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Chandra Ambadipudi – IT Origins

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Chandra Ambadipudi is the Founder and CEO of Clairvoyant

What’s your IT origin story? How long have you been in the field?

I’ve been in the field for nearly 20 years, working in various capacities. My curiosity in the field started back at college. I was actually studying to be an electronical engineer, so I was very interested in playing with microcontrollers and stuff like that. That’s how it started. Initially all my interests were mostly on the hardware. But later on, towards the end of college, I started doing some C programming. I needed to do some programming to show off what I was trying to do in signal processing back in the day. But once I started coding, it was really intriguing for me. I used to sit in my lab for hours and hours and do some interesting stuff in it, mostly around playing around and creating small games and then, you know, doing fun, goofy stuff that you do in college. I also started doing some interesting “exploration” on the network to see what kind of things you can do, you know, the kind of things they will tell you not to at university, but still you can try to do it, you know, things like that. That’s how it all started.

And then in graduate school, I was doing a lot of work around medical imaging, specifically medical image processing. That’s how I really started getting into more application of technology and programming. I was doing some experiments around controlling an electron microscope from my computer, and that really got me interested in getting hardware and software to work well together. That was really interesting to me.

Fast forward, and, I started my career with IBM right after I graduated school, back in 1999. I started with IBM as a consultant in India. And since then I’ve been in industry for almost 20 years.

What was IBM’s position in the Indian market at that time? I don’t think a lot of our listeners would be familiar with that.

IBM actually had a different kind of arrangement with a local company, Tata IBM. That’s how they were operating right before I joined. Actually, the year I joined is when they got out of the joint venture and started operating as a fairly independent company where they launched IBM global services. By the late nineties we started seeing a lot of these multinationals opening big offices in India and making their presence. But at least back when I joined, IBM still was one of the bigger names in the market in terms both in terms of brand name as well as some of the quality of the work that was being done in India at that point in time.

What’s been the biggest change in IT since you started your career?

Well, obviously one thing we all noticed is how quickly hardware evolved and in how efficient on the whole competition became for us.  How accessible it all is now. Because when I was in my graduate school, I used to go to a supercomputer facility. I wasn’t working in supercomputers, but I was working on Solaris and few other systems. They were really robust and very, very powerful compared to what I had in my lab or what I had access in other places. I had to go to a very specific place to do some long pending or high computing jobs. But now my phone is probably more powerful than the computer I was using back then.

And the biggest change I see is this notion of hardware or computation power becoming very, very commoditized and it’s just as available everywhere. Wherever we need it. And most places probably have access to more than what we need in general. I think that revolutionized our understanding of what can be accomplished with this kind of technology. Forget about medical imaging or applying this for advanced data science and all that kind of stuff. Just think about how much this has changed every day life. I have two teenage sons. For them, there is no concept of a set TV or movie schedule, of having to be home at a specific time to see something. Everything is available for them at their fingertips, on their phone. Everything is fairly connected. This has changed how we started organizing our lives and how we started demanding more and more things.

I think the biggest thing we all got used to in the last five to seven years is what I strongly believe is personalization. Whatever we do in our lives, whether its shopping, watching tv or doing any kind of stuff out there, it is highly personalized for our needs.

That is a really interesting point because I think up until the last 5 to 10 years, that the expectation was that there would be a dominant fashion or trend and that people would adapt to that. But I think now we’ve reached the kind of technological scale where the opposite is the case, where the technology can be versatile enough to an individual, to be personalized to what an individual wants.

Absolutely. I mean, in terms of even simple things like all these self driving cars, we’ll see in 10, 15 years from now, hopefully my grandkids don’t even understand what the notion of learning how to drive a car.

So Chandra right now, what is the current worst trend in IT?

Misuse of data or not having enough protections for data is I think in the worst trend, especially in the last three to four years. Companies are exploding with means to leverage data. Companies have newer and newer use cases in terms of how they can leverage data for their differentiation.

And secondly, hardware became so cheap that companies started collecting lots and lots of data and storing lots the data with them. In the end what happened was there was not enough care or not enough planning done in protecting consumers, privacy, and rights.

We’ve seen some awareness of this, especially in Europe, which traditionally has championed consumer rights. And I think the worst I have seen personally, or from the limited scope of what we work with, is enterprises not paying enough to attention to data protection and data privacy. We’ve seen big companies who have a data breach or hacking incident or something like that. But outside of that, nobody really talks about what would need, what these enterprises need to do to protect consumers privacy. What do they need to do in terms of understanding how to protect data? How do you plan for  consumer privacy? How do you ensure that you have good practices, processes and the tools available for your teams to protect these kinds of data privacy issues or consumer privacy issues?

And the reason why I keep highlighting that is, regardless of size, enterprises are going to accumulate more and more data over the next few years, and then they are also trying to use the sensitive data, especially in the healthcare field, some really sensitive data to advance medicine and personalized medical care. So the end result, the motivation, is good. But behind the scenes what they’re doing is collecting all this data and putting it out there within their networks and within their systems or however you want to classify them. But if proper care is not taken, as a consumer I have no visibility what has been happening. As a consumer, I am trusting somebody and giving them information in the hope that something good comes out of it. When good does come out of with I have knowledge about it. But what I don’t know as a consumer is when somebody collects my medical records or somebody collected my social security or credit card, I have absolutely zero visibility. So I’m trusting that enterprises or trusting third party audit agencies to protect my interest once I give my highly personalized information to them and this all of a sudden puts a huge burden on enterprises.

Now you can look at other side of the equation. It’s not like enterprises have any ill intentions and they definitely want to do the best practices from their end. But given how quickly the information is exploding, it’s very hard for enterprises to stay on top of it. Both in terms of processes as well as technology. At the end of the day you can do a hundred different things to protect the consumers interests, but one bad thing and it quickly becomes bad PR. So enterprises job are also not that easy. It’s very difficult for them to figure it out, how to stay on top of it, how to stay ahead of the game. And we’re not even talking about some sort of a hacking incident or anything like that. We’re talking about genuine mistakes people do. And very honest mistake people do that end up compromising,  as a consumer, my data.

So in your view, is the current European situation with GDPR more of a course correction back to an “ideal state” of data security, or a putative measure based on a recent history of poor data practices?

There is definitely a punitive action involved, but I do think this is based around the right intent. If you know, the last years this kind of discussion has been happening around if companies are doing enough to protect consumers privacy. But very little has been done. I think now they’re taking a big stick with specific rules and big fines. Companies have woken up and are going to fall in line. But my concern is that there’s not enough tooling available for them to verify what kind of measures they are taking.

One of the foundation layers of GDPR is to know where your sensitive data is. It’s not an easy task for enterprises to all of the sudden wake up and figure it out where all this data is and how to protect and whatnot. So it has to be systematic, it has to be methodical, and it has to be sustainable over the period of time. Obviously big companies and a smart companies can figure it out, but typically enterprise swho are also collecting data are a the wrong end of it because they really need to step up their game. They are looking for solutions. They’re looking for partnerships which can help them to get a handle on this problem.

I think it’s more like a balancing act because when personalization started, I was excited about it as a consumer. But I had really limited visibility into how they’re doing it. The concern now isn’t that someone is personally sitting and watching my data, what I’m watching or buying. It’s all computers. And then I think people went past that stigma that there’s somebody looking into my data now. Everybody’s pretty clear that the volume of data they’re collecting, it’s not possible for one person to sit down and look anything. Computers already doing a huge model building and model exercises so they can improve my consumer experience. But the concern is that a lot of these websites that are out there are collecting very important information about me and my viewing browsing and shopping habits. Now the criticism comes from these sites taking this data and selling it to third parties. You watch or buy something online and all of the sudden you’re getting a customized mail ads to your home. You can clearly see what’s going on. A third party is getting access to your data, but the terms of that access are not clear to the consumer.

Actually this just this morning, this whole, and some controversy going on with Facebook providing data to some third party (Editor’s Note: This interview was recorded the day the Cambridge Analytica story initially broke). That could be just one example. I’m sure this is all over the world in terms of how companies are using my data and getting benefits from it. This is the balancing act, companies have gone too far for too long using data without any visibility or oversight. GDPR and other proposed regulation give consumers the right to say to companies that as a customer, they have some control, and can have that data accounted for or deleted on their behalf. That’s a pretty bold step.

Talking in the IT community, I think a lot of people agree with the overall intent or GDPR, but at the same time are pulling their hair out considering how they’re actually going to implement it.
But on the other hand, what do you see as the current best trend in IT?

Ironically I think for this one, it’s also data. Not the security part obviously. Forget about everything we talked about in terms of our personal lives, but it in terms of my hospital or in terms of how I drive my car or how I watch my tv or how I’m doing my shopping. Anything I do out there is heavily, heavily personalized beyond my imagination as little as five years ago. In my opinion, the best trend out there is also how companies are literally liberating and using data to power solutions.

I’ll take an example from my experience, I did 12 years in higher education and I have two kids who are almost every day on Khan Academy. Data is changing education, how they’re teaching to people. Some of this tooling is really designed to help kids to use data to their advantage so they can really, really dissect what parts of the concept they’re learning, what they need, reinforcement, when they need additional material, and how they can make progress.

This is all happening outside of the traditional classroom. It’s what a typical teacher probably can do in a smaller situation. Now on computers, sitting in a browser, I’m able to exactly see how my student is proceeding and where they need help. Lessons are not just reinforcing relevant examples but  repeating certain concepts because they detected my kid is relatively weak compared to other areas. So this whole notion of adaptive learning and adaptive teaching has really, really changed in terms of how big data is used to help kids extend the learning process.

So in education, these are very, very prime example of how much that is really changing our lives. Data is the biggest and best change we’ve seen, and education has been a great example of its capability.

Any career advice for aspiring entrepreneurs engineers out there?

Don’t worry too much about a particular programming languages or technology. Technology will change a lot. Make sure this is really your passion. A lot of people come here because there’s good money, but later they find they can’t adapt to the rate of change. Focus on problem solving, solution engineering, and scale. Languages are trainable, but if your heart isn’t in problem solving, you’re in the wrong field.

The other advice is not to wait for an opportunity, just grab what you have access to. You don’t need to join a company to learn interesting tech. If you’re interested, Google and find it yourself. Self-marketing is the best marketing. Study, read, and never leave the process of learning.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been transcribed and edited for clarity.

About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.

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