Gregg Ostrowski is the regional CTO at Cisco AppDynamics, an application and performance management IT company.
Its software tools are used by businesses to monitor “every line of code” across the network, data centre and security and applications. In 2017 tech giant Cisco acquired AppDynamics for $3.7bn.
Prior to his position as AppDynamics CTO, Ostrowski held senior leadership positions at Samsung and Research in Motion.
In this Q&A, the 50th in our weekly series of CTO Talks, Ostrowski explains why CTOs should set aside their egos, reveals why AI will “simplify and streamline our lives” and shares why he’s got the buzz for beekeeping.
Rob Scammell: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
Gregg Ostrowski: I’ve been in the tech field for more than 25 years. I started out in IT support, before moving into the mobile sector where I became fascinated by how mobile technology could be used to simplify people’s lives. I was frequently faced with the challenge of helping organisations build better applications and this obsession with refining the user experience naturally led me towards the performance analytics space.
Where did your interest in tech come from?
Since I was young, I’ve loved to tinker with things – taking them apart and figuring out how to put them back together. I remember being yelled at as a kid by my father for deconstructing the lawnmower. By the time I was in my late teens, this urge to create led me to build my first computer – an IBM XT – which would go on to be the same computer I learnt to programme on and complete my degree in Computer Science.
Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?
I feel strongly about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. Whilst AI is often overhyped, it will be a crucial tool for navigating the information-rich world we live in and making sense of data where manual approaches cannot. Whether that means diagnosing illnesses in a healthcare setting or detecting IT issues in the business context, AI will significantly simplify and streamline our lives.
How do you separate hype from genuine innovation?
To me, hype arises from visions that are simply unrealistic. An inability to consider the practical reality of a technology leads to them being blown massively out of proportion, to the point where they can no longer purport to solve an existing problem. By contrast, genuine innovation requires staying grounded and keeping the real-life problem you want to solve in view at all times.
What one piece of advice would you offer to other CTOs?
My biggest piece of advice for CTOs is to set your ego aside. If you make a wrong decision, the most important thing you can do is own up to it. It is far better to recognise your mistake early on and correct it than attempt to force it through. This will save you an immense amount of pain and hassle in the long term. Of course, the more you can equip yourself with visibility of systems and processes and data from the start, the more informed your decisions can be in the first place and the less likely it is you’ll have to change your direction.
What’s the most surprising thing about your job?
Even today, many organisations continue to be affected by internal conflicts stemming from the siloed structure of their business, and remain unable to communicate across their organisation effectively or efficiently. I am shocked by how many businesses are yet to break down the silos within their organisation, when the potential rewards of cross-business collaboration have become all too obvious.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
To me, the biggest technology challenge facing humanity is information overload.
As our lives become increasingly reliant on digital technology, we have become oversaturated with information, to the point where it often serves no other purpose but to distract. I think finding a way to coexist with technology in a way that benefits us but does not consume our lives, is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of this digital era. To this end, organisations have a responsibility to provide flawless digital experiences to their customers. As applications become essential to our daily lives – from shopping to banking, to staying connected with friends and family – it is important that they continue to add value whenever or wherever they are used.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for fun?
Twelve years ago, I decided to start beekeeping as a hobby, and I’ve been a beekeeper ever since. Having an opportunity to get away from my screen and interact closely with nature is deeply refreshing, and it marks a significant change of pace from business life. I’ve also learned that if you stay calm under pressure you’re less likely to get stung… and that’s a good life lesson!
What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
I would say that the most important thing happening right now is the rise of full-stack observability. The pandemic has forced businesses around the world to undergo digital transformation at an unprecedented speed. On average, organisations implemented new digital innovation projects three times faster in 2020 than in any previous year. But the fast pace of innovation has led to overwhelming complexity across IT environments and data noise.
So I’m really excited by how full-stack observability can be used by technologists to monitor the entire IT stack – from customer-facing applications down to the core network and infrastructure – and help identify and fix performance issues before they adversely affect customers and the business.
In another life you’d be?
I’ve always loved the idea of being an astronaut. I’ve long been fascinated by space exploration and the curiosity of exploring the unknown. Now, recent innovations in private space exploration have once again reignited my infatuation with this, and it’s been a joy to follow the developments of SpaceX and Blue Origin as they work towards making space travel accessible to all.