Interview with Rob Woollen

Rob Woollen is the current CEO and co-founder of Sigma Computing. After graduating from Princeton University with an engineering degree in computer science, Woollen began working at BEA. Woollen then worked at Salesforce as the CTO for the Salesforce Platform and, as well as Sr Vice President in product management. Drawing from his expansive career working in tech, Business Today had the opportunity to discuss Sigma, data democratization, and startups with him.


Business Today (Amy Wang): How will more accessible user interfaces and tools for data analytics provided by companies like Sigma and Google affect the relationship between business and data? What do you see as the largest challenge to data democratization today? 

Rob Woollen: “Essentially what Sigma does is we’ve built an interface that is a spreadsheet … making it so anyone in the business can go ask a question about that data using a spreadsheet interface they already know how to use. The high level goal of the company is to take a company’s most important data and make that accessible to as many people as possible … and [to] let that expert in marketing, or sales, or finance take that data and ask their questions and iterate and drive the business strategy forward.”

The biggest challenge to data democratization is balancing how much data and questions and power you expose end users but also maintaining control, governance, and security. It’s a balance.
— Rob Woollen

RW: “One of the things that we’re really focused on is making companies feel comfortable that they can secure their data and do compliance and report to their auditors … That's the really big next step for the industry: that balance of maintaining all of the compliance and security but also really enabling people to ask the questions that they want to ask.”

BT: What advantages do startups possess in identifying problems and developing new services to address them?

The advantage of a startup is agility.
— Rob Woollen

RW: “ We’ve really built our entire product just in the last two years … as a smaller group, especially in the early days, you’re able to work with early customers and take their feedback and iterate quickly. And [when] doing that with a small team of incredibly intelligent people, you can move quickly. Versus at a larger company, it's much harder. I’ve had the fortune to work at some large but also very successful companies, and that's the challenge at big companies. Its trying to get hundreds, thousands of people to move in a new direction. Whereas at a startup when it's in the early days, and there's only a handful of you, you can very quickly get in a room, make decisions, make changes, and go very fast. That sort of agility is unique to startups.”

BT: How did working at large tech companies influence your decision to start Sigma?

RW: “I joined BEA as they were going through a massive growth period and grew to a little over a billion in revenue, and I left in 2007 as cloud was taking.  I moved to Salesforce and had the fortune of being at Salesforce as the company grew from 300 or 400 million in revenue to four or five billion … While those companies were at a different scale than a startup, being at a company that is rapidly growing and rapidly taking on new users and seeing all of those scale challenges there is very helpful for a startup … I also had the fortune of working in engineering and programming.  While at Salesforce, I moved over and ran product management so I got to see more of the business side, sales, interfaced with marketing, and these type of things were especially useful as I started the company because I got much broader experience than just building features.”


BT: How did your experiences working at large tech companies inform your leadership and vision for Sigma? 

RW: “I was [working at Salesforce] in 2007, and it was a time where most companies were pretty nervous about moving to the Cloud. Over the last six years I’ve seen people change from being nervous about [the Cloud] to it just being assumed what they were going to do. Seeing that technology transformation and how quickly it happened and seeing the largest companies in the world go in that direction made it clear for me when I started Sigma that I wanted to go focus on the Cloud. We only build for Cloud companies. That is our focus, and what we see as both the present and the future.”


BT: How do companies in cloud and data stand out and distinguish themselves? Examples like Zuora, Salesforce, Google, and Sigma which focus on business and data?

RW: “It comes down to product — What is the core reason that my product is different than others? Why is it important for someone to make either a change or a purchase decision to buy this product? Why is it fundamentally ten times better than what they have currently? If it's only slightly better, it's not enough for someone to make the effort to switch. It has to be demonstratively better. For Sigma in particular, we sit down and in our typical demo, we show someone something that would take a professional SQL programmer sometimes a day or two to write by hand in Query. We show them the spreadsheet interface, and they can build it in a few minutes without writing any code. So you see something … where it's almost magically better. That's the type of differentiation you need to show someone you should make this leap and take on this new product or this new project.”


BT: Do you have any career advice or considerations for students who are looking into jobs at established companies like Google, as well as smaller startups?

RW: “The biggest thing I learned in my career is to focus on working with the best people. If you can join teams and be amazed at how great everyone else is. When i joined the team at BEA, I remember looking around and learning so much so quickly from everyone else there. Many of the team I worked with at Salesforce and some of my board members now come from that original team I worked with then. So we’ve stayed working together in lots of different ways. But I think that was really the big lesson for me. Make sure you are always learning and always working with people who challenge you.