers of the utility that always goes back right into the OSS community. And so if the global utility launches a no one uses it, obviously there's no money to be distributed. But as that gets larger and larger, I'm sure we will have made mistakes and have to autocorrect a little bit on our path, but I'm really interested to see if it could show a new way of actually showing that if OSS drives value, it should be driven back into the OSS in terms of incentivizing the innovation that takes place.
Mark: Yeah, couldn't agree more. I really feel like you've made a significant headway in the thought process because I know, I had many of these conversations with you and I'm not nearly as smart about it as you are, but I saw the struggle you are making in trying to find the right balance between making something and praying that somebody will give you money for it even though it's technically free. And making something that is really effectively integrated into the underpinnings of the web or as you put it, the new electricity or the new phone service. I think that's a really interesting approach and worth a significant amount of discussion all by itself. I mean, I was gonna ask you a question about the opportunity around Edge and certainly much more distributed compute, much more use of functions as a service, potentially even one of the conversations you and I had about multitenancy with IoT and data segregation or data governance at the Edge and it seems like depending on the situation, there may be a lot of opportunity for a product like yours to help manage that.
Derek: Yeah, I'm not sure if listeners are aware of, but I've been very big on the potential for Edge Computing as a massive opportunity. Now some of the lessons that I've tried to glean from Abcera, which was trying to do kind of an all in one multi-cloud platform technology that was actually mostly proprietary - there were some open source components obviously, but it's proprietary. One is that throughout my career, which is coming up on 30 years, we've ebbed in flow between different states like client server to centralize, client server to distributed. One of the other ones that we've vacillated back and forth between, at least in my opinion, is IT professionals looking for more of an all in one, one company, one throat to choke, so to speak, versus “no, just give me a whole bunch of different tools in my toolbox and I'll put something together myself.”
Derek: And I made a bet, which was wrong, that the market was swinging back to more of an all in one. And I think where I missed the boat, is that because there's so many new technologies being introduced at such a rapid fashion. I mean, think about it. We went from VMs, which were kind of really new and exciting to all of a sudden this notion of platform as a service and infrastructure as a service, cloud. Then we went to, you know, things like Kubernetes and, Serverless and Docker. All of these things have come in a pretty rapid successions and so I think IT professionals are mostly looking at trying to cultivate and prune out certain technologies to put in their toolbox and the three big areas that I think they look for are, when we're talking about cloud vs edge is how do I do compute at the edge, how do I do storage at the edge and how do I do communication at the edge? And so Synadia is trying to solve that one specific problem be that one, hopefully great toolbox technology that says, “Hey, if you want to communicate between things very easily, very, very performant and efficiently, but know secure by default, no matter where you are in the world” we want what we're trying to do it at Synadia to be that, that technology and that offering.
Mark: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Lessons learned to some degree and you know, I'm hoping for both of our sakes because I know that my forward looking, thoughts on the future of IT arent nearly as clear as yours are. But hoping that our recent experiences in struggling through proprietary vs open source questions will give us pause on how to approach the next phase. And it certainly sounds like it's given you pause on how to approach the Synadia. So good stuff.
Derek: And I think, one of the things at least for myself and I think a lot of people there, including you is that we always operated with a really high sense of integrity. We built an amazing culture within Apcera, which is something I'm most proud of. I figured out as I've gotten a little older that even if you make the right guess, meaning you know where things are going, timing is everything and timing is the hardest thing to predict. And it's the number one risk factor for any startup. Even given the situation we're in, I think we develop some amazing technology, got some amazing customers and I really do believe that we did the right thing, in terms of allowing a Ericsson to grab the technology and really purposely slotted in for the Telco vertical that they obviously are most interested in.
Derek: I tried to hold my head high. You know, it's tough to say, “hey, this isn't going the way we want.” But I think cloud infrastructure and platform infrastructure, those markets, they’re in a tough spot right now. It's really hard to make a business model that's something beyond support or professional services training or education. And I'm not saying that those companies can't be useful, they can. but I don't think you're going to see VCs keep investing lots of, of their capital, even though they have a lot of it in companies that at best can return maybe a 3x multiple, on a fairly limited based on working a human capital revenue stream. And so it'll be interesting to see, we've got so many things accelerating at such an amazing pace, from just base technology to a couple of trends that I started talking about a couple of years ago, which at the time sounded really funny, but I said, you know, everyone keeps telling me everything's going to software like software is eating the world and everything's going to cloud and I said, actually, I think we've already reversed and I think everything is going to go back out towards the Edge and everything is going to be either generalized hardware but more specifically specialized hardware at the edges and even inside of the cloud. And I think in those two years for the most part you saw CPUs and maybe some GPUs in cloud. And now of course we got CPU GPU,FPGA, TPU, which the new one, by the way is eight times faster than the one that just released last year, liquid Cool. So the pace of innovation is going so fast, but if you're watching some of these trends, things are moving from software back into hardware or firmware and I don't think you're going to see a lot of things moving to the cloud. I think you're going to see a lot of the technologies that you interact with on a daily basis as both an individual and a consumer and as a business are going to keep getting closer to you. Right? So metro offices, central offices, base stations, and then inside of buildings in terms of services and features that are delivered wirelessly but are localized. So I think those trends are going the way A.I. is still moving at such a rapid pace. There's going to be some amazing opportunities that if people can see the right combination, kind of the modern version of an Uber moment where, we've got smartphones, we've got maps, we get GPS, “hey, we can disrupt an industry” that, for the most part, taxis just didn't have a great satisfaction rating. So to speak, nobody jumped out of a taxi and said, “man, I love that. I can't wait to get back into one of those” and I think the way technologies are going and the ability access these technologies at scale for relatively speaking almost no cost as what it was even 10 years ago are going to present some opportunities that are going to be mind blowing. And, one last thing I'll throw in there is I suspect that most of these mindblowing opportunities, these combination of technologies to be put together are going to be coming from outside Silicon Valley to be honest with you. I think Silicon Valley - and I'm still part of that crowd - at least 20% these days going up and down the coast, has a bias. We're biased not to think out of the box. And I know a lot of people will kind of react to that and challenge me on that. That's totally fair. But Silicon Valley has a very biased way of thinking about how technology should be started, funded, matured, grow, all of other stuff. And I think you're going to see some of these developing countries or even different pockets within inside an already developed countries, get access to these technologies and see patterns and combinations that people with that bias, - even though you always want to say I'm not biased, everyone is - aren't going to see. So I think there's going to be some amazing innovations in the next five to 10 years. I think mind blowingly so compared to the last 100, to be honest with you.
Mark: I fully support that. Even some of the things that I've written about recently, on my blog and, and, uh, from discussions and even the presentations that I gave at a recent conference in New York. I would argue that that's true and that I'm more and more people are beginning to accept that. You mentioned Uber and as it relates to taxis and indirectly or maybe directly, but just not directly enough for my little brain to catch entirely. It sounded like a, you're effectively saying that the VC community as we've all known and loved it or fought with it, depending on your perspective is to some degree, right? For that same kind of disruption.
Derek: I have a lot of great friends in the VC community and I have the utmost respect for them and the VC community in terms of it probably being the single most important thing to why Silicon Valley exists and of course people are trying to recreate this throughout the world for sure. But I think most people looking at the VC industry who look at it at all, have also recognized that they are about to be disrupted in. And most people would say they're already being disrupted by ICO’s and of course regulatory things might slow that down. But access to capital is probably at an all time high and people are just looking for different ways to access that capital without having to give up so much in terms of either equity percentage of their company or whatever it be. And so I think VCs are smart enough to realize this and they are going to adapt. But I think there'll be disrupted for sure.
Mark: No, I think so too. I mean, I don't see the opportunity for them going away as much as I do believe that there's some opportunity for improvement in how the interaction occurs and how the influences is absorbed. But taking from those comments, a lot of comments and threads throughout this conversation, like the rapid change of tech, the increased impact on life, the increased impact on how we run our businesses, the potentially huge dramatic move away from, if not away from centralization, certainly in addition to centralization out to the edge and the potential complexity that gives to the average enterprise IT organization. Thinking about that and thinking about what I'm working on with the International Data Center Authority Technical Committee Team, The Infinity Paradigm itself, or what we might call an Application Ecosystem framework. We shared a couple of notes on that framework before the call, what are your thoughts about something like that? Something that gives the average owner of it infrastructure a better model for a viewing and operating and measuring either the effectiveness or the risks about the systems.
Derek: The IT world, the IT landscape, the enterprise IT departments, their complexity will never be simpler than it is today. Meaning tomorrow it's gonna be more complex than it is today and it's going to keep going. And the ability for people to be able to understand the effectiveness, the RTI, the cost is something that there's whole markets that have been created around, nuances around how do we actually kind of figure this out and it's going to keep becoming a more important part of the ecosystem in my opinion. Even in terms of what do you pay and human capital just to monitor systems. Everyone says: “well, you know, power and cooling for on premise resources is probably a large operating expense that we could maybe trade and get better at it, if we go to the cloud”. I would argue it's “what's the human capital and operating expense for running these things”. And I'm not saying that the only answer is moving to the cloud. I'm saying that's one area where I think a lot of people struggle at properly articulating it or accounting for it in terms of cost proposition.
Mark: No, I would agree. There are a lot of different ways that I look at it. One of the reasons why I got interested in the idea in the first place when I was approached by Mehdi Paryavi of IDCA, was just this basic notion of really giving the IT organization something closer to an ownership strategy for their technology use. Right? It's not about whether they can build bigger and badder or whether they have a better data center or whether they have faster networks. But rather a better ownership strategy for their IT as a whole and to some degree, again, a part of the theme that we've been talking about or some of the themes that we've been talking about through this entire conversation around the notion of, it's not about how much you have in one place or whether you did it or somebody else did it, but rather how do you effectively own your capacity to deliver services that are generated from IT. And whether that IT is servers in your data center servers in a Colo, servers in a data center that belongs to a cloud company, whether it's managed, or whether it's delivered via containers or whether it's a distributed app or a legacy ERP APP. There are appropriate ownership protocols in order to be able to deliver that service and those combinations of services to the enterprise that many of us frankly fail at, and the tools we've used in the past like CMDBs and charts on the wall last about as long as it takes to save them and distribute them, at which point they're out of date again. It's a lofty, lofty goal.
Derek: Why I do too, and I think it parallels a lot of ways at least at a high level what the CNCF is trying to do. Maybe not exactly, but CNCF is trying to give a cultivated list of technologies that could be effective in that IT toolbox that I was talking about, I think from at least talking with you and I could have this wrong, IDCA is going to look at, “okay, now that you've curated a bunch of tools and you put them together in some sort of combination, we want to present an Application Ecosystem Framework that can kind of give you feedback on how effective that is at solving a problem you want.
Mark: That's right. Yep. That's exactly right. I mean, at very high level, that's exactly right. And we want to be able to do that from top to bottom, it's not just about an application and it's not a dictate on how to design an application, but rather what to look for and how to build that Application Ecosystem that was the right way for the company that, it's meant to serve so far. So good stuff. We're coming up on 37 or 38 minutes and I wanted to get a little bit more from Derek Collison before we left. And what do you see if you had to pick something that you're most interested in, maybe other than increasing lifespan or..-
Derek: At least in terms of professional or the technology landscape It's A.I. I mean I studied A.I. in school, of course we went into, I think the second A.I. winter right after I got out of school. Luckily as we talked earlier, I got the second best physicist which put me on a different track, but the speed at which we're going, is mind boggling. So even to the listeners, if you want to get a sense of it, Google put a documentary movie together about Alpha Go and what you see is a couple things going on there. You see one, the first competition that they did where they won, but they lost like a game I think, which is part of that documentary. They had never even disclosed that they trained these models in the cloud, that they were running them on TPU’s that they had designed a specialized hardware, but it took up a whole room or so, it was very large and then they came back less than a year later and they trounced the number one player in the world and it was the size of a mini fridge apparently, I'm pretty close. I could be a little bit off, but it was two orders of magnitude smaller hardware footprint. It did everything faster and it just obliterated this guy, right. Then they came out with Alpha Go which had, no pre training whatsoever about how go is played. It goes back and whips the previous three generations of Alpha Go and it can run on two TPUs and those were the slow ones, not the fast ones they just announced today. And so when you look at it, we're looking at lots of data, lots of compute, even if it's specialized like FPGA A6 or keep using for training in the cloud to train these models. But these models are gonna come all the way out to your home to something that you're wearing within probably 2 to 3 years and they'll be able to execute these models instantaneously, zero latency, right for you in terms of speech translation, you know, dictation, all kinds of things. And so for me, I'm watching that and I'm saying: okay, the basic building blocks of the way we believe the brain kind of works. Some of that cutting edge theory isn't even close to what we're doing with deep learning, and so I think what you're going to see is you're going to see a massive proliferation of hardware, specialized hardware devices and chips to execute these models continue, but I think in the next five years you might see someone pop up and go I actually think I figured out the way individual neurons are communicating in a way that my model is going to two fold, two orders of magnitude better than the current deep neural networks that we have now that everyone is watching just get better and better at specialized tasks.
Derek: I think there's a bunch of companies now going all the way to the bottom going, okay, let's figure out this very, very low level simulate neuron, which is a very bad abstraction for the way the brain supposedly actually works. Someone's going to figure this out, a couple it with specialized hardware and we're going to have our eyes open to a world that I think people don't feel they'll see in their lifetime. I really think we're going to see it, you know, within a decade, to be honest with you. I really do.
Mark: Well one last question. Well maybe two last questions. One is, what have you read recently? What's the last book or the best book you read recently that you would suggest to somebody?
Derek: So I buy books a lot. I have not read a book in probably four years, but I have them. So if I ever do retire, I have a lot of books to read. The last book that I actually am reading now is on how to train a puppy because I'm going to get a puppy soon. So that's kind of funny, but I do read lots of research papers, lots of blogs on technology. I read probably two, four hours every single day on stuff like that, but I actually just had never read an actual book and quite a long time, but I buy them all the time. I have them stacked in bookshelves and all waiting for me to have some copious free time.
Mark: Yeah. I'm, I'm sorta similar. I do read still, but I'd probably buy four times as many books as I actually get a chance to read and that doesn't even account for the ones that people like my older brother actually send to me unrequested. So yeah, I've definitely fallen behind. But for your collection, it's actually beginning to change my thinking considerably on the future of work, etc. Look at a book called The Fourth Age.
Derek: You talk about work and what I think people may not realize is that if you zoom way out, the concept that our identity is mostly coupled to what we do for work is actually a very recent thing and it'll actually go away pretty quickly. So there's going to be a very short period of time in human existence where the first question you ask them when you meet is what you do for work and I think that's going to go away. I think A.I. will have a lot to do with that. I think A.I. will totally transform how people learn, not in terms of necessarily formal education, but I do believe that same timeframe as what we do for work also applies to how important universities and colleges are for our population. I really think when we zoom out it'll be, oh, for about 200 years, that was a really big deal that no one cared.
Derek: The reason I feel that that's applicable and again, the people listening might disagree, is about 10% of the population is very motivated. If you give them the tools they will learn and what's great about where we are at the landscape today is there's massive amounts of very high quality tools to learn whatever you want to learn starting from obviously a google search, but MIT has all of their curriculum online, at least for comp science, some of the math stuff. So I think A.I. is going to have a profound effect on, on education. And then of course the automation stuff. I invested in a company called Vicarious, which is trying to use A.I. in a novel way around robotics and automation will allow people to start self identifying with something besides work. I think there's challenges there for sure, even all the way down to the notion of what about, you know, income, do we have a basic income system, what does that look like? ButI actually think it will probably be a good thing, but it'll be a hard transition.
Mark: I would agree. I would agree a lot to see over the next 15 or 20 years for sure. Well, before we wrap up, Derek, where can folks that might be interested in keeping an eye on what you're doing, where can they find you? What's your twitter id or where would they find anything you might have? Your company? Your website?
Derek: So, @derekcollison is my twitter handle, and firstname.lastname@example.org is the best place to reach me. And Nats.io is a website around NATS as a technology, which is kind of the focus that we have right now. As we trying to bring online our global service will probably surface some more details about the company and our mission in this larger ecosystem. But if anyone has questions, uh, I'm usually pretty good at inbox zero, at least, uh, by the end of the day. So feel free to shoot me an email.
Mark: Oh, awesome. Well, I can't thank you enough for joining me today. This has been fabulous. It's been great. I've really enjoyed chatting.
Derek: Mark, I always enjoy our talks and I’m glad we could do it for everyone else to listen in to but we'll have to do a one on one here soon in San Francisco, thank you.
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May 1, 2018
A conversation with Jay Adelson
Jay Adelson is a serial entrepreneur, having built companies such as Equinix, Digg, Revision3, SimpleGeo and Opsmatic. Jay currently serves as co-founder and General Partner of Center Electric, LLC, a venture firm he started with Andy Smith in 2014.
- Episode Transcript
Mark: Hello everyone, I'd like to welcome you to the first podcast of a new series that I'll be doing with “IDCA”. IDCA is International Data Center Authority and we're working on the application ecosystem, otherwise known as the infinity Paradigm ® and as part of that work effort, we've created the technical committee, which I'm the chairman of. Part of attempting to spread the word about what's going on IT and trends technology today, we're hoping to invite industry innovators and visionaries for on a monthly basis to talk about, nuggets of wisdom and what they're seeing in the industry today. And on today's podcast, I'd like to welcome Jay Adelson. Jay has a long history in the technology space and was instrumental in defining and expanding one of the biggest sectors of our industry today. Colocation with Equinix. Jay, would you like to give the audience the long and short of where you've been and what you're doing now?
Jay: My pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me. I've spent pretty much my entire career in the internet infrastructure space, with probably a few little diversions in between for about 25 years or so. Some of my first jobs in tech in the early 90s in silicon valley where we're working for Internet companies that were just getting started before it was really commercially viable. For example, I ran that work operations at a company called Netcom, which was arguably the first free annoying disc you would pick up for free internet connectivity, before even AOL was connected to the Internet early days and I got to know a lot about that world pretty early. The benefit at the time was it was sort of coming on quickly, but there wasn't really anyone else there to receive it as it came. And so we got to learn in real time. So I went to go work for digital equipment and really that is where my journey started, which would lead to Equinix and founding that company began. the short version is that is that I was brought into the network systems laboratory in Palo Alto to work on a project called the Palo Alto Internet exchange. there were a couple-...
Mark: Yeah, I know exactly where that is in downtown.
Jay: Yeah, we were I guess the predecessor or the prototype to Equinix. There was a couple of folks there, Paul Vixie and Steven Stewart who had written a white paper and done a lot of research on whether or not you could build neutral colocation facilities that would serve as the alternative to the historical hubs of Internet traffic which were controlled by telephone companies. And, we tried it out, they brought me in to build it and operate it and make some tweaks to the model. We created the concept of the CNI or the Network Interconnect, which now every data center has, or PNI or whatever you call it. And within a about a year around 1996 to 1997 or so, we took this very inexpensive data center, took us only a few million dollars to build, filled it with, over 20 carriers and networks, realized that there was a huge demand because the internet inflection point had hit and the growth was starting to go at an exponential level and we needed to spend that model out and build something larger.
Jay: And so that's really where Equinix came in. And myself and my co founder Al Avery, we basically quit our jobs at Digital and, you know the rest is history from there. Equinix was great. I did that for five, six years. I then left a Equinix to start a number of other companies. I've actually started close to 14 tech companies, depending on whether or not you count some of the ones that never got funded or never got off the ground. But some of the ones that you might've heard of "Digg" the social news website. I was CEO of that company for quite a while for six years. I also founded a company called Revision3, which was really the first Internet television network. It's now the Discovery Channel’ digital arm.
Jay: We were doing podcasting before it was called podcasting and we had some great shows. if you ever have kids who like to watch the discovery online or discovery news, that's an example of a show that we created. So all of that kind of stuff was fun and that was my first experience building and creating content or having a large consumer oriented business. But my love has always been internet infrastructure and so I went back to companies like "SimpleGEO" and "Opsmatic" and other things that were really around the back end of scaling the Internet. I still have a love of that today.
Mark: Yeah. Well, I mean that's one we share it. It's one of the things that I was disappointed about in a positive sense, if that makes any sense at all. when I first learned that we'd be able to get you on for our first podcast is that here I am, I'm working in the industry that I love so much. I've spent time building my own environments and helping build an organization like Data Center Pulse, etc. And the two of us had never met in person, so I was glad at least we've solved the problem of meeting if not in person. And so that's outstanding. So, you know, storied career, no doubt. And before we get into, you know, more of a little bit of geeking out about what's going on in the industry right now, give the audience something about Jay. When Jay's not trying to figure out how to solve the next big internet problem or figuring out what comes after edge, or how AI might solve edge or something like that.
Mark: What does Jay and the family do on the weekend?
Jay: Well, it's a great question. sometimes I can be a little bit nerdy and I'm not gonna lie, I spent a great deal of time restoring pinball machines, which is probably not a very common pastime, but I just love doing things with my kids. I actually got into that because I have a 20, a 17 and a 15 year old kid and my son and I ( 17), we work on that project together and restoring pinball machines. So I have, I've advised a ton of companIes and so the, the key to sort of keeping things sane is really being able to shut off. And so I spend my weekends in Marin. I live about 15 minutes north of san francisco and my family and I, you know, do, do crazy stuff like, pinball machines and of course, you know, I have a ton of interest still. I actually went to school for film and broadcasting originally. And so I have people who are in the industry and are around videography or in filmmaking, and I still sort of have one toe in the water, so to speak in that world. And I love it.
Mark: That's cool. I mean, it's funny, I was not one of those growing up that knew all the director's names and knew who did the scores and stuff like that. And my daughter is, and it's great when she talks about a movie coming up or something and she can say, oh it's got to be good because Alan Sorkin wrote the script for it, that kind of thing. And I just never paid attention to that stuff before, and it is amazing. I mean, you watch something like West Wing versus a regular TV show these days and the quality of the dialogue, etc. That's fascinating stuff. So I was going to ask you what's your favorIte book is, or what's your most recent book is? But now maybe I'm going to ask what's the last movie you watched or what's your favorite movie?
Jay: I studied that and got a degree in it. I got a little obsessive about art film for awhile and I just been absolute "Stanley Kubrick" fan. I love his movies, they are just absolutely amazing. Although I watched the 2001 with my son not too long ago and he fell asleep watching the movie. You know, but I have my all time favorites. There's just so many. I have a real love of old Westerns, John Ford movies, modern films, I love these new "Star Wars" movies that have been coming out. They've been fantastic. I like everything. I even like Ready Player One.
Mark: Oh wow. I haven't seen that yet.
Jay: and that's a nerdy movie. but I liked the book even more. You know, these are in my opinion, great times for content. It's also, there's just so much of it that you can't possibly absorb it all.
Mark: That's the hard part. I mean whether it's for work or for play, the amount of available information is just staggering. Absolutely. And here we are creating some more indeed. So as I mentioned before, a very storied career, the experience you've built in building startups and helping others certainly founding a company that is now considered sort of a backbone of what the industry's doing relative to data centers and using data centers effectively. I mean because they more so than ever before, even though it grew out of the PAIX, the 'Palo Alto Internet eXchange' more so than ever before. People now are realizing that the data center is much more than just a secure building with lots of power and cooling. And to see how that has continued through companies like Equinix and how that's grown today and how different data centers you've differentiated is pretty amazing. So I imagine you're proud of being able to be a part of that.
Jay: When I see it from the outside, my mind is blown. I mean I remember in the first days when we were imagining what the maximum footprint Equinix could possibly need in order to serve 100 percent of the world's internet traffic. And we were talking maybe 15 to 20 data centers. You know, they have hundreds of them. And back then 15,000 square feet seemed like it'd be plenty.
Mark: now, it's a small room
Jay: now. It's literally the reception area, or the bathroom in a data center.
Mark: The climbing wall at somebody's data center here. That's funny.
Jay: I should've known better because I remember in the "Paolo Alto Exchange" back in 1998, we had a situation where we were running out of space and UUNET who at the time was one of the largest internet service providers wanted to expand their cage. And we took one of the bathrooms and we got rid of all the sinks and the toilets and expanded UUNET into the bathroom. So it's funny, now you're looking back at it, it's probably a bellwether for where we're going. When you start cannibalizing your bathrooms for data center space.
Mark: Well, yeah, I mean as a data center geek, every time I walked into a data center, and not only did they not have containment, but they had hot blowing on cold, right. Those are just some of the more obvious ones. But yeah I've been called back at 2 o'clock in the morning from a vacation camping up in Point Reyes for example, because one of the data center rooms we were using at the company I was at at the time happened to share a circuit with the wall out in the hallway and somebody was puffing the floors and popped the circuit and dropped five of our racks and it's just, those were the days, right?
Jay: And it changed quick, it changed very quickly.
Mark: It absolutely did. So when you think about a data centers and where they're going. I've got an either or kind of opportunity for a question here. What are your thoughts on the data center as a service space, right? In the sense of data centers being much more than just your data center in another place. Right? But more of a true service offering and I think we sort of hinted at that at the beginning of our conversation versus what do you think about the private data center market and what that might look like in five to 10 years. Do you think more people will continue to get out of the data center space? Do you think there'll be some equilibrium that we will reach in another five to 10 years where we'll have a 40, 40, 20 split or something like that? How do you feel about it?
Jay: I was talking to the Equinix people not too long ago and they kept throwing the term Hyperscalers at me and talking about the movement towards these sort of different types of data center products for different types of customers. Right? In 2005, if I built a data center, it really had to serve all the different constituents, whether you're a carrier or a network service provider or fortune 500 or somebody like amazon or google. The sense I'm getting is that we've really changed this market. I know it's not really Tiering because they're all very high quality products across all the different players out there. When you'll build a very specific type of data center for a player who has no intent of any other sub tendency where they're going to have one big space designed to maximize the CPU or "nets per square" foot and get great power efficiencies versus data centers that will never have a single type of one of those giant customers in there. There'll be lots of smaller cages. I guess from a philosophical standpoint, I believe that there should be fewer consumers of data center space. If it's not your core competency, if the product you sell, if the business you're in is not racking and stacking machines, it strikes me that you probably shouldn't need to visit a data center. Your developers should be able to do everything from the comfort of their office instead of putting out a parka and standing underneath the air handler and some data center in a cornfield someplace. I thought that was going to happen when people started moving their applications to the cloud. I thought that was going to happen much faster. And I totally understand that there are challenges around latency and proximity and security that they interfere. But I do believe that there are more data center service providers who are stepping into those markets anywhere on the spectrum from edge to core and it becomes less and less valuable for an enterprise to control their own controller and real estate.
Mark: I would largely agree with that. I don't know if the caveat to, as more of a way to get to what does that exactly mean? And from my perspective, it's pretty straightforward. I see it as, if the data center isn't really your business, and when I say it's your business, that means that you don't, once every five years identify four or five people on your team who have otherwise been doing their day to day work and say, go figure out how to build us another data center. You instead have a team that is consistently looking at where do we get power from? How do we build these most efficiently? Who do we partner with? How do these fit into the long term growth of our company? How do they fit into our desire to acquire other businesses or potentially divest businesses, etc. And if you're not looking at it that way, if you're not looking at it the way that professionals have to look at building and owning and operating data centers, it seems like that should be telling enough that it's not the business that you should be in.
Jay: That's absolutely true. Perhaps this was a little naive or maybe a little too early, I remember in the early discussions at Equinix saying to the folks who are building out these products. What are the common tasks that every one of our customers do and if we can find things that everybody is doing and then offer those as services, whether they be automated or manual, it seems to me that it's a logical direction to go as a data center company to provide those kinds of common services across. I think that in 1998 that might've been power and air conditioning, reliability or security. I think in today though with automated provisioning, SDN, other kinds of really beautiful ways to automate the rolling out of services, it seems like there's way more opportunity to go. I’d hesitate to use vertical, but basically to reduce the headache and the truck rolls for customers. There's lots of places to go there.
Mark: Yeah, totally agree. Again, to expand a little bit on what you're saying, it's things like megaport or direct connects to cloud providers or being able to share within a community of other companies that you're a part of, say from the financial industry or something like that. These are things that you can't easily do in your own private data center. Even if you own hundreds of thousands of square feet. It's just not something that's economically viable as a private data center owner. I think you just have to figure out the right ways to leverage those things. If you've got 200 megawatts worth of company proprietary stuff and you've decided to make it your profession to deliver that, then maybe it's the right answer. But for the average company, owning a data center, and I wrote about this five or six years ago, owning a data center is like trying to write a 15 year business plan and who can do that, right?
Jay: Exactly. And by the way, it's sometimes more fun to focus on your core competency and having to deal with those things. It's a quality of life issue.
Mark: Exactly. So I guess this is sort of related, but I want to ask you a question. Against what we talked about a little bit as we were preparing for doing this podcast and it's specifically about IDCA. We talked a little bit about what the framework is trying to accomplish. For the audience and as a reminder for you, the idea is to look at the technology that customer zone as an application ecosystem rather than looking at it as infrastructure or data centers and being specific about how to build or manage for them, rather it's how do you own the entire stack from site selection to application output for your customers to where data is and to how you do processes. Do you see that kind of framework as being something that's more important in today's world of rapid changes and the potential need to be able really quickly evaluate whether or not you're building what your company actually needs versus what you thought they needed five years ago Etc. Etc. Do you see that as more important today than it was 20 years ago?
Jay: Well, I do. Actually maybe a better way of putting it is, it was more important 20 years ago, but we couldn't get it. I remember back at the Network Systems lab, again dating myself back to Digital when, my bosses wanted me to go through the ISO certifications for offering data center services and it just was a square peg round hole problem trying to get those kinds of things done. And part of the reason why that stuff existed was because you wanted to be able to rapidly certify that when you're talking to your shareholders or your constituents or your customers that you are delivering a product that meets a certain standard and that frankly there's knowledge transfer, so that if at a later point there needs to be other people involved in this product or this infrastructure, there are certain expectations that you would have based on the fact that it was based on some kind of industry standard or I don't know how else to put it.
Jay: So yeah, I do think it's important. It's more important as people outsource these capabilities to others in the supply chain. It has to be consumable by someone who's not a data center engineer. So you have to create versions, sort of explaining each component for different audiences, which is hard work. We tried and failed inside of Equinix years ago to try and do things like that, you know, because we kept getting handed these requirements and so we would put our arms around some other industry standard so that we could try and use that to communicate. You know the classic example would be like in security, SAS 70 requirements. You know, I don't remember like the financial industry after 911 and where people were moving their infrastructure into our northeastern data center facilities, they wanted us to be compliant to something, they didn't care what, they just wanted to understand it. So when they talk to their bosses they could say, hey, this SAS 70 requirement or what have you. But I think it's similar. I think that it's just a little bit more since we're even more abstracted from the service delivery, I think that it needs to be pretty broad. and yeah, it's a lot of work. It's very valuable if you can do it.
Mark: Well it's funny, from my own experience, when Mehdi the president and founder of IDCA contacted me and asked me about working with the Technical Committee. One of the questions he asked me was what do you see as one of the problems in the industry? At the time I was thinking, well, it's the International Data Center Authority that called me. so I'm thinking data center. And so I thought about the data center and I said I can think of 100 really quickly, like we don't need raised floors anymore and we should have containment and we shouldn't push air up from underneath anymore. We should draw air from above and we should use outside air, etc, etc, etc. And all those things. But I said, if I had to pick really one thing, I'd say it's a better ability for the people that own and operate a data center to actually own the entire system. To be able to represent it effectively, to be able to, when they need to build more or buy more or use more cloud to be able to use a common set of practices for figuring out the right way to do that and where to go and how to capture the appropriate information about their company versus you know what it is they're trying to build. And he said, well, effectively, that's what we're trying to do. Only we're trying to do it for the whole stack. And I said, sold, right? I will still admit to anyone that's listening that I think it's a lofty goal, if we can get even 75% of the way done, I think it'll be well worth it because as you pointed out, I don't think outsourcing makes it easier, to own what you own. I think it's just the opposite when you don't have it under your care, when you can't talk to the Mark Thiele or the Jay Adelson in the hallway everyday about how things are going, you're actually putting yourself at more risk and anything you were doing wrong before it gets exacerbated. So I think it seems more important.
Jay: If you're a CIO or CTO and you're looking into moving your applications online or even to private or hybrid cloud or, or whatever, and you're going through that process and maybe maybe this is your first time you've gone through that process, but maybe you're a veteran. Part of the problem is that when you're abstracting, it's hard to know what you're buying. When I was a customer of data center services when I was operating Digg, it was funny, so here I was now finally a consumer of these services and somebody told me that it was being served out of Amazon eastern or some other cloud location. I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know what that looked like, I didn't know what the the standard unit look like from the entire delivery for the application all the way to the physical part. It was completely abstracted from me and so it was very hard for me to feel confident about it. The flip side is I didn't really have any choices anyway. There was only a couple of data center solutions and architectures right now, particularly post containerization. There's Just an absurd number of ways that you can combine all of these technologies together in the stack and you have to have some kind of set practices that you can point to. It is, it is lofty but valuable.
Mark: Thank you. Yeah, I couldn't agree more. So one more question that hints at IDCA as well, but really touches on a broader subject that seems like almost everybody that I talked to in the industry, especially the data center industry is worried about is that is the ability to get new talent and especially to get new talent that includes the appropriate and from my perspective actually beneficial diversity. And what do you think about programs like IDCA from a training and industry involvement standpoint and their value in the industry today to try to get more talent available and the right kind of talent, frankly, available to everyone that's trying to build out their IT environments or build out their data center environments.
Jay: Well, I love the idea of being able know, like when you say data center talent, there's so many different roles along the stack, and I would really like to understand when I look at a resume, what they know, I guess the analogy would be, you know, the Cisco certifications of the nineties, right? And how we wanted to understand what a network engineer could do. Cisco provided this, this sort of nomenclature for different types of certifications and there never really was that for other elements of the delivery. You know, whether it was physical operations or whether it was, you know, the application layer security and I mean there are but there was nothing so standard that I would see it on a resume. So that would be helpful. Uh, certainly some kind of training and then certification associated with it. I just don't know where I would start.
Jay: And the physical side or would you start on the application layer or...
Mark: I think as you described, I think all of it is required. Well unfortunately I have not gone through all of IDCA’s training. I think from a simple kind of external perspective relative to data center training, having an understanding of what the system of the data center is along with a deeper skill in an area of opportunity, whether how air conditioning works or how cooling works or how to manage a successful and safe and secure operations on the data center floor. There are a lot of kind of either obvious when somebody has already wrItten them down, but they're not obvious for those people who haven't thought about them a thousand times. Things like having a five minute training lesson for anyone who's going to come and work on your data center floor for the first time even if they're a contractor, rIght? Having them understand what they can and can't touch, what they can plug and unplug. Who they have to talk to before they can ask for or make a change. Things like that. Those are just little things. But from an operations standpoint, we can build the biggest, baddest, Tier 4 data center on the planet if we want to, but if we don't have good operational understanding of how to operate it on a daily basis, then it's a waste of a good iron and cement.
Jay: I agree. They're also just needs- we need to bring back the notion of apprenticeship into this industry. I feel like we're talking about talent and limitations and lack of access, you can create all the training in the world you want. But what would be incredibly practical is to be able to provide solutions that ultimately result in a certification, that are more In the apprenticeship or mentorship model. as opposed to say go sItting in a classroom offsite someplace and taking notes and taking a test, from some combination of the two. I remember in the 1990s and the 2000s and even more recently how much more effective my talent pool was that started in other jobs and then apprenticed into their new role up and down the stack. Hopefully I'll just put a plug out there, bring that back.
Mark: I think it's a great approach and in fact I know that from the IDCA guys, a lot of times they actually do training on site with folks in their own environment. I don't think it can get much better than that, if I could pull a nugget out of what you just said assuming I wasn't reading too much into it. I totally agree that the opportunity to expand someone's ability to contribute is not just to get them to become the best air conditioning specialists in the world, but rather it's for them to understand how not only their air conditioning works, but how it fits into the larger environment. And so that the training you talked about, whether it's knowing a little bit of code or having worked on helping some teams build server environments on the data center floor or some combination of the above are things I think can really help drive a larger team to be more successful even if only being more successful in how they communicate with each other. Right?
Jay: Totally. I mean, the best talent were all the people who can answer the question why. When you blindly architected some element of your facility based on some ancient standard, that's what you tended to do when you were - we used to joke that when we first had IBM as a customer at Equinix, they sent the people that invented electricity to evaluate their first product and they were just so used to data center, the same sort of data center model that existed for 20 or 30 years. And so to continue to innovate, you absolutely have to be able to answer the question why. Why do we believe - back to your air conditioning example - why do we care how cold it is and, and let's constantly readdress that question and ask that question again so that as the technologies change and the talent pool changes too that we're doing the right things.
Mark: Excellent. Excellent points. And I couldn't agree more so I've kept you for quite a while already. and I appreciate the time. Thank you very much. As we wrap up, one more shot at Jay, five years from now, are you still going to be fixing pinball machines on the weekend and starting or managing new companies, or are you going to be playIng golf?
Jay: I could guarantee I won't be playing golf. I played that game twice. My goal honestly over the next three, four or five years is to find excellent teams that, that need me on at a strategic level. I love serving on boards and I'm always looking for really good organizations that really could benefit from my experience. That gets me, that keeps me frosty, it keeps me in the business enough to sort of see what's going on. But yeah, and then also doing a pinball machine or two on the side.
Mark: Yeah. Sounds good. One of these days I'm going to have to find a way to share a drink and play on one of your pinball machines. I am not a pinball wizard, but I do enjoy the game.
Jay: Yeah. You don't have to be good at it to really enjoy it. That's what's really great about it.
Mark: Especially when you don't have to keep dropping quarters into it. Well with that, to the audience, please join us next time where we're going to have a Derek Collison of Initially Cloud Foundry and most recently Apcera and now he has his own startup that I'll let him talk more about, on the cast. And lastly, if you'd like to nominate a guest for our podcast, email us at email@example.com. Thank you very much to Jay and thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.
Jay: Thank you so much for having me.
Mark: Thanks Jay. Take care.
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