From successfully petitioning the British Government to apologise for its persecution of Alan Turing to writing open-source email filtering program POPFile, John Graham-Cumming, CTO of Cloudflare, has an impressive track record in the programming space.

In 2010 he started a project to build Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, while in 2012 he campaigned for the use of open-source software in science. But in 2011 he joined web infrastructure and cybersecurity giant Cloudflare, a leader in content delivery network services, DDoS mitigation and internet security.

In this Q&A, the fifth in our weekly CTO Talk series, Graham-Cumming explains how batteries are the technology with the biggest promise, why overnight success takes years and the benefits of gym-going.

Rob Scammell: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?

John Graham-Cumming: I joined Cloudflare more than eight years ago when the company was tiny. My first job title was programmer and I wrote a lot of code. I ended up managing engineering (and ultimately having the CTO title) because someone had to do that job and I’d done it before!

What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?

The push towards diversity and representation across companies at all levels. Ultimately, this makes the world fairer and it makes us stronger because diverse teams have better outcomes.

Do you see an impact on recruitment in your company due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

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Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?

Batteries. We’re really held back by how poor batteries are. There have been a lot of leaps over time but portable power generation is needed for so much of life: phones, computers, cars, planes.

How do you separate hype from disruptor?

Hype tends to be about shouting loudly, disruption about quiet small changes that go unrecognised. You have to go look for the things that are doubling from a small base but that have a huge potential market. If you haven’t read The Innovator’s Dilemma go do it.

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?

I’ve read that Bob Metcalfe (the inventor of Ethernet) said: “[I] did not make my Ethernet money on patent royalties, but by selling Ethernet for a decade to people who didn’t know they needed it.” It’s an important point that CTOs need to remember: people need to buy the thing you and your team have made, and that overnight success takes at least 10 years.

Where did your interest in tech come from?

My mother says that as a very small child she would take me to a petrol station (gas station) to watch the pumps. At the time pumps had a rotary dial on them like a clock. For whatever reason I loved watching them. So wherever it comes from it came early.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I typically wake up around 06:30. Because I’m in Lisbon and Cloudflare’s HQ is in San Francisco I can catch up on overnight email in the morning Lisbon hours. Cloudflare’s CEO Matthew (and my boss) is often up late in San Francisco so we’ll exchange messages if there’s something time-critical happening. I really value breakfast and eat it at home. During the week I go to the gym every day before walking to work (I ride the bus if it’s raining).

My actual work is split between recruiting, dealing with my direct team members through one-to-one meetings, a lot of reading to stay up to date on what’s happening internally and externally, and outbound activities working with our customers, writing for our blog or speaking.

What do you do to relax?

The gym is really important to me because it’s challenging and takes my mind off everything. Many people seem to view the gym as dead time to fill with TED videos, podcasts or other “useless” activities. I love the fact that it’s the one time I stop thinking.

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Who is your tech hero?

I don’t have a hero. I think there’s a tendency to idealise individuals when we are all human beings full of failings and contradictions. If I had to pick someone I find absolutely fascinating to read about it would be Srinivasa Ramanujan.

What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?

Without a doubt it’s climate change. Ultimately, solving the climate change problem is a technological problem as it requires replacing currently used technologies with new ones. It looks like a political problem in part because many of the current replacement technologies are expensive or inefficient.


Read more: CTO Talk: Q&A with Wrisk’s Alex Harin