MemSQL Founder Nikita Shamgunov: Companies Fight for Time Users Spend in Front of Their Screens

400 million dollars is, hands down, a huge wad of money. It is also the price of the company MemSQL, which specializes in database accelerators. Now a big name in the field, it was founded by a former Microsoft and Facebook engineer Nikita Shamgunov, who took it to the world’s largest business incubator for startups, Y Combinator. Having gained support of the influential tech investor Yuri Milner and achieved large contracts with Sony, Uber and Samsung, the entrepreneur doesn’t think of stopping anytime soon. In a recent interview with The Bell, he shared about his educational background, sports programming wins and plans for the future. ITMO.NEWS put down the keynotes.

Nikita Shamgunov

On sports programming

Sports programming is like some sort of a game. It’s more popular in Russia than in the US, because Russia offers fewer opportunities for a very talented maths or computer science people. Stateside, you can build robots, explore artificial intelligence, go on a summer internship at any given Silicon Valley resident such as Google, Facebook, Dropbox. You can conduct research at the laboratory at your university or launch your own startup.

You can do all these things in Russia too, but here you have to have much more perseverance to achieve certain results. While in the US, employers line up for specialists like you. If you study at MIT, this means that you’re talented. This also means that you have lots of options for building a career. And this is a very easy choice to make. You decide, you sign an employment agreement, you’re hired. This proves to be more difficult in Russia.

Google headquarters in the Silicon Valley. Credit:
Google headquarters in the Silicon Valley. Credit:

On studying in Yekaterinburg in the ‘90s

In my hometown of Yekaterinburg, there is this lyceum which is part of the Ural Federal University. I was a student there, and many people from my year and older went on to have very high-flying careers. One of my classmates, Leonid Volkov, went into politics. A student one year older, Victor Shaburov, sold his company to Snapchat, who are now using the filters he created. I did wonder why everything happened that way. My guess is that in the ‘90s, when all of us were at school, the lyceum was a unique place with lots of real freedom. Russian economy was in a terrible state after the crisis of 1991, and these economic hardships pushed professors and teachers working in research centers to look for additional employment. The Ural Federal University’s lyceum was one of the places offering them such an opportunity.

This was why we the school kids were taught by seasoned professors involved in serious science. The lyceum was replete with people who lived for knowledge and research. And this ambiance of freedom and enthusiasm (at the backdrop of the economy continuing to deteriorate) allowed both school students and teachers to concentrate and focus on their dreams, opportunities, science. This was a remarkable environment to be part of.

On dreams and moving to St. Petersburg

Because of my parents’ influence, it took me a long time to leave Yekaterinburg for Moscow or St. Petersburg: they wanted to keep me close to home. At that moment, I wasn’t mature enough to inform them that I was going to move to Moscow, and that’s that. But in hindsight, I don’t think that all this mattered that much.

And then I moved to St. Petersburg. This was because I was an active participant of various academic competitions, and it was in St. Petersburg that Vladimir Parfenov, the former rector of ITMO University, built the best school that was constantly winning all of the major academic competitions out there. Back at the time, sports programming didn’t even exist as a term. And now, if we look at the winners’ charts, they are dominated either by the St. Petersburg State University, or by some university in Moscow, or, of course, ITMO.

On the special pleasure of programming

Programming is a boundlessly creative activity. Writing code is fascinating because even as you do that, you get direct feedback from the computer, informing you whether the turn you took was right or wrong. And when you get it right, you get a kick of this engineer’s pride that your code is working without any mistakes, and that your clients take pleasure from using your product. Plus, programming’s always throwing this intellectual gauntlet at you, it’s always a challenge. Each time you’re doing something that has never been done before; you’re creating something that has never existed before. And it’s really easy to become addicted to that special kind of pleasure. You come to work, spend your day on solving interesting tasks. You’re good at it, they praise you and give you heaps of money. It’s this kind of moreish.

On working at Microsoft

The office is open 24/7. On a normal working day, I would come in at 10am and sign off at 7pm. When the project I was doing was interesting, I would work on weekends. Should it be especially interesting, I wouldn’t stop working at all. But at the same time, I still had a life and other interests: I skied, played football and table tennis.

Microsoft and Google have long understood the secret of how to build a workspace in such a way that people, especially young people, there wouldn’t have any need of going outside. Their offices have everything you could wish for; coffee, beer, tasty food, everything. You just feel at home there, going about your work in a T-shirt and slippers.

On gender equality in IT

It so often happens that from a very young age, parents (and I should know as I’m a parent myself) treat their kids differently based on their gender. Girls we call princesses, boys we call future engineers.

A girl takes up ballet as a hobby and we say, that’s great, look how well, how graciously she dances. While boys are commended for their ability to solve mathematical problems, their excellence in sports and competitions. Year after year, these things continue to amass to create gender stereotypes. In most cases, I manage to consciously hold myself from promoting these stereotypes. In our company, it is the responsibility of the HRs to ensure that our diversity policies are being implemented and that they are effective. We really strive to achieve that 50-50 gender balance in our team. Nevertheless, our executive team consists exclusively of men. But I’m hopeful that with time, we’ll get there.

On moving to Facebook

Money was just some part of it all. In any case, if you work in this field, the money will always follow. The real reason was that by the time I joined Facebook, I was already obsessed with entrepreneurship. I’d realized that I didn’t want to stay an engineer for my whole life, though writing code was something I loved doing. A friend told me that at Facebook, I could meet a potential business partner. That’s the way things are in the Silicon Valley: the whole atmosphere there is imbibed with the spirit of entrepreneurship, much more so than in Seattle, where I worked for Microsoft.

Entrepreneurship is an entire ecosystem. It’s not just entrepreneurs themselves and the infrastructure that they need, it’s also venture capitalists and business angels. With that in mind, we need more people who are ready to work in startups. One major advantage of the Silicon Valley is that it has this ecosystem, and it’s very easy to understand too. There are always people who are more than happy to explain you things over a cup of coffee.

On his ambition to launch his own business

I wanted to create a product that would be useful to, and would be used by, a large group of people. The amount of risk, time and effort involved in building something of your own goes way beyond the amount of money you’ll get if you join a right company at the right time. All the while, if your project turns out a success, you’ll get financial independence, and that’s a huge prize in itself.

Of course, your executive board will always be advising you what to do. But you need to remember that you can’t earn all the money in the world. Also, the mere surge in creativity you get when going your own way just doesn’t compare to anything you’ve experienced before. It’s as if you’ve lived in a two-dimensional space your whole life and suddenly you find yourself in an environment that is three-, or even four-dimensional.

On Facebook and screen time

As of now, I don’t have the Facebook app on my phone, I don’t have any notifications bugging me every second of my day. I believe that people are happier when they’re not constantly distracted in this way. Behind the closed doors, companies are fighting tooth and nail for the time you spend staring at your screen. They hire data analysts who use all of their brain power thinking what to do with a product to make people spend more of their time on it. And notifications is their main tool of trade. Personally, I choose to control the amount of time I spend in front of my screen.

I think that in 20 years, smartphones will get the same backlash as smoking once did. And for a good reason: I've found that removing that Facebook app off my phone had a very positive impact on me and my day-to-day. I became more productive, focused, and driven, and spend my time more effectively at meetings, and all of this is just because I’m not bombarded with notifications all of the time.

On the fate of a Russian programmer

You can be as successful a programmer in Russia as in the US, Germany, Australia, India or China. Talented people always succeed if they put their mind to it. There are opportunities in every place you find yourself in. But often a country is surrounded by a wall, as is the case with China, for example. Russia also has its own metaphorical wall, the Russian language. You can build a company that draws on the Russian language and culture, but it may well happen that it won’t be as successful globally.

On the future

Right now, I’m interesting in two things. The first is to learn to manage a business on a different, higher level. In other words, now our company employs 50 people. How would my work change if our staff expanded to 1,500 people? And what if it were 10,000 people? The way you work and live your day, and the things you do and spend your time on will be completely different in both of these situations.

And for the second, I’d really like to try my hand at being a venture capitalist, because it means that I’d spend the most of my time working with the entrepreneurs I hold a lot of respect and admiration for. They have tons of energy, they are curious of all the things happening in the world. They’re interested in achieving something and creating something new. And when you speak with them, they often change your own worldview for the better. On the other hand, venture capitalism is a very serious affair with lots of responsibility involved. You’re managing the funds of big organizational and have to stake on projects that you truly think will fly.

On role models

In terms of entrepreneurs that are on a whole different level, I really like Bill Gates. For starters, he’s exceptionally smart. Second, he’s a bona fide geek, in the best sense of this word: he’s still deeply obsessed with and involved in technologies and has a very open-minded, if a bit naive, outlook on life. Third, as an entrepreneur who created the world’s largest company, he’s in a league of his own, there’s no one like him. Fourth, unlike many of his counterparts, Gates didn’t turn to the dark side, to a kind of mega-consumption; you won’t read about him buying islands in the Hawaii. And, finally, he’s very serious about investing his own money in the things the world really needs. Like curing poliomyelitis, promoting green energy, and fighting climate change.

On the question he’d ask Mark Zuckerberg

This is a difficult question, because Zuckerberg continues to develop his Facebook corporation and so his interests are somewhat limited by that. I think that the question I’d ask him would be: were it not for Facebook, what else would interest you enough to spend such a gigantic amount of time and energy on? And he would most likely answer that at this point in time, it’s Facebook.

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