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November 22, 2010

HPC Movers and Shakers: Michael Jackson, Adaptive Computing

by Caroline Connor, for HPCwire

What defines success? When I first met Michael A. Jackson last year at a partner luncheon, I was immediately struck by his genuine friendliness, intelligence, and warm personality. After hearing about the recent funding success he and his brother David achieved with Adaptive Computing and Moab, I thought it would make for an interesting interview. What resonated with me following our discussion is that it is his belief in core values and in making contributions to the community that he defines as true success.

HPCwire: So Michael, most people in the industry are aware that you and your Adaptive CEO and co-founder, David Jackson, are brothers. Was there a key event while growing up that led both of you to where you are today?

Michael Jackson: Well, we do have somewhat of a unique story; we grew up on a potato farm in Idaho. First, we learned that we had to be very hard workers and second, if you wanted to make a living you couldn’t do it by farming. (Laughs) My father had this farming habit, and he had to have another job to pay for his habit! With that said, even if we were from a potato farmer family, our parents had the foresight to get us engaged with computer systems well before the mainstream curve. Almost right from the start, my brothers started trying to break into the games to change the programs to make them work better. So that sense of work ethic as kids, the early exposure to technology, and the constant desire to improve upon it resulted from our life on the farm. A fair amount of innovation, determination and ability to identify solutions came from that setting, and it’s carried over to any situation when we are challenged with problems we are trying to solve. I have a personal slogan, “It’s not if, but how.”

HPCwire: By the way, congratulations on recently securing $14M in Series A funding. Why do you believe investors were and continue to be interested in Adaptive Computing?

Michael: In the conversations we had with multiple Tier One investors, it became apparent the market was trying to figure out what was going on in technical computing, with Cloud in particular, and where to invest. Fortunately, we already had a technology established that was applicable; we had multiple engagements in place prior to what we now call Cloud, and a very good pipeline of opportunities with a differentiator that went with it. We had the foundation of a proven technology and solution stack, a history of delivering it to very large-scale customers, and a solid source of new customers coming in.

HPCwire: Looking at your fundraising success, you obviously have your ‘elevator pitch’ fine-tuned when talking to venture capitalists. But how would you represent yourself to someone you just met, a new neighbor for example, instead of a company executive?

Michael: First of all, I would see if I could help you move in, because from the personal side of things and with the church activities that I do, I’ve helped a lot of people move in! (Laughing) Seriously, my first focus (and I think this also purveys into business) is always that I like to add value. I would introduce you to my family, tell you about our neighborhood and our schools, and try to help to establish you in your new home. If you asked me about my work, I would probably just say that we make large sets of computers really smart so they do better things.

HPCwire: What advice would you offer to aspiring startups out there that are looking for funding?

Michael: That’s a broad question. I’d say, begin with a bright idea and figure out which partners in the market who, between your innovation and theirs, you can help to make more money, be more successful and create more value for their customers. Understand the importance of culture when creating a small company. Make sure that you establish a collaborative team approach with your employees so that acknowledgement for achievement is distributed evenly across the board. Lastly, try not to be a silo onto yourself. In our space; there are so many inter-dependencies it would be very difficult to be successful by going it alone.

HPCwire: I know there was a “Maui Cluster Scheduler” that preceded the Moab Scheduler; what is the connection with Maui?

Michael: Well MHPCC (Maui High-Performance Computing Center) is a government site on the island of Maui. They became aware of David through his work at IBM and brought him in as a consultant to deploy simulation techniques to achieve better efficiency out of their system. When David was able to simulate a 4x increase in efficiency, they said “Great. Now can you implement those efficiencies by design?”

While Maui Scheduler was certainly the foundation where the concepts were developed, it was missing a set of architectural attributes that were needed to make a high performance computing environment dynamic, to make it adaptive. That was the beginning of the creation of a whole new architecture technology that ultimately became Moab.

HPCwire: Can you please share whom we should be crediting the development of the Moab Scheduler? Was there a single genius driving it, or was it the product of many people working together?

Michael: Well, David truly is the core genius that helped to get us where we are today. It started with his vision and his building a strong core architecture, followed by our other thought leaders who joined the company whose contributions have expanded upon these early concepts. Myself, I’m the analytical guy. My contribution is more around customer discovery and what they are trying to accomplish, then connecting that knowledge into the vision of the technology.

HPCwire: Was the initial intent of your scheduler products to reduce wait times, actual costs in dollars, or what?

Michael: It’s really about how to improve system efficiency with a high degree of utilization. It’s not just getting the work done; it’s about getting the right work done and when. We provide the technology that adapts to a customer’s computing environment to enable them to achieve the results they are looking for from any given project.

HPCwire: What has been your experience marketing a commercial product that inherently competes with the open source product?

Michael: Well, our number one competitor is lack of awareness, where people do not realize what they can accomplish using Moab. Once we overcome that, we’re in very good shape. Our second competitor is our own open source product. We found with Maui Scheduler that while the community could contribute at first, the depth of the technical issues increased the barriers to their contributions. So, we utilized a dedicated commercial approach to continue the investment in automation intelligence through our Moab product.

With that said, we will continue to support our open source products. There are a lot of plays out there where an open source solution makes sense when it is a cleanly defined feature or service. We believe in open source. We optimize on open source. We will continue to contribute to that community.

HPCwire: I read that you graduated from BYU with a degree in international relations, trade and finance. How did that influence your approach to your career path?

Michael: For me, studying international relations meant coming to an understanding of different cultures, their values, what they do in business and in life. I realized that not everyone makes decisions in the same way. If I wanted to participate in business life, it was important for me to have the perspective that the western way of doing things is not the only way. We should learn from as many contributions from other societies as we can. The finance studies enabled me to learn a very broad business level discipline; accounting, economics, how to judge a market, those types of things.

One of the first jobs that I had was at an international import/export management company. I was able to gain insight into what people were doing all over the world, what they were looking for. With that said, I love international business and applying what I learn from interaction with different cultures. Beyond the business implications, I see the world as a market place of ideas. I’m not one to expect everyone to fall in love with only my ideas. This is true for me from a personal perspective, in regards to my political or religious beliefs, in addition to economic approaches. For instance, in the political realm I would not just ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ of my party. I would try to understand the different viewpoints to learn and to improve upon my own business acumen by utilizing that market place of ideas. That’s as true in life as it is in business.

HPCwire: What would you consider (or still do) your “dream” career?

Michael: I would say I am experiencing my dream career. When I made the move from a large corporation to Adaptive Computing and began to contribute to the creative direction of the company, how we approach it, how we build our culture – well, I love doing that! I thrive on that. And I love high performance computing! The reason why? I get to talk to the scientists who are putting a system into space, or doing system-level biology to calculate chemical reactions within the body, or working to solve cancer, or to reduce our carbon footprint. To be able to contribute in some small way to the world’s technological advances and find solutions to our problems, now that is exciting to me.

HPCwire: Great answer! Lastly Michael, how do you personally define success?

Michael: (Pause) On a personal note, it is the happiness of my family, a core satisfaction of who they are, the lives they live, and how they have contributed to society. From a professional standpoint, it’s that we have helped create meaningful solutions for people and we are part of something that is transforming technology. It’s not about the margins or the business tactics to me. At the end of the day, it’s all about the contributions that we make and what we leave behind that I find truly rewarding.

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