Jack Jia is a co-founder and CEO of Baynote. For eight years, he was SVP and CTO of Interwoven Inc. with executive responsibilities in engineering, products, marketing, strategy, and vision. Jack led operating systems and applications development at SGI, Sun Microsystems, Stratus, and NASA for over a decade. He is a board advisor for Santa Clara University and the president of HYSTA, a non-profit organization for promoting entrepreneurship.
SM: Jack, take us back to where your story begins. Where are you from?
JJ: I came from China when I was 24. I went to college in Beijing to the point of getting my master’s degree. I grew up in the southern part of China. My parents were university professors in the 1960s. I remember them all talking about the Russians coming to China, which forced a lot of the research to come inland.
I went back to Beijing for my undergrad degree in electrical engineering and got my master’s degree in computer engineering. In 1987 I went to New York to get a PhD from Polytechnic University in New York. It is part of NYU/Poly now. I was doing high-definition image processing and video compression. I was there for two years but I could not stand New York City. In the mid and late 1980s it was a dump.
SM: Giuliani cleaned it up.
JJ: I did not believe that the city could be saved. I was shocked how it all happened. I really did not like New York, plus the PhD thing was more for my parents. I wanted to go to Silicon Valley. That was my dream. Early in the summer of 1989 there was the incident at Tiananmen Square, and my sister was in college demonstrating. I had to get her out of China, so I went to my professors and asked them to just give me another master’s degree based on all of the research I had accomplished.
My professor was the dean of the School of Computer Science and he agreed. I then got my sister out of China, drove across the US, and went to Silicon Valley. I had nothing other than a few clothes. I found a job with Stratus Computer, which was competing with Tandem at the time. I had some fault tolerance background in China and did UNIX kernel development with a fault tolerance spin. That was a great training ground.
I was there for three years and then I went to Sun when they were transitioning from SunOS to Solaris. I did more UNIX kernel development over there.
SM: Those were good years at Sun.
JJ: Very good years. They were just switching into enterprise computing. I then saw another company which smelled like Google. It was called SGI. I joined SGI just like everybody else, thinking it was a smart company with tons of smart people. When I got in I realized that it was real chaos under the guise of managed chaos. It was a paradise for engineers but there was no vision, cohesive idea, or management.
SM: Was Jim Clark still running the company?
JJ: Jim Clark was running it, but he had just left when I joined. He was replaced by [Edward] McCracken. I was there doing high-end supercomputer work. We had the SMP architecture competing with other architectures. I was there for two years and realized that it was not the right place to be and that the company would ultimately go down. The stock was at an all-time high one month after my stay there.
In 1996 the Internet was starting to take off. I decided I had to do something that had to do with the Internet. I was not a consumer or dot-com kind of guy. I had to use my systems background and do something along those lines.
It so happened that I was talking with the founder of interwoven, Peng Ong. He was incubating a company that I interpreted as CCS for the web. I could not figure out what the big deal was about that. For months I did not think seriously about it. One day things dawned on me that maintaining a web page would be complex. I went back to Peng and we started to work together and build the betas.
I ran engineering at Interwoven for Peng. The first year had a lot of infighting. One lesson I learned is that most startups kill themselves. Interwoven could have died three or four times. Nobody wanted to fund Interwoven because of the infighting.