Q&A with the 36th Best CTO in the World

ExecRank, the leading authority in executive rankings, ranked Equinix’s Lane Patterson 36th in their annual “Top CTO” for 2012. But how does one become the 36th ranked CTO? We sat down with Lane and asked him to share his secrets.

Congratulations on being named 36th ranked Top CTO in the world! Why not 35th?

[laughs] I need to leave room for improvement.

What’s your secret?

I don’t think of myself as a big mover or a shaker, I’m just someone who gets excited about industry trends. At some point in my career it used to take a lot of work to keep up with the industry. But once you get to a certain point, your people network is so broad, you’ve got leaders and friends who are leaders in different companies around Silicon Valley and the world…news comes to you.

I always think of the CTO being that crazy person who’s light years ahead of everyone else.

There’s two roles of a CTO. There’s the chief scientist, which you described. The other is the person who translates technology into how the business can leverage it into an actionable business impact. A CTO gets people excited about something that’s not there. A CTO is never satisfied.

So how does one predict the future?

As long as you’re part of the standard development process, you have a 3-5 year crystal ball. Changes just don’t happen in the internet willy-nilly. Big disruptions in innovation first have this group of tinkerers who used it in their projects. If you’re a geek and it passes your test, that’s when your 3-5 year crystal ball starts. Tinkerers are craftsman. They’re dedicated to tinkering until everything as a whole is perfect.

Sounds like being a CTO was the plan from the start.

No, I wanted to be an astronomer. I was valedictorian in high school, then I got to college and started realizing that it took not just brilliance, it took single-mindedness. It takes six years of graduate school and two years of post-graduate school just to earn the right to beg the government for grant money to fund your research. So you have to have no other life, and I have other interests.

What started you on the CTO path?

I ran three different businesses as an undergrad in college: Tuxedo rentals, coupons for students, and a college textbook delivery service. We ran it out of a frat house. This was pre-internet, we had an 800 number, we didn’t have cell phones. We had runners to run the books out. We would man the phones. We had three different credit card machines – you know the manual ones that you slide?

Classic.

We had books leftover, but we were all seniors and had no successorship plan to leave this business with someone else. So we learned the value of successorship from failing to do that. We learned that you don’t get your money back if you have unused books, you get credit for next year with the publishers. It was in the fine print with the contracts we signed, which we of course didn’t read. So we invested $10,000 and had $4,000 in credit we didn’t need.

You clearly have a thread through your whole life as being a visionary. Tuxedos, coupons, textbooks. Astronomy is all about looking billions of years into the future. So looking 10-20 years into the future for Equinix should be easy.

[laughs] Yeah.

What’s the makeup of a great CTO team?

I’ve always respected people who view what they do in technology as a form of art and a form of craftsmanship, because you really take ownership of what you do. As a craftsman you don’t just care about creating something, you care about how it gets used, and how well it stands up overtime.

Because everything I learn for the second version of something, I’m going to learn by seeing how people use the first version. So if I’m not part of the operational side, I’m not going to get a chance to see how the rubber meets the road. That’s my view. In the internet space, the people I respect the most, and try to build in my group, are of that ethos.

When it comes to tech, what does Equinix do differently?

From the beginning Equinix was built to solve for the scalability of the internet. And that’s not just about building a good data center, that’s about owning the challenges of our customers. Understanding what challenges brought a Comcast as it scales its’ broadband network for instance. Understanding what challenges Google has when building the largest search engine in the world. Understanding the challenges what Facebook would have as it builds the largest social graph ever known to man.

Those guys are the pioneers because they’re solving problems that have never been tackled before. And its Equinix saying “we want to be part of your evolution”.

So what gets you excited about the future?

We’ve got cloud computing. Equinix provides the canvas. The bandwidth, the servers, and the storage. It’s nothing but a blank canvas. Whatever you can dream up in software, those are the works of art. Salesforce.com, Facebook, or whatever the next big thing is. Those are canvases being painted by software developers with creativity.

To me, software is always going to be the next frontier because it’s the ultimate form of creativity.