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Software executive Abbasi shares experiences and advice with CS students

11/8/2016 10:02:51 AM Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS

By his own account, Sohaib Abbasi (BS CS '78, MS '80) was in the right place at the right time in 1978 when he began studying relational databases at the University of Illinois. Abbasi parlayed the knowledge and experience he acquired under the supervision of CS Professor Geneva Belford into a successful career as a technology pioneer and business executive who helped lead and grow two major enterprise software companies.

Sohaib Abbasi
SohaibAbbasi
According to Abbasi, choosing this area of research was the single most important decision of his entire career. “I had an interest in data and data management primarily because I couldn’t figure out how hardware worked,” quipped Abbasi. “It was impossible for me to get excited about something I wasn’t very good at, but databases I could understand, and I knew how relational databases were better than what preceded [them].”

Abbasi shared this and other insights as he delivered the 2016 CS @ ILLINOIS Alumni Awards Distinguished Keynote lecture on October 28, 2016, to students, faculty, and staff.

Perhaps best known as the CEO of Informatica, a leading provider of data integration software, Abbasi took the reins of the company in 2004 when it was struggling to grow. He subsequently guided the company’s growth from $200 million in annual revenues with 800 employees to $1 billion in revenues and 3,700 employees.

Earlier in his career, Abbasi worked for Oracle for 21 years, helping to lead the company’s transformation from a small private database company with 30 employees to an industry-leading public company with 42,000 employees worth $10 billion. A highlights of his tenure was conceiving, launching, and growing Oracle’s Tools Business Unit to $3 billion in cumulative license revenues.

One of Oracle’s early employees, Abbasi was hired by University of Illinois attendee Larry Ellison to start a Midwest sales operation out of his Chicago apartment. “During my first six months, we sold nothing at all,” he said, noting that potential customers wanted to know who else was using their relational database software.

Abbasi soon tried a new approach, telling prospective customers that they were unique businesses who could benefit from seeing what Oracle’s software could do for them. “My job was to go in, learn their business problem, and solve it in front of them,” Abbasi explained. “I learned a very important lesson—solutions to actual business problems are more compelling than the elegance of the technology.”

For Abbasi, this real-world example illustrated one key to business success. “Winners’ strategy is guided by the simple principle of show me the money,” he said. “Oracle’s sales approach was to show the customer the value, the money.”

Sohaib Abbasi takes a question from the audience following his keynote address on Oct. 28, 2016.
Sohaib Abbasi takes a question from the audience following his keynote address on Oct. 28, 2016.
A second observation Abbasi shared in his talk was that successful business often copy and commercialize other companies’ ideas. For example, he said, in the early 1970s IBM published the first paper on relational databases, and their product System R soon followed. However, IBM didn’t aggressively market System R because it might reduce the sale of an existing database product. “It wasn’t in their business interests to promote their own innovation,” said Abbasi, which opened the door for Oracle to increase the sale of its database software.

Another key to business success, Abbasi observed, is building a world-class team through strong recruiting and motivational leadership. “There’s no one effective way to inspire and get the best out of people,” said Abbasi, noting that one boss at Oracle was very hands off, which contrasted to Ellison’s driven and inspirational leadership style. “Each of them could inspire the skeptics to become believers and the believers to become zealots.”

By the mid-1980s, Abbasi was ready to transition from Oracle sales and marketing to product development. Ellison agreed to the arrangement, but told Abbasi to find his own replacement. Abbasi called his former thesis advisor Belford, who recommended a master’s student of hers named Tom Siebel. Abbasi interviewed him and he got the job.

“He’s done great things for [this] university, so I take credit for everything he’s ever done, because if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have been in a position to provide all the resources,” joked Abbasi.

When Abbasi left Oracle in 2003, the company’s revenues were nearly $10 billion and the firm was the second largest software firm in the world.

Abbasi concluded his talk with some advice for CS @ ILLINOIS students on what skills are most important for today’s graduates to succeed. “Computer science [skills] are still important, but interdisciplinary skills are very important,” he said, noting the timeliness and value of the department’s new CS + X degree program, which combines the CS curriculum with six other departments—math, statistics, astronomy, anthropology, chemistry, and linguistics. “Just as [U of I] had prepared me with my master’s thesis…they’re providing you with opportunities with other disciplines.”

Current students already see the value in this degree program—nearly half of freshman CS students this fall are enrolled in one of the six X options.

Throughout his career, Abbasi has remained active with his alma mater. He has served on the U of I Foundation Board of Directors Budget & Finance Committee and founded an executive alumni roundtable in Silicon Valley. A philanthropist, he and his wife Sara established an endowed professorship and fellowship in CS.

To learn more, you can view Abbasi’s keynote lecture online in its entirety.