In July 2019 I joined LeapYear as VP of Engineering. We have an exciting technology and market opportunity in front of us and I wanted to share the process I went through to select LeapYear as my next role. Let me start with a bit about my background and experience.
I am originally from Ireland. I came to the Bay Area for graduate school and have stayed for the duration of my career. My engineering journey really started when I joined VMware as the first VP of Engineering and was there for about 7 years. While well known today, when I started at VMware, the company was 25 people and had very little revenue. But there was an enormous opportunity as VMware had identified a market entry point that now seems obvious – increase server efficiency by using virtual machines.
However, at the time, no other vendor had a workable solution for this compelling problem. The company created a new market and transformed the IT industry, and the basis of this success was great technology implemented by an extraordinarily talented engineering team. When I left VMware, the company had over 2000 employees, with 750 engineers, and $700M in annual revenue. VMware was a great experience and taught me how to successfully scale an engineering team to support rapid growth of a well-positioned company.
After VMware I started my own company Tintri. Over the course of my journey there, we grew the company to over 500 people and $125M in annual revenue. It was another amazing experience, however unlike VMware, we experienced the challenges of competing in a large existing market (storage) with large incumbents. Tintri provided an alternate view of scaling a company and helped round out my leadership perspective.
Early in 2019, I started my next job search and expected it to take about 6 to 9 months before I could find, explore and commit to a company that I was really excited about. Shortly into my search, I was introduced to LeapYear by Arif Janmohamed of Lightspeed, a venture firm I had worked with in the past. I met Ishaan, the co-founder and CEO and was impressed, and entered into a deeper interview process.
I’d like to share here the five reasons I considered during my process that led me to join LeapYear:
LeapYear is addressing a problem that is not solved by any existing product – unlocking the value of sensitive data. Large market factors, driven in part by current machine learning trends, are amplifying the need to solve for both data utility and data privacy. And in my investigation, it’s become clear to me that our core technology, based on the field of differential privacy, will play a critical role in supporting the future of sensitive data use.
It was important for me to be at a company that is creating a new market, rather than slugging it out in an existing market against large players. Tintri taught me the challenges of entering into an existing space covered by incumbents, and I wanted something closer to the VMware experience. That said, going after a new market can be risky. The startup can be too early or may be unable to persuade customers that there is a real problem that needs to be addressed.
However, after talking extensively with the team, and our investors, I was convinced that the timing is right for LeapYear. We already have traction with large finance, healthcare and internet companies. Combining this internal motion with the general awareness of data usage, privacy and machine learning convinced me the time is right to address this problem.
I have worked at companies that were successful in the market and had great technology and people. However, they didn’t really change people’s lives. LeapYear is addressing a problem that matters. This drew me to the company. It is exciting to wake up every morning and know that you are working on a problem that will change the way that people use data without sacrificing privacy.
I am an engineer and love working on hard technology. Prior to LeapYear I had a lot of experience in distributed systems and data center infrastructure. During my search, I decided I wanted to join a company doing novel work in the machine learning space. While at VMware and Tintri we worked on challenging technical problems that had not been solved before. Interestingly, in my job search I discovered that many “AI” or “ML” companies are taking existing ML algorithms and applying them to a specific business problem, rather than solving new fundamental engineering challenges.
In contrast, LeapYear has built a new platform for data scientists that preserves privacy. The core engine provides statistical and ML algorithms which are differentially private. There is extensive research literature on the mathematical framework of differential privacy, and it has a strong capability, all of which is much more technically complex than either VMware or Tintri. But no team had implemented the technology in an enterprise ready platform. LeapYear is the first, and only, team to do it. But the core algorithms are not enough. Because we sell to the enterprise, LeapYear also needs to provide a secure distributed platform that addresses issues like scalability (to petabyte scale), performance and availability. Finally, there are interesting usability challenges in how to present privacy to the end user – a data scientist. It is very exciting to be working on problems that span a broad range of sophisticated technologies.
LeapYear met my requirements for market, mission and technology. However, I would not have joined the company unless I also believed that the people are both very smart and good to work with. It was also critical to me that the company understands the importance of serving customers and is not just interested in building cool technology. Before deciding to join LeapYear I met with the founders, many of the engineers, the executive team and investors. I was very impressed by the quality of the people and focus on a shared mission.
The last factor for me was company stage. I am fortunate to have experience across the full range of company sizes and growth rates: The very large (EMC after they acquired VMware), medium-sized companies (VMware), a very early stage startup (Tintri) and mid-stage startups (both VMware and Tintri). Looking back, I found the mid-stage startup to be the most exciting and interesting time to be at a company. It’s a special stage, as the company is getting traction with customers and actually solving real problems, all while scaling at a rapid rate. Importantly, however, at this mid-stage timing there is still a lot to build, and an individual can have a very big impact on the company’s success.
I feel very fortunate that I found LeapYear and made the decision to join. The company and opportunity quickly passed my due diligence process, and I am enormously excited about where the company is today, and about what we can accomplish over the next few years. If you are interested in what we are doing, please reach out or check our careers page.