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CTOs: Promoting Tech Innovation

The CEO of a technology company often gets the lion’s share of attention. After all, he/she is the highest ranking member of the executive team, manages the whole company, and is the fall guy if the business strategy fails. But scratch below the surface and you’ll find another member of the executive team that, while starved a bit from the limelight, has no small role in determining whether the business remains competitive: chief technology officers (CTO). They’re in charge of maintaining the company’s technological edge through technology research and development, integrating outside technology with existing products, and/or forming strategic tech partnerships with other companies. President Barack Obama even appointed Aneesh Chopra, former secretary of technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia, as the first CTO in the history of the White House. The following profiles provide a glimpse into the lives and pursuits of four Valley CTOs from four different companies, including: Shuki Lehavi of Gumiyo; Matt Haller of Advanced Bionics; Reza Pourzia of Cyber-Rain; and Tony Karrer of TechEmpower. Shuki Lehavi Gumiyo Calabasas Shuki Lehavi is co-founder, president and CTO of Calabasas-based Gumiyo. The software company, founded in 2006, developed a suite of mobile phone marketing and merchandising tools. “CTOs are one of the most interesting animals in an organization,” said Lehavi, 36-years-old and originally from Israel. “On one hand we’re mad scientists, but we’re also people who need to know about team building and politics.” He defines the role, which can go by different names depending on the company, as the person who introduces technology into the business that will give the company a competitive advantage. That can mean developing technologies from scratch or introducing ones developed by other companies. The point is to use new technology, some considered “disruptive,” to improve efficiency of internal operations and boost the quality of existing products on the market. For example, Lehavi introduced “cloud computing” to Gumiyo. The term refers to accessing a variety of Information Technology services via the Internet rather than investing in brick and mortar facilities and equipment. “Internally, cloud computing reduced our operating costs, and externally, we are able to bid on big projects because we are backed by cloud computing,” said Lehavi. He is also on the lookout for strategic partnerships with other companies that have technologies that lower Gumiyo’s costs and increase the quality of its product offerings. The company’s “buy it now” component for mobile phones is the result of a partnership with PayPal Mobile. In addition to providing consumers with a useful service, PayPal kicked-in with advertising and public relations support. “CTOs bring in those ‘shiny objects,'” said Lehavi, in contrast to just going through the classic development cycle. Although Lehavi has an in-house team that does much of the development grunt work. How they do it Finding or developing cutting-edge technology requires being tapped into a network of industry professionals, reading industry trade publications and blogs, and attending conferences. Some outside technologies are proven while others are immature. Lehavi, who has been writing code since he was about 15-years-old, studied business administration and economics, and worked in software development with a variety of firms, said CTOs also have to back their shiny ideas with solid business reasoning. “The problem is not finding technologies; the question is whether you place your bet on it and can make the business case,” said Lehavi, adding that’s especially true given the current economy. “I don’t have the luxury of taking just any technology.” He must first sell himself on the concept, then the executive team and other members of the company. He also has to make sure not to jump on a concept too early or too late. Companies that sink all of their resources into one piece of new tech can quickly lose focus and go under, he said. Lehavi is currently tracking an evolving technology known as “augmented reality,” where computer generated graphics overlay real-world objects and environments in real time. Gumiyo execs are already talking about partnering with companies developing the technology and how it can be implemented over the next couple of years. Whether or not augmented reality becomes a part of Gumiyo’s offerings remains uncertain. Regardless, Lehavi said this sort of forward-thinking in the company is crucial given how fast technology changes and evolves. “A company that doesn’t innovate dies quickly,” he said.

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