The challenge of an Internet start-up: An interview with Nelson Yee, CTO of Portal Wave

After a broad IT career, where do you go next? If you're like Nelson Yee, you could become CTO of your own Internet start-up.

Have you ever dreamed of being your own boss? In the computer and Internet industry, that is happening more and more often. Nelson Yee took his 16 years of business and software experience and leveraged it into an Internet start-up—and into a CTO position. Here is what Yee says about building a strong career in IT, starting from the ground up.
Nelson Yee, CTO and co-founder of the Internet start-up Portal Wave , has 16 years of software industry experience in CRM and ERP applications, Internet technologies, data warehousing, and relational databases. He graduated from State University of New York at Albany with two degrees, computer science and mathematics, in 1984. He started his career working on IBM mainframe technology as a systems analyst and database administrator. Since then he has also held various positions at IBM, ETI, Edify, SAP America, and Siebel Systems.
On starting an Internet company
TR: Tell me about starting your own company. What is that like?
Yee: It’s definitely a challenge. I started this company with three other people—all the way from working out of someone’s garage, doing a business plan, and grinding out the product, to the point where we now have customers. So it has been a challenge.

TR: Was there anything specific that you learned working at Siebel Systems or SAP that you can apply to what you’re doing now?
Yee: Definitely. From the technology standpoint, I learned quite a bit at both SAP and Siebel. Also, just learning from some of the people I worked with over the years, and applying their rules of success to our company. I think every place I have been to I have learned from different people.

TR: Is your company funded by venture capitalists?
Yee: Yes, we actually just closed our second line of funding.

TR: Will you be going for an IPO this year?
Yee: I think that depends on market conditions. I think most likely it will be sometime early next year. I think we have to build our story up over the next six to eight months before we have an IPO.

TR: Do you have any start-up woes to share?
Yee: The standard things, such as trying to build the infrastructure over the last six months, which is always a challenge when you don’t have a lot of people. I think people and money make the difference in the company. So at the very beginning stages, I don’t think they’re woes, I think they are just part of the start-up experience.

TR: What has been your biggest technology challenge?
Yee: I think the biggest technology challenge is the fact that technology changes so rapidly. We knew that we wanted to be 100 percent Java-based. But, even though Java is probably in its fifth year or so, there are some issues there with Java and the technology and also the XML part. This will probably be the year where you’ll start seeing these production applications start going around to all of the Fortune 5000 companies. But, since we’re still developing state-of-the-art software, that is always a challenge.

On being a CTO
TR: Do you think you would have become a CTO as quickly as you did if you hadn’t started your own business, if you kept moving up through the ranks?
Yee: It’s hard to say, but probably not unless I formed my own company. That is the great thing about Silicon Valley right now. People form their own companies and create their own ideas. At some companies—especially some of the bigger companies—at times you felt a little stagnant and that your ideas may not shine through. I think my process was probably accelerated because I started my own company.

TR: What do you see as the difference between a CTO and a CIO?
Yee: CTO and CIO have two different meanings to me. I think CIOs, chief information officers, especially in a major corporation, will gather information, analyze the information, and form business decisions based upon this information. So that is where data warehousing and data mining and that sort of thing become very important to CIOs to build a strategy for their business. CTOs are looking at technology like a Java or XML or something like that and seeing how they can apply this to their business to make them successful.

About Portal Wave
TR: Can you give me an example of what you do for your customers?
Yee: For example, we signed up Sharp, which is the electronic component supplier for Sharp TVs and audio equipment. We’re building a corporate portal for it for e-business—commerce, content, and community.

TR: How do you go about establishing the technology for a portal?
Yee: That is part of our product design. I think initially what we did was build a portal from an end user standpoint that’s role-based. So, any role within your enterprise, whether it be inside or outside the enterprise, would be defined within its portal. And you would have access to all of the relevant information that you need to make yourself more productive. So in that case, if a salesperson logged on to our portal, he would have only relevant data that would make him more productive, like inventory access or being able to create quotations and sales orders and that sort of thing.

TR: Will you have any trouble finding employees in Silicon Valley?
Yee: That’s a challenge. Right now we have 20, and we’re hoping to expand to 45 within the next couple of months. The labor market is very tight. We have to go out and be very aggressive to find the best talent out there. The developers are the big issue right now because, if you’re a developer, you pretty much have your choice of what company you want to go to, especially if you have the new technology talent.

TR: Who is your competition in the marketplace?
Yee: There are actually several. I think the difficulty is when we say “portal.” When we first started out, portal was not an overly used word as it is today. Just within the last six months, I think portal has become a very commonly used word within technology, especially software, and I think people are a little confused as far as what a portal is.

TR: How do you position yourself?
Yee: We’re in the enterprise portal space. What we’re gearing up for is building solutions for e-business, which is a little different than if you heard the word portal maybe six months ago. I think people would have automatically thought like Yahoo or Amazon. But we’re building business-to-business portals for corporations so that they can conduct their business over the Internet.

TR: So essentially it is setting up intranets and extranets?
Yee: Right. [Our system works] so that they can use the portal internally and also from an extranet level so that your suppliers, distributors, re-sellers, or partners in general would be able to access the portal. They can conduct and transact and view data that normally they would not be able to view without having this portal available.

TR: There are several other Web site development companies that will make your Web site whatever you want it to be. How does that differ from what you do?
Yee: We have connectivity to all of the major ERP and CRM systems, which means that our portal can connect to Siebel Systems, SAP, PeopleSoft, or Oracle. Those are the four major players. Also, we signed some deals with the middle market like Great Plains and J.D. Edwards. Some of our customers are doing legacy systems as well.

Some of those other companies are building customized portals and they are mainly into consulting. Whereas we’re trying to build out-of-the-box solutions for e-business so that you’re able to buy and sell things, get content or news that pertains only to you, and also be able to connect to all of these back end systems so that they can reconcile. A lot of the problems that we see out there is that [Web site developers] are able to build this commerce site where they can sell their products, but it doesn’t reconcile with the company’s ERP or CRM systems.

TR: What changes are you seeing in your space right now?
Yee: There are so many companies out there who are looking to move their legacy systems to the Internet, and they’re looking at the best technologies out there and what can get them to that Internet space very rapidly. That is the type of solution that we’re looking at right now. Otherwise, I think you’ll start seeing [more about] wireless technology. I think you’ll start seeing a lot of XML, Java, and enterprise JavaBean type of applications over the next year or so.

Career path
TR: What sorts of jobs did you take right after college?
Yee: The ones that were available were system analyst and programmer system analyst, so I worked as an intern for several companies. One was Aetna Life Insurance, where I got my first exposure to the IBM mainframe. I worked there for one internship during my junior year. Also during college, I worked at several positions within the university at the computer center as well.

TR: After you graduated, you worked pretty much in network management?
Yee: I worked as a programmer analyst and then worked at a company called Axiom Systems, which back then was a start-up company that dealt with laboratory information management systems, or LIMS as they called it. At that point, we were just creating things on IBM mainframes. It seems like a long time ago, but that was during the days when IBM was a true monopoly. This was pre-Microsoft and pre-PCs.

So at Axiom I worked on IBM technology. First I worked there as a programmer analyst, then as a systems programmer, and then I became a manager. That was my first management position.

TR: What did you do after that?
Yee: Actually, I moved out to California, did some contract work. I landed an opportunity at IBM in Santa Teresa labs down in San Jose. I worked in the IBM DB-II group, relational database systems, and I was doing system analysis, systems programming, and also some supporting of customers. That is where I started getting more involved with relational databases.

TR: Where did you go then?
Yee: Then I did some more contracting work at several corporations. Among them was VISA International and also Matson, which was a shipping company that shipped various types of food between Hawaii and the continental United States. Then I decided to go back into permanent employment and I went to this company called ETI, Evolutionary Technologies Incorporated, based in Austin. I was the designated Western region account manager for that company. I did my share of selling, consulting, pre-sales, and post-sales support. It was one of those multiple-hat type of jobs.

TR: Selling takes a whole different skill set. Did you find it difficult?
Yee: It was a challenge at first, but probably the best thing about selling is either you have it or you don’t. So when I was pretty much thrust into that environment, I was able to handle that situation fairly well and I adjusted.

TR: Did your experience at wearing many hats influence how much you look at business issues as opposed to technology issues?
Yee: Definitely. I think you have to present yourself to an audience in different ways, depending on who the audience is. Working as a technical person, a lot of times you’re dealing with the IT managers, directors, programmers, and whatever. When you deal in sales, obviously you’re dealing with the staff and you have to talk to them in different ways. So in that case, being in front of the different audiences definitely helped me out.

TR: What did you do after ETI?
Yee: I went to a company called Edify, which was a start-up company. They went public my first year there. I was a project manager, and I was there to install their CRM initiative. So that gave me my first exposure to what I call the CRM-packaged application space. Basically, I was IT manager at that point. We also installed Oracle financials. So I had the taste of both CRM and ERP at that point. Then I accepted a project manager position at SAP.

At SAP, I got a lot of exposure to the business side of things—as far as using technology and applying it to business. SAP, even though it is a technology company, it is really focused on business. The technology and the business side of things are kind of equal, so that when they hire people, they hire technical people. They want technical people who understand the business. I did project management there with three or four implementations.

TR: What did you do after SAP?
Yee: I went to Siebel doing pretty much the same things I did with SAP. That is where I decided it was time to do my own company.

TR: For a person starting out, would you recommend following the kind of career path that you took to get to CTO?
Yee: Nowadays things are in Internet time. So, you don’t have to necessarily go through all of the different positions I went through. I think certainly the experience helps, but as far as becoming a CTO or [moving into an] executive type of position, I think staying technical in one company and then going through the ranks, getting promoted, and working yourself up the ladder could be a good way of going to the executive level. Nowadays, you would be better off almost working at a place like Oracle or Microsoft for maybe five, six, or seven years, going that route instead.
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