Cornel Stefanache, CTO, on Building Innovative Digital Solutions and Customer Loyalty

Cornel played a key role in AscentCore’s success, his vast experience and passion for technology and engineering being matched only by his dedication for growth leadership.

We sat down with him to learn more about the path that led him to AscentCore and the ins and outs of his role as Chief Technology Officer.

Tell us about the professional journey that brought you to AscentCore

I’ve always had a passion for technology and engineering. I started working at a fairly young age (around 16 or 17) doing presentation websites for a record company in Germany for some of their artists. Later, I joined the Optimal Design Centre research lab led by Lucian Tudose as a software engineer where I had my first contact with artificial intelligence (AI). The seven-year research journey ended with my PhD in applied AI in the manufacturing process.

Over a span of four years, the research work overlapped with production work and it was a really good mix to see both worlds and have a clear separation between experiments and production code. This period helped me switch easily from building POCs to reliable and stable features.

Eventually I ended up switching from backend work to frontend with no experience. Luckily the company that hired me gave me time to bring myself up to speed which opened new doors and made me realize the value of having fullstack skills in designing and architecting features optimally for both runtime environments. Around that time I started leading teams and got really interested in training and mentoring new people.

I was able to experience the essence of research in technology by signing a contract with MIT Media Lab where I met some of the brightest minds. With the guidance of Christian Smith, which I consider one of the best leaders that I’ve ever had and look up to, we were able to deal with challenges that revolved around privacy and security. At that point I was introduced to business thinking and brainstormed together with non-technical people. This skill added a new layer of understanding and, most importantly, that was the point when I understood that technology is just a tool and added business measurements to the evaluation list: time to market, usability, experience, privacy etc.

Why did you join AscentCore?

I joined AscentCore for the opportunity to leverage my skills in working with both clients and engineering teams.

As a CTO, how does your background help influence decisions you make in engineering?

I was lucky enough to be exposed as a software engineer in various fields and technologies that expanded my view on how to translate business needs into technical solutions, amplify data value, and expose information to the consumer. I’ve been able to put myself in the shoes of the user when designing new products to create a great experience. Whether it’s an enterprise or a media application, I try to make sure that the product makes the most out of its data without overwhelming the user.

Trying to design data visualizations and thinking about how to incorporate AI/ML algorithms into products allows me to design the data and product architecture that will facilitate implementation in the future with less effort.

Let’s talk about the technical challenges that you faced. What types of technical decisions did you make and what can we learn from them?

I have been lucky enough to successfully deliver with untested, beta, or new technologies. Businesses that are early adopters can step into the game with features that separate them from the competition like faster delivery, better performance, and experience.

It also challenges the development teams to go further into understanding new technologies by digging deeper into source code. This is a core skill that I seek in every software engineer that I interview.

AI / ML has been a recurring theme and it’s perhaps the most common high-level cloud service that a lot of people talk about, and use, and implement. To what extent are you using artificial intelligence, and more specifically, machine learning for the partners you work with?

AI / ML are tools that can help create new business opportunities, but they do not replace the way we do software. This field has a really important component that is not as popular but is crucial in deploying successful models: data science. Except for computer vision, most data isn’t ready to be fed in any heuristic algorithm, instead it requires data filtering, normalization, and estimation for a good understanding of statistics.

I have found myself explaining to clients that their data cannot be exploited through ML algorithms due to its uniformity. This step is really important in decision making to invest time and money into research and implantation. We are trying to identify, research, and test such potential solutions for all of our clients because most of the time we are dealing with non-technical stakeholders that are not aware of what new problems we can solve. We try to promote a basic understanding of all types of algorithms so that the engineers can identify this opportunity and bring it up for research.

When you’re hiring for the engineering team, what are the key skills, expertise, or mindset that you’re looking for?

I usually try to match people’s skills to a certain product and make sure that they have enough information about the effort before deciding to join AscentCore. The first thing that I look for, mostly for the leadership team, is whether they can augment the current set of company skills. There is no point in having all people knowing the same thing if we are bad at everything else. My philosophy is that if you know one technology that I have never worked on before and can explain it to me so I can understand its value, then you know it well enough to be a reliable go-to person.

Does a CTO need to know every programming language?

No, but a CTO should surround himself with people he trusts, people who know one or two programming languages. Specializing in one technology is a long process, it is like learning a new spoken language so it takes time.

Do CTOs spend most of their time programming or leading teams?

I consider myself to be at the beginning of this journey but the role of a CTO is a combination of business components with technical skills. I leverage my technical skills in answering business questions rather than trying to implement them. I am no longer a skilled software engineer but I rely on the people that are good at it and we have really bright ones. I consider myself to be at the software engineers service, to make sure that they have everything they need in order to deliver, learn, and grow on the journey that they choose.

What’s your idea of fun?

I’ve always been a fan of sports, mostly winter sports but I try to be active at all types of activities (even if I’m not very good). A brainstorming activity or a hackathon can be as fun as long as I find a challenge in it.

I enjoy channeling the challenges, frustrations, and emotions I face in everyday professional life into my web comic series project

I do think that Privacy, AI/ML and VR/AR will have a huge impact on the future development of humankind. We are planning to build a lab department in AscentCore that will focus on research with the help of dedicated people and software engineers. Understanding the impact of such concepts in business development will allow us to accelerate client businesses and take part in the quest for innovation and change.

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