Engineering at Sigma: Tackling tough problems to build amazing solutions
Sigma is fundamentally changing the way people interact with data. Building the only no-SQL-necessary, cloud-first analytics tool is exhilarating — but it’s not easy.
As someone with a long history in the BI and analytics industry, I knew when I joined Sigma that the company’s head of engineering needed to be not only an intelligent and innovative data expert, but also a passionate and indomitable leader. It was immediately obvious that Latha was the perfect fit for Sigma’s VP of Engineering role.
Latha has a wealth of experience building world-class data management and analytics products at both startups and enterprises. At ParAccel, Latha led the engineering team responsible for developing core database technologies powering Amazon Redshift. Her next company, Platfora, was acquired by Workday, where she subsequently served as VP of Engineering and built the Prism Analytics service.
Since joining Sigma in July 2019, Latha and her team have already made significant contributions to the platform, including rolling out collaborative data modeling functionality. Next up? Scaling a top-notch engineering team ready to roll up their sleeves and revolutionize the BI industry. I recently sat down with Latha to learn more about her background, management style, and why she joined Sigma.
What attracted you to Sigma and led you to join?
Two things: the mission and the team. Sigma’s mission to make data accessible to everyone by building a cloud-based analytics tool is one that resonates with my own passion for building cloud data technology that’s easy to use.
My parents both had science and engineering backgrounds and I developed a love for math and science early in my childhood. I thought I would be a physicist when I grew up but ultimately became fascinated with computers and pursued a PhD in computer science with a focus on databases. A few of my fellow graduate students decided to create a startup building a parallel database system and invited me to join. We had so much fun and I learned so much that my love of data technologies and startups was forever sealed.
Sigma’s mission to make data accessible to everyone by building a cloud-based analytics tool is one that resonates with my own passion for building cloud data technology that’s easy to use.
That love has evolved into building and enabling teams to create great technologies while enjoying ourselves along the way. So, when I heard about the opportunity to do just that at Sigma, I had to learn more about it. As I talked to the founders Rob and Jason, board member Mike Speiser from Sutter Hill Ventures and several Sigma employees, it became clear that this was a very special team.
What are some of the most exciting challenges and opportunities of building a market-leading cloud-based BI tool?
In talking to customers and prospects we’ve learned what they expect from a modern data analytics product. End users of a cloud-based BI tool should be able to apply their existing expertise to gain insights. They should be able to explore and ask questions of their data without doing complex SQL gymnastics or waiting five minutes for the system to render a single computation. The entire user interface—how the analyses are specified and visualizations are displayed—should be intuitive and simple.
At the same time, customers want assurance that cloud BI vendors can satisfy all their data security and governance requirements. When new capabilities are provided by a BI vendor, the upgrade should be seamless with no disruption to the business. Customers shouldn’t have to manage a spider web of product versions or long upgrade cycles as they do with on-premises solutions. The vendor is expected to make all the right decisions and integrate with the latest cloud platform services from companies like Google or Amazon.
All these challenges translate directly to how we design and engineer Sigma’s cloud offering. There’s a lot of interesting work going on to make the interactions and explorations super fast. We’re constantly making our user interfaces better for specifying analyses and visualizing data.
One of the great things about Sigma’s engineering team is our ability to iterate quickly and deliver innovations at a rapid pace. We’re set up to deploy multiple times a day if needed. We are constantly evaluating new technologies to make both the end product and the development process easier. For example, we chose Rust for our backend compiler infrastructure. Our web backend and frontend both use Typescript to manage the complexity of building a large single page app.
While building a cloud analytics offering is interesting, building one that is fast and easy to use is 100 times more challenging. And we love that challenge at Sigma!
Describe your ideal engineering team—what qualities and strengths matter most in your opinion?
Great engineering teams aren’t afraid to take bold bets. Each individual on the team is self-motivated and driven. They’re curious about technology trends and eager to understand the “why” and “what” behind customer problems. They’re continuously looking for better ways to develop, hire and communicate.
In addition, each person realizes that, as a member of a high-performing team, they’re a multiplier. They set high bars for themselves individually, but are also willing to help each other because they value the team’s achievements just as much as their own personal success. They build trust with one another by respectfully challenging each other’s ideas ideas and showing willingness to have their assumptions challenged in return.
I think of a healthy engineering team like a beautiful forest. A healthy forest has a diversity of flora and fauna and can sustain many years of growth. That’s why a good team values diversity of backgrounds, experiences and ideas, and places emphasis on breaking down silos between themselves and other departments. They recognize the importance of communicating across teams and receiving feedback.
I think of a healthy engineering team like a beautiful forest. A healthy forest has a diversity of flora and fauna and can sustain many years of growth.
We like to hire people who have the potential to do great things at Sigma. That means not just being excited about where we are today but also having the grit to deal with ambiguity and the desire to take part in shaping our destiny.
Do you have a management philosophy? How do you lead your teams?
I believe it’s my job as a leader to empower my team to do their very best work. This means setting clear objectives, removing roadblocks, allowing space to brainstorm and helping and trusting teams to make the right decisions.
I like to create a safe environment for people to give feedback, take bold risks and not be afraid of failure. The most important thing is to aim high, learn from mistakes and celebrate small wins along the way. I also ask each team member to think about how they can help others be successful at Sigma—not just their peers on the engineering team, but also new hires and colleagues in sales or marketing.
The reality is that ten years from now you won’t think about who came up with the best solution or whether we should’ve implemented X feature instead of Y. What you’ll remember is how you felt being part of your company and team, what you learned and the impact you made. My ultimate goal as a leader is to help make this a memorable journey.
What are you passionate about outside of work?
I love nature and wildlife. Hiking is one of my favorite weekend hobbies—something about being outside is very restorative and inspiring to me. Protecting our environment and wildlife is also near and dear to my heart. I volunteer for related causes whenever I have the opportunity. And of course I have my own beloved pets: a dog and two cats.
I also love painting and drawing. I used to paint with watercolors and oils, but recently I’ve been drawing portraits and landscape scenery on my iPad.
Are you a data, cloud and/or BI expert who gets excited about tackling tough problems to build transformational solutions? Are you looking to make your next big career move and join a truly innovative team?
Latha’s hiring! To check out her open roles and apply, visit Sigma’s career page.
Latha has a wealth of experience building world-class data management and analytics products. She was VP of Engineering at Workday where she led teams that built the Prism Analytics cloud service based on their foundational work at Platfora, a big data analytics startup. Prior she led engineering teams at ParAccel that developed the core database technology powering Amazon Redshift.
Latha is a serious student of art, nature, and wildlife.