If there’s anyone who can get literally anything done, it’s Alice Chen. That’s just the way her brain works. She connects the dots—in sometimes unlikely ways—to help teams and organizations achieve their goals. As CTO of OpenContext, Alice Chen is setting out to leverage graph database technology to bring this ability to as many tech organizations as possible through shared context.
I sat down with Alice to learn more about our co-founder and CTO. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
The first thing that comes to mind right now is Hawaii, the Big Island. I’ve only really been there a couple of times, but I feel more at home there than I do in California. I was brought up in the United States, but I've always felt in between worlds. When I go to Taiwan, I don't fit in. I immediately stand out the minute I speak and people know I’m from the states.
The Polynesian Japanese influence [in Hawaii] makes me feel a lot more at home. There are a lot more Asian cultural influences over there, like on TV, you see a broadcaster who is Asian.
I’ve been there several times thanks to my friend. I never realized it, but they were like, “you seem more relaxed when you're here than when you're back stateside.”
Believe it or not, 1Password, why? Because at this point in time, most sites have their own password and I cannot remember it for the life of me. So, if it's not 1Password... my phone better have touch ID because I'm not going to remember.
There are very few passwords I’ll remember off the top of my head.
That's a hard question. Not very many things rub me the wrong way. I guess I can't stand it when somebody lies.
I can sort of forgive a white lie to a certain point, but, generally speaking, what I've seen is that that continues and gets worse and worse and worse.
And if I ask for something, don't beat around the bush. If you need to give me bad news, don't beat around the bush. If you need to tell me to do something, don't beat around the bush because I won't figure out what you were talking about (my mom can tell you).
It's a Mandarin song, Péng Yǒu, which means “friends.” It's about friends and the friendship as time goes on.
Probably that I can play an instrument. I know how to play the alto saxophone. So that would be one thing.
And maybe my deep interest in medicine and that I'm here in tech somewhat accidentally. I thought that it would have been great to be able to study both Western and Eastern medicine together.
I always thought Western Medicine is really great at trauma and fixing acute issues, but horrendous at addressing or managing chronic issues of any type. Western is more willing to give out prescriptions as band-aids to the problem versus taking the whole body into account and then figuring out what the actual problem is.
Eastern/Holistic medicine is actually, in some ways, similar to an engineer. Like a good engineer will do debugging and keep asking why, why, why, why, why? And if you put a bandaid on the thing that's broken for one reason, I'm going to be called at 2:00 AM because the thing broke again for a different reason. Same with the human body.
I'll start back at Informatica because that’s probably what gave me a lot of the insights that I have now for OpenContext. So when I was at Informatica, I started as a QA automation engineer and then I mixed in release engineering… and then I went into cloud operations.
The interesting thing was because of our team set up we actually had cloud security as part of our team in cloud operations, which is not common. They're generally very separate teams, but this meant I got a lot of extra contextual knowledge about security.
So I also ended up being like the person that other product teams would come ask about how do we do this or that.
As a result of this, I got chased all over the company. I could be just walking down, going out for lunch and somebody would come up after me. I would have to book a meeting with myself to go hide and do solo work.
The constant interruption wasn't helping me with getting things done because even if I chat for five minutes or only two minutes if it's at the wrong time, I lost maybe two hours at work because of context switching.
It's to alleviate that part of it, yes.
Right now, a typical day is most probably a standup meeting in the morning and then I try to schedule meetings before 1 PM. Other than that I work on the product. Coding sometimes, documentation other times, just depending on what needs to be done, at that particular moment.
Earlier when we were just starting OpenContext, it was more of an inventor’s mindset. You're doing a lot of talking and bouncing off ideas. Like, is this possible? Maybe, maybe not. You know? Can I borrow something that's already out there to help speed things along? That’s always a question because I hate reinventing the wheel.
So there's something new that they have to learn. That's context.
I got to see a lot of problems in organizations. I was called in there to help them solve a problem, which was basically connecting all their tools. Eventually, I discovered that's not, that's not the problem.
The problem is you can use the same tool in multiple different ways. An example of that is something like Jenkins, which is originally designed as a build or continuous integration tool. Then, at some point in time, somebody decided it works as a continuous delivery tool too which means that you use it to deploy something to the cloud, to the data center, whatever makes sense.
But the problem for engineers is if they switched from one group to another group, even if they're both using Jenkins, they had no idea how the new group was using it and didn’t even know to ask.
So there's something new that they have to learn. That's context.
And as a cloud operations engineer, I was called every time there was a problem even remotely related to the cloud. Even for something that I don't own and didn’t have enough context to be able to actually help. And then it was a huge waste of time! Right? And it’s A LOT of money going down the drain. Let me tell you!
Maybe two hours which may seem like a small interruption or missing context. These little things can cause hours and hours of wasted time and energy and money
My favorite part right now is inventing. What we're hoping the product will be and giving the technical direction.
This is how we're going to build the product, and this is how we're going to actually stand it up for the customers and make sure it's secure. Between all of my experiences, I have a good idea for how to set up something securely for the customers and responsive enough to what we need.
And then I have also like a great team to help me that's really the best thing.
I believe the only reason we have things called DevOps and DevSecOps is that we can't figure out how to speak the same language or see things from different points of view. What they fail to see and what there hasn’t been a tool that shows is that we all want the same group of information just sliced differently.
I'm hoping OpenContext will be a bridge for teams to talk to each other instead of squishing 2-3+ job roles into one person.