Profile on UBC CS alum Ryan Wong: how resourcefulness led to success
Although UBC computer science alumnus Ryan Wong is a busy executive and co-founder of a company valued at over $1 billion, he still writes code for fun.
“It’s the best kind of meditation,” said Ryan, the CEO of Visier. “It’s like when I run. It’s just me and the thing I am doing in a very single-minded way, focused on one activity.”
Back when Ryan was writing code at UBC in the early 90s for his classes, computers were only accessible in labs. “The computer science building didn’t exist when I was there. I was studying in the math building. The Rick’s lab was always busy and students were limited to several hours of login in a centralized Unix OS system. But some of us managed to hack our way into the system to get more time in the lab,” he laughed, “The Unix OS system was very hackable in those days.”
Ryan added, “We had to go to the basement to collect printouts for handing in assignments. The printers often broke down, so assignments would be late. There was no internet either, but we had newsgroups based on NNTP protocol where you could ask or answer programming questions.”
After graduating in 1994 with an Honours Degree in computer science and math, Ryan worked as a software developer for a few companies.
One such company was Crystal Decisions, which was acquired by Business Objects in 2003, and in turn was purchased by SAP in 2008. In 2009, Ryan decided to take a 2-year sabbatical after working in the industry for 15 years. It was during this time away that Ryan and his co-founder John Schwarz (also of SAP), began to think about starting their own company.
Big data, big business idea
“All my career, I’ve been working on data analytics and data analysis,” Ryan explained. “Fancy marketing words aside, I often say that data analytics is nothing more than simply transforming data from some form to another, and then run simple math like count or add. The key words are ‘data transformation.’ Our vision for Visier was to assemble a product using pre-built data analytics and do it in a functional way that eases data transformation as opposed to using imperative programming approach. All functions are based on simple and pure algebra, and they are indefinitely composable and decomposable. So you can re-use them infinitely as building blocks for larger functions.”
“But first,” Ryan said, “We needed to find a domain where we could apply this concept.”
They approached Genentech, a biotech company that is now owned by Roche. It was through those talks that they were inspired to develop the People Analytics application.
“Right now, our purpose is to reveal how humans and business work best together. Human resources are under-served. By using a data approach, we can solve the problem of helping organizations understand their people and how they affect the business.” he said. “The events of the world over the past few years like COVID and gender, race or religion inequality have also provided an opportunity for us to help companies solve these problems.”
To help in accelerating growth, Visier acquired YVA.ai earlier this year, a leading collaboration analytics vendor that shines light on employee well-being, satisfaction and productivity using AI and an innovative combination of deep collaboration analytics and peer polling.
"I never expected to have this level of success."
— Ryan Wong, Co-founder and CEO, Visier
Ryan never really imagined the success he’s had. “I simply thought I entered a great industry. That’s it. I did know that it was the best industry to be in, where every dollar invested typically makes many more. But I never expected to have this level of success.”
Ryan said the original plan was to explore the HR idea for about two years. “But now, I am very passionate about HR.” And it seems like there’s no slowing down. It’s been 12 years since the company was founded, and they employ over 500 people, with over 15,000 customers in 75 countries around the world. Visier has hired many graduates from UBC including those from CS, engineering, business, stats, math and even English.
Additionally, Visier gives back to UBC through two scholarships (one specifically for women in CS). “Actually, I think we do not do enough,” said Ryan. “There are two aspects we are trying to encourage: attracting more women to CS and the other is making math fun. My son came home from school one day and observed that passing math does not make him cool. He said he needs to fail math, so that he can be cool. But math skills are very important for computer science as a prerequisite. We need to spend more effort making math attractive.”
Using your noggin instead of Google
Ryan is emphatic about the fact that in his days, the internet did not exist, and how much that helped him succeed. “When you were faced with a problem, you had to be resourceful. You had to use your brain and think. Today, nearly any problem is solvable through Google. It’s hard to not just search online for any problem you need to solve. I tell my son all the time to try and learn things manually or solve problems the hard way. So he is forced to think for himself.”
Resourcefulness is certainly a desirable trait when it comes to business success. So it’s a bit of a no-brainer this CS alum has had the amount success he has.
More about Visier’s UBC scholarships
All photo credits: Visier