Bassel is a serial entrepreneur in the data world and talks about his exciting startup journey.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Bassel Ojjeh: I was born in Syria. I spent six years of my life there. The rest of the time, I was travelling with my parents. My dad is an entrepreneur. I spent my junior high and high school in Syria. I came to the US when I was 16 years old.
Sramana Mitra: Where in Syria were you based?
Bassel Ojjeh: I was based out of Damascus.
Sramana Mitra: Have you been back?
Bassel Ojjeh: Yes. My family is still there. My mom is still there.
Sramana Mitra: Is it safe?
Bassel Ojjeh: It’s relatively safe, but it’s difficult socially. About 15 years ago, I was involved in starting the first private university in Syria that teaches in English. I serve on the Board there.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s come back to your journey. What’s next in the evolution?
Bassel Ojjeh: I came to the US to study college. I did an assignment in statistics. We were required to use the computer lab. I went in there, and I ended up spending my entire summer there. I was extremely fascinated. This was in the early 80s.
At that time, it was punch cards and mainframes. I switched degrees to Computer Science. In my junior year, a startup was started by the Chairman of the Computer Science Department. This is in Ohio. I joined the company. I was one of the early developers there.
We were building a database product. We were competing against the giants in California and other places. I spent about six years there until Microsoft acquired the company. Microsoft struggled building a database product. They acquired us to build the foundation of SQL Server.
Sramana Mitra: What year was that?
Bassel Ojjeh: This was mid-80s to early 90s. From there, I went to Microsoft where I spent about 10 to 12 years.
Sramana Mitra: You moved to Seattle?
Bassel Ojjeh: Yes. I would look back at that time and this is when I saw this camaraderie of teams. People coming together out of the Midwest. Our offices were not that sexy, but we were doing fairly well. I think this is when that form of camaraderie ended up manifesting itself throughout my career.
I went to Microsoft and worked there for close to 10 years. I got bored. The notion of data was not that relevant. Microsoft was too big to do any kind of optimization.
I decided with friends and colleagues to start our own company in 2000. We got that going. We got the funding. This was in the dotcom days. We enjoyed that ride until everything crashed after 9/11. That was a very good and expensive lesson.