How I Got Here: John Janakiraman, CTO, Skytap
This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
From his hometown in Chennai, India, to school in the remote deserts of Rajasthan, to fast-paced sunny California, John Janakiraman has had a chance to see and experience some dramatically different landscapes and cultures first-hand over the course of his own career path. The biggest difference between attending school at the edge of the inhospitable Great Indian Desert, and Los Angeles, wasn't the culture, the available technology, or even the languages, though, John says the biggest difference was the food!
John has enjoyed a fast-paced career from the very beginning, and understands well that establishing industry connections over time is critical to success. John keeps very busy today as CTO of Skytap, but still finds time to occasionally play a traditional musical instrument called a veena.
When you were growing up, did you have any interest in computers at all?
I grew up in South India and did all my schooling in Chennai. The society there places a lot of emphasis on education and you can see that by the number of colleges there. With the large population, there is a lot of competition in advancing ones education and career. I was thankfully good at and enjoyed academics, particularly math and science, which made for a pleasant life schooling in that environment. One goes through a number of examinations and competitions in that environment (one I am particularly proud of is winning a city-wide high-school level mathematics Olympiad) and through those experiences I learned that I was good at problem solving. That in the end influenced my decision to pursue an engineering-oriented career rather than a medical career or such.
I know a lot of times in India, your career choice is determined by your community and your family. Was your choice to go into engineering rather than into business, an easy decision?
No, my family was actually pretty supportive. If I had said I wanted to go into business, I don't know what my family would have said at that time. But what I was looking to do matched well with what my family wanted me to do, so there wasn't a whole lot of controversy. Over the years, I know that my family has seen how people have been successful with a business career as well, and I can see that those mindsets are changing.
You were accepted into BITS Pilani, correct?
After high school, I joined BITS Pilani, one of India’s top engineering schools, to study electrical engineering. It was my first experience living away from home. Pilani is actually on the border of India and Pakistan, in the state of Rajasthan, right in the middle of the desert, but it's a great school. I studied and lived with a diverse group of people from all over India. I could get by in the native language there but was not proficient which made for interesting stories – the guy who delivered milk wanted me to know the language better and would try to teach me new words when he dropped off the milk! I really had no direct experience with computers until that point but all that changed when I got an HP 41C calculator as a going-to-college gift. That was an eye-opener to me (akin to what an iPhone was when it came out) and I wasted no time in writing programs that maxed out its capabilities. This got me really interested in computer science. At the end of my first year I was at the top of the class and therefore the college allowed me to enroll to get an additional degree in computer science. This combined background in electrical engineering and computer science has been a joy and strength for me ever since. It has allowed me to straddle areas in computer hardware and computer software effectively in every stage of my career so far.
After BITS Pilani, you went to UCLA. Was the biggest transition in your life going from your hometown in Chennai to the middle of the Rajasthan desert, or going from India to the US?
The biggest transition at the time was being so far away from home. I was amazed by the parking structure. I was surprised to see these big buildings where all that was inside was cars. I was surprised by that. Food was a big challenge to me. I'm a vegetarian, not too many people understood what that meant. People assumed it just meant I didn't eat beef. These are personal transitions you have to go through, but thankfully there are many people that come from India.
What was your first job right out of college?
I joined graduate school at UCLA to obtain a doctorate in Computer Science. My first job during that time was a summer internship at Rational in Santa Clara. Rational at that time was in the business of building software and hardware. They built sophisticated compilers for ADA and they built a custom computer R1000 for running ADA programs. I joined a team that was building a 32 Megabyte memory board (it's hard to even find even a single memory chip with that small memory today!). My job was to help design and program a small computer subsystem within the memory board itself which would perform diagnostic functions. I implemented the diagnostic system hardware, developed a simple programming language and compiler for it, developed diagnostic experiments in the language and to top it off I tested production memory boards using the system I had built. Getting to build a small but complete computer system and getting end-to-end experience in a real industrial use for it is a memorable point in my career. As I continued to doctoral studies and research, it reaffirmed my interest in solving problems that had tangible real world applications.
What is the most unusual job you ever had?
During my doctoral studies at UCLA, I also worked for some time at the UCLA Medical School. I was developing software for their picture archival and communications system. This was a live system that the hospital used to digitize patient medical scans (MRI etc.), store them and have them available for review at radiologist stations. It was an interesting first-time experience for me to be closely embedded with the user’s environment. I would take turns with the nurses and radiologists in taking scans using sophisticated medical equipment (without the patient of course!) to generate test images. I would take turns with the radiologists and doctors in pulling scans to the display workstations – they would be looking for medical artifacts while I was looking for computer artifacts. Along the way, I learned about the challenges of varying data formats and how to structure software to better cope with them. I also learned of sophisticated techniques that medical imaging providers were developing to better assist doctors in their diagnosis – it removed any doubts (if I had any) that there was an unending set of problems that computing could be applied to better the lives of people.
When did information technology come into the picture for you?
Information technology as in the application of computing to solve business problems came into the picture during my undergraduate years through a couple of internships. One of those was with an Indian government organization that was creating a national network to acquire agricultural and other data from districts across the country. At that stage of my career, it gave me valuable exposure to the application and adoption of IT in a large, far-flung organization.
Tell me about Skytap, what kind of company is that?
We're a relatively small startup in Seattle. We got founded over three years ago by faculty members from the University of Washington. Its primary mission is to enable cloud computing solutions for ISVs and enterprises. What our product does is enable virtual IT teams for in the cloud, and provides solutions for automating those IT environments. When an ISV or enterprise can do is create these virtual IT environments in the Skytap cloud, then they can automate the use of those environments for a number of pre-production use cases. Maybe they're doing application development testing, so they have multiple people working across multiple machines and collaborating on that. Maybe they are an ISVB and they want to train people on a complex multi-tier application platform, and they want an IT environment for people to collaborate on, so they require customized IT environments on the fly that are accessible to a number of users across the globe so they can work in a collaborative fashion. We make all that effortless and easy and make it available on a pay per use basis.
How did you first become acquainted with Skytap?
I had been in HP Labs, so I had a lot of connections with the computer science research community, and I happened to see that some people I knew had founded a company. I was intrigued, and it was in cloud computing, which was technology that I had a very good foundation on. I ended up talking to them about what they were doing and then that's really how I ended up coming over to Seattle and to Skytap.
Did you start out as CTO right away?
I did start out as CTO. There was a VP of Engineering who was helping lead the development of the product itself, and at that time I focused on the technology direction, and getting in front of early-stage customers and helping them address some of the concerns about security and the cloud. One thing we were doing at that point is, we were running on Zen, one of the hypervisors that is available as an open source alternative. We saw a lot of opportunity to being able to run on a VMware-based hypervisor, so one of the first things I did as CTO was to redirect our product to a VMware-based platform, and that helped us to be very successful, because a lot of our customers run VMware. It helped us simplify the process by which customers can take their existing environments and move them into the Skytap cloud, and take it back as they need to. That was my primary and only role as CTO for the first couple months. Right around the early part of 2008 I also took on the role of VP of Engineering, so I held these two roles together for about two years and during that time I built out the engineering team and the operations team. We came out with our first VMware based product, and our first public release of the product, in April 2008. Now, I'm the CTO and Chief Architect, and our focus is being able to scale a business, and scaling the team and the technology.
What is your favorite part of working at Skytap?
The part I cherish most is understanding first the customers' way of doing something today, because they're not used to using the cloud. They're doing something today and figuring out how that can be better done in a cloud model, and conceiving that the solution doesn't exist, so they have to conceive it and lay it on top of what we have today. Being able to connect their existing case to a new solution that can lay on our cloud platform, and being able to conceptualize and conceive all of those things and build a plan for delivering that as seamlessly as possible. That chain is what I get excited most by.
Is there a least favorite part of the job too?
I was responsible, especially when I was CTO and VP of Engineering, for all the technology, which included IT. So if the wireless didn't work, if your email wasn't working, as a start-up you've got to run all of those things.