What provides the impetus for change? It’s the ability to see when you’re hitting the wall — the realization that polishing the rock is not going to turn it into a wheel
—Tad Hunt, co-founder and chief technology officer of Exablox
Tad Hunt is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Exablox, a five-year-old Silicon Valley-based venture that is focused on redefining the economics of enterprise storage. Hunt has more than 18 years’ experience in information technology, most of it dedicated to some of the most fundamental and complex aspects of computer science: the design and development of operating systems, networking, and storage.
Hunt’s initial career was focused on the design, architecture and implementation of systems ranging from embedded consumer devices to telco big iron. Even while at RIT, Hunt had his sights set on embedded software design. After a work experience project while an undergraduate, he joined AT&T’s Bell Labs to work as a kernel developer on the Inferno OS project. This led to his appointment as senior engineer on the PathStar project, one of the first VoIP telephone switches. He then became a principal engineer at Entrisphere, a last-mile telecom technology startup, from its inception through acquisition by Ericsson. Two years later, Hunt co-founded Exablox.
Hunt received his BS in Computer Science from RIT’s College of Applied Science and Technology in 1997 and was a member of the Computer Science House, the launch pad for many successful technologists.
- What led you to choose RIT?
Ever since I was ten years old, I knew I would write code for a living. I was nine when I had my first encounter with a computer — a Commodore 64 that belonged to my uncle. I was immediately hooked and spent the entire weekend in front of that computer. I come from a family of builders and creators, and the creative aspects of the Commodore enthralled me — that you could use it to create something new and useful was its principle attraction for me.
I bugged my parents incessantly to get me a computer for my 10th birthday. I was soon writing programs in Basic, and upgrading my storage from cassette tape to floppy disk. Basic led to Assembly language, and soon I was also tweaking the game code published in computer magazines. In high school, I studied some computer science (CS) courses, and realized that I loved coding, and that I had the right sort of analytical brain for this line of work. I decided my career goal was to rise through the ranks as a software engineer and be someone who could write anything on any project.
I was always on the lookout for more challenging CS projects, and was particularly interested in a computer’s operating system and how applications relied on it to communicate with networks of computers and disks. So I focused my search on universities that offered solid CS theory and also had an applied component. I paid my own way through college, and knew that RIT would allow me to hit the ground running in my career.
- Was there a specific course at RIT that set your career in motion?
My favorite classes were Operating Systems Fundamentals and Systems Programming, taught by a recognized guru in this field, Professor Warren Carithers. We learned the fundamental building blocks and then we broke off into small teams to build an operating system from scratch. If you’re in this class, you must be really interested in the basics of computer systems — and sure enough, it was a great team of people. I also learned something very important in this class: adaptability.
Professor Carithers essentially taught us how to fish; he gave us just enough of a hint to figure out what we needed to do next. I’ve found that this is a key skill in software development and especially in a startup. Small, motivated teams can move faster because there’s a lot less process and you’re not just a small cog in a big machine. Consequently you’re not an interchangeable asset, success depends on thinking creatively and solving unanticipated problems. This class also prepared me for the way industry works: you only get credit for meeting or exceeding your success goals—especially in this line of work with so much exceptional talent available locally here in Silicon Valley.
- How did you apply the skills you acquired while at RIT?
RIT’s co-op program, which requires you work in a real job while a student, was the first time I was able to put what I was learning to practical use on a daily basis. During my first six-month block, I was employed by Nortel. This was a perfect experience for me: I was working on low-level programming teaching the GNU C++ compiler how to compile the exception handling language features. My task was to add that feature to the open source project — it really stretched my capabilities.
My next co-op block was with Lawyers Cooperative Publishing, a firm that was adapting case law text to what was then a pivotal moment in publishing: the arrival of the Internet and web browsers. This complemented my systems experience with some application development, since it involved adapting a database of case law and turning it into HTML, and also developing the server-side code that could handle natural-language search requests from lawyers. Again, this provided an excellent foundation for what lay ahead.
- How did you find your inner passion and design a path to pursue it?
My passion comes from the rush you get from creating something, but I’ve found in my career that you don’t always get to create something that’s successful. By the time I entered high school, I had mastered the Commodore 64 and was ready for new technical challenges. RIT accelerated my ability to go from theory to practice and from practice to product — creating something from scratch. This turned out to be a key factor in my professional life.
After I graduated, this passion enabled me to land a job at Bell Labs, where I worked on the third-generation OS (Inferno) that came out of the Unix lab, and parlayed that into helping build Pathstar, a VoIP switch at the beginning of the transition from circuit to packet networks. Unfortunately, Lucent was wrestling with significant corporate challenges at the time, and ultimately failed to make a commercial success out of both Inferno and Pathstar: Inferno was technically excellent but did not achieve market momentum, while Pathstar was commercially successful but was mothballed despite that!
Still longing for that startup vibe, I moved to Silicon Valley and joined Entrisphere, where I rose to principal engineer. We were acquired by Ericsson — a great outcome for us. But with the new owner came that “big company” feeling. So, again, I left to focus on my passion: building something from the ground up. I started Exablox in 2010 with Frank Barrus (a close friend and RIT and Computer Science House alumnus) and Matt Catino, another friend from our Inferno days. We’ve been building like mad men ever — Exablox is perfectly positioned in a market that’s undergoing disruptive change.
- What is the biggest challenge business leaders face today?
As the technical leader of a venture in Silicon Valley, what keeps me very busy right now is hiring high-quality people in an incredibly competitive labor market. For a startup, a particular challenge is to find people who possess the right way of thinking and who know how to productize ideas. What we need are skilled developers with excellent generalist skills across a broad variety of practical applications who can also adapt their skills to solving a wide range of problems. It’s easy to find candidates that can build components that fulfill crisply defined requirements; but that’s the very anti-definition of a startup, where you need folks that can reason about and deliver end-to-end solutions even when the boundaries are unclear.
Another factor is the fast pace of change as our industry deals with a transformation that is sometimes referred to as the “consumerization of IT” — technologies are getting increasingly complicated. However this needs to be obscured from the user because no matter what you’re building, it has to be simple for the user. Products that are easy to use are adopted much faster than complex products — this spurs innovation as companies compete on delivering the best user experience. For example: in our business, it used to take an army of specialized technical staff to run a datacenter; now we’re helping to turn it into more like a handful of generalists, because everything is policy-driven, not technology-driven.
- What are the most important contributing factors that enable change?
I think there are a couple of things that provide the impetus for change. Foremost, the ability to see when you’re hitting the wall, or the realization that polishing the rock is not going to turn it into a wheel. Part of the struggle here is our built-in resistance to change—there so many things we do every day because we’ve always done them that way. So, to be an agent of change, you need to see through these obstacles and envision a better way of doing things. Right now, Exablox is doing interesting things in storage—both with the technology and the business model—that have never been done before. Storage has always been a very conservative industry and we’re disrupting the current model.
The other key factor of change is what I call The Moment. We could see and experience all the frustrations and pain points in mass storage and that led us to think hard about why these problems existed in the first place. When we figured out the solution, I couldn’t believe that nobody had done this before — it seemed so obvious. As a software developer and an architect, I was always running out of disk space — it’s incredibly frustrating. Everybody had become conditioned to thinking, “That’s the way it is: you hit capacity and then it’s hard to add storage to server systems.”
We decided to change that with a new, disruptive approach. We invented a technology to offer bottomless storage and then a business model that others could not compete with. We let our customers (typically datacenter and small to medium enterprises) bring their own drives—they get to choose—and then we let them switch out storage as they wish. Our customers love this new approach — and their enthusiasm has enabled us to grow fast by turning the stereotypes of our industry on their head and think about storage differently. I owe much of this ability to solve problems creatively to my formative years at RIT. It’s a skill that will always be on demand – perhaps even more so today than ever.