Take 5 With Jim Stratton: Solving Big Problems

After working to uncover the mysteries of our solar system’s planets for nearly 15 years, Jim Stratton brought his passion for problem solving to Workday. In this post, our CTO explores what he sees around the corner for Workday and our customers, the challenges we can help them solve, and how guitar playing improves his thinking process.

Jim Stratton has always been a problem solver, and he’s always been curious about what might be around the corner. Those traits took him to Cornell University and Johns Hopkins University for mechanical engineering degrees, and to the Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland for an MBA.

They also took him to space (in a manner of speaking). Before joining Workday in 2013, Jim spent nearly 15 years at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins. While there, he worked on major interplanetary missions, including the New Horizons mission that gave humans a deeper understanding of Pluto. 

But the long time frame of space missions drove Jim to seek new challenges. As he earned an MBA, Jim also became more interested in the broader business environment outside of engineering. He reached out to a college friend who was the chief architect at Workday at the time and asked whether we needed mechanical engineers. A month later, he was in California interviewing for his latest mission: on the Workday team. Since 2018, Jim’s served as chief technology officer (CTO) at Workday.

In this Take 5, Jim explores what he sees around the corner for Workday and our customers, the big problems we can help them solve, and how guitar playing improves his work life.

What can you tell us about the role of the chief technology officer at Workday and how the role has changed as a result of the events of the past couple of years?

Our customers’ needs and expectations are constantly evolving, and our company’s needs are changing quickly too. With that in mind, my job is to be the conscience of the engineering side of the company—to give the best honest answer for where we are, what's realistic, and where we should be going. 

“I’m most excited that we're still actually in the very early days as a company.”

Jim Stratton Chief Technology Officer Workday

On the architecture side, that means leading the discussion on how we grow and evolve and scale the underlying architecture. That’s how we’ll ensure our customers will be customers for life. They need to be confident in our ability to grow and evolve with them. 

I think about that evolution like this: We have to design a new engine, build it, and swap it out for the old one while the plane is flying. That’s actually one of the most exciting elements of the role for me, and that constant change has only accelerated over the past couple of years. I get to manage the development side of that and talk about it to the outside world.  

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?

We’re continuing to go after the bigger markets or the bigger customers within markets that we're already in, and we have huge ambitions around increasing our product footprint, too. At the same time, we have to stay focused on how best to walk the path to achieve those goals.

In my view, the great advantage Workday has is that we have the full breadth of any kind of tech problem you can get interested in. Our team is involved in everything: world-class, consistent, and highly scalable transaction engines; complex machine learning models; the data pipelines feeding machine learning; and good, old-fashioned application development. They’re all part of our platform.

Which emerging technologies are you most interested in right now?

Machine learning (ML) is an area that always interests me. I ran Workday’s ML group for about a year and a half, and there's still a lot of opportunity there for us, like applying the latest ML innovations to the enterprise data set through our business data graph. 

Blockchain is another fascinating area. We are spending a lot of time with blockchain to understand how it works and to scope out the potential future use cases for it within the Workday platform. Now that we're starting to come off the overly hyped portion of blockchain’s life cycle, we’re looking at how we can apply it to increase transactional consistency and strengthen the truth of data. We are still in the very early days, but there's a lot of potential there for us.

The third area I’m focusing on is the connectivity of systems. What are the most efficient ways to connect Workday with the other business services our customers are using? Getting this one right will help our customers integrate across systems more efficiently and will bring them a lot of value. It will also be a real enabler of our focus on the CIO community and making their life easier with our enterprise software, introducing simplicity into their world instead of adding complexity. I think it's going to be important for how the industry evolves.

Jim Stratton during his career at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

What excites you about the future at Workday?

I’m most excited that we're still actually in the very early days as a company. We've come a long way, built a big company, have world-class, incredible technology, and really great people to work with. But there's still a lot left to do. Workday tackles really hard and interesting problems that nobody else on the planet is doing, like helping the biggest companies in the world make faster, better decisions about their people and finances.  

The people I work with every day are some of the smartest, most engaging folks working on these really, really hard problems. That inspires me.

We understand you started playing the guitar again during the pandemic. How’s that going for you, and have you learned any lessons on the guitar that apply to your work?

Engineering and music are really closely related—math and music are for sure, since they hit the same part of the brain. But for me, playing guitar is more like going for a walk where I can get my brain into a more settled spot, to be able to think through other kinds of problems. It just switches the mode of your brain and makes it easier to think through work challenges.

One of those challenges is the overwhelming amount of complexity in our work and communicating it simply to the team and to our customers. How can I get my brain working in a way that I can provide clarity on what we're trying to work on? For me, music is definitely one pathway to that.

If you could choose one person, past or present, to have dinner with, who would it be and why?

I’m really interested in people who are incredibly deep, long-range thinkers. That’s a skill I’d like to explore with Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein, since they both lived it in a different dimension and to a different depth than most of the rest of us ever will.

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