As part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Kerzner, Scaia AI.
A stellar mathematician almost from birth, Mark Kerzner has dedicated most of his life to teaching his craft to others. As time progressed, those pursuits led him into the fields of software development, cybersecurity, and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
In addition to recently starting a new AI company, Scaia AI, Mark is a software developer and a thought leader in cybersecurity training. He recently added a cybersecurity training roadmap to his training company offering. His company, Elephant Scale, has been doing high-tech training for the last eight years, and the attached roadmap solves the major hurdle in raising security posture for many companies. His approach has been highly successful, as evidenced by recent training engagements. Mark also authored a patent on his unique approach.
With Scaia AI, Mark’s groundbreaking software not only reads data, but it breaks through the density of unstructured data to understand meaning and concepts. By training AI to understand the new subject matter, we open doors to new knowledge and find answers to critical problems.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, one of the most cultural places on earth. The city is built as a museum — just look at its pictures. I moved to America in 1979. I came to Houston and I stayed there. Whenever I would try to go somewhere else, like New York or Paris, I would always come back to Houston. It never worked for me anywhere else. I went to college in St. Petersburg, Russia at St. Petersburg University. I was studying math while there. In parallel, I got a Masters in Computer Science.
I came to America to work at a company that was called Dresser Industries, and I thought that was a funny name because that implies wardrobe. So I once found an ad, “Dresser for sale, $50,” and showed it to a colleague. He did not appreciate the joke. But Solomon Dresser was the name of an inventor who started the company. I was a researcher, and I even got the gold award that was the highest award there. It was a very long time ago, but that was the first job that I had upon coming to America. It was an oil services company back then, and I even got some patents. But then I changed to software and AI. Well, I was a programmer from the start, but now it’s all about AI. That was eight years ago, about 2012 that I switched over to AI fully.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In my case, I was a mathematician, kind of from birth, so it made sense when I heard about machine learning. By then, I was already teaching all kinds of high tech and big data. I had published my first AI paper in 1984, and it was using optimization. To be with the times, you had to change the term “iteration step” to “learning step,” but the rest was the same.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I went to Israel as part of an assignment that I was teaching at Cisco, and they had a very big presence, and that was my first foray into machine learning and I was part of an analysis. So, what I got is a little bit of a negative review, and they said, ‘Well, you know, not everything was perfect!’ But I turned it around. But I said to myself, ‘They are saying that they want more. They’re saying that it wasn’t perfect — not because it was bad, but because it wasn’t enough.’ They wanted more from me and amazingly enough, they bought that story from me. So, I wrote a completely new AI and machine learning course. And that’s where it all started for me for the last three to four years, only teaching machine learning and AI. That’s the majority of my work now.
I was always so busy teaching and traveling that I wasn’t completely prepared every time that I needed to be. Maybe I shouldn’t share that, but I think that I can share it now in this instance. I hadn’t finished this book that I was supposed to be teaching about all the way to the end, so I did not know about how it worked inside but I made a guess. Well, my students caught me and they said, ‘That’s not exactly right!’ They were nice and polite about it and they let me finish. Then, that night I finished the book and I had to go back and do something that I hate doing — I came back the next day and said, ‘What I meant to say was …’ Well, that wasn’t the nice thing to do and what I should have said was, ‘I made a mistake.’ That’s the better way to approach it and learn from it because everybody makes mistakes. That’s how to become great — be humiliated by your mistakes. This time, I couldn’t just acknowledge my mistake — not because of the shame, but because of the damage that it might have done to the company. I knew that I had made a mistake, but I didn’t acknowledge it at first. But, eventually, I learned my lesson and I hope I was better from that moment.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My other interest, in addition to AI technology, is security. So, there is a guy in that field who is absolutely great and his name is Jeremiah Grossman. So, he came to Houston, and I have a rule — go and meet the people you admire and people you are inspired by. That’s a great rule of mine and I just feel like you should always go and meet those types of people in person. That type of incident will teach you more than just reading about them.
Jeremiah was talking about how he was hacking Yahoo and how he was invited to be their chief security officer. He was doing a show live about how he was hacking different sites and he was very impressive. I took my son with me and he became a security professional.
So as far as I’m concerned, that had a big effect on me. What he taught me was to be yourself, relax, and don’t build stuff up. Just tell your story. If a great person like that has an effect on you, it will last. I’m still interested in security and learning all about it. And we stayed in touch and became friends afterward. He has always been very supportive of me and it’s been great to have mentors like that in my life.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Almost every company today is a very distributed company. In my case, I’m working with people all over the world, nonstop. And I think that’s important because that’s the world we live in today. Everybody is part of this great big family that is our world.
Another thing is competition. When COVID started and all switched to remote, at first, I was nervous because I thought, ‘Now the competition is not local but global.” But was not true at all. People are always friendly and cooperative. There is enough in the world, and everyone has a place.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I work with a lot of people — a lot of trainers and a lot of programmers — and I’m very transparent with them and I tell them all of the rates upfront. I let them know that I am charging this much for you and you will get, let’s say, 85% or 75% of that.
Things always leak out, eventually, and those guys will see if I’m taking 40% away from what they made, they will get upset. Somebody will absolutely know what I am doing. But because I am transparent from the very beginning, then they are never surprised.
Some say, ‘Mark, I trust you completely. I’ll go and teach and later on you can tell me how much you have charged. I know that you will pay me the max that you can pay me and I can rely on you.’
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Many different people want to be a leader, and they want to lead the company. And that’s because they know how to do what they do. For example, let’s say one is a hairstylist. So he likes his profession and he is good at it and he wants to be a leader. But what he doesn’t realize is that he’s in a business completely different than just doing the hair. He needs to know to account: if he wants to make money he needs to know to count it. He needs to deal with people! Running a business is 100% different than just excelling at that particular profession.
Some of the most standard advice that you will find in any book that you read is this: don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to yourself.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That’s an interesting question. So all CEOs usually fly on their own airplanes, right? Or in a fancy helicopter. You should see my car… People assume that all CEOs are just super-rich. When Goggle was just starting out and had gone public, Larry Page would have the company plane and they would just fly to where they had the problems. So, once they were flying one way, and then suddenly they had a problem in England and they had the pilot turn around and fly the opposite way. I thought that was a very funny story, but that’s not real life. That might be a really good story, but that’s not how things are really done.
Another funny story is about when Bill Gates was first getting started he wasn’t 25 yet, so he could never get a rental car and he always had to use a taxi. Again, that was a funny story and a very nice story, but it probably was not right.
I hear lots of stories about CEOs. I teach at Walmart and when you go to Walmart, they are always telling you stories about Sam Walton. So, in one of those stories, Sam Walton comes in and he says, ‘Look, this guy just lost us $10 million on a mistake.’ And someone else asks, ‘So, you’re firing him?’ And the Walton son says, `No way. He’s already lost that money and he got a lesson worth $10 million; you don’t just throw that lesson out the window.’
Those are just some nice stories about CEOs. Those CEOs’ stories, are apocryphal. Almost any story could happen to someone else. But you can still learn from them.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I work with programmers because I can not do everything myself. I’d love to, but I just can’t do everything myself. So, the hardest problem is always trying to cajole them into doing what I ask them to do. Sometimes even with a really good programmer, he’ll do something the way that he likes to do it instead of the way I have asked him to do it. So that to me is the hardest part of being a leader sometimes. How do you make him feel excited and still really interested while leading him in the direction that you want him to go in?
Presumably, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I read about all these successful executives, and I always try to figure out what they have in common. I’m gonna say one important thing is learning how to raise money. People should be prepared that if that’s what you want and need to be successful, you are going to have to raise money to start your company or expand it. Most likely, for much of your life, you’ll be working two times more than the regular person. So, no buying nice things for you while you are trying to raise money and make it the first time.
Every trait, good or bad, has a place with a successful executive. You might think that maybe he shouldn’t be so meticulous or so stingy, but the Walton s were notoriously very stingy with their money.
When you think of every trait and feature that you have as a leader, it has a place in your job. If you use all of those traits wisely, they can only help you and not hurt you. so, don’t ever think that one possibly negative trait will be the end for you. You just have to figure out how to repurpose that trait and use it to bring out your best work.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I think the message here is to study other countries and then you will better understand those countries and how their cultures fit in with their personalities. With many Europeans, the word cultures involve museums. In America, the culture may mean dress and food. There are so many different cultures around the world. Take, for example, the Chinese. They’re taught to never speak up to somebody who is superior, and there is always a superior in these businesses. So, when I’m teaching them, they just never say much of anything because they are very, very quiet. So, I had to come up with a way to combat that. I learned to speak Chinese in the sense that I’ve been learning for five years and, more or less, I can understand what my students are talking about. I tell them, ‘Guys’ — and I say it in Chinese and that I understand Chinese — ‘please speak up!’ I tell them, `When you are working internally speak Chinese and you don’t have to translate it into English because you are an all-Chinese group.’ That always seems to work and it puts them at ease. So, knowing the countries, knowing the cultures, and knowing the languages, I think that’s my way of building a strong culture in my company.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have learned wise advice from a lot of different people. And I, on occasion, teach it to others. So, if I am able to learn about other cultures and promote that information to others to help them learn, I think that’s my way of giving back to people in this world. I don’t have $5 billion to give away. But I have spent 30 years learning about other cultures and philosophies and I’ve tried to spread that knowledge to others. So, maybe that’s my contribution to helping make the world a better place to live.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
First of all, it’s about the Lean Startup movement. It focuses on MVP — a minimal value product — and on measuring your results. Lean Startup is a movement and it is made up of tens of thousands of people, and you can avoid an enormous amount of mistakes if you flexible. That flexibility isn’t just about saying that you are flexible, but really just learning about the ideas of the lean startup and then practicing them.
An example would be if you are building a product, you must ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this product in my life?’ Most of the very successful products made in history have been because someone out there really needed it. EBay was started up because its founder needed a product trading platform. YouTube founders were crazy about streaming videos, and so on.
Next, and this is an interesting paradox, but things will take much longer than you think they will. Whatever you do, it will take two or three times longer. Usually, people come back and say, ‘If I had known that it was going to take this long to make it, I never would have started!’
So what’s the advice from this? Well, it’s a paradox. Even though you now know that things will take longer than you expect, you still should ignore that and go after what you want in business. Sometimes you’ve just got to ignore good advice, and if you’re wrong, you’re just wrong and it will be fine. You can’t always be completely rational and make it in the business world. You can’t always perfectly make every decision. Even if you are told going in that something will take much longer than you anticipate, sometimes you just have to ignore the wisdom because perhaps your new way of doing things will be successful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Study other cultures of people and their points of view and not just your own. And try to keep all of those points of view in mind when you are making decisions. Understand, that just because you think one thing is one way, with another person in a different culture, their logic and conclusions would be totally different. Always try to learn as much as you can from other cultures and learn about their logic and eventually you will start to see things clearer and with a greater understanding.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
That’s easy — silence sometimes is the best thing. If you ask my kids, I have always taught them that if you don’t know what to say, it’s better to be silent. Then, whether you know the answer or not, people will think that you are wise. Sometimes, you need to speak. But always remember that remaining silent can be very powerful.
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Dalai Lama — he’s not a business leader, but he’s a huge source of motivation for me. My wife retells me his sayings. Here’s one example that he has said: If somebody is coming at you, and he’s very angry, and he just lashes out at you, you should accept it very happily and with patience. That’s because when you do that, you’re saving the next guy from having to suffer from the same abuse. Let him take it out on you and vent to you to save the next guy from having to suffer through it.
The Dalai Lama said this and it has always inspired me, ‘One should always try to do good whenever possible.’ And then he added, ‘it is always possible.’
The second part of that statement is what always strikes me. Everyone agrees that you should always try and do good when it’s possible, but they think it isn’t always possible. But the Dalai Lama says, ‘Yes, it is always possible to do good things in this world.’ That phrase has always meant a lot to me and that’s what we all should strive for.