We maintain that one of the best ways to identify complex problems worth solving inside enterprises is by offering services to them, thereby gaining exposure to the domain. Datasong is yet another case in point. Related reading: Bootstrapping Using Services.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from? What kind of a backstory leads up to the entrepreneurial story?
John Wallace: I grew up in the South from a pretty modest background.
Sramana Mitra: Whereabouts?
John Wallace: I am from Virginia. My mother was a teacher and my father was a carpenter. If there were a caste in the US, I’d be from the teaching caste because my mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sisters are all teachers. I thought about teaching for a while and quickly decided not to.
Sramana Mitra: Where did you do college?
John Wallace: I got a scholarship to Virginia Wesleyan College. It’s a small school at Virginia Beach. I studied Liberal Arts. I realized the major didn’t matter all that much and I graduated with a French major. Then, I worked for a couple of years in technology sales to put food on the table.
Sramana Mitra: Still in Virginia?
John Wallace: In Virginia, yes. I realized that for my potential to be taken seriously, I’d have to go back to school. So I did my MBA at George Washington University. I got lucky that the program there allowed concentrations within the program. Some are very general and everyone gets the same coursework. However, in this program, you could specialize and I found Data Mining and Data Science interesting. It turns out my mom teaches Statistics. I wanted nothing to do with it when I was a teenager. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Sramana Mitra: That’s great. What year did you graduate from your MBA program?
John Wallace: 2000.
Sramana Mitra: The Internet bubble had just crashed.
John Wallace: People hadn’t figured it out. When my class was graduating, you could trip over your shoelaces and get a job offering. I flew out to San Francisco, and I remember in February, someone made me an offer. I said, “Great!” They said, “There’s just one catch. You need to start next week.” I said, “I haven’t graduated yet.” They said, “That’s not a condition of the offer. The condition is you have to be here. Maybe you can work it out with your professors.” I didn’t take that offer. It turns out that company didn’t make it that much longer, but I met the founder earlier this year and got to tell that story to him. I did go back and finish.
Sramana Mitra: That was the summer of 2000?
John Wallace: Right. I showed up here post-bubble and the job was with a dot-com and I realized within two weeks that it’s going to be a train wreck. I gave it another month and thought I needed to get out. I went and worked for SAS, which is a big, stable, privately-held software company in North Carolina. That was actually great. The opportunity to learn was there. I took them up on all the training that I can get.
Sramana Mitra: What happened after SAS? Did you stay at SAS for a while?
John Wallace: For about three years. It’s pretty common in software companies that the services side is looked at as a drag on the numbers. I was an analytical consultant. It was a really great group. I was the analytic lightweight. It was mostly Ph.D.’s, Statistics, Math, and Engineering in this group. They wanted me because I had actually used the software in my graduate program, which yielded a license set for them.