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A visionary CSE alumnus has navigated successful entrepreneurial launch into the tech universe, not just once, but twice in the last six years. The latest venture for Christophe Bisciglia (’03) is WibiData, a San Francisco-based startup founded in 2010 to build real-time big data applications for customers across a variety of sectors from retail to the finance industry. Bisciglia is at the forefront of a revolution in how companies use data to drive more personalized interactions with customers.
Bisciglia joined Google upon graduating from UW CSE in 2003. In 2008 he left Google to launch Cloudera with three partners who had worked for Facebook, Yahoo, and Oracle. Cloudera is a Palo Alto company and the leading provider of open-source, Apache Hadoop-based software and services run on banks of networked computers. Cloudera today has more than 500 employees and counts eBay, Expedia, J.P. Morgan Chase, Nokia, and Walt Disney Company among its many customers.
Bisciglia left Cloudera in 2010, though. Why leave a company you founded that’s on a clear path to success, only two years after its establishment? “In founding Cloudera, I had an application focus, but supporting the platform on the business side as the company grew was a huge job,” Bisciglia explains. “The application side has always been the most motivating for us, and I wanted to get back to our roots and figure out how to take the powerful Hadoop platform and offer application level solutions to a range of larger companies.”
Bisciglia, as CEO, and about 35 employees are doing so at WibiData by leveraging big data infrastructure like Hadoop, HBase, Cassandra and the Kiji Project, and tools for data scientists like Scala and R, to help customers deliver real-time, personalized applications across the web, mobile, and other channels. WibiData’s applications collect, store, and analyze data from many sources, ranging from real-time application logs, to data warehouses and other offline data. These data sources then power the real-time predictive models that deliver the types of application experiences consumers have come to expect from companies like Google, Amazon, and Netflix.
“To date we have attracted $23.5 million in venture funding. It gives us running and breathing room to focus on customers and technology while we market our products and services. Fund-raising is one of the ways that I get to justify my existence as CEO,” Bisciglia cheerfully notes.
Early investors included Google’s current Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of Cloudera Mike Olson, and angel investors Ron Conway and David Lee. Series A funding in early 2012 and Series B funding in May of 2013 brought in additional funding from New Enterprise Associates, Canaan Partners, and Schmidt. Among the company’s early customers are Opower, a leading energy software company, one of the largest SaaS CRM providers in the world, as well as Fortune 150 companies in retail and media.
Introducing Cloud Computing at CSE
While working as a senior software engineer at Google, Bisciglia returned to CSE in January 2007 to launch Google 101, a series of classes on cloud computing. Bisciglia had hatched the idea to use his 20 percent independent project time at Google to develop a course to introduce UW students to programming at the scale of the cloud. CEO Schmidt gave it his personal blessing, and Bisciglia worked with Professor Ed Lazowska and students to implement the concept. Google funded a cluster of 40 networked computers for CSE’s server room.
Bisciglia organized a team of UW students to help plan the curriculum and recruited volunteers from Google’s Kirkland office to help teach the first course. It focused on Hadoop, an open source version of MapReduce, the methodology that allows Google to analyze so much data at scale. (The co-creator of MapReduce is UW CSE PhD alum Jeff Dean, now at Google (see Alumni Achievement Awards: Jeff Dean in this issue); the co-creator of Hadoop is UW CSE PhD alum Mike Cafarella, now on the faculty at the University of Michigan.)
“We didn’t know exactly what we’d do when we started WibiData, but the journey is half the fun. At the end of the day, I feel humbled and lucky for the opportunity to inspire others and help tell the story they create.”
— Christophe Bisciglia
“One of Christophe’s many strengths is that he doesn’t always color between the lines,” said Lazowska. “Need a cluster of computers? No problem. Buy a few racks on eBay with your credit card, and submit for reimbursement. Christophe landed on the cover of Business Week as Google’s ‘cloud guy,’ and the course drew a flood of students to Google.”
Google 101 went national after Google and IBM teamed up to build an academic data center, administered by the National Science Foundation, to support the scale-out. The project expanded from 20 percent time to full-time for Bisciglia. A year later, with Schmidt’s blessing, Bisciglia left Google to found Cloudera.
Bisciglia, who grew up in Gig Harbor, credits his entrepreneurial spirit to his father and grandfather, who owned their own businesses. As a teenager, he plunged into business by buying, raising, and selling Icelandic horses in the Northwest and to customers as far flung as Colorado and New York. He taught himself programming and built an interactive website and database to promote his business, which sparked his interest in computer science. As someone who has trouble fitting into molds, he especially appreciates the encouragement he received at CSE.
“Ed was so incredibly understanding of the challenges I faced,” Bisciglia says. “And CSE has an entrepreneurial spirit. The faculty didn’t just teach us programming and fundamentals, but posed questions as to why technology matters and how it can help solve big problems.” Bisciglia’s Google 101 and Cloudera initiatives won him recognition as “Smartest Engineer” in Fortune’s 2010 list of “the 50 smartest people in technology.” Other good company on that list included Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page.
The Vision for WibiData
Bisciglia wants to take the time to focus on product R&D and develop the platform the right way to develop a powerful core technology with vertically integrated solutions for users, and then ramp up marketing and their customer base. He feels fortunate to have recruited smart people to WibiData, and puts heavy emphasis on creating a great work environment and culture where people collaborate around shared goals.
“WibiData is packed to the gills with CSE graduates. These people are defining the future of big data,” Lazowska says. “The reputation of UW CSE is based almost entirely on the accomplishments of our alums. A million thanks to Christophe and so many others for making us look good!”
Przemek Pardyak bluntly notes there are 500 ways for startup companies to fail. Yet, he co-founded and sold two successful startups and is now one year into his third company, Usermind, which launched in spring 2013. The 14-person staff is developing software that helps sales, marketing, and business teams better manage their processes across multiple Software as a Service platforms (SaaS).
Pardyak was smitten by computer science as a teenager in Poland. At a time when few people had home computers, he first taught himself to program by writing code on paper.
Pardyak earned BS and MS degrees in Poland, but did his master’s research in distributed systems in Copenhagen with UW CSE PhD alum Eric Jul. Jul convinced him that the USA was the best place for further graduate study, and urged him to apply to CSE. While at a conference in Paris, Pardyak met Hank Levy. “I was like ‘Wow.’ If this is the level of people I can work with at the UW, I’m coming.”
Pardyak also visited Carnegie Mellon, where Brian Bershad was “an up and coming star.” “I was fascinated by his work on operating systems, so I accepted admission to Carnegie, a tough decision because I was very attracted to UW,” Pardyak says. Fate intervened when Bershad emailed to say he was moving to the UW and Pardyak still had an option to enroll. “Coming to the UW and working with Brian was the absolute ideal situation,” he says.
After his fifth year at CSE, the SPIN operating systems project wrapped up, and he got involved with classmate Ashutosh Tiwary’s research, which they thought had commercial potential. They took a CSE-Foster School entrepreneurship course, and their presentation pitch to VC funders sparked interest. “We quit school in 2000 and founded Performant, just when the dot com bubble burst,” Pardyak recalls. Despite several tough years, they raised funding and marketed Performant’s application performance monitoring products. After they sold the company to Mercury Interactive in 2003, Pardyak spent about a year and a half as its chief diagnostics architect, followed by a year and a half at Microsoft.
Pardyak and Tiwary hooked up again to found Doyenz in 2007. They knew that virtualization and cloud were going to change the world and decided to build a business around those technologies. Persistent Systems bought their cloud-based disaster recovery service for small to medium businesses in late 2012 with the goal to take the product to the enterprise market. After he left Persistent and spent time mulling his next options, Pardyak again felt pulled to entrepreneurship.
Usermind’s Innovation Empowers Users
Usermind, co-founded with a colleague from Mercury Interactive, began not with an idea, but with extensive research on 40 companies with a goal to identify the biggest pain points in how businesses operate when faced with opportunities and challenges of using SaaS services. The key turns out to be business operations: the people and the processes that organize and constantly optimize teams like sales, marketing or finance, and which ultimately determine how successful a business is in the market. Usermind’s approach is an alternative to old school top down software processes. Their product gives marketing, sales, and business staff the ability to be creative and easily adapt processes to adjust rapidly to constant feedback from the customers and market. “It helps teams experiment and innovate and find better ways to drive their businesses,” he says.
Their thorough market research and product targeting set them apart and quickly drew $7.6 million in series A funding from top VC firms Andreessen Horowitz, Charles River Ventures, and SVAngel. They are now in beta testing with a few select potential clients and expect to have a product on the market soon.
Pardyak as CTO and his co-founder and CEO Michel Feaster believe they have increased the odds for startup success by focusing intently on the company’s culture from day one. They both have seen the difference that the right culture can make and agree with Peter Drucker that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Pardyak had enjoyed CSE’s environment, which he describes as rigorous, creative, and where everyone “cooperated with ease, worked hard, and had a lot of fun together.”
“At Usermind we didn’t want a mission and vision statement. We wanted to create an environment where people are having fun, creating value for customers, and can have a life outside work,” Pardyak says. “Founders invent the original product, but it’s the entire team than innovates and executes after that. The right culture is the difference between a team that can do very well or not at all.” They hire staff who will both embrace and help shape the culture. The company byword is CCREAD: creativity, courage, respect, empowerment, action, and delight. As the website notes: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”