Keshav Pingali is CEO and co-founder of Katana Graph, a high-performance scale-out graph processing, AI and analytics company, which extracts actionable insights from massive unstructured datasets. Keshav holds the W.A.”Tex” Moncrief Chair of Computing at the University of Texas at Austin, and is a Fellow of the ACM, IEEE and AAAS.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I come from a family of scholars and scientists. My mother was a Professor of Physics in one of the leading engineering colleges in India. She was a remarkable lady — she did an M.S. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle in 1953, at a time when few women even in the West entered STEM fields. I grew up in a home filled with Physics and Math books, so I loved those subjects as a kid. I went to IIT Kanpur in India for my Bachelor’s studies in engineering, and then to MIT for my graduate studies in Computer Science. After graduating from MIT, I worked as a professor in the CS department at Cornell before moving to UT Austin in 2006.
I have spent most of my career working on high-performance parallel computing (HPC). Initially, I focused on HPC applications in science and engineering areas but about ten years ago, it became clear to me that the next big challenge for HPC was processing enormous amounts of unstructured data efficiently. With support from DARPA, my research group at UT built software systems for analyzing big unstructured data sets on large clusters or in the cloud. DARPA was impressed with the performance of our system and they encouraged me to do a start-up based on our technology, so here we are.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Katana is fusing graph technology with machine learning to build a platform for high-speed computing on massive graphs, using large clusters of computers. An airline route map is an example of a graph: airports correspond to what we call “nodes” of the graph, and links showing direct flights between cities correspond to what we call “edges” of the graph. Given such data, we can ask questions like “What is the smallest number of flights I need to take to get from Austin to San Francisco on this airline?” These kinds of questions are answered using techniques called graph querying and graph analytics. A new and exciting development in this space is the rise of graph machine learning and AI, which have applications in pharma, precision medicine, and security among many other areas.
Graph companies have been around for more than a decade but they have their roots in database systems and have not focused on high-speed analytics and AI. At Katana Graph we are building a scale-out high-speed graph computing platform by bringing innovations from the HPC world to accelerate graph analytics, machine learning and AI. This computing platform interoperates with our graph database system, providing a single platform for high-speed querying, analytics, machine learning and AI on massive graphs and massive clusters.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My co-founder Chris Rossbach and I are both professors at the University of Texas at Austin. When we started Katana in January 2020, we decided we would rent an office in Austin and require all Katana employees to work from there. In early March 2020, we signed a lease for some very nice (and expensive) office space in downtown Austin. A day after we signed the lease, Texas shut down because of COVID and we could not use the office space for almost a year after that! Had we waited a day to sign the lease, we would have saved a bundle. The good news is that we learned to work online with our team, so we can now hire people all over the country without requiring them to move to Austin.
I learned two lessons. The first is that the unexpected always happens, so it is important to adapt quickly to new circumstances. The second is that every cloud has a silver lining, as the old saying goes. Had we not been forced by COVID to learn to work remotely, our options for hiring talented people would have been more restricted than they are now.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My parents and teachers have been a great inspiration for me all my life. Arvind, who was my PhD adviser at MIT, has been my mentor and friend for many years. The Katana journey would not have been possible without support and mentoring from Lip-Bu Tan and Amarjit Gill, who are major investors in Silicon Valley. Their vision and their confidence in the Katana team have been essential in getting us to this point.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
In this context, a disruption is a new way of doing something that makes older approaches obsolete. We use this word today in the context of hi-tech but people have been creating disruptive inventions for thousands of years. Until the Middle Ages, soldiers used to wear body armor and chainmail to protect themselves in the battlefield. In the 15th century, the English and Welsh perfected the longbow whose arrows could penetrate even the thickest armor, and they used it to deadly effect in battles like Agincourt. That was a disruptive change because the longbow made armor totally obsolete. Here’s another example. Until a few hundred years ago, important cities were surrounded by thick defensive walls built to withstand a siege. The Ottomans used gunpowder, a Chinese invention, to build huge cannons that could blow up even the thickest wall, making city walls obsolete. A more recent example — in the early 20th century, the “horseless carriage” (or cars we now call them) was a disruptive change because it made horses obsolete for transportation.
I don’t think disruptive changes can be classified easily into positive and negative changes. Changes usually have both positive and negative consequences, and whether the positives outweigh the negatives may depend on whom you ask.
I don’t think disruptive changes can be classified easily into positive and negative changes. Changes usually have both positive and negative consequences, and whether the positives outweigh the negatives may depend on whom you ask. Before cars replaced horses, city streets and rivers were full of enormous amounts of horse manure, and the stench used to be unbearable particularly in summertime. Cars eliminated that source of pollution, even though their exhaust created a different kind of pollution. On the whole, that was a positive change but for the millions of people who were employed at that time as horse breeders, saddle smiths, blacksmiths, and farriers, the change upended their lives and had negative consequences.
Today, our world is being disrupted by the amazing advances in AI and ML that we have made in just the past decade, and I believe the disruption is positive on the whole, but we must also be aware of the negative consequences of this disruption for people whose jobs have been eliminated by these advances and the potential for misuse of these technologies, for example to surveill people 24/7 without their knowledge.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
When I started Katana, Lip-Bu Tan told me “The biggest problem you will face as a startup is learning to say no to opportunities.” What he meant is that as a startup, you have to focus on a few high-value opportunities rather than getting distracted by trying to chase every opportunity that comes your way and doing a bad job on all of them. We have many customers approaching us and whenever I have to make a decision about whether to work with them, I think of Lip-Bu’s advice.
Amarjit Gill told me “The only way not to make mistakes is do nothing, and that is the biggest mistake of all.” Katana is my first startup and I have made my share of mistakes along the way. When that happens, I find solace in Amarjit’s advice.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Right now, I am totally focused on making Katana a success. If I have time later, I would like to do my part to make Austin a tech hub like Silicon Valley.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Many years ago, I read a book titled “Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success” by Masaaki Imai. The book was published in the late 80’s, at a time when Japan was stunning the US and the world with its industrial prowess and its ability to take on US giants like GM, Ford and Chrysler and beat them at their own game.
Kaizen is a Zen Buddhist concept that says you will never get anything completely right, so your goal should be to make continuous improvements and become better all the time. When Toyota and other Japanese companies first exported cars to the US in the early 70’s, their quality was not great and executives in Detroit were very amused (David Halberstam’s book “The Reckoning” describes this era in wonderful detail). However, Toyota and Honda learned quickly from their mistakes, figured out how to build cars for the US market and kept improving their processes until they surpassed Detroit in quality and innovation. Another aspect of Kaizen is that it requires participation of everyone in the company from CEO to entry-level employees to analyze and improve processes. I have made “Kaizen” one of our guiding philosophies at Katana.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I wear two hats: I am the CEO of Katana and I am also a chaired professor in the CS department at UT Austin. Both are full-time jobs but I have to pack everything into the same 24 hour day that I had before Katana! Some days, when I am totally stressed out, I remember the advice “Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all small stuff.” I work hard to be worthy of the trust my team members at Katana, my investors, and my colleagues and students at UT Austin have placed in me, but when I feel overwhelmed, I remind myself of the wonderful life I have had, of my family and friends, and how fortunate I am to live and work in this great country.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
When I came to the US in the late 70’s, I was very impressed by the patriotism of ordinary Americans. In the words of JFK, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I consider myself very fortunate to live and work in this country, and I would like to see a movement which brings us together and reminds all of us of our duty to others.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!