Meet five CTOs coming to Web Summit

The countdown to Web Summit is well and truly on. In less than two short weeks, 50,000 tech founders, CEOs, politicians, investors, startups and much more are hitting Lisbon for what’s sure to be an incredible week.

Among this group are CTOs from some of the world’s most influential companies. Let’s meet them.

Mike Schroepfer – CTO – Facebook

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1) Given the ever-increasing rate of evolution in tech, is it still possible to put in place long-term technical plans?

What we’re doing at Facebook is setting long term-technical goals on a 10-year horizon, and using that to work backwards to understand where we should be investing and focusing our research and energy today. For example, we know that as the amount of digital content keeps increasing, artificial intelligence will be required to help people stay connected with the people and topics they care about most.

Eventually we expect to see AI-based systems helping you throughout your day in a natural, conversational way. While we’re seeing an explosion in the use of AI techniques like convolutional neural networks, we also understand the limits of those systems. So we’re investing in developing the future of AI technology – in systems that can learn without needing very specialised data sets, and systems that can plan ahead based on their experience – in order to keep the pace of technological evolution where it needs to be to arrive at our 10-year vision.

Not everything we try will work. But we’re motivated to keep pushing forward because technologies like these will one day transform the way people live. Having a long-term vision is the only way to build technology that will ultimately help solve the big problems of the world.

2) Which was the hardest part about scaling towards one billion users?

The hardest part was that nobody had experience scaling a service like ours to an audience that size. Every time a person opens Facebook we evaluate thousands of potential pieces of content to show them and instantly rank them into a feed that attempts to predict what’s most relevant to that person, in that place, at that time. We needed to scale our infrastructure to achieve this, and we ran up against limitations both in the hardware and the software that powered most large-scale internet services. So we ended up having to build our own, creating more efficient and effective software systems, designing our own servers and even our own data centres in which to house them.

Now, Facebook’s mission isn’t to build new VMs, toolchains, servers and power distribution systems. We want to make the world more open and connected. The best way for us to achieve that was to make sure that our innovations in these areas could be shared with others. We’ve open sourced hundreds of software projects, many of which have active communities with hundreds of contributors. We founded the Open Compute Project, a community of engineers around the world focused on openness and innovation in scale computing technologies. Now over a hundred companies take part in OCP, and many more use our software to help their services scale and run more efficiently. These organizations are working together in the open to make the industry more transparent and help it move faster — a huge challenge, but a crucial part of continuing to connect more people.

In the next 10 years we’ll have a new set of technology challenges as we work to help bring the next billion people online. Today, people are still not connected where existing Internet infrastructures are too costly or difficult. We need to develop new technologies to dramatically reduce the cost of deploying infrastructure so the Internet is available and affordable to everyone. Our Connectivity Lab is working on a range of projects to tackle this challenge, including aircraft, satellites, and wireless communication systems. We have a lot of work ahead, but it’s never been more important.

3) What do you hope to learn at Web Summit?

There’s so much going on in the technology world today, and we’re all learning new things at a fast pace. Being at Web Summit is a chance for everyone to come together and share their biggest, best discoveries. I’m looking forward to talking with others who share the belief that technology can connect people, and learning from what they’re building.

Eric Wahlforss – CTO – SoundCloud

6 November 2014; Eric Wahlforss, Founder & CTO, Soundcloud, on the centre stage during Day 3 of the 2014 Web Summit in the RDS, Dublin, Ireland. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit

1) What is the one major challenge in scaling that constantly presents itself?

As you scale, it’s important you don’t push the inherent passion and creativity aside, else you risk losing focus and alienating your core audience. By bringing in the right people across each key discipline as you grow – from operations and technology through to marketing and culture – it’s possible to keep all areas of the business in alignment and driven towards achieving the same goals.

2) With a constantly evolving and highly competitive marketplace, how hard is it to have the best technology in place at your company?

Over the last eight years we have built the world’s largest music and audio platform, which has more than 175 million unique users each month and over 125 million tracks to discover. To operate at this scale, we have developed a world-class technology platform, which includes the tools for creators to build an engaged audience and for listeners to discover tracks from new, emerging and established artists. Key to having the best technology is hiring leading talent who can share in our vision and clearly see how the product needs to evolve and adapt to our community needs.

3) What do you hope to learn at Web Summit?

Given the high calibre of speakers that attend Web Summit, there’s always opportunity to meet other like-minded entrepreneurs from around the world, to share experiences and potentially discover ways of partnering in the future.

Diane Yu –  CTO – FreeWheel

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1) Given the ever-increasing rate of evolution in tech, is it still possible to put in place long-term technical plans?

Absolutely. I would say it is even more important for a company to have a long-term plan than ever. It is not just about the speed of innovation, it is also about the trend it is heading. Tech companies are investing heavily in new technology, and many of them are open sourcing their software products, talented developers also lead and contribute to the open source communities on their own.

Modern developers have a lot of tools and resources they can use to build their applications. The trend is clear that many companies are building and providing services via those open source tools. Which means companies only need to focus on their unique business logic, there is no need to focus on fundamental services, unless you are one of the companies whose core business is providing the service itself. Your business logic and model is what makes who you are, one should only be focus on that, everything else you should be aiming at using an open source product or services. If you keep this as your long term strategy, you will take advantage and enjoy all the new innovations coming up, not be feared by. With this, you will be able to keep your own tech footprint small, be ready to adapt to the growth and changes of your own business.

2) What’s the one scaling problem that always comes up?

The difference between a proof of concept and a production-scale solution. It is not just technology – many business ideas fail and trip on that too. Many ideas sound brilliant, solve perfectly for a POC, they may not solve for a problem at a large scale. However, when you successfully get your seed or A round funding, when you get first one thousand or even one million users signed up using, one can easily mistake this as a production scale solution. This is where many startups fail, we call it “crossing the chasm”, 99% of the time, your POC need to be changed or totally rewritten to make it a business for scale. Instead, many of us forget about this, we end up running with the POC, be it a tech solution or a business solution, until it hits a hard wall when the POC stops working, at which point, it is too late to correct the course.

3) What do you hope to learn at Web Summit?

Connect with smart minds in technology, be inspired. Get to know the latest innovations in the world.

Sonny Vu – CTO, Connected Devices – Fossil

4 November 2014; Sonny Vu, Co-founder & CEO, Misfit Wearables, on the machine stage during Day 1 of the 2014 Web Summit in the RDS, Dublin, Ireland. Picture credit: Nick Bradshaw / SPORTSFILE / Web Summit

1) Looking back at your time as CTO at FireSpout, and comparing it with your time as CTO at Fossil now, what’s the one change you never saw coming?

Aside from the difference in time era (1999 versus 2016) and the development tools that are available now that were not available back then, one thing I did not expect to come so quickly was how much progress would be made in artificial intelligence. Whether it’s for computer vision, natural language processing, or search, deep belief networks have enabled us to make advances I didn’t think would happen for another 10 years.

2) What’s the one problem with scaling that always presents itself?

Depending on the kind of scaling you’re talking about, agility is something that always seems to be at risk as systems get bigger and more complex. That said, thinking ahead and planning for scale (user cases and user base) can actually enable you to address opportunities more quickly.

3) What do you hope to learn at Web Summit?

My main goal for coming to Web Summit is to meet some amazing entrepreneurs.

Ray O’Farrell – CTO – VMWare

Ray onstage at Web Summit 2015

1) How does the constantly evolving nature of tech present challenges when scaling?

One of the challenges you face when scaling your business, particularly over a longer term, is that there’s lots of new technologies emerging all the time. How do you keep up with these technologies and how do you make sure that your business can embrace them? Particularly if your customers are heavily leveraging these technologies and you need to keep up with that.

One of the most powerful pieces of advice I could give is to remember that the key part of your business is the particular piece of software, the particular technology or the particular service that you are delivering. And you should not be spending enormous amounts of your time focused on infrastructure needs, or new types of operating systems, or new types of software development.

That is something you should leverage instead from buying platforms. Focus on leveraging a platform, which is able to hide and protect you from some of these technology changes, while you focus on what is important to your business.

2) Is it possible to put a long-term technical plan in place?

Given the fast changes that occur in technology – the emergence of the public cloud; new ways of writing your software – it sometimes can be difficult to figure out the best way to put together a longterm technical plan.

In order to this, it’s important to choose great partners: those who can work with you and who you know can evolve with these new technologies as you’re working with these infrastructures and platforms.

It also means that when you’re choosing technology, you need to think through the fact that you need a base level of technology: a common platform that you can extend easily.

However, overall the most important thing when it comes to figuring out how to expand and scale your technical direction many years into the future, is to think about the people you’re hiring: are they able to adjust to new technologies? Do they recognise when old technologies need to be changed? And are they willing and open to quickly embrace those new technologies and fitting them into your longterm technical plan?

3) What do you hope to learn at Web Summit?

One of the key things that I expect to get from Web Summit in Lisbon is the opportunity to meet with many of the small startup companies. This is a unique opportunity to visit hundreds of these startup companies and speak to people who are passionate about their products, passionate about their business, passionate about technology, and anxious to share that with you. That’s a very invigorating experience, and it’s one of the things I most look forward to when I go to Web Summit each year.

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