The Progressive Data Miner
Dr. Tianyi (TJ) Jiang, co-CEO, AvePoint
At KMWorld, we believe that great solutions providers do not simply appear out of thin air. There is always a driving force, a personality and a vision that stand behind every successful vendor. The leadership that allows companies to innovate and create great solutions is the key element in establishing and maintaining excellence.
This particular example of leadership in providing software solutions for business likes to say "The sun never sets on AvePoint." With approximately 1,300 employees, in 25 offices spread across 13 countries and five continents, it's not an unreasonable brag.
I got to spend some time with one of AvePoint's co-CEOs and co-founder Dr. Tianyi Jiang, or as he is more commonly referred to, "TJ." I was a little surprised to learn that the name "AvePoint" actually doesn't come from "SharePoint." It refers to "the avenue where all points meet." Pretty cool. Still, AvePoint is a big member of the "SharePoint ecosystem," one of the many organizations that have emerged to enhance and embellish the ubiquitous Microsoft SharePoint platform.
"We are big dreamers at AvePoint," said TJ. "Our goal is to continue to drive our innovation in order to reach hundreds of thousands of enterprise customers with tens of millions of users directly touching our products and technology."
Big dream indeed. So what's holding him back, if anything?
"What surprised me the most during the course of developing AvePoint (as it grew from a two-person company in 2001 to just about 1,300 people now) is the challenge of managing, empowering and scaling people—that is the toughest thing to do and learn.
"What makes me proud," TJ continued, "is how AvePoint has continued to invest and accelerate growth despite a global recession. We are in on the hottest trends in enterprise technology-social, cloud and big data access. But what makes me worry is that we live on the bleeding edge of that technology. We must grow and continue to innovate or we will lose our market leadership position in the blink of an eye. That's the peril of making a business in producing software products, yet that challenge is also what makes my job exhilarating," he said.
Who's The Boss?
I am fascinated with the role a good CEO, like TJ, can actually play in the day-to-day work of the business. We're often trained to think of the CEO as a representative for the shareholders, and rather remote from the actual work of the employee. But TJ gets his hands dirty. "I don't believe there is ever truly a typical day, but I do spend close to 70% of my time traveling around the world to meet with employees, customers and partners. I fervently believe that the only way to lead and stay relevant is to be in tune with the workforce, customers and market changes." But, he added, "I also think the prime directive for a CEO is to set the direction and have the vision for continued growth."
So the answer to the question, what is the prime directive for a CEO? the best answer is a little of everything. "The driving force behind our toughest decisions is ensuring that whatever path we pursue, it is always in the best interest of the company as a collective whole. And often that's not about the financial interest or what makes sense for this quarter's board meeting," insisted TJ. "Decide what makes the most sense for a company that's running a marathon to become a true global leader. It can be to provide a rewarding and accelerated career path and learning environment for employees," he insisted. "Employees need to feel challenged, and rewarded when they succeed, and feel as though they are not just completing a task but are part of making history. It's something very special."
One of the goals of this article is to learn more about how TJ got to where he is... what were the crucial stepping stones along the way? "My background in software development in both research and Wall Street have really helped instill a sense of pragmatism into everything we do. We don't assume we know everything. We learn from trying to be successful in each and every local market we play in despite the claim that the world is now flat. We are always humble students of business, and every mistake and failure we encounter is another great opportunity to learn and grow."
TJ continued on the "bipolar" nature of his background. "I'm not a technical wizard by any means. But I think going from only working in the technical space to working in the business space is a natural transition for entrepreneurs. You are kind of forced into it since it's ‘grow or die.' So it's not so much that it's difficult to transition from technical to business; rather, it takes a full-time, 24/7 passion to stay on top of an ever-changing landscape to ensure your company stays ahead and stays relevant."
The Fun Part
TJ may not confess to being a technical wizard, but here are the facts: TJ spent six years working as a senior technology consultant for major investment banks in New York City and Chicago, where his projects ranged from fix-income trading systems to global equity program trading systems to credit risk modeling. He regularly publishes consumer profiling and segmentation papers in IEEE international data mining conferences and journals. He has both a Master of Philosophy and Ph.D. in data mining from the Department of Information Systems, Operations Management and Statistics of the Stern School of Business, New York University. Also pretty impressive.
And get this: He told me he considered data mining his hobby. I suggested that sounded strange. Knitting is a hobby, I said. "We live in the information age. An age where we have such easy and efficient access to information, to collaborate for work or for fun, and, of course, to generate so much digital footprint online that's a treasure trove for marketers, policy decision makers and data miners," he began to explain.
I asked him how experience with data modeling and predictive analysis helped him personally relate to customers better? "The nirvana of a marketer is to have a day where no single person ever receives a spam email, since every marketing email you receive will be for something you would actually need or want. So a research background in data mining and predictive analysis is tremendously helpful in helping me gain a new lens when trying to understand where the market is going and what the market will want in the future. It's that numbers discipline working together with my gut instincts that guides my interactions with customers," he said.
"Data mining is the ‘art' of finding patterns and unexpectedness out of all the digital noise. It's thrilling to be able to build predictive models on consumer behavior, to suggest with a high degree of confidence whether you would like this book or movie based on your past experiences and those people who are ‘like' you. It's also very challenging and takes a lot of work, which then makes the end results that much more rewarding. I once participated in the Netflix movie recommender system challenge. Our team didn't get the best model but did good enough to be within the top 10%. That was definitely a fun experience despite the frustrating moments, the long hours and lack of resources."
I guess the "fun" part is what makes it a hobby. Rewarding and challenging are pretty good, too.
Dr. Tianyi (TJ) Jiang, co-CEO, AvePoint