With 20 years of systems software experience under his belt, Neal Fachan has always loved building things and solving hard problems. That determination led him to co-found Qumulo in 2012, where he currently serves as the chief scientist of the Seattle-based modern scale-out file storage company.
Fachan’s career has included stops at Amazon Web Services, where he led development and advanced database technologies as a principal engineer, and Isilon, where he was a distinguished engineer who provided the technical vision for their award-winning OneFS clustered file system, resulting in more than 30 patented technologies.
Now he’s GeekWire’s newest Geek of the Week.
“I’ve been a part of five startups including Qumulo, and learned something different from each one,” Fachan said. “At Isilon, I learned a ton about what it takes to build a successful business — and on the flip side, when my Qumulo co-founder Peter Godman and I founded a startup right after Isilon, I learned a lot about what not to do.”
Fachan said that as a kid, he found it really fascinating that he could use math as a tool “to understand the world rigorously and come up with accurate predictions for how things will behave.” That understanding has stuck with him and he’s learned that it’s important to build a product that truly resonates with customers.
“As an engineer, there are a lot of ideas that seem really interesting technically, but unless you can solve an actual customer problem, the business won’t succeed,” Fachan said. “That’s why when we founded Qumulo. We made a conscious decision to truly understand what customers’ pain points were. As a result, we conducted extensive market research and spoke with more than 600 storage administrators before we even launched our product.”
Fachan has a degree in Math and Computer Science from the University of New Mexico. He sometimes describes himself as a “serial hobbyist,” and his most recent passion is home improvement projects.
“I’ve played the drums off and on, which I really enjoy, and I love hanging out with my dog, Yuki. I also really enjoy cooking meals with my fiancé,” he said.
Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Weeek, Neal Fachan:
What do you do, and why do you do it? As Chief Scientist, my number one goal is to make sure our team at Qumulo is continuously solving problems in an innovative and high quality way. I do it because I’ve always loved building things and solving hard problems. I love being a part of something bigger than myself and seeing what we can accomplish as a team. It’s exciting to be able to leverage our individual abilities and do things that we couldn’t possibly dream of doing all on our own.
I also enjoy the social aspect of my job — interacting with my colleagues, having conversations about designs, and figuring out better ways to do things, together. Chief Scientist is an incredibly challenging technical role, but because it’s allowed me to work so closely with my teams, it’s helped me understand how people work best and harness the diversity of their ideas and experiences to come up with something great.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “In today’s digital world, file systems aren’t going away. In fact, as we as a species generate more and more digital assets every day, file storage is becoming more important than ever. A common misconception is that file storage is dead, and that object storage is the only path to the future. That couldn’t be further from the truth. File systems provide the fundamental abstraction of hierarchy that enables computers and humans to operate on semantically interesting groupings of data. File storage is here to stay.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “I draw inspiration from solving real problems that real people are facing — and doing so in an elegant manner, while using all the tools at my disposal. I’ve always been really into solving problems, especially when theoretical math is involved. I can recall being a student and loving using calculus to solve physics problems. Nothing’s changed.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “Wikipedia. I’m always looking up random stuff, and love to learn.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “I had the privilege of helping design our office, and our architects did a great job of taking our team’s abstract vision and executing on it. People sit in pods of 10 to 12 desks, and there are a ton of spaces for people to brainstorm on whiteboards, kanban boards or scrum boards. We have lots of sticky notes everywhere. I love the collaborative, open space we have at Qumulo — and being social with my teammates and being close enough so that I can walk just a few feet and ask them a question in person and work together.
“As for my personal workspace — first, I have two keyboards. One is an all-black Das mechanical keyboard that’s completely blank. No letters, no numbers — nothing. The other is an IBM Model M from from the 1980s. They both have cable cords, and are super clicky, which I love. We pair program a lot at Qumulo, so it’s important to be able to travel around the office with your keyboard and mouse. It’s a very personal attachment.
“When I want to get really deep into coding, I zone out in my Scandinavian lounge chair. It’s pretty ugly, but it’s comfortable, and helps me stay focused.”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Before I even check my email each morning, I set one big, audacious goal, and focus on tackling that project first. It’s easy to get inundated with all the distractions in our modern day life like texts, emails, Slack, etc. — and if you’re not careful, you can become a slave to those things. You have to be deliberate about how you start your day, and keep that focus.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “Mac (except the keyboard because it’s not clicky enough!), with a Linux VM.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Janeway — I watched a lot of ‘Voyager’ in college, and always thought she was a strong leader.”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter. I’d want to be able to have lunch in Paris and dinner in Tokyo — and get some sun, since I don’t get any while I’m at work!”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Start Qumulo all over again! We launched the company in March 2012 after receiving $2.3 million in seed funding. Over $130 million in funding later, we’re still just as passionate about what we set out to do five years ago — solve problems in enterprise storage that have never been solved before.”
I once waited in line for … “I’ve never waited in line long for anything. I always think of something better or more productive to do. I guess it’s a fundamental flaw of mine, but it’s saved me a lot of time, energy and stress!”
Your role models: “A technical role model of mine is Leslie Lamport — a computer scientist best known for his work in distributed systems. I think he’s a great mind. On a personal level — my older brother and sister. They’ve always been great role models for every aspect in life.”
Greatest game in history: “Bridge is definitely the greatest card game in history. As far as board games go, my favorite game changes often, but lately I’ve been really into the intergalactic strategy game ‘Eclipse.’
Best gadget ever: “I’m not a big chef, but when I do cook, I’m always fascinated by the kitchen mandolin.”
First computer: “Kaypro II.”
Current phone: “Nexus 6P.”
Favorite app: “Google Chrome — so I can quickly get to Wikipedia.”
Favorite cause: “The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).”
Most important technology of 2016: “Lithium Ion Battery technology, because they enable us to shift away from internal combustion engines and from cord-tethered devices. Electric cars are a perfect example.”
Most important technology of 2018: “Again, lithium Ion battery technology. They will be just as important, if not more, as they were last year.”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Don’t be afraid to think big, and to push yourself to do things that may seem impossible or scary!”
LinkedIn: Neal Fachan