Andy Walker, President and CEO of 42six, talked with the WashingtonExec about the evolution of data technology from a vertical to a horizontal scale, and using archived data to study historical trends.
Walker also discussed his decision to become an entrepreneur as well as the atmosphere that his company embodies to bring and retain top talent.
WashingtonExec: Could you start off by telling us a little bit about your background and what made you start 42six?
Andy Walker: I was a computer science undergrad and right after college I went to work in Chicago. When I started out my first job was working on an online trading platform for an options trading company. It was a really great exposure to just kind of a different world of data – that of the financial markets. I spent six years at the Department of Defense. I learned a lot about unstructured data and structured data and how they are valuable and when it makes sense to merge them, a lot of different exposure to data that I didn’t have in the financial markets. After that I went to work for another company actually started as a government contractor. I really saw data becoming the driving factor for a lot of our customers and that people were really trusting the data. I knew that there was an opportunity to start a company around this.
WashingtonExec: What convinced you to start investing in big data?
Andy Walker: We were doing it for awhile – differently than we do today. At the time, we were using big relational databases. We had some different problems and we had a totally different volume of data. I didn’t have the idea to start 42six until the data really got to a point where current technologies – when I saw the data outpacing the technology I knew there had to be something disruptive coming into the market. If disruptive technology was coming into the market, then it was time for a disruptive company to come into the market as well.
“I think we are going to start seeing data doubling every six months and then every four months. I think the technologies are going to have to evolve a couple more times to keep up with that.”
WashingtonExec: Do you think the amount of big that needs to be structured is still outpacing the current available technology?
Andy Walker: I think the big difference is we now have technology to scale horizontally and not vertically. A lot of the technology that we were using in the mid 2000’s was technology that scaled vertically. Now we’re seeing technologies that understand that the data is going to keep growing at rates that we have never seen so they are trying to create technologies that scale horizontally so that when we run out of processing power or we run out of storage we can just add more hardware to it. I think that shift in mindset is going to help us keep pace with the data that is coming in. That being said, I think we are going to start seeing data doubling every six months and then every four months. I think the technologies are going to have to evolve a couple more times to keep up with that.
WashingtonExec: Why do you think the government has gotten more involved with archiving data?
Andy Walker: The reason it’s increasing more than it was before is because everything in our life is becoming a sensor, generating data so the unstructured data with the exclusion of the internet and the explosion of people doing social networking and whatnot – all of these things are generating unstructured data. Structured data is then being generated by every sensor that is out there. It really is amazing that every piece of technology we use is going to start generating data and when that data starts becoming a commodity that companies and people can use, we are going to see an explosion that we haven’t seen before. On the archival side I have my own reasons for archiving unstructured data with my government customers; the main reason that we do it is because the approaches we have for doing unstructured data are constantly evolving and by having access to that raw data by archiving that raw data we can continually improve.
WashingtonExec: You have talked about how data has been evolving from vertical to horizontal. Where do you see the biggest changes in technology?
Andy Walker: I would say that the biggest change that we see in technology in the way we look at data is this idea of writing the data once and then moving the question to the data. One of the big changes that I’ve seen is the ability to now pass that question over to the data; so the data stays in one place, the question is what moves to the data. When you can do that, the question is very small and the data is very big. You can start doing things much faster and at a much larger scale than you ever could before. I would say that that change in technology is what’s allowing us to do things with data that we’ve never been able to before.
WashingtonExec: Why do you think we are now trying to keep track of our archiving unstructured data?
Andy Walker: I think archivals are interesting because historical trends will tell us about how we are evolving in the future. If we can calculate historical trends, the unstructured text is really valuable because if we can analyze and start helping identify different points in time. For instance, in an election or something like that that’s generating different types of data than we have ever seen, we can compare that against our archives. How is this election different from the election we saw four years ago or twenty or thirty years ago? Being able to look at those historical trends and compare that to present day or even the future I think is really important and without those archives it is increasingly more difficult to do that.
WashingtonExec: What made you want to start your own business, leave government and move to the private sector and forge your own path?
Andy Walker: Really the reason I wanted to start my own company was that I wanted to do something really focused. I had this professor in college when I was getting my MBA that said that he woke up one morning, he was the CEO of a huge publicly traded company, he said that he woke up one day and realized that his company was only good at one thing and he said that it really made him nervous. Really what that told me was that you can create a focused company that is the absolute best at that one thing, that just does that one or even two things and does it really well – I think you will always do better than a company that tries to do 30, 40, 50, 60 different offerings and play in 60 different market segments. We are 100% focused on our government customers and we are 100% focused on big data and custom applications to analyze that big data. I think because of our focus, our customers know exactly when to hire us, how to hire us and it’s just easy for them.
WashingtonExec: When was this company founded?
Andy Walker: We were founded almost exactly a year ago; May 1st of 2011. We’ve been in business for just over a year.
WashingtonExec: Your company website featured a picture of your employees enjoying a beer while working.
Andy Walker: Yes, on Fridays we bring beer out at about 4:00pm and we’ll have a beer and work a little bit and then we stop working and hang out and talk. We just get to know each other outside of work and it’s a pretty common thing at 4:00 to just have a beer on a Friday.
WashingtonExec: So it’s a part of your company culture plan?
Andy Walker: If you can see our office, it’s like half clubhouse and half office. It’s like a giant warehouse that’s been decked out – very Silicon Valley, but at the same time just cozy. You can’t force people to like their jobs but what you can do is create an environment where people want to be there. I don’t hire the people that work at 42six, the people at 42six hire those people. The individual teams interview and they are the ones that make the hire or no hire decision. If we don’t have that culture, we’re not going to have a place where people want to be creative, where people want to be there and where people want to bring in their friends that are also the best talent out there. There are very few things that I wouldn’t do for the people at 42six to make sure that they have what they need.
WashingtonExec: How do you maintain and recruit top talent?
Andy Walker: The biggest issue to recruit top talent in the Washington DC area is there is a lot of competition. There are a lot of great companies in the area and I think if you are going to use salary as the only driver to recruit people, there is always somebody that can pay more. When we hire people, we like to show them the problems that we are working on and we like to show them that we are trying to go after the hardest problems. The other thing is we try not to hire based on security clearance. I know that that’s something that a lot of companies have to have in the DC area. We try to hire just great people and great talent and will work on the classification and the clearance stuff afterwards. Everyone that we hire is well aware that that’s something we need everybody in our company to go through but you don’t have to have it the day you walk in the door. What you do have to have is aptitude and attitude. If you are smart enough, and have the right attitude, that’s all we need.
WashingtonExec: I’ve never really talked to anyone that’s said that ‘we’ll hire someone without a security clearance, they can get that later’. I think that’s a great idea.
Andy Walker: I think that the talent pool’s small enough, to be honest. Honestly if there is anybody out there that is in college and is worried about getting a job after college the best thing to do is go get the degree in computer science. I know it’s not for everybody but I do think it’s one of those skills that as a country we need more of – there’s just not enough of that type of skill. It’s something that I hope we foster in our public schools and higher learning institutions. There are so many jobs out there and great jobs in my opinion that involve technology that the unemployment rate for these sectors is really low. It’s hard enough to find great talent and then when you start putting clearances and what-not on top of it and making that a requirement for employment you just decrease the depth of your talent pool even more.
WashingtonExec: You just said that you celebrated your 1 year anniversary. How has this year been different from what you expected?
Andy Walker: I went into it with the attitude of ‘there’s a heck of a lot of stuff I don’t know’. I went into it knowing that I’m not the world’s best CEO but I absolutely want to be the world’s best CEO. Every day I walk in there and I know that I’m going to learn something and I know that my coworkers are going to be the ones that teach it to me. . Knowing that you don’t know it is the first step. I went in well aware that there are a lot of things that I didn’t know but I surrounded myself with great people and they had no problem teaching it to me every day. It’s been a really good first year. I couldn’t be happier with where we are at.
WashingtonExec: Who are some CEOs that you admire or model leadership technique after?
Andy Walker: The ex professor I referred to when talking about building a focused company was Harry Kraemer. He was the CEO of Baxter International and now sits on several boards to include Madison Dearborn Partners and SAIC. He teaches value based leadership and how to build a company with purpose and focus. He worked his way up at Baxter from a financial analyst to CFO and eventually CEO. It was in his class that the idea for 42six was born. Regardless of industry, Professor Kraemer is someone that I try to model.