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, … Next Page »

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Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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