Meet A Minnesota Tech CTO: Adam Fokken, phData



Thank you Tarmac for underwriting our Meet a Minnesota Tech CTO series, where we get up close and personal with Minnesota’s chief techies.

The CTO: Adam Fokken, phData

How long have you been working in technology for and what is your technical background?

At a young age I developed a curiosity for technology from my father. He has worked in technology for over 40 years and growing up he always made sure we had computer for us to explore and encouraged my interest. I earned a Computer Engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

I’ve worked in technology for 15 years. Started as a Java developer at Thomson Reuters. There I worked on a number of different technologies including Enterprise Search, Hadoop and AWS Cloud. And I held a variety of different roles from operations, management, architecture and technology leadership. I’m incredibly grateful for my time at Thomson Reuters. Ultimately we were making large-scale, consumer-facing digital products using analytics and machine learning. This has come in handy at phData, where we help large companies build and run similar platforms and applications.

What are you focused on right now?

I focus everyday on two things: stability and what we call “paved roads”. Stability is an ever-present focus for us. We work mostly with large companies, and for them, Big Data and machine learning are both a massive opportunity and a threat. For them to achieve their goals, the platforms we support must be stable.

A “paved road” is about how to make good choices in chaotic, fast-moving technology environments. There are a lot of technology choices available and our goal is to use proven methodologies that we know work! We call this a “paved road” approach.

What are the some of the technologies within your company works with?

Our core technology focus is the Cloudera ecosystem. We believe that our focus helps deliver more repeatable high-value solutions in shorter amounts of time. We are also big proponents of open source and the flexibility it can provide. To that end, we have a number of employees that are contributors to open source projects.

Additionally, Cloud technologies have increasingly become a key delivery mechanism for our customers and their IT solutions. We have developed a deep understanding of how best to utilize the cloud and where most organizations struggle.

How do you ensure that IT plans, projects and objectives are aligned with business outcomes?

Having great people is the best assurance we have positive business outcomes. In addition, we strive to keep the unit of work small enough to increase our confidence in preparing timelines, estimating resources and delivering business value. Large, big bang, approaches rarely work and often don’t see the necessary payoffs along the way, so we are constantly helping our customers to define achievable and incremental improvements that demonstrate value. This is one of the core tenants of agile, but applying this approach to data management, analytics, and data science can be new for our customers.

What is the size of your department (headcount) and how is it organized/managed?

We have over 120 technologists that are organized across 3 practices (Managed Services, Big Data Consulting, and Data Science Enablement). Our organization is flat, with Engineers reporting to Architects reporting to Practice Owners. Our US headquarters is in Minneapolis and our India Headquarters is in Bangalore. We have about 40 employees in India.

How does your company approach recruiting and retention for technical positions?

Curiosity, Grit, Community and Psychological Safety are our company’s core values and I really believe they our what differentiate us. To be honest, at first, I was skeptical about focusing on core values as I was worried it would be too corporate. However, we dedicated a lot of time to creating and living our core values. They reflect who we are as phData employees. I’m proud of making these a part of our hiring and recruiting strategy along with how we promote ourselves. One of the best parts of my day is reading a Slack channel called, #shoutouts, where people give feedback that demonstrates how we are exhibiting our core values at phData. It is really great to see!

How do you personally keep up with the ever-changing technology landscape?

It can be challenging at times, however, I’m in a unique position, as I work with a lot of different companies in many different industries day-to-day. This helps me understand their challenges and the technologies they’re looking at to solve their business problems. phData can then align on those technologies to “paved road” implementations that increase our confidence delivering a solution.

In addition, there are a number of blogs and people on Twitter that I follow to keep up-to-date on industry trends and challenges. I’m also fortunate enough to attend technology conferences like Strata and AWS Reinvent.

Why do you do it, what inspires you?

I’m lucky in the fact that technology is both my job and my hobby. I get excited about new technologies and innovation. I’m comfortable with change and what moves things forward. I’m inspired by leaders and technologists that are both super smart but also self-aware of how their actions and words influence, along with, motivate others.

In addition, I have 3 young children and they inspire me to view technology from their perspective, without my past 36 years of bias. I try to understand where technology is going through their eyes because I know they’ll have a drastically different interpretation.

What excites you about where technology is heading?

Technology that truly shifts our society in a positive way makes me excited. Technology that makes people’s lives easier or makes opportunities for people more available brings me hope. For example, self-driving tech to reduce accidents, medical technology to improve health outcomes, self-paced learning programs and bootcamps, energy storage and generation. Although they represent a big shift in long-standing traditions, I’m excited but what it could mean for the future.

What concerns you about where technology is heading?

I have concerns about technology being used without truly understanding the consequences. For example, blindly using an AI algorithm and data to predict outcomes without really understanding why or how the predictions came to be. This is especially important when there is a feedback loop with people’s action and then back to the data being used in the predictions. My hunch is that this will amplify specific attributes in our collective, like addiction, divisiveness or even self-destructive tendencies. I don’t have concrete evidence but I think we are seeing this today with social media, where AI algorithms are optimized for getting users’ attention on the platform without understanding the larger consequences to society itself. I think this is concerning especially if applied to other domains.

What is your opinion of Minnesota’s tech industry – how could it be better?

Minnesota has an outstanding tech industry and community. I’m always impressed when I get to talk with other company’s tech leaders about the problems they’re trying to tackle and the energy in which technologists approach the problems.

What are you into outside of technology?

My family keeps me busy! I have three kids and they are already into a lot of activities. Hard to keep up. I coach or volunteer at their activities as much as possible. I try and stay in shape by running. It feels like the biggest bang for my workout buck. On the flip-side, I’ve gotten into smoking foods on the grill. My favorite is brisket.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thanks for allowing me to be apart of the CTO Q&A! I enjoy TECHdotMN for my local tech updates!