Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
I grew up in the Washington, D.C. metro area and have lived here my whole life. After completing my undergrad and computer science PhD, I took a job with the big data analytics group at John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, which is where I met Ellison Anne Williams. We worked together for several years doing lots of cool projects relating to various aspects of the US government, and she eventually asked me, “Want to come start a company?” I honestly never thought I would work at a startup – and Ellison Anne is probably the only person who could have convinced me to leave the role I was in – but I’m very glad she did.
What one piece of advice would you offer to other CTOs?
Give away your Legos. Most of us who end up as startup CTOs are strong technical contributors because we love to tinker and solve hard problems. In order to effectively build a team, we have to be willing to hand things off, which can be a hard thing to do. Building others into strong technical contributors means letting them take on hard technical challenges. Give it up, even if you love it.
What’s the most surprising thing about your job?
Beyond some undergrad courses, I had never worked with cryptography or homomorphic encryption (HE) before. The promise of HE sounded impossible to me: imagine being able to ask a database a question and get an answer, but the database does not get to see what you’re asking or what the answer is. The fact that this technology was the foundation of the company was a big part of the appeal for me — I wanted to figure it out. Turns out it’s not magic, just math.
What technology are you the most excited about right now?
Homomorphic encryption is right on the bubble of moving from the academic space to something that’s used regularly in a commercial setting. Having seen what it can do, I’m confident that it’s going to be everywhere in twenty years. I often liken it to working with databases in the 80s: people had just started to use them, but now they’re central to most business processes. I really believe this kind of cryptography is going to be like that – working with it has been a privilege.
What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
People are realizing that unfettered machine learning and data collection can have big, societal consequences. While commercial companies are obviously focused on profits, there has to be some way to reconcile the impact of their actions with the greater social good. We certainly are nowhere near solving it, but I do think people are beginning to at least consider it, which I see as a very good thing.
Read the full Q&A at Verdict.