“Driving innovation is hard. Pure bottom up doesn’t work. Pure top down doesn’t work. You need to provide guidance to engineers about where innovation is needed, but then foster engineering organizations that are open to exploring new ideas. With that said, I still have yet to discover the magic formula.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Scott, Chief Technology Officer at Cray. Dr. Scott is responsible for guiding the long-term technical direction of Cray’s supercomputing, storage and analytics products. He rejoined Cray in 2014 after serving as principal engineer in the Platforms group at Google and before that as the Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for NVIDIA’s Tesla business unit. Dr. Scott first joined Cray in 1992, after earning his Ph.D. in computer architecture and BSEE in computer engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
I came to Cray as an intern for two years, then joined the company full-time straight out of grad school. I had been with the company for about 20 years when I decided to try something new and see what life was like at a processor company versus a system company. This led me to NVIDIA, where I spent two years as CTO of their Tesla GPU computing business. The transition was a very interesting experience, watching old partners become competitors and old competitors become partners. Eventually I would be recruited by Google to help remake how they were building systems and networks in the future. I spent a year in the Google platforms group when I got a call from Cray. The person who had taken over as CTO when I left was leaving the company, and I was asked to return to Cray as CTO. Of all the places I’ve worked, I like Cray the best. The culture, and what we do as a company, are both a great fit, so I was happy to come back home to the high performance computing (HPC) world.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began your role as CTO?
The most interesting story, I can’t share (to protect the innocent), but I enjoy making bets. I had lived in Wisconsin since I was eight, so was a loyal Green Bay Packers fan, and made a bet with Chuck Morreale, our Senior Vice President of Field Operations, and a loyal Giants fan from New Jersey. The loser would have to buy and wear the jersey of the opposing team’s quarterback at the upcoming Cray Leadership Summit. Needless to say, I lost the bet, and a couple weeks later found myself giving a talk in front of the top 100 employees at Cray decked out in an Eli Manning jersey. As much as that stung, it serves as a good reminder to have a little fun at work. It’s important to take your work seriously, but you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Cray is the only company in the world focused solely on the high-end supercomputing market, and our employees are highly dedicated to making our customers successful. The average person on the street doesn’t know about Cray, but we’re behind many of the most powerful computer systems on the planet used to advance science, enhance national security, predict the weather, and help design better products.
One such example is the work being done by the Joint Design of Advanced Computing Solutions for Cancer — a program bringing together researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s national labs and the National Cancer Institute. This team is using a Cray supercomputer to predict how specific patients and tumors respond to different types of drugs. There’s no shortage of examples of how Cray is helping create a brighter future. We build incredibly fast and complex supercomputers, and our customers do amazing things with. I like to think that’s what makes our company stand out.
What advice would you give to other CTOs or leaders to help their employees to thrive?
It’s so important to remember that you work for your team. As a leader, much of your role is in helping those around you achieve success and ensuring they have the tools, resources and support they need to move their idea through the various channels within a company. I’ve had many cases where an employee would come to me with a great idea, but express frustration with the barriers that lay in their way. I learned how important it is to work with these employees to better understand and remove roadblocks, and help them work effectively with the rest of the organization.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
For me, it’s Dave Kiefer, former VP of Engineering at Cray. He’s the person who put me on a leadership track at Cray, but more importantly, he demonstrated incredible personal integrity, a calm and optimistic outlook, and a dogged determination to do the right thing for our company and the employees. People say it’s important to focus on your customers, but it’s also very important for leaders to care about their teams.
Times were rocky when the Cray Research group was first acquired by Tera out of SGI and Cray Inc. was formed. There was a large cultural divide between the two teams that threatened to tear apart the company, and I’m convinced that without Dave’s leadership, it would have. He was a rock — unswerving in his dedication and extremely level-headed. Dave has been a inspiration to me and his leadership has had a profound influence on how I choose to lead.
How have you used your success to bring good to the world?
Aside from the ways I contribute professionally on advisory boards and program committees, there are a number of great causes that are important to me. I’m very involved in the University of Wisconsin’s Computer Sciences Department, where I chair the Board of Visitors. Many of the causes I contribute to are in the areas of human rights and environmental conservation. These include Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Amnesty International, and some great local organizations in Wisconsin such as the Bolton Refuge House and Feed My People Food Bank.
More important than my individual contributions, I feel that what we do at Cray empowers people to do fantastic things to make the world a better place. In the intelligence community, our machines are used to improve and defend our national security. In the healthcare space, our customers are conducting research into promising new cancer treatments. Whether it’s protecting lives through severe weather forecasting, fighting famine by improving crop yields, or developing new renewable fuel sources to reduce our environmental impact, it’s extremely rewarding to see what people do with our machines and to play a small part in making it possible.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CTO” and why.
- Listen. You’re likely not the smartest person in the room and you’re not always going to come up with the best ideas, but you should be constantly synthesizing what you hear, and picking up on things that could have a beneficial impact on your company.
- Get very comfortable with change. Expect the landscape to constantly shift under your feet, and don’t get discouraged when things don’t go as planned. Be willing to stop doing the very things that made you successful in the past. At Cray, for example, it was a painful decision to stop building custom processors, but absolutely the right thing to do at the time. Frequent reinvention is required.
- Driving innovation is hard. Pure bottom up doesn’t work. Pure top down doesn’t work. You need to provide guidance to engineers about where innovation is needed, but then foster engineering organizations that are open to exploring new ideas. With that said, I still have yet to discover the magic formula.
- When selling, you need to talk to customers about solving their problems, not about your cool technology. It’s too easy for engineers and technologists to focus on their awesome technical specs and fail to motivate the customer.We experienced this first-hand at Cray when entering the commercial space with our analytics solutions. We were used to talking about speeds and feeds with our HPC customers, but we quickly discovered that when communicating with enterprise customers, this discussion falls flat. The lesson learned is that you have to connect to your customers’ business needs and the unique problems and pain-points they’re experiencing.
- Don’t worry about tension between product management, finance, engineering, and the CTO office. Different functions are supposed to have different outlooks and priorities, and it’s in the tension between them (as long as everyone is acting professionally) that we find the right balance.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this!
Elon Musk. I love that he’s passionate about business and technology, but it’s all underpinned by some serious concerns about society. He’s trying to transform us from a fossil fuel based economy to one based on renewable energy, and while he’s at it, create a backup-up copy of humanity on Mars. Those are pretty amazing goals! He’s also one of the key leaders calling for caution as we create ever more powerful artificial intelligence. While I think AI will do wonderful things for humanity, I share his opinion that we will need to be extremely careful and put in place safeguards to avoid some extremely bad outcomes.