K Young on Startups and Changing Directions

Rice CS alumnus K Young is now the VP for Growth Engineering at Datadog.

Rice CS alumnus K Young is the VP for Growth Engineering at Datadog.

After two years as an architecture student at Rice University, K Young changed his major.

The Rice Computer Science alumnus (B.A. ‘02) said, “I didn’t know what nanotechnology was, really, but Professor Smalley had recently gotten a Nobel Prize, Rice had built a world-class lab and I was looking for something new. So I went to the registrar’s office and said, ‘I want to major in nanotech.’

“To which they replied, ‘It isn’t a major. Go meet some of the professors and talk to them about how to get into it.’ So I literally walked down the hallways around the lab, knocking on doors and asking the professors if they needed an undergraduate to do anything.”

James Tour needed someone to write software and Young said he could do that, recalling his AP class in high school. To be on the safe side, he also enrolled in a Rice CS course as soon as he left Tour’s office. He also began taking Biology courses to speed up his nanotech transition.

“As the semester progressed, I had to force myself to do the biology work while CS felt like a treat. I had never considered pursuing CS professionally because I was intimidated - all the CS students at Rice already seemed to know what they were doing. But now I found I loved CS.”

Although he did not switch to CS until his junior year, Young had two advantages: he had not developed any bad habits and he was immediately applying what he learned in class to real life problems. The Tour lab was creating microbiologic chips out of chemicals and using electricity to train the chips to perform specific actions. Young was writing simulations for those chips.

“Working in the Tour lab was super fascinating - we were creating tiny new computers with new materials. But my pivotal moment was when James Tour talked with me and said he needed me to write software. That was how I discovered CS.”

And he discovered a lab partner who was also entering the CS major as a junior. Young and Doug Daniels took the same CS courses at the same time as they worked all their degree requirements into their last four semesters.

His first job after graduation was working for an educational technology company, helping teachers quickly administer early literacy assessments and make use of the  results. The work was interesting and he loved living in New York. Then his employer asked, “Do you know other people like you?” and Young immediately thought of Daniels.

Young may have led Daniels to New York, but Daniels led Young into successful entrepreneurship.

“Mortar Data was Doug’s idea,” said Young. “We had been working with a lot of data, identifying patterns so teachers would know how to best help their students. Doug felt the pain of these huge sets of data in separate streams and platforms, and saw the need for a way to combine them, clean them, and aggregate them so they would be usable for downstream purposes,” said Young.

“Cleaning and merging those data sets might take days to run, which made debugging failures quite painful. There wasn’t much in the way of frameworks or tools to process large sets of data in those days. I had enough experience with our business to know it was a real problem and that I had skills to contribute. It seemed the right time to take a risk and start our own company.”

Two of their colleagues had a similar idea about harnessing big data streams, and Datadog and Mortar Data launched within a month of each other. For a short time, the Datadog founders even shared office space leased by Young and Daniels.

The four founders continued meeting several times a year, discussing their companies’ roles in the business of big data as well as their startup challenges like fund-raising and staffing.  Five years after the launch of Mortar Data, Young and Daniels considered merging with a larger company.

“We talked with several companies, but Datadog made it an easy decision. We knew their leadership style, the personalities of the founders, and their products because Datadog and Mortar Data had been each other’s customers.

“Now, I have the best job at Datadog. I don’t have the weight on my shoulders of the CEO - that pressure or responsibility - but I do get to work on a huge variety of problems. I’m responsible for creative marketing,  videos, writing, and brand design – all parts of my job that pull on my earlier design experience in architecture at Rice. I’m also responsible for data science and analytics, which taps into my data engineering experience. And I run our website and tech recruiting, which combine engineering and marketing.

“All these different areas mean I need to think about a huge variety of things, like how do we grow the company? And I get a lot of leeway to think about and work on the next hard problem that no one else is addressing. A good day is when I get to switch between all those things, and feel like I’m constantly learning and also growing the business,” he said.

Young has no regrets about his years as a startup entrepreneur, but cautions other CS students and alumni to think carefully about why they want to start a company.

“Entrepreneurship is romanticized quite a bit. In fact, in the beginning it’s a lot of stress, drudgery, hard times, and uncertainty. Most companies never grow out of this phase. And if you want to be an entrepreneur for financial gain, there are a lot of easier, more certain ways to make money. Anyway if you don’t love the problem you are trying to solve, not only will your company very likely fail, you will be miserable.”

“Whether you start a business or join an existing company, I advise everyone to look for people who care about the same kinds of problems you do and with whom you communicate easily and well. The relationships I created at Rice and at my first job are still very important to me, even now, 20 years later. It is absolutely the case that long-lasting, good professional relationships have opened many opportunities for me. These relationships are built on years of respect developed through working together and helping each other, not on superficial networking.”