The Xconversation: Software CEO Meets University Innovation Leader, Part I

Innovation is perhaps the most over-used and abused buzzword of our modern moment. But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from it. To the contrary.

Vikram Jandhyala, who has innovation in his job title as a vice provost at the University of Washington, and Barry Crist, CEO of Chef, maker of tools and practices to help companies reorganize IT departments around rapid software innovation and automation, are game to define and defend innovation.

“I don’t think we should be afraid of it. In fact, I actually think we should push through and be unapologetic about it,” says Crist, who met Jandhyala and Xconomy for lunch at The London Plane on Occidental Plaza earlier this spring, in the second installment of The Xconversation.

Loosely modeled on The Sunday New York Times’ “Table for Three” series, The Xconversation brings together top practitioners and leaders in the Seattle tech community, for a revealing, insightful, and fun conversation about the issues facing innovation-driven companies and organizations in our region and beyond.

In part one of their talk, Jandhyala and Crist share some of their earliest memories of technology, dig into what Jandhyala calls “inclusive innovation”—which extends beyond the traditional tech startups and patent licenses to efforts in social work and the humanities—and discuss the role of UW in supplying the tech industry with talent and what Crist calls “a culture of innovation.”

(Check back Wednesday for part two, in which the talk turns to insights into Chef’s future—“I would be very disappointed to see us have to sell to another company,” Crist says; the latest on the UW’s Global Innovation Exchange; ways Crist and Jandhyala maintain balance amid the pressure of their jobs; and much more.)

We scored a window table at The London Plane, which was buzzing and then roaring with a hungry lunchtime crowd on an unseasonably warm early spring day. The restaurant/market is a short walk from Chef’s headquarters on Western Avenue, and Crist says it’s one of his go-to spots for business lunches. He recommended the avocado toast, which was fantastic.

What follows are excerpts of the conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

Xconomy: What are your earliest memories of being inspired by technology, and when did you know it was going to be central to your careers?

Vikram Jandhyala: My Dad bought a computer with 48k of memory on it. This was a European competitor to the Commodore 64. It was called a ZX Spectrum. You could do BASIC programming. I was 10 years old and I just started, and said, Wow, this is great. To actually fit stuff in 48k of RAM, you learned a lot of good discipline, which you don’t need now with megabytes and gigabytes of memory.

I used that in school and kept that with me for many years. That’s when I realized, Wow, this computer is awesome. You could do really serious programming. I created a chemistry simulation program, which I showed to my chemistry teacher in school. She’s like, Whoa, my God. You could mix things in a balanced equation, it will show you the reaction. All that graphics in 48k.

Barry Crist: My earliest childhood memories, I had a bunch of Tonka trucks. The one that I liked the best was the hook-and-ladder, which had the rear steering. I think it was something about the physics that you could turn both of those [steering wheels]. I’ve always been sort of pulled into it. Very similar to Vikram.

For me, it was 8th grade math. At this time, some of the earliest PCs were starting to work their way into society. [The teacher] had one, and I remember the rubber phone couplings.

It had a bunch of text-based simulations for a whole variety of things. There were probably just two or three of us that were just like a moth to a flame—just really fascinated by it. It wasn’t over a job. It wasn’t over pay. I just had a genuine interest in the technology.

I went to UC San Diego. Apple interviewed on campus for internships after my sophomore year and I started working as a summer intern. I felt that I had won the lottery. I would have gone without pay to work at Apple. In fact, I remember starting my first day, and someone in the group was quitting, and I just thought that person was absolutely insane. I actually tried to talk them out of it.

X: Vikram, you have almost too many academic interests to mention.

VJ: Sorry about that.

X: I was reading back through your CV and it’s sort of staggering. But lately, since 2014, you’ve been more focused on administrative stuff in your position as University of Washington’s vice provost of innovation. Are you still able to do much research, do you miss it?

VJ: I was at a startup before I was at UW, out of Carnegie Mellon. Real coders. That company was acquired. I wasn’t the founder, unfortunately, but the company did well.

When I came here, I had a group of 10 PhD students. Amazing folks. We worked with DARPA and DoD and did a lot of coding on early [high-performance] computers, and that began the second startup, which was Nimbic.

We were really hands-on and doing things in small teams of two or three. And once I came back from that, the question was, Well, what do I do next? Because I got tenure, and as you know, after tenure, they can’t kick you out. That’s when you say, OK, this was fun, but what else is there?

I started working with the national labs, looking at graph algorithms for people. This is really different. You can think about social media and all the things like that. I suddenly realized, this system thinking you can apply to more than just technology. It’s about people, it’s about influence as well. So that’s how it broadened.

I became department chair, which is an administrative job. I was heading a lab, the Northwest Institute for Advanced Computing. I still had that research hat.

I don’t really do any research anymore, but we ask questions for which we need answers. So we engage a lot with researchers now. It’s more of meta-research. But the questions we are asking are getting more and more complex, interdisciplinary. How do you actually teach interdisciplinary education? How do you come up with new ideas that are at the intersections of three disciplines? There’s really no science around that. That’s what is interesting to me with the same research hat.

Training as an engineer and computer scientist, you have a way of looking at the world which is very systematic, data-driven. I’m still using that.

X: You are both innovation leaders, tasked with driving innovation within your organizations, but also exporting it to a larger community. Before we dive into that, I wanted to address the word innovation, and work on a definition. It is the ubiquitous buzzword. Xconomy is as guilty as anybody—our charter is to look for innovation and report on it. But what is it really to you in 2016 in Seattle? Take away the marketing, what does real innovation look like?

BC: I get that there’s some backlash to the word going on, but I don’t think we should be afraid of it. In fact, I actually think we should push through and be unapologetic about it.

If I look at our customers, there’s a pattern that’s emerged, which Chef plays a role in through highly scalable automation, which is allowing companies to increase their own velocity around innovation.

For me, there’s no question, whether you’re talking about companies, governments, societies, that we have this innovate-or-die construct in the world we live in. Taking a Luddite approach or shunning innovation, or we’re scared of it, or tired of it, I think is the wrong approach.

There’s a wide range of innovation. At one end of the scale is very disruptive innovation—things that come out and completely change a paradigm. The iPhone, arguably, was one of those, although if you scratch under it, it’s really a whole bunch of incremental innovations that enable it, but in total, it becomes something very disruptive.

At the other end of the scale is what’s going on at most Global 2000 companies right now, where they’re pushing innovation. It’s really doing a whole bunch of changes incrementally, very rapidly, that in total is changing how they address their customers, and markets, and so forth.

VJ: I agree with everything he said, including don’t give up on the word innovation. It’s true that it does get misused and overused. I was asked to define that, too. We’ve been using another word: inclusive innovation.

The idea is innovation can come from technology, yes—a lot of breakthroughs come from that—but it can come from the arts, it can come from policy, it can come from social work.

And so, inclusion, we’re looking at in three different dimensions. One is who is the innovator? It could be a social scientist working with a business person, working with technologists.

The second is, who is the innovation for? So when disruptions happen, we tend to have populations or classes of people who get disrupted, and often, pure technologists say that’s not really our problem, that’s just, in some sense, survival of the fittest or evolution.

The third is the scale of innovation. We think most technology innovation has to scale, has to grow, but you can think of innovations which are one-off. If I, as a faculty member, am able to change the life of one student, that’s innovation for that student.

If we define innovation as changing a process or an existing way of doing things to create measurable positive impact—that’s innovation. I think there’s a lot of roles for a lot of us to innovate, and a lot of us to reap benefit from innovation as well.

BC: That’s a great term, actually. I think a lot of times, especially in the United States, innovation gets sort of narrowed to people doing software. And clearly there’s amazing things going on in software. I’m one of the biggest fans of it. But innovation is a much broader thing.

[Lunch arrives. Crist has a tuna salad. Xconomy opts for the avocado toast and an order of meatballs. Jandhyala has a trio of salads.]

VJ: I’m sorry. I’m one of those guys who takes pictures of food. I apologize.

Lunch at The London Plane. Photo by Vikram Jandhyala

Lunch at The London Plane. Photo by Vikram Jandhyala

VJ: Innovation is not just about, is this something we must do, or should do, or a societal reason. We don’t know where the next big idea is going to come from, so the bigger idea pool we can tap into, the more creative that group of people are going to be.

BC: I think it’s a great place for universities and academia to give thought to, because clearly there’s a disruptive side to innovation. There’s no question about it. And from a business perspective, the remit of a management team is really pretty narrow. Drive results, drive shareholder value. So thinking of the full implications of disruptive innovation is outside the remit of a profit-minded business, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on the minds of the societal level, for sure.

X: That begins to answer my next question for you, Barry. As the CEO of a fast-growing, innovative software company in Seattle, what are you looking for from your friendly neighborhood world-renowned research institution? What should someone like Vikram, who’s charged with making those links, be doing that would benefit you?

BC: There’s two things very specifically. First of all is very practical. We love places like UW to churn out really smart, hungry people that want to do amazing things with their careers. You see these reinforcing economies emerging. Certainly Silicon Valley is one. The Seattle area is one of my favorites. It’s not by accident that I live and work here. So from a practical standpoint, that [talent] is the fuel behind companies like Chef. We have some amazing UW graduates at Chef doing some amazing things.

Second, culture is more important than technology innovation—creating a culture of innovation. And I think that’s one of the things that a UW and some of these great academic institutions can help foster. That mindset more than anything.

X: Vikram, you’ve touched on this already, but since you’ve taken over innovation transfer at UW—and that’s not what it was called before—you’ve really broadened the scope beyond patents and startups coming out of the usual departments. What are some of your favorite innovation transfer initiatives going on outside of the traditional fields?

VJ: The core [producers] of startups will continue to remain technology and biotechnology, and we’re seeing very healthy trends there. We tend to do between 10 to 20 startups every year. That’s growing. That will keep happening and that’s a great thing.

But as you said, the mission is broader. And there’s actually three pillars of that mission.

There’s innovation transfer, which is getting the best ideas out, whether they’re technology or not. There’s innovation learning, which is how do you get this mindset, not just into our folks who are going through the entrepreneurship program, which is fantastic, but across campus, how do the students learn what it means to learn from failure, to do multiple tests, to work in teams. And the third is innovation strategy, which is what should we as a university be doing differently, because universities are not, frankly, well renowned for change and being agile.

On the innovation transfer piece, for example, we started working very closely with our School of Social Work, which is a top-three rated school. You don’t think of them necessarily as innovative, but, wow, are they thinking innovatively. Two things have come out which we’ve been working with them.

One is called Partners for Our Children. It’s an organization looking at reforming the way the foster care system is run. It’s in terms of software, in terms of feedback, in terms of apps for the social workers [to help] make sure things happen when they should happen. And so they’re really moving that whole system forward by decades by what they are doing—a combination of technology, user behavior, and so on.

The other is an organization called Forefront, which came out, again, from social work, looking at suicide prevention. And they’re actually working with Facebook to come up with innovative ways that you can actually have some of your closest friends be automatically told that there’s something where a person might need some support. So this is another example where it’s not a pure technology play, but software is helping.

On innovation learning, we started an ideathon, borrowing from the hackathon concept, with the [College of Arts and Sciences]. How can we keep humanities relevant? There’s a lot of questions of humanities being overpriced, and you don’t get a return for your investment. But [students] came up with a solution on how, for example, if you have somebody studying genetics without studying ethics, it’s a pretty slippery slope. And it’s the same in business as well. We know about Enron. So, how can we take those pieces of [humanities] expertise and put them into science courses?

X: Barry, you wrote a blog post highlighting some things in Chef’s employee guide. When Vikram is talking about making sure geneticists are studying ethics, it reminded me of an attribute you look for in employees. You call them “T-shaped” experts—people who are experts in their field, but also have broad knowledge. Why is it important to you?

BC: We actually borrowed that T-shaped piece specifically from the Valve handbook. So, another company here in Seattle, and we loved that so much that we borrowed it from them. Really it’s the idea that someone has an area that they should be a deep expert in. What we’re not talking about is generalists. We don’t want generalists. We want someone that is a true badass in their field, we want among the top 2 or 3 percent, but that they should participate on the [horizontal] part of the T in other conversations.

So you might be a computer science, machine learning expert, but you should have an opinion on what we do in marketing.

Part of this is, we think one of the cultural pillars of innovation is organizations that have very few silos inside them. So what we’ve found is that T-shaped point of view helps get people that have these cross-company connections. Vikram was talking about it from a different point of view, but I think those are very related things.

X: You both care deeply about the local economy, and believe in innovation as its fundamental driver. What do you see as the biggest threat to Seattle’s innovation economy right now?

BC: We live in a very dynamic, disruptive time. And so it’s back to our starting discussion, which is don’t shy from innovation. Push through it, because what would actually threaten us is other countries, other cities, other geographies, that they can create a climate, a culture, that’s pushing innovation and more investment. Because it’s a couple pillars. It’s culture, it’s technology, it’s having capital that can fund ideas. All these things come together in a natural way.

Seattle, there’s amazing things going on. I think there’s an argument that this is the cloud center of the universe right now. People are spinning out, doing ideas. Chef is an example of one. The founders came out of Amazon. But there’s no guarantee, even with capital, even with culture, that that continues. And so, you have to continue to disrupt yourself and push forward through that.

VJ: I totally agree with those things. I think making sure that we’re broad enough that we are diversified—

BC: Yes.

VJ: —because the next innovation will come from somewhere else. The broader the base of expertise we have here, the better, which we are doing. That is something to make sure we don’t put all our eggs in one basket, which tends to happen with investment. Investors have to do that, but I think an ecosystem doesn’t need to do that. We can do more.

The other, I think, is the role of partnerships. The more we can partner—whether it’s with the Bay Area, whether it’s with China, whether it’s with the government and nonprofits—I think the better we’re going to be.

And the third is our infrastructure has to keep up. If we’re really going to double our population over the next 10 years, transportation, technology, housing, everything has to keep up, otherwise that’s going to be the bottleneck.

BC: I strongly agree with that. The Seattle infrastructure is strained, clearly.

X: It’s incredibly difficult to get anywhere at certain times of the day. That’s an issue. Another issue is this sense of shared prosperity, and ensuring that everybody has a shot at it. I think most people would say that’s a place where not just Seattle, but the broader innovation economy has some room for improvement. Is there still low-hanging fruit out there that can broaden access to the skills or opportunities for more people to get involved?

BC: For me, on this inclusiveness topic, it’s sort of the best of times, worst of times. The best of times is, technology is the great leveler. One of our UW computer science [graduates] grew up in very rural Washington, a place with a broken, post-farming economy, that was really struggling. If you look at this at the micro-level, there are these great examples.

At the macro level, in aggregate, the picture gets less rosy, and that’s something that as a society we’re going to really struggle to sort out over the next 10 or 20 years.

VJ: The so-called digital divide or digital access, I think that’s a big one. Everyone’s trying, grappling with that from the high school level to college, and college tuition is part of that as well. I don’t think there’s a solution to that yet, but we just have to keep pushing and pushing on it.

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