After turmoil, DataRobot’s new boss looks to turn AI startup around – The Boston Globe

In June, DataRobot, one of Boston’s leading artificial-intelligence companies, was in danger of collapsing from a combination of overheated financial expectations, excessive spending, and an employee revolt.
But after considerable turmoil that included deep job cuts and near-total turnover of the executive suite, DataRobot’s new chief executive appears to have calmed the chaos and is working to get the business back on track.
To ensure the company’s survival, however, he first had to slash expenses — including laying off one-quarter of employees in August.
“We have turned the page and we are looking forward to the future,” Debanjan Saha told the Globe in his first interview since taking the top job in July. Hiring has resumed modestly and the company has sufficient resources to ride out the weak economy, he said.
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An experienced tech executive who worked at Google, Amazon, and IBM, Saha said he is emphasizing transparency with his employees and improving products for customers.
“I think the future is bright,” Saha said. “I don’t know how long it will take for the market to recover, but we have a long runway and we are going to stay focused on delighting our customers. That’s my focus.”
Prior CEO Dan Wright’s top priority was taking the company public, but the stock market’s drop has all but shut down the flow of initial public offerings.
“If your focus changes to ‘I have to do an IPO by this time’ or ‘I have to get to this stock value by this time,’ that often gets us off track,” Saha said without mentioning Wright by name.
Eighteen months ago, DataRobot was valued at $6 billion. But with the tech bubble popping and venture capitalists slowing their investments in startups, DataRobot is worth considerably less now, analysts said. Among similar public companies, shares of C3.ai have dropped more than 90 percent from their peak and Snowflake is down over 60 percent.
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“I’m an optimist and I’m excited to see what [Saha] can do,” Gartner analyst Peter Krensky said. “But they are on their third CEO in two years. … We have to see how well the new leadership team does putting out the internal cultural fire and retaining top talent.”
Saha’s career experience positioned him well to guide the AI startup through its recovery.
After he got a PhD in computer science at the University of Maryland, IBM lured him away from becoming a professor. He spent more than a dozen years at the company, interrupted by a stint at an optical networking startup, where he witnessed firsthand the ups and downs of the Internet bubble.
In 2014, he joined Amazon’s web services unit and oversaw development of a database app called Aurora. In 2019, he joined Google to work on data analytics apps. In February, he joined DataRobot as president and chief operating officer, while remaining based in the Bay Area.
“Why did I join? If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I have always been a robot and finally found the right place,” he joked.
But the real reason, he said, is all about artificial intelligence and machine learning. “It’s not a point technology, it’s more like software, it’s more like the Internet,” Saha said. “You are going to see AI and ML pervasively in pretty much everything that we do — it’s just a matter of time.”
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DataRobot was founded in 2012 by data scientists Jeremy Achin and Tom de Godoy with the aim of helping customers use AI and machine learning to create predictive business models. Rapid growth attracted Silicon Valley investors who clashed with the founders and ultimately pushed them out. Wright, a lawyer who had worked at California software company AppDynamics, took over as chief executive in March of 2021.
Wright’s rocky tenure lasted less than 17 months and came to a close shortly after The Information reported in June that he and four other top executives were allowed to sell $32 million worth of DataRobot stock at a peak valuation and at a time when other employees could not. When funding sources dried up this year, Wright continued spending on a lavish sales retreat and race car sponsorship even as he was laying off 7 percent of the workforce. In July, as the company’s top talent started quitting, the board replaced Wright with Saha.
Saha is trying to strike a more inclusive tone. In weekly all-company e-mails, he details activities and customer meetings along with what he learned. He held an innovation day a few weeks ago, encouraging employees to pitch their best ideas for new products and features.
He has also made major changes to the top executive ranks of DataRobot. Eight people who had “chief” in their title under Wright, including chief financial officer Damon Fletcher and chief people officer Elise Cole, have departed. Their replacements all carry the titles of senior vice presidents.
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And he’s been traveling from the Bay Area to the Boston office one to two times per month. (Californian Wright made few visits, citing the pandemic.)
“Hopefully, it’s even more often going forward,” Saha said. “I do want to avoid the winter, if I can. I love to drive to snow, I don’t like snow being delivered to my doorstep.”
Aaron Pressman can be reached at aaron.pressman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.
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