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Making Sense of Unstructured Data with Zilliz Founder and CEO Charles Xie

An interview with Charles Xie

November 19, 2020 by Zilliz

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Interview subject: Charles Xie

To begin, how are you and your family doing amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

We are doing quite well, all things considered. Thanks for asking. The pandemic is largely under control here in China and daily life has some semblance of normality. That said, travel remains restricted and until vaccines are distributed globally, we must remain vigilant. We definitely feel fortunate for our circumstances.

Tell us about yourself, your career, and founding Zilliz.

My technical background is in database systems and artificial intelligence. I spent over six years as a software engineer at Oracle’s U.S. headquarters where I became a founding member of the Oracle 12c Multi-tenant Database, a cloud enabled version of Oracle’s database management system.

I founded Zilliz, an open-source software company specializing in developing AI-powered unstructured data processing and analysis platforms. A commonly cited statistic is that around 80% of all data is unstructured, such as images, videos, audio, molecularstructures, and gene sequences. But just 1% of this data gets analyzed due to processing complexities. This means the vast majority of data people and businesses create is never utilized, which is clearly a waste. With Zilliz, we strive to advance data science for everyone by building accessible tools that extract value from unstructured data.

How does Zilliz innovate?

Zilliz innovates in part thanks to the adoption of an open-source software development model. We listen closely to our users and the open-source community that makes our work possible, continuously iterating to maximize the utility of everything we build. Because unstructured data processing and analysis is somewhat of an emerging field, remaining agile has been paramount to our relevance and success.

Innovation also happens through transparency, a core value in our company culture. We believe the best ideas are often found where you least expect them, and encourage Zillizers to always speak their minds. In practice, this means prioritizing impact over hierarchy and doing everything possible to support and develop our employees.

Can you tell us about your nickname and how you got it?

This is part of the company culture, which underscores teamwork. Everyone at Zilliz goes by nicknames. These can be any historic figure or even a cartoon character. The goal is not just for fun, it encourages everyone on the team to better understand each other, and to be a leader in his own area. Mine is Starlord, a reference to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. To me, this is more about working as a team. Through close teamwork, a team could achieve mission impossible.

Has the pandemic impacted your business? If so, what have you done to cope?

We recently closed our Series B funding round despite instability looming over the economy. So, from a financial perspective, we again feel very fortunate. However, our plans to expand Zilliz internationally have been complicated by the pandemic. That said, the setbacks are manageable and have largely meant changes to our timeline rather than any material shifts in strategy. Still, we keep patient and practice prudence in times of uncertainty.

Setbacks are basically negligible. We are an open-source company, and our distributed team can choose to work from home. Our pace remains unchanged despite the pandemic. We are also optimizing our tooling and workflow company-wide to improve work efficiency and to help the team keep a work-life balance. We foresee a big shift towards distributed working post-pandemic. Hopefully we will soon have more to share in this regard.

How do you manage stress?

Diet, exercise, and overcoming fear of being wrong. For anyone running a business stress is par for the course, and lifestyle choices undoubtably impact your ability to handle pressure. But at the end of the day, a smart team that keeps you in check and is unafraid to point out your shortcomings is priceless. When stressful situations arise, I aim to react quickly and decidedly. By having trust in myself and the people around me, stress is kept at bay and less likely to cloud my judgement. I believe this is true not just in business, but life in general. Surround yourself with good people that help you be the best version of yourself.

I believe all stress comes from fear of uncertainty. Rather than drawing back in fear, I would try to overcome fear of being wrong. Reading and deep thinking add a new dimension to my understanding of the world in times of uncertainty. No matter how busy I am, I would spare one hour every day for extensive reading from art, management, to literature. One should keep learning to improve his ability to handle stress and identify certainty from uncertainty.

Who are your competitors and how do you plan to stay ahead of them?

Direct competitors, meaning companies also offering full-fledged unstructured data analysis and processing platforms, are few and far between. There are companies creating specialized tools that compete directly with software we’ve developed. For example, Milvus, an open-source vector similarity search engine initiated by Zilliz, faces competition from systems that offer comparable functionality. Our focus on breadth and depth is what sets us apart. By offering more tools, with greater functionality and better performance, we have become a top contender in the realm of unstructured data analysis. Although competition is intensifying, this field remains something of a “Blue Ocean.”

What does the future look like for Zilliz?

We will continue to focus on making meaningful contributions to the world of open-source software as well as developing cloud-based unstructured data services that emphasize security, reliability, usability, and affordability. Cloud services are the future of our revenue model, and open-source software development is how we plan to get there. Additionally, our vision from day one has been to be a global company. We are making that vision a reality by establishing Zilliz as an international leader in AI-powered unstructured data science software.

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unstructured data.

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