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A Q&A with serial entrepreneur and alumnus Sergey Sundukovskiy
|Sergey Sundukovskiy graduated in 2001 from the Jacobs School. He describes himself as a serial entrepreneur.
Photo courtesy of Sergey Sundukovskiy
San Diego, Calif., Sept. 13, 2018-- Sergey Sundukovskiy earned a degree in computer science here at the Jacobs School of Engineering in 2001. He is now the CTO, CPO and co-founder of Carlsbad-based Raken, a start-up that provides an app and software suite for the construction industry. In this Q&A, Sundukovskiy talks about his career, his memories of UC San Diego and gives some career advice for recent computer science graduates.
What brought you to UC San Diego?
In my early 20s I started working for a small engineering firm in San Francisco as a hydraulics engineer while attending a community college. After several years, I realized that computer science is much more to my liking than electrical and mechanical engineering. I started looking for an appropriate school, which would be strong academically and at the same time provide ample opportunities to apply my newly acquired knowledge in practice. I looked at several schools in the University of California system; however, UC San Diego was always my first choice. The campus presented a perfect balance between educational and professional opportunities. Also, at the time of my application, UC San Diego was the only school in the UC system that had both BA and BS degrees in Computer Science. I applied and got accepted. The rest is history.
Who was most influential to you during your time at UC San Diego?
One of my favorite professors at UC San Diego was Walter Savitch. I really enjoyed his classes. He had a great way of explaining difficult computer science concepts. Most of his books that he authored and used for class contained quotes from "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland." I remember one of the quotes to this day. It was used to explain conditional logical contracts:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
Do you have a favorite memory of your time at UC San Diego?
I will never forget my experience of seeing Geisel Library for the first time. My future wife and I came to UC San Diego for the orientation week. After walking around the campus I was convinced that I made the right choice choosing UC San Diego over other schools, but the deal was completely sealed when we went up the Geisel Library. I will never forget the feeling of being completely in awe of the view. My future wife and I walked down the hill, along the decorative snake that coils around the hill where Geisel Library stands, stopping by in the Garden of Eden near a monument to Milton's "Paradise Lost." We would come back to UC San Diego many times after with our kids, fondly remembering our first experience
What was your greatest challenge as a student, and what advice do you have for current students who want to make the most out of their experience at UC San Diego?
My greatest challenge as a student was trying to connect dry and scholastic computer science theory with the practical experience of day-to-day work of a software engineer. It is important to understand that computer science is different from software engineering. Science, in general, and computer science, in particular, is a somewhat unique field of human endeavor where a recent university graduate, for the most part, will be the strongest computer scientist he/ she will ever be, and at the same time, the weakest software engineer he/ she will ever be. Since computer science theory will be at the top of one's mind at the time of graduation, it is no wonder such is the case. However, software engineering is a highly experiential field. It requires years of experience and a number of diverse projects to develop the software engineering muscles. My recommendation to current students is to combine computer science classes with part-time work where theory can be immediately applied.
Tell us about your career path.
I have an engineering background. I started out in electrical and mechanical engineering, but over time decided to switch to computer science. After completing a BA in computer science from UC San Diego, I started working as a software developer. As I was rising through the engineering ranks, I decided to get a master’s degree in IT while working for DirecTV. I quickly realized that I prefer working for smaller companies where I can wear multiple hats and stretch my imagination across a number of different fields. I knew at some point I would want to start my own company, but I didn't feel that I had the business expertise to do so. This led me to get a Ph.D. in business, which did not really teach me how to be a startup founder, but certainly gave me enough financial and business dexterity to feel empowered to strike out on my own. After working as an advising CPO, CMO, and CTO in a number of early-stage companies, I felt I was ready to start my own business. After starting my first company, I almost exclusively worked for myself or for the companies that acquired my startups.
What has been your greatest professional accomplishment and what are you most passionate about in your work?
My greatest professional accomplishment to date has been joining Raken, my current startup, as a late-stage co-founder, and building it to the point where it is today. It followed an acquisition of several other startups prior. Being a serial entrepreneur really helped in developing a framework for evaluating ideas and other startups. Outside of the notable exceptions, startup development is fairly formulaic. I always get asked the same question, "Is this idea going to work?" I try to restate the question in a different way, "Is the problem clear enough where the proposed solution can possibly work?" Most first-time founders feel that they need to come up with totally original ideas in order to succeed, where almost the opposite is true. The best ideas come from a realm of "adjacent possible" as opposed to the realm of "never tried before." Seasoned startup founders know it is not about an idea, it is really all about the execution. That's why we see almost identical ideas fail for one company and succeed for another. My first startup taught me a lot about product development, early-stage marketing, product-market fit, strategic planning, culture building, and organizational management, all of which I brought with me to Raken.
How did your education and network at UC San Diego prepare you for your career today?
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of my experience at UC San Diego to my future career. The multifaceted Computer Science program at UC San Diego allowed me to build a strong technical foundation as well as find areas of computer science I was most interested in and would excel at the most. Despite its monolithic appearance, computer science is far from uniform. Despite well-accepted superficial division into software, hardware and firmware computer science is quite a bit more diverse. Having access to world-renown faculty as well as opportunities to explore various facets of the computer science field, UC San Diego allowed me to find my passion and set me on the career path I find myself on today. While studying at UC San Diego, I also worked at the Supercomputer Center on campus. As such, I got my first software engineering experience without setting foot outside of UC San Diego.
What advice would you give our current students or recent graduates interested in pursuing a career in your field?
It is important to understand that a computer science degree is not an end-all, be-all event, but rather a life-long learning process. Technology changes at a highly accelerated pace. Only a couple of years without keeping up with the latest developments will insure professional obsolescence. The number one skill that students and recent graduates need to carry away from college is learning how to learn.
How do you support UC San Diego and the Jacobs School of Engineering now, and why is this important?
I support UC San Diego and the Jacobs School of Engineering through various alumni meetings and events such as the "Jacobs School of Engineering Alumni & Friends Mixer" and "Alumni & ESW Mentor Dinner," as well hosting UC San Diego Basement startups meetings and participating in UC San Diego Basement Fireside Chats. My particular interest in staying engaged with UC San Diego is two-fold. First and foremost, I am very passionate about my "Alma Mater" that gave me such a significant initial boost in my career. Secondly, I am determined to help young entrepreneurs and first-time startup founders. I made so many mistakes with my first startup that could have been easily avoided with a modicum of guidance from others. With UC San Diego hosting several incubators and accelerators, I see a perfect opportunity to share my entrepreneurial experience.
If you had to describe UC San Diego in one word, what would it be?
I would describe UC San Diego as "transformational." Throughout my life I had quite a few experiences that could be described as significant and lasting, but very few could be described as "transformational." Studying at UC San Diego is certainly one of them.
Jacobs School of Engineering