July 07, 2010, 9:37 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Expectations were high from the very beginning for Venkat Rangan, who was fortunate to get through a competitive exam for the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, and later, to pursue a Master's program at University of Miami. This was back in the days when computers still used punchcards, and computer science degrees were hard to find. Initially moving to computer programming because the air conditioning in the computer center provided welcome relief from the stifling heat, he quickly found that he had a natural ability for programming.
Venkat found success right out of the gate with some high-profile dotcom companies, and says that maintaining good connections with people throughout your career is the key to continuing advancement. Through the years, he's seen it all and from two countries -- and has gained some fascinating insights into advancing up the career ladder, creating an entrepreneurial company, and being an early pioneer in developing software solutions for electronic discovery.
You got your undergrad degree at Indian Institute of Technology, that's one of the most prestigious schools in India.
Yes, it is very highly sought after. When I joined, it was even more exclusive. There were only five institutions then.
Did you know from early on that you would go into technology and computer science?
Not really. In the early part of my career, I did not have any idea or any real interest. Back in school in India, the two things that parents want you to do is either get into an engineering college, or get into a medical school.
So out of those two, you picked engineering?
Yes, I did try for both, and I happened to get into IT, so the choice was made for me. It's a very competitive exam. Each year they picked 2,000 students out of close to a million applicants. I was very fortunate to be able to get through that.
What was it like in college at IIT, any good college stories?
In India, the main thing that gravitated me to computer programming and computer science, was the computer center. In those days we would use punchcards and the IBM 360. For me, it met a very basic need. I come from a very poor family, so we didn't have air conditioning, but the data center had air conditioning throughout the day. I would go there and stay forever.
After IIT, you went to University of Miami for your Master's, that must have been a really big change.
Yes, the change was actually also a change in discipline. I switched from a Mechanical Engineering degree to a Computer Science degree. Computer science in those days, almost 30 years back, was not offered by too many schools as a four year degree.
How different is it, going to college in India and then going to Miami? Just culturally, the difference seems striking.
Yes, the initial exposure to the different culture is very striking, but one thing that helped the transition was that there were a number of other graduates doing the same thing. As soon as we landed, we gained a lot of previous undergraduate school relationships, and grew as a community within the community.
After you received your Master's degree, what was your first job right out of the gate?
I joined a small startup company of about 20 people, called Proximity Technology, and we built an OEM software library for word processors to enable spell checking and spelling corrections. Back then, there were at least 20 software companies with word processing packages, but very few of them had the linguistic knowledge to actually build a spelling dictionary and spell checking software. Proximity Technology could build and sell these to word processing product companies. It was a fun experience being able to work with these bright people, seeing the work getting sold. It was a very good experience.
After Proximity, I was at Wang Labs back when minicomputers were taking off, and I was there almost four years. Then, I had a chance to put together a startup company called Metrix Network Systems with a couple of other people, we grew that company to about 50 people, then it got acquired by HP, and I was at HP for another three years. We were doing software for Ethernet LAN management. We were lucky to be able to ride the wave of local area networking, and sold the software to a company called Synoptics. One of the principals at Synoptics was a product manager named Jim Goetz, and he was very impressed with our software. We struck an OEM deal to take the Metrix Network Systems product for LAN management, and bundle it with Synoptics' network management software. The connection to Jim Goetz is very central, because when Jim left Synoptics, he started Vital Signs Software, and he brought me over as another principal at Vital Signs. Before that, I had left HP and was at Microsoft for a couple of years, and that's when Jim also left Synoptics and somehow remembered me from the past, and twisted my arm to leave Microsoft and join him in the Vital Signs startup he was putting together.
Networking and having good connections to people you've worked with in the past -- that seems to be key to your advancement.
That's very true.
Then how did you come to be involved with Clearwell Systems?
There was quite a bit of software knowledge and experience I had gathered over time from all these different other startups. After Vital Signs, I had another startup stint with Rhapsody Networks, which was a storage virtualization company, and again the Jim Goetz connection was important there. Jim had joined a VC firm at that point, and was putting together a storage startup. I got connected with the founder of Vital Signs and Rhapsody Networks, and that was four years where I was focused on managing storage virtualization and storage management. At that point, what was apparent was that enterprises were investing a lot on infrastructure technology, so we recognized that there was a lot of enterprise data. Enterprises were producing a lot of data for their storage systems, and Clearwell Technology came about because we wanted to marry the storage technology and the messaging technology while solving a critical problem. That problem was also evident on the Internet, in the sense that the amount of content on the Internet was growing astronomically. Google had established itself as the best search engine, and the concept of a search engine that allows you to find the most relevant information was getting very popular, at least on the Internet side of things.
And you saw an opportunity to expand on that?
There was no parallel within corporations. The way the Internet worked, was not working for information retrieval within the enterprise. The idea for Clearwell was slightly different from where we are today. We had put together a knowledge management solution for corporations. We wanted to replicate what Google was doing for the Internet, and we wanted to replicate that within the enterprise, where people don't publish using HTML. They don't go through the same rigorous process of building a web site. The parallel we were able to latch onto within enterprises, was what exactly are people using to publish? And, when people publish, how do you assess the value for that content within the enterprise? On the Internet, content gets valued by the number of other people that transfer to it, and that becomes your page rank. We were trying to look for a parallel for the enterprise, because we needed to have something like that to make knowledge management work effectively. The parallel we realized was emails, although people don't think of email as a publishing medium. People were engaging in intelligent conversations with their colleagues, they exchange information, they ask for information.
Sure. In the world of electronic discovery, especially when you're talking about compliance with various legislation, you must retain all sorts of different documents, besides standard HTML. You retain emails, and even chat threads and virtually everything else that's created.
That's right. So he devised a corresponding thing called email rank, and figured out how to value content and knowledge management solutions for enterprises.
Were there very many people doing electronic discovery at the time?
Electronic discovery is a fairly old activity, it's been there for maybe twenty years now. But people were not using solutions that were designed for electronic discovery. What people would do was copy all the content, and use whatever point solutions they had and sometimes even loading emails into Outlook. Sometimes they would convert all content into tiff images or PDF files and print them out. That used to be called electronic discovery. What we pioneered was streamlining the whole process, and creating a software application and platform that allows large groups of attorneys and investigators to go through electronic review. We streamlined the process of electronic discovery, and we were able to realize value because of the efficiencies we brought to the whole process of electronic discovery.
Now as CTO of Clearwell Systems, what is your favorite part of the job?
Being the founder and starting from scratch. The nature of the work keeps changing. The business and product teams, they are all smart, dedicated people. The part I enjoy most is working with them daily to solve both customer problems and company problems, and quickly being able to see my ideas come to reality -- with a lot of immediately and very little debate or unnecessary cycles.
Being co-founder of a company is quite a bit different from joining an existing company, even a startup. How would you characterize the difference between those two paths?
I have done both. I have also joined large companies like HP and Microsoft. I would always take the opportunity to start something, and work with it right from the beginning. You are exposed to more learning opportunities, and you're constantly pushing the boundaries of what you are capable of.
What's your biggest challenge with being at Clearwell?
I have to think about that one, since the challenge keeps shifting. Right now, maybe the challenge we face is what you might call a classic innovative dilemma. We are a one-product company, and we have had success at a departmental-level solution. But what tends to happen is, as you become successful with that department-level product, you generate profit, and the right thing to do is invest back into the product and make it bigger. The second part is to invent a new department-level product, but it's hard to come up with another successful department-level product when you already have one department-level product. So you continue to invest in the existing product, add more features, make it do more things. Now the product becomes bigger, and it's not a department-level product any more. It becomes an enterprise product, and it becomes an enterprise selling situation. You have to convince an entire enterprise to go with your solution, where previously you were just doing that with a single department. The way you sell your solution is dramatically different between a department-level sale, and an enterprise sale. I would say that is the biggest challenge now and probably over the next year.
What's next in store for you?
One experience I've not had is being with a company going through this phase, and staying independent. All my previous startups got acquired and became part of a bigger company. Here, it seems like we have a good opportunity to build something of lasting value, and to be big enough to stay independent. We've been profitable for the last six quarters, and now there is an opportunity to see us mature into a big, independent company.
You've been able to work yourself into a position of being co-founder of what has become a very successful growing company. What advice would you have for somebody else that wants not only to get into the information technology business, but wants to be in the position of founding or co-founding their own startup company?
I'm not sure I'm all that qualified to give advice. For anyone to have a successful operation, you have to have a very strong team. Being able to make good people relationships, good people contacts, and working your way through solving problems that are important. Obviously there is a lot of continued effort you need to put in. Basically, there are three things: Building a product that offers real value, being able to market the product, and having a team that can make it happen.