As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Knapp founder and CEO of Ascend.io.
Prior to Ascend.io, Sean was a co-founder, CTO, and Chief Product Officer at Ooyala. At Ooyala Sean played key roles in raising $120M, scaling the company to 500 employees, Ooyala’s $400m+ acquisition, as well as Ooyala’s subsequent acquisitions of Videoplaza and Nativ. He oversaw all Product, Engineering and Solutions, as well as well as defined Ooyala’s product vision for their award wining analytics and video platform solutions. Before founding Ooyala, Sean worked at Google where he was the technical lead for Google’s legendary Web Search Interface team, helping that team increase Google revenues by over $1B. Sean also developed and launched iGoogle, the company’s popular, customizable home page. Sean has both B.S. and M.S. degrees in Computer Science from Stanford University.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up as a math and science geek who, after finding computer science at Stanford, never looked back. I started my career at Google in 2004 as a front-end Engineer and within a year found myself leading Google Web Search’s front-end engineering team. During my time there, I helped the team increase revenues by over $1B (10% at the time) and helped launch other great products such as iGoogle, the company’s first customization home page.
After Google, I co-founded Ooyala, where I served as CTO and later Chief Product Officer. During this time, I worked with more than 600 companies worldwide as they underwent digital transformation and invested in online media. This shift brought an entirely new level of engagement media companies could have with consumers — the opportunity to reach more people than ever before, and connect with each of them 1-on-1 and personalize their experience like never before. Doing so required harnessing the power of data — something I had become very familiar with at Google, and were eager to bring to this new era enmasse.
While there was an abundance of technology available to store, process and visualize this data, there was a new role emerging — that of the data engineer for which there was little technology available to make their job easier in the face of overwhelming demand. Demand for this new role was clearly, and continues to this day, outpacing supply. I founded Ascend.io to alleviate that problem and, in the process, solve many of the challenges that contribute to AI and big data implementation failures. As we began building the company and platform, I surveyed a number of data engineering leaders to identify the common problems their teams faced, iterated on the early product designs and found some of the best angel investors and VCs out there to partner with me. Nearly 5 years later, we are delivering on that vision with the Ascend Unified Data Engineering Platform. Through an innovative “data aware” approach, Ascend not only enables data engineering teams to build sophisticated data pipelines with speed and ease, but for the first time makes possible a new era of “citizen data engineers” to finally meet the rapidly increasing data needs of the business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
At Ooyala, I had grown very accustomed to my standard uniform of jeans, collared shirt, and suit jacket. In the early days of Ascend.io, I showed up to an investor meeting wearing exactly that. The investor immediately looked at me, laughed and said, “I was expecting a hoodie.”
This honestly provided a great lesson. At Ooyala, I was the 20-something kid who dressed up in more formal attire to project a more mature persona as I was frequently meeting with media executives and investors from that industry. At Ascend.io, we cater to technical developers and engineers — the typical attire is obviously, and welcomely, quite different. This moment continues to remind me of the importance of knowing your audience. Today my standard attire is still jeans, but now with an Ascend.io t-shirt, most favorite of which reads “Big Data is a Cluster.”
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One book I particularly enjoyed was “Team of Teams” by Stanley McChrystal, a retired U.S. Army general tasked with leading the Joint Special Operations Command in 2003. Long story short, McChrystal’s book explains how JSOC radically changed its information flow and decision making from a hierarchical structure to a flatter, more nimble “team of teams.” As I looked to break some of the behaviors I had established at Ooyala with a much larger team and transition back into creating a company from the ground up, lessons from his book were extremely applicable.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our company’s purpose is to empower everyone to create smarter products. Smarter products are fueled by data and since the start of my career, I’ve seen first-hand the awe-inspiring impact of companies that are able to amass sufficient expertise. Today, however, there are simply not enough data experts out there and the world is missing out on tremendous innovations as a result. The solution then becomes pretty clear if there aren’t enough data engineers, let’s help more people become one and ensure the ones we have can build more than ever before.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Startup life and entrepreneurship are not for the faint of heart. The highs are incredibly high and the lows crushingly low. Confidence, humility and, most of all, perseverance are essential in making it through to the other side. There is a quote, oftentimes though perhaps incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill that has served me well through multiple stages of life: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Challenges, whether personal or professional, can be stressful and exhausting, but the only way out is to push through.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Alongside my family and friends, I’ve remained safe and healthy throughout the pandemic. I am profoundly thankful for that. While the pandemic has had an impact on us all, I’d be hard pressed to describe a challenge that extends beyond a mild inconvenience. My wife and I are both working professionals with no children, a very stable internet connection and 3 dogs that are getting more exercise than ever before. We now spend more time reading, listening to and watching the news for a steady stream of perspective as my heart goes out to the hardly fathomable percent of the population affected not only directly, but indirectly via the impact this has had on global economies.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The pandemic and subsequent economic uncertainty has impacted so many businesses. One of the biggest challenges we have faced has been continuing to spread the word about our product and continue to drive new sales. Our team traditionally used in-person conferences and events to fuel the sales pipeline. COVID-19 forced nearly every conference to cancel over the past few months and only in the coming months are we starting to resume them virtually. As a result, we — along with so many other businesses — have been forced to get creative and adapt to this new marketing and enterprise sales landscape. In the past few months, we’ve significantly ramped up our digital marketing and content creation efforts, including the launch of “AscendTV” live streams on YouTube offering 3 different segments on data engineering weekly.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Coming from the startup world, this might be a biased opinion, but technology can be one of the answers to mitigating uncertainty, fear and loneliness. In moderation, technology can open lines of communication with friends and loved ones during a time where the majority of people are physically apart. With family and friends, we do frequent Zoom calls in the evenings while we’re cooking and eating dinner. This may be one of the few times in our lives where screens are welcomed at the dinner table and I’d strongly encourage you to use them and fill the empty seats. We’ve also used Zoom calls to play board games with friends online, and even do murder mystery games and trivia nights with friends.
When not in front of a screen and you find yourself near others, I only have one suggestion: go out of your way to say hi to every single person you see. Make eye contact. Smile. Ask them how they’re doing and wish them a fantastic day. With quarantine the impersonal nature of masks and six feet of separation, we risk atrophy of the very interpersonal skills we use to combat loneliness. Let’s make sure we don’t!
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
What started as a temporary work-from-home policy is now evolving to something more significant. For example, big tech companies like Twitter and Facebook are preparing for permanent remote work protocols. This opens the door for not only increased innovation in remote communication, but of equal if-not-greater importance on remote collaboration.
Along with the need to run businesses remotely, I expect many businesses will have an increased focus on the need to do more with less. I anticipate we will see more automation tools to meet business needs and increase productivity, while at the same time freeing employees to work on higher impact opportunities. As budgets are constrained and headcounts frozen, new approaches like automation and AI capabilities can help companies to survive and even thrive as we look towards a post-COVID economy.
I also anticipate a change with the traditional sales process. Enterprise sales, for example, has always been built on in-person relationships and connections. Moving forward, those connections will continue but increasingly remain virtual. The unpredictability of the pandemic also affects buying behaviors. From SMBs to large enterprises, businesses will be more reluctant in committing to large financial contracts and will prefer more open, pay-as-you-go models.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Generally speaking, people in the U.S. will be more cautious of sanitary operations. Similar to countries in Asia, I believe it will become more socially acceptable to wear masks and gloves in public spaces. I also imagine this will finally be the end of coming to work while sick as a gesture of one’s toughness and devotion.
Something I am eager to see play out is the discussion of remote work productivity. Many companies are reporting no significant decline in productivity despite the move to remote work and some even see increased productivity. However, part of the reason for this may be the longer work hours employees are putting in. Because of this, I think it’s too early to do victory laps around the work-from-home era — it holds a lot of promise, but we as organizations still have work to do to make the most of it as the world cautiously approaches a post-COVID era.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Seemingly overnight, the world went from hugs and handshakes to meeting with people via screens and video. That quickly impacted businesses across the globe as all conferences shifted to virtual events or were cancelled altogether. As a startup, those industry events accounted for a huge portion of our marketing initiatives for the year. The post-COVID economy will push our business to be more resourceful and adopt new ways to reach our goals despite these significant changes with in-person events.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
A majority of us are working from home and as a result, our time is more flexible. But is this actually the case? There’s an argument to be made that because we’re at home all the time, we’re also working harder and longer, which is a sure fire way to burn out. I’ve seen a number of people reluctant to take time off as most of us associate PTO with vacations and let’s be honest, where are we going to go? But those PTO days are so critical to recharging our batteries and we can’t just wait until everything is “back to normal” to use them. I think it is critical that employees continue to take time off — and that their employers encourage them to do so.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Steve Prefontaine, an icon of U.S. Track and Field who tragically died at the age of 24, famously said “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” To this day, Prefontaine’s quote induces a guttural, emotional response from me. When younger, the interpretation was simple and quite literal as applied to school and athletics — squander no opportunity and “leave nothing in the tank.” As I’ve become older, the realities of finite time and tradeoffs make this more complex, at least at first. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day, after all. However, I’d argue this becomes even more relevant against that backdrop with finite hours in each day and so many things vying for that time, why would you ever do anything less than your absolute best at that one thing, at that one time?
How can our readers further follow your work?