Collin Davis is the CTO of Pindrop, a cybersecurity company providing artificial intelligence software to detect fraudulent phone calls.
The Atlanta, US-based company’s technology is used in call centres for banks, insurers and retailers to authenticate callers and prevent fraudulent transactions. Founded in 2011, Pindrop has raised more than $200m in funding.
In this Q&A, the 51st in our weekly series of CTO Talks, Davis explains why the CTO role is more about people than tech, reveals why he’s backing voice tech and recounts scaling an 8,000-foot glaciated valley.
Rob Scammell: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
Collin Davis: I fell in love with computers and programming in high school. At a young age, I learned to build my first computer. I went to UCLA to study Computer Science and while I was there, I was fortunate enough to get an internship just down the street at Symantec. I often worked 80 hours a week, while also going to school, just because I enjoyed it and I was learning so much. As my career evolved, I did a lot of programming, but I also learned to be a manager of people, to be a leader, and by the time I left I was the Vice President of Engineering at Symantec.
I then went on to work at Amazon Web Services where I was able to work with some incredibly smart people who not only taught me about engineering leadership but also product leadership. Amazon Echo, the very first Alexa device launched shortly after I joined AWS. I saw how voice was powering the smart home and believed it can transform businesses as well. This led me to found Alexa for Business to help customers voice-enable their office spaces. When I met Vijay (Pindrop’s CEO) and the Pindrop team, the opportunity to combine the experience I had at Symantec and the passion I have for voice was something I couldn’t refuse.
Where did your interest in tech come from?
I’ve always loved building things, both digitally and physically. My grandfather was a blacksmith in Yorkshire, England. He worked with his hands, he taught me the art of woodworking. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, the computer revolution had just started to take off. I saw it as an opportunity to be a builder, but to be a builder in a new craft, a new frontier. The idea of being a computer or software engineer has always been attractive to me. I still like working with my hands, I like the tactile element of it, but I definitely have looked at a line of code or a solution to a programming problem and seen beauty in that the same way I would see in some sort of craft. I have always found beauty in simple, elegant solutions to complex problems.
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Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?
I wholeheartedly believe that it is voice and the ability to interact with computers using our voice. I’ve always been fascinated by it, but I became a huge believer in the power of voice about six years ago, taking inspiration from my two-year-old son. He’d been misbehaving so I sent him on a timeout. He walked over to the corner of the room, turned around and looked over his shoulder, and said “Alexa, set a timer for two minutes”. While funny at the time, it was the first sign of a “voice native” generation. Every year thereafter my son would point out things that were ‘broken’ because there wasn’t the option to interact with them through voice, for example, in the car, he couldn’t ask the radio to play music.
What these scenarios with my family have firmed up in my own mind is that voice is one of the first ways we learn to communicate, it’s a core part of our identity. To be able to communicate through voice with computers and systems using that same modality is simply game-changing. What’s more, the evolution of voice technology enabling these systems to understand who is speaking is truly outstanding.
How do you separate hype from genuine innovation?
In order for something to be genuinely innovative, it has to solve a customer problem, and that customer problem has to be clear. Until you can truly connect technology to solving an actual need, it’s just hype.
What one piece of advice would you offer to other CTOs?
It’s essential to walk the line between having big ideas that will disrupt your own business and the industry or space that you’re in, while at the same time continuing to be pragmatic and focused on execution, delivery, and pace. Taking big bold ideas, that might be the outcome of multi-year endeavours, and breaking them down into small chunks that your team can execute on is the best approach to take. As a CTO your predominant job is to remove the roadblocks to allow your team to go and build. That’s the key to being successful in this space.
What’s the most surprising thing about your job?
How human it is. It’s incredibly easy as a CTO or someone in technology to focus solely on the tech or the algorithms, or even as we mentioned earlier, the hype, but being successful in this space is really about meeting people, and inspiring people to do great work and build innovative products. In spite of all the deep and complex problems we’re solving with technology, people are still far more complex. It’s that aspect of the job that people tend to forget.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
I’d say it’s figuring out the appropriate applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and coming up with ways where we can apply AI that is constructive and better for humanity, rather than destructive. We’ve seen examples of both. There are scary, negative applications of it but then there are also compelling life-changing ones too. A technology with as much potential as AI can be a tricky thing to navigate.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for fun?
I once went on a hiking trip in the Eastern Sierras where we climbed up to a glaciated valley with about 8,000 feet of elevation, carrying ice climbing gear and ropes. We slept on the side of the valley and at about 4 am the following day we woke up, in the dark, and started to climb again, using just a headlamp for light. I remember very clearly standing in the dark, freezing snowfield, thinking that what I was doing was insane and wondering what I was doing there, but at the same time thinking that it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and probably ever would do.
What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
In the voice field, I truly believe it is growing technology’s capabilities beyond simply understanding what a speaker is saying and what their intentions are, which is a very hard problem in and of itself, to identifying who the speaker is through just their voice. Being able to do that will unlock so many different use cases that we currently take for granted. For example, all of our interactions with our mobile phone and other systems are based on an assumption that those devices know who is interacting with the system, and that allows for usefulness that voice doesn’t have yet. As we evolve our own technology at Pindrop, we’re working to unlock that.
In another life you’d be?
The boring answer is I would do the same thing. Honestly, I love what I do, I love what I’m building, I love the people I work with. In another life, doing it all over again, I would want even more time to focus on other aspects I enjoy such as doing woodwork in my shop, or the big mountain ice climbing adventures, but I don’t think I’d do anything dramatically different from what I do right now.