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New SingleStore CIO's vision is to enrich lives through data

Oliver Schabenberger is moving from BI and analytics to data management, and in this Q&A discusses his surprising departure from an established vendor to go to a newer company.

It's a time of change -- and growth -- for SingleStore.

SingleStore is a database vendor founded in 2011 and based in San Francisco that enables customers to store their data both on premises and in the cloud and is known for the speed of its data ingestion, transaction processing and query processing.

In July 2019, Raj Verma joined the company as co-CEO and became its sole CEO in September 2020. In October 2020, the vendor changed its name from MemSQL to reflect a shift from exclusively in-memory workloads to a universal storage format that supports multiple applications. In December 2020, SingleStore raised $80 million in Series E funding to fuel growth and perhaps help prepare for an initial public stock offering.

And on Feb. 1 of this year it named Oliver Schabenberger, who spent 19 years at SAS and served as chief operating officer and chief technology officer in his final three years at the BI and analytics vendor, its new chief innovation officer.

Schabenberger, who made the sudden change from an academic track at Virginia Tech to SAS in 2002, made another sudden change and left SAS for SingleStore, going from a longstanding BI and analytics vendor with an established customer base to a relatively new database vendor fighting for a share of the market.

Schabenberger recently took time to talk about his new role at SingleStore. In a Q&A, he discusses what attracted him to SingleStore, his vision for the company and his decision to leave SAS after 19 years despite being viewed by many as the next CEO of SAS, the successor to Jim Goodnight who helped found the company and has served as its CEO since its formation in 1976.

What drew you to SingleStore after 19 years at SAS?

Oliver SchabenbergerOliver Schabenberger

Oliver Schabenberger: I've known SingleStore for years now. I worked with SingleStore and its founder in my position at SAS, so the relationship goes a couple of years back. SingleStore has a very exciting technology. It's very exciting engineering in a very explosive and interesting space.

And the flip side of that last question, what prompted the decision to leave SAS after 19 years?

Schabenberger: I've made fairly abrupt and interesting career decisions in the past. In 2002 I left an academic appointment as a tenured associate professor to join SAS to become a software developer, which at the time some thought was maybe not the best career move, but it did what I hoped it would do. I was able to contribute to technology that's used at thousands of sites to solve mission-critical questions through analytics. Over 19 years I got close to the pinnacle of the company as COO and CTO leading a large team that cut across many functional areas. But I realized that when I'm really happiest, what gives me joy, is working with small, fast-moving teams on technology. I helped build several platforms at SAS going back to 2009 that were on the leading edge of us moving into multi-threading and distributed computing, high performance computing and IoT-cognitive computing. These emerging technology areas and building technology really excite me.

It was not difficult for me to imagine leaving such a large role for a greater fun factor with technology again.

What problem does SingleStore's technology help customers address?

Schabenberger: Digital transformation has changed everything, and for every organization that had a five-year plan for digital transformation, all of a sudden 2020 hit and they needed it yesterday. It became urgent and the buzzword turned into a real need overnight. I spent a majority of my career thinking about analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and how they apply in enterprises -- what their role is, how they're being used, how to build solutions, how to democratize it. I think it's an incredible time now to marry these technologies because a lot of organizations are still struggling with data. We can't underestimate the challenges they're going through in organizing their data, in moving their data, in resolving the data silos they have in their organizations. At the same time, we're living in a world where data creates more data. It's incredible.

I see organizations struggling with the quality of the data, the type of data, the consistency of the data. They have lots of data, but they don't actually have the right data to support what they need to do. They may be taking in a lot of unstructured data -- social-media data, video data, sound data -- but are they  in a position to actually utilize that? That requires a different way of thinking about data, different technology, and also it's a different type of analytics processing.

Over 19 years I got close to the pinnacle of the company as COO and CTO leading a large team that cut across many functional areas. But I realized that when I'm really happiest, what gives me joy, is working with small, fast-moving teams on technology.
Oliver SchabenbergerChief innovation officer, SingleStore

How does SingleStore enable customers to make their digital transformation manageable and prevent them from being overwhelmed by data?

Schabenberger: What excites me about SingleStore is this incredible technology that is right in the sweet spot in the religious war between transactional processing and analytics processing, and we can help organizations let go of that. It is about frictionless data and analytics for the enterprise. It is making all types of data and all types of analytics work for the enterprise. We talk a lot about artificial intelligence and machine learning as if they're some super-duper magic thing that if provided enough data will solve all problems and answer any questions, but it doesn't quite work that way. But what we've seen in the last decade … are incredible advances in computer vision and natural language processing, for example, and these technologies are at our fingertips to augment what we do. We have an incredible opportunity, and also a responsibility, to democratize technology, and we're seeing the signs of it everywhere. It's now AI and machine learning in support of something else, using that technology to make something better for us. If we can use technology to recommend a book, why can't we recommend how to best interact with data?

As you arrive at SingleStore, what's your vision for the company's roadmap?

Schabenberger: In my role as chief innovation officer, I take a broad view of innovation. Innovation is how to use curiosity and creativity to add value, and that's not just about product. That's an important part of it, but it's about all aspects of the company. It's about how you sell, how you market, how you service your customers, how you interact with your customers.

I see through a lens of analytics, and how analytics can play a role. I think we're only at the beginning of what is possible with integrating analytics and data. As an example, when we say data-driven decisions, we assume they're better decisions, so how can we make those decisions actually go better? My cause is improving lives through better decisions. So how can we make those decisions better and make those decisions at the right time? Often times that means real time. That takes a different approach to analytics, and you need to have the right technology to do that. You can enrich data at the point when you first see it with intelligence. An example would be knowing something about your customer at the first point when you meet them and onboard them and add them to the customer record, or when a transaction comes in to understand whether it's a potentially fraudulent transaction. This information should live with the data, and it should be live with the data.

As we process data, we're using more and more analytics in support of what we want to do, in support of data governance or security, and those are exciting opportunities. I think about how data and analytics can be more deeply integrated. Where I see the industry struggle is integrating choices into powerful frameworks that really help organizations in their digital transformation. There's a lot of stitching that's being done, and to remove that friction between data, analytics and decisions.

What are some market trends you're seeing, and how does SingleStore plan to meet customers' needs with respect to those trends?

Schabenberger: What I've learned over the years is that it's sometimes difficult to project out what the technology landscape will look like 10 years from now, but I try to understand the general urgencies and tendencies of technology and how they will manifest themselves. Urgencies, for example, are automation, intelligence and connectivity. If we imagine that they will increase, what manifestations will that take? For me, the rise of artificial intelligence is the manifestation of a need for greater automation in tasks that humans can do, and we've automated well on certain processes when we capture logic, but we have not automated well about cognitive processes -- reading, writing, sentencing. Human-machine interfaces are going to be really important, and that feeds into the trend of democratization. Do I really need to be a programmer to interact with technology, or could there be higher-level abstractions all the way to natural language to express what I want?

We're in an interesting period. Gartner calls it a shift from technology-literate people to people-literate technology. We have concentrated on asking people who know technology to tell us how to use it, to implement it for us, to make it work so we can consume it. But we're not going to be just consumers of technology. We're also going to be producers of it. People-literate technology is technology that really understands us -- embedded analytics, augmented analytics, giving natural language explanations of what's happening is just the beginning of that. The vision I have for the future is making better decisions -- about ourselves, about our lives, about our countries, about our communities -- and I believe those decisions will be driven by data more and more.

How did your time at SAS prepare you for what you're now going to be doing at SingleStore?

Schabenberger: Hopefully I can contribute in a number of ways. I certainly saw the evolution of data and analytics over the better part of two decades, how digital transformation is disruptive and how analytics are used by organizations. Also, I see the barriers organizations have that are real that they need to overcome. I've worked in analytic algorithms, writing and producing tens of thousands of lines of code, and I've managed teams. The transition from being an expert in technology to managing people who are experts in technology is sometimes difficult. You get promoted to a managerial role in technology because you were a really good technical expert, but that doesn't necessarily translate to being a good leader of people, so I think over time I learned to be a good leader of people. I love to bring that expertise both on the leadership side as well as the technology side.

I've worked with large enterprises for many years, and that's a sweet spot for our customers -- SAS and SingleStore have a close partnership. MemSQL came at it from the database side, but data and analytics need to be together. Wherever there's data, there needs to be analytics, and data without analytics is value not yet realized. Understanding that and how different types of analytics can work with data and execute inside the database or next to the database are things that, from a technology perspective, I know very deeply and that's part of why SingleStore and SAS are partnering very closely. Those are the strengths of the two companies, so it's really exciting for me to have started on one side and now being on the other side.

Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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