CTO Wisdom with Alexis Smirnov | Beyond the Program

May 7, 2024

CTO Wisdom with Alexis Smirnov | Beyond the Program

Welcome to CTO Wisdom. In this series, we interview technical leaders who have stepped into executive positions.

Today’s guest host, Eric Brooke, speaks with Alexis Smirnov. Alexis is the CTO of Dialogue, Canada’s premier virtual healthcare and wellness platform, providing affordable, on-demand access to quality care.

In today’s episode, they discuss:

  • A career starting on a programmable calculator, to Russian Space Research Institute to Microsoft to Co-founding two tech companies
  • Working in HealthTech and the Purpose it can give you
  • Importance of promoting yourself into new roles
  • Importance of building relationships through your career
  • How you grow in your career and the importance of selling Vision and working with others to create the actions to achieve it
  • As a co-founder how important to recognize when you hit a wall, or when your work as IC is less important than the co-ordination of others
  • How much of your focus at C-suite is on the growing of a healthy and sustainable business

About today’s guest: Over his three decades in the software industry, Alexis has used transformational technologies to build products and services at startups and Fortune 100 companies. In 2016, he co-founded and is serving as the CTO of Dialogue, Canada’s premier virtual healthcare and wellness platform, providing affordable, on-demand access to quality care. Before Dialogue, he led the design and development of the social analytics system, built an award-winning semantic search engine, and incubated a platform for conversational apps. Alexis has co-founded Pi Corp, a pioneering cloud startup and successfully sold it to EMC. An active member of Montreal’s technology startup community, Alexis holds several software patents.

About today’s host: Eric Brooke has a rich and varied leadership career – leading up to 21,000 people and Billions in revenue, throughout 14 countries. In their career, they have been an Executive six times (e.g. President, CEO, CMO, and CTO) and a Board member of multiple organisations. Eric has been a CTO of scaling startups from 0 to 120 engineers. As an adviser and mentor, they have helped multiple other startups scale both in Canada and the US. As well as supporting multiple startup incubators such as 1871 in Chicago and TechStars.

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Transcript
Tim Winkler:

Hey, listeners, Tim Winkler here, your host of The Pair Program. We've got exciting news introducing our latest partner series Beyond the Program. In these special episodes, we're passing the mic to some of our savvy former guests who are returning as guest hosts, get ready for unfiltered conversations, exclusive insights, and unexpected twist as our alumni pair up with their chosen guest. Each guest host is a trailblazing expert in a unique technical field. Think data, product management, and engineering, all with a keen focus on startups and career growth. Look out for these bonus episodes dropping every other week, bridging the gaps between our traditional pair program episodes. So buckle up and get ready to venture Beyond the Program. Enjoy.

Eric Brooke:

Welcome to CTO wisdom. My name is Eric Brooke. This series will talk to leaders of technology at organizations. We'll understand their career, what was successful and what was not and what they learned along the way. We'll also look at what the tech market is doing today. We'll understand where they gather their intelligence so they can grow and scale with their organizations. Here today we have Alexi. Alexi, tell us what your elevator pitch is.

Alexis Smirnov:

Hello, Eric. So my name is Alexis Smirnoff. Um, I'm, uh, fundamentally, I'm an engineer by training and by career. I like to build things. I started, um, I went to school and studied maths and theoretical physics. Back in Moscow, and, um, and then, uh, moving to Montreal, finished a university, Université de Montréal with a computer science degree. Thank you. And, uh, and really, uh, progressed through my career as a, as a software engineer in various, uh, various, uh, forms, uh, of, uh, what that means. Um, doesn't, doesn't necessarily mean it's just coding. It, uh, it means various things. And, um, and then later the last kind of, um, chapter of my career is, um, I've became a co founder and CTO of Dialog. Um, it's a, uh, it's a Canadian company. Uh, that, uh, that offers, um, uh, tech enabled services, uh, for, uh, for companies, um, in, uh, in health tech space.

Eric Brooke:

Cool. I'd love to know a little bit more di about dialogue. Um, being a Canadian, I'd love to hear some Canadian good stories.

Alexis Smirnov:

Well, listen, it's a great story, uh, and, uh, we're so proud to be able to, uh, to offer these, uh, these services to Canadians. Historically, access to healthcare has been a, a, a really big issue for Canadians. Um, we, we started in Montreal, so in Quebec it was even harder in at some other provinces. And that problem persistent for so many years, so it's a, it's a problem that consistently with us. So, in 2016, we, uh, we looked at, um, at this situation, we looked at the technology that we, we have available in terms of, um, you know, live video in terms of, uh, you know, chatbots, um, in terms of, uh, you know, connectivity and, and, and, uh, adoption of, uh, of mobile phones. And, uh, it was clear to us that there is, there was a better way to, um, uh, to remove, uh, and reduce barriers to great care. And so we started a, a virtual care company where we would build the technology, hire medical professionals and start providing primary care services to employees. And the way we did it is, um, is we would, we would go to businesses And offer them a corporate benefit so that their employees can get an app on their phone to see the doctor, get a prescription, get a referral to a lab, get a follow up and get better so much quickly is quicker. And so that's how we started in 2016. Since then, we've added more services, more of these tech enabled services into the same experience and really built out On integrated health platform, um, by now, we're serving about 15 percent of, um, Canadians. So, it's, uh, it's about 6 million people, um, have access to Dialog. Um, it's, uh, it's amazing to, uh, to hear stories from, from people I've never met, you know, maybe in a cafe or somewhere that, that rave about Dialog, their kind of first experience with virtual care. Um, and, uh, and that's, that's really hooks you off when you, when you end up building something that, uh, that that's so meaningful to so many people, it's, uh, it really transforms the way you think about your career.

Eric Brooke:

It's great to have that purpose beyond just the technology and all the curiosity and all of the problems. It's great to have that. And I believe also that you recently formed a partnership with Sun Life and that you're starting to head into the U. S. Is that correct?

Alexis Smirnov:

That is true. So one of the things that we, uh, we set off to build AppDialog is a really strong technology platform that powers the services that we take to market. Of course, if you think about them, the service itself, the medical service, you have to have licensed professionals that have the right to practice medicine in a particular country. But technology behind these services knows no boundaries and the problem space of delivering this, this, uh, digital services or additional health services. Um, or creating a digital front door to a range of services. Those problems are, are in fact, um, universal and so we, we had an opportunity to, uh, present this, this technology to, uh, Sun Life US. It's a division of a Sun Life, uh, uh, and a global company. Um, who were looking to build a digital front door to the services that that they would provide to their members as well as some of the 3rd party, um, companies that that, um, that provide point solutions. They wanted to integrate it all into a seamless experience. And increase that engagement with, uh, with their members. So they were looking for a technology partner. For And that's what's fun about this. The story is that we build the tech for ourselves. We build it because we're operating the services in Canada, but for an engineer, um, it's so satisfying and, and, uh, and it's a proud moment. When somebody else look at the technology you build for yourself and say, look, I can actually use that. I think a lot of people can know that moment when they push, uh, you know, an open source product out there and, uh, and people start picking it up and using it. It's a little bit like that.

Eric Brooke:

It's great that you're able to help our brothers and sisters and others from America as well. I love that. So Alexi, I would love to dig into your history a little bit more. Um, it's great news to hear about dialogue and I wish you every success with that. And obviously we'll probably touch on that as we travel our journey for your career. How did you start in technology? What was the passion or the curiosity that got you started onto a keyboard for a computer at some time in your life?

Alexis Smirnov:

So, uh, my journey actually started not in front of a keyboard of a computer, but, um, but a programmable calculator. Um, that was the only programmable device I can get my hands on, uh, when I was growing up, um, back in Moscow. Um, and, uh, in the age of 14, um, at the time there was, uh, there was next to impossible to get Western electronics into, into Russia. So, so Russian industry kind of cloned a Texas instrument, a programmable calculator. That was a big moment because that was the 1st programmable device. That a consumer, uh, somebody who just lives in Moscow can, it can actually go and buy, um, after standing a long line, you know, to, to, to get that, that calculator. So, um, that's how I started. There was, uh, there was actually a community of people of, of, uh, programmers that emerged around that, that little tiny device. Um, there were games that were created on the programmable calculator. In fact, even offline parallel multiplayer games with a scientific journal as the mean to exchange. Your scores, um, you know, when you're traveling from from Earth to moon, you know, in a rocket ship and consuming fuel. This is the kind of games that you can actually program or a calculator and then publish your results in the scientific paper and run the score. So it's still pre Internet. Um, then I, I got, um, uh, uh, I got really a good fortune to, uh, to intern at, um, at the Space Research Institute. So it's a, a Russian analog of, um, of nasa. Uh, and, uh, at the time the laboratory I was with, uh, it's an image processing laboratory was working on, um, um, a um, Urner Rover. So Urner Rover is, um, is a rover that was, uh, was sent to Mars. And it's effectively, um, an electric self driving vehicle on Mars. So it's got cameras and decides, you know, how to navigate between walks. So, uh, I've been fortunate to, to work right inside of that, that, um, that amazing lab of, uh, of real software engineers. So that's how that's how I got started.

Eric Brooke:

Awesome. So tell us beyond your journey. Um, where did you go with becoming a programmer, software engineer, like a developer? Like, what happened next in your career?

Alexis Smirnov:

Well, what happened next is, um, I, I was kind of pushed into somewhat technology entrepreneurship. And not because of some kind of a calling, but simply because, uh, the, the Russian society was, was imploding and, uh, there wasn't really much opportunities to, um, to, uh, to, uh, build things and then make, make a living building these things. So I was. Um, I was engaged in, uh, in a number of different projects, uh, either, you know, building a game or building a computer visualization system and then, and then selling these visualizations. So, it was, it was really entrepreneurship out of need. When we moved to, uh, to Montreal, um, and, uh, and I, I got, um, I finished my, my studies in the University of Montreal. Um, I, I then had, um, had an amazing break. Um, Microsoft just acquired a company called Softimage in Montreal. So, so essentially there was, uh, an outpost of Microsoft right where I lived. And, um, and it's, it's, uh, it was a combination of both, uh, uh, best, uh, kind of 2 best worlds for me, um, that, uh, that amazing company that, uh, that is all about software engineering and the soft image being an amazing company that pioneered the tools of, of computer graphics, uh, for, uh, for Hollywood movies. This was the company that built the tools that, um, that made, uh, the famous Jurassic Park, uh, dinosaur scenes and, uh, and other kind of pioneering movies. And so, um, so I got a, I got a lucky break to get hired as a, um, as a software engineer at Softimage. And, uh, the project was to effectively port Softimage from Linux to Windows. And so all new code, um, all new technology, um, so that, that was, that was at the time when, uh, when a lot Microsoft was, uh, was the biggest, uh, the biggest deal, you know, in, in the tech world. Um, and growing very quickly, so we have the tremendous amount of resources that that's that was, uh, that's where I kind of learned the craft of software engineering and learn the dynamics of working on large scale engineering projects as part of a large team.

Eric Brooke:

Wonderful, so keep us going, like, what happens next? That sounds wonderful.

Alexis Smirnov:

Well, what happens next is, uh, is, uh, incremental increase and impact. So when you are, when you're a software engineer, you see some opportunities, you see new ways of, uh, of perhaps implementing a feature, or you see a new way to repurpose a system to provide. More services within the product. It was at the time when, when, um, computer graphics tooling itself was, was, was not, it was still a nascent industry. It was, it was growing. So, so I had an opportunity to actually invent a few things and patent a few things around, um, around how these systems are, are working, um, before, you know, it, I, um, I'm a team lead. Of, um, uh, of a small team that is responsible for a subset of this large scale system. Soft image was had a modeling component where you model your 3D scene. An animation component that they were famous for where you make these, these, uh, these 3d models can kind of come alive. And then finally, the rendering component, when you shape them and color them and really make them look real. And so I was responsible for, for that application for the rendering step. And, uh, and so, um, it was. It was a great way to, to learn how to, how to build something, um, kind of end to end, but being part of a larger whole. Um, so, because we had, we had certain use cases that, um, there was really focused on rendering. So you were responsible for kind of delivering. Something end to end, yet you, you have to, you have to collaborate and kind of end up being compatible with the, with the rest of the system. So, so both of those skills is something to develop as how to build things into land and how to build things that that are part of a larger whole. So, so I had an opportunity to do that as a, as a team lead at Microsoft.

Eric Brooke:

What was it like being a team lead? Can you remember the differences between one minute you're person coding and the next minute you're now responsible for a lot more communication with stakeholders? Um, do you remember any of the lessons that you learned to that point of your career?

Alexis Smirnov:

So, uh, it's a team leader at Microsoft at the time was, um, was an individual contributor with additional responsibilities. So it's, it's, it wasn't, it wasn't a job where you stopped coding. No, you, in fact, you coded just like an individual contributor, but you also have to develop, um, talent around you. You also have to recruit. And, and grow that team and, and, uh, um, also how to help people with, uh, with their engineering decisions, um, and, uh, um, you know, code review. So, so really develop a few folks. I had a very small team and it was like, 5 people. But, um, but it added that that additional responsibility without really removing responsibility on, um, as a, um, as a key contributor to to the code. And so, um, it was, it was easy for me to slide back into the individual contributor mode. Um, and at the time, I really didn't promote myself to the role of a team lead where I would say, okay, so now I've got this other part. Part of my responsibility is, is to help and support these folks. I consider this to be more of like a nuisance, um, and kind of a distraction. Uh, from, from what I'm, what I'm really supposed to be doing is, is pushing the, the technology forward. Um, and, uh, and that, that was, you know, it took me, it took me quite some time to, uh, to kind of promote myself like that. Um, and, and, uh, and that, that's. That didn't help people around me, like, you know, the software engineers around me weren't, uh, weren't really growing and, uh, they weren't, they weren't like the, the best ones from the, um, uh, you know, if you, if Microsoft was famous for, for this brutal staff ranking, um, or lifeboat exercise type of, um, ranking, uh, uh, uh, uh, methodology at the time. Where you have to actually compete with other managers about who, uh, who needs to be ranked higher. Um, so, so I, I really didn't didn't develop that muscle or, or that, you know, wasn't able to articulate that clearly. Um, so I don't think I was a good people manager at the time. Um, but, uh, but it certainly, um, out of, it certainly taught me that, um, that that is. That that needs to be viewed as as part of your job. And, uh, 1 of the things kind of a test. If you catch yourself thinking at the end of the day, after spending a day, a whole bunch of meetings with people, um, you know, try and figure out, like, these people issues or performance management, you come back home and think. What did I do? I didn't code anything today. Like, this, this is a lost day. Like, I, I, I'm not like, I'm not moving our product forward. I wish I, I've contributed, I wish I fixed that bug that we still have in the code, like, if you catch yourself thinking that, that's probably mean you're, you're not thinking about this, this other responsibility that you have on par. With the responsibility of being an engineer,

Eric Brooke:

yes, it's quite a transition going from something that you feel strong in a skill set that you feel strong in I coding and then letting that go to do things that you don't know. So, well, I people management. Um, and then mentoring and coaching others. It's a journey for all of us. Definitely. So, after your time as T lead, what happened next?

Alexis Smirnov:

Well, listen, next, uh, internet happened, so here I am finding myself, um, you know, running a larger and larger team at Microsoft, doing something that is, that is so not the internet, doing complex data processing, data manipulation tools for, for rendering of these 3D scenes. So the furthest thing from the internet, the internet happens. And, uh, I'm like, this thing is passing me by, like, I, I need to, this is where the technology is going. So I need to find a way to do it. And again, uh, we're not, we're not talking Silicon Valley where, where there's like a ton of startups, all kind of jumping into a dot com. Um, we're talking about Montreal, so we, we have one company that there was a truly an internet darling. And, uh, um, and a company that was like, you know, on the cover page of wired, et cetera. It was a company, um, called zero knowledge systems that, um, uh, that was working on the internet privacy. It was so obvious at the time that internet happens. Pri, you know, privacy is gonna be destroyed. Um, people will revolt. Um, the people will pay a lot of money to maintain their private information. And, um, and privacy is gonna be such a huge thing on the internet, uh, that, that there has to be a company that is, um, that is on the forefront of this. Um, they, they ended up building what is currently known as TOR. So this, this onion encryption for transport where the two nodes don't know the, um, kind of the origin and destination of the message, um, because, because it's like triply encrypted and goes through, uh, Randomly selected intermediate node. So, um, so tour like tour is being used today, but how many people use it right? Um, or, um, now, nowadays, you know, we're, we're very far from the event of the Internet. Now we have these, um, uh, these technologies embedded in your kind of iOS where, where you can hide your, your IP address, what have you. So it became now kind of, um, um, a piece of the infrastructure of the internet. But, but at the time there was, there was nothing, there was no business, there was a lot of exciting, uh, excitement and, um, and a huge amount of, of money. Um, that that flew into this, uh, into this whole industry, including that company. So, um, I've joined that company to, uh, to start a, uh, on infrastructure, uh, uh, a, an enterprise privacy division. So they already have this tour, um, called freedom network, um, that they were trying to sell directly to consumers. Um, and, uh, and that was working very well. So the thing you do is say, well, let's, let's sell privacy to enterprises. Um, we've, uh, I'm very proud of that, that project, uh, as a technology project, we built this rule based engine to analyze data flows and apply privacy rules to it. We sold, we sold 1 copy. Of it to e trade and, uh, and then dot com crash happens. And so there you find yourself with an amazing team of dozens of people working on this, on this project you think is, uh, is, you know, technologically sound and kind of has the right to exist. But the market doesn't care and it, it really doesn't matter how, how elegant or how intricate, how, how hard of a lift technically that, uh, that project is or that product is. If no one buys it, it doesn't exist. That's it. Um, it's, it's just like a law of physics. Uh, you, you can't really, uh, you know, uh, can't really, uh, ignore. So, um, so that was a moment where, where I had to, I had to let go. Uh, most of my staff, in fact, uh, like most of this team, uh, uh, you know, we have to, we have to let go. And the company was. Was going down fast, um, this is, uh, this is where I started thinking as well. So what is what is next? Like, now it's, it's, um, it's a completely, like, the whole tech field is decimated. There's, there's nothing happening. Nobody's, uh, nobody's hiring. Like, what do we go from there? And, um, and that, if you like, I can tell you the next chapter of my career.

Eric Brooke:

Go ahead. Yeah,

Alexis Smirnov:

this is, uh, this, this is a story of, uh, of relationships that I built at Microsoft. Um, and and I didn't really realize that I was building relationships. I was just helping people that that I've, um, I've admired. I, I was, um, I was learning from people that that that knew much more than I, uh, I knew. And somehow those kinds of interactions created relationships that allowed me to then co found a startup with ex Microsoft folks that also kind of moved on and was doing other things. Um, and, uh, um, we, we had about dozen co founders, um, we were, um, that was at, um, uh, so 2000 we, when we, um, um, so that, yeah, that was in 2004, a bit, uh, like that, yeah, 2004, when we, uh, when we started that, that startup called Pi. And, uh, we were, we're completely distributed. So I was, um, I started being alone in Montreal and we were essentially like working on ICQ and MSN messenger after. Um, so, so it was a completely remote, um, remote, uh, first project. What would get together in a city and then, then kind of, uh, uh, and work from home. Um, we started a, um, an engineering hub in Bangalore. And started hiring there, so we, we, um, we had about 60 people in Bangalore. And so we would commute to Bangalore to, uh, to work with the team. And, uh, and so in 4 years, we've, um, maybe I should tell you a bit what that startup was about. If you read the, um, um, Steve Jobs's biography, there was a passage where Steve Jobs articulates the vision for the future where personal information is no longer stored on one's device. But it's stored in a cloud and, um, and people can upgrade their, um, their devices, um, uh, more easily because, uh, the, um, these devices that the personal information survives the times of the lifetime of any particular device. This, this kind of vision was first articulated to us as co founders by, uh, by the guy by the name of Paul Maritz, who was, um, who was one of the top, um, uh, people in Microsoft before he retired, he built Windows IE, you know, he fought this, this IE wars and yet, um, built, built Windows NT. Um, and so made up a tremendous footprint on, on, on the software industry. And so he actually articulated that vision years before what, um, what the historical record shows, Steve jobs did. So same vision. And so we set up to build, um, a startup on that. And so we built a, um, a cloud system before the word cloud existed. Where we would store your personal information in the cloud, which is currently known as cloud and would have a copy or cashed copy on the device and then the synchronization between all these devices that you have. And and so we, we successfully sold this company to EMC to build to allow EMC to create a cloud infrastructure division. Thank you. And, uh, it got folded with, uh, with Mosey and other assets that now it's part of Dell, but, um, but fundamentally it's, it's like that idea of a Dropbox iCloud. Um, and there's, of course, usually when there is a technological shift, there's many implementations of the same idea and you only hear about, like, 1 or 2 remaining. But the chances are, there was, there was a few of those. So we were 1 of the 1 of the few that, uh. Uh, that was, that was working on that problem.

Eric Brooke:

So you've gone from like a team lead, you've down done management at a much larger scale. You also manage managers at this point. Like, were there any things that when you step away from the management of people, from that tiny team lead that you now know to be true, or that you use as your principle set in terms of leadership of people,

Alexis Smirnov:

I think it becomes more and more a communication role. It becomes as, as you, as you move, it becomes a communication of, uh, more and more abstract and more and more remote concepts, remote in the sense of time. So maybe you're describing something that is not going to happen next week, but, uh, but in 3 months or in a year. So, so you have to get good at explaining things that don't exist. Uh, explaining them in sufficient detail and painting the dots of how 1 gets to it. Because if you don't do that, then you're just like a, an abstract visionary and it's not very useful. You need to, you need to, uh, describe the steps to get there both together. If you do that, you know, many times over and develop that habit of, of communicating a vision and the steps to get to that vision, that's, um, that's a, that's really, if you can develop that, well, it becomes your superpower. That is so helpful for a lot of people because those stories about the vision and the steps towards that vision really corral people together, um, in the Now, people can have conversations about first steps, you know, middle steps, the whole sequence, they can find how they can impact the, this progression towards the vision. And, um, and that's how you, you get most out of people is, uh, is when they are working at, um, at something that they, they are the most impactful. And so when you're, when you're working with a manager. Um, you're offering this, this vision to, to a manager and really in, in some ways, you're asking, how can you help if, if you think that this is a worthwhile destination, how can you help and, and that's where you, you start engaging others into, into, um, kind of collective thinking about the vision, the steps. Um, and and certainly, um, the, the other point here is, you know, I'm, I'm kind of describing this as if this vision and the steps kind of comes out fully formed and always correct. Of course, not. This is this is a framework that you are trying to get more and more correct around. So, so both the vision and the steps should keep changing with more input with more people kind of scrutinizing and questioning. All of this, and as a result, you, you've got, you've got a better, um, better path forward.

Eric Brooke:

Thank you for that, Lexi. So talk to me about, so you've been a founder at Dialog for some time. I'm interested in the different stages of like, when you start at the beginning and where you notice the shifts or the ways that you have to interact with it differently. Because obviously when you started off, um, you're a small team and then eventually you grow to much larger team. So talk to me about the stages of your time at Dialog.

Alexis Smirnov:

Well, it's interesting because when, when you're a co founder of a company that has no employees, and then there's a couple of people working with you, you're obviously an individual contributor. Um, even though you have a title, like a chief technology off, like this title means nothing. You are you're part of 3 people, 3 developers who are building the 1st version of whatever you're building. So to get the title, what, um, what sets maybe a co founders and people who are who are part of the funding team apart is they have to constantly promote themselves. So, um, my partner, Sharif, who's a CEO and co founder, never promoted me from CTO. So I'm, I'm, you know, I'm flat, I'm not advancing since the last seven years, I've not been promoted over the last seven years, right? So, of course, that is not the case. Um, but the trick is. You have to promote yourself at every step when, when you're a co founder, because if you don't. Then you are hamstring, uh, you're essentially making, making so that the company cannot, cannot grow faster. And, uh, and so the trick is to realize when you're hitting the wall, because you're operating at certain level and, and when, when you need to do, um, something else and, and that's kind of. Self promotion, um, to the next level, um, uh, you know, it takes forms of like, you're you are an individual contributor. So you're coding, um, I was, I was coding, like, like terraform, uh, and then Python services and then react apps. Because we, we have no people. So, um, so I was, I was doing all of this. Um, and then, and then the handful of people joined and then then a little bit more, um, at some point, there is, uh, you, you see that the coordination between these folks is more important than your individual contribution. And it's, it's very hard for somebody external, like for, um, for, for your co founder to, to pick up these points and say, you know what, like next week you should be doing the, you know, more coordination than individual contributor, because you need to have this, this kind of visibility in the code and this, and the problems they're having. Um, so, so it's, it's mostly comes from you. And so that repeats itself. When, uh, when you need to recognize that, um, that there is, there's actually several teams that are, that are running in parallel. And so, so you need to, you need to figure out who's going to be leading them because you can't leave like several teams at once. Um, and, uh, and then there is, um, there's this emergence of, uh, maybe several subsystems, either layers like front end, back end or infrastructure, um, or several products. Um, we, we have both, um, at, um, a dialogue because we, we serve. Members, so people, uh, with, uh, with access to, uh, to the services on their phone, but we also serve service providers who actually provide these services. So that's another persona for us. There's another set of applications, and we sell the whole shebang to clients to large employers, employers. Or partners, and so that's another stakeholder in the persona. So, so you, you, you begin to see the, the emergence of, um, of the org design based on whatever business you ran and and whatever structure the technology takes shape. To support the business you're in and so so you need to be thinking about these, these things. So, for us, we never pivoted. So it was, it was really a constant growth trajectory. So, so I can tell you, like, um, specific moments, of course, there are fundraisers and, uh, and bursts of growth, um. So, of course, there are, there are moments, uh, like, um, uh, getting, uh, um, you know, going, going public. Um, of course there's, there's, um, there are moments when, uh, um, when your, your partner, um, distribution partner, um, um, you know, partner in markets, Sun Life decides to invest more in the company. There are there are corporate milestones there, um, that, um, uh, that that begin to, uh, uh, to to kind of shape your role. But but in terms of in terms of the engineering, the technology, I think that culture, your job is really to maintain that culture as you use you. Move up the organization, um, while, while keeping the same title, um, move up the organization because you are, you're, um, working with more and more people.

Eric Brooke:

Thank you.

Alexis Smirnov:

And so, and maybe the, the, the conclusion there is, is that you're becoming a, an executive of a business. So now that you have a, you have a business to run, you're part of the C suite. And, and now the live changes again, where you are a technologist with, um, uh, with a team of like minded people that you are, you are leading and, you know, they're, they're building great things and you're, uh, inspired every day and what the, what they're doing. Um, and you're also part of a very different team that inspires you in a very different way. And that is a multidisciplinary team where you're the only technologist in the room, where, uh, where people have an appreciation and an intuition about the technology, but you still have, like, each team member has a different. Expertise, so that's the team where you have, you know, somebody like, uh, made a CFO or a chief operating officer or somebody responsible for or go to market and your sales partnership. So that that team is, uh, is the team is very different from from your engineering team because it is heavily. Cross functional and so, so the, the, the game there is to find a way to work together to advance the business forward. So advance this company for make it make it grow faster. Um, by contributing different perspectives, um, into, uh, into decision making process into forming a strategy for the company.

Eric Brooke:

Um, as co founders you're traveling quite a journey together, like you're together longer than some people are even married and you've seen the transition in your, your colleagues, whether it be CEO or CFO. Um, were there things when you look back on that, like the importance of maintaining your relationships with people through such growth, um, can't be easy. When you look back, what are the things that you'd say that. You've learned along the way, some you probably knew before because of your career before, but that's a long journey. How do you maintain a relationship for that long? Because you're not always going to agree.

Alexis Smirnov:

No, you're not. You're not going to agree every time. Uh, well, there's, there's a few things like, like in marriage, you're not agreeing all the time either. Um, I think it's the first of all, you need to, you need to have a fundamentally, you need to have a tremendous amount of trust in people. You're you're taking on this, this adventure together. Um, I, I got so lucky with my partner, co founder Sharif, uh, um, who is, um, who had this unique combination of a technologist and a business thinker in health tech space. So, so that, that made them, um, a uniquely positioned to become a CEO dialogue and, uh, and I attribute a lot of our success to. To his wisdom and, uh, um, in, in healthcare, there's a plenty of problems to solve and there's plenty of ways to solve it or ideas of how to solve this, that, and the other thing what's rare is to create a business model that makes, uh, makes a sustainable business where you can earn your right to keep solving that problem and growing that's rare, especially in Canada. Uh, given, given, uh, the kind of how our, uh, our system is built, but the problems are still, um, you know, tremendous. So, so it's worthwhile solving them if you can figure out how to build a sustainable business. And, and, uh, and that's, that's one of the, one of the first contributions that, that, um, Sharif made to, to this adventure is to. To set us on the path with that sustainable business model, where, um, the patient never takes out their credit card to pay for care and where the employer, in fact, through their benefits budget. Contributes the kind of new money into health care for the country. Um, you know, we, we never, we never get money from the government yet. We are providing medical service. And the way we kind of managed to do that is because employers believe. It's the right thing to do to, um, to provide these services to their employees. And so, um, that's a, that's something that I, uh, I didn't, did not come up with this is the kind of partnership that you're looking for, the kind of partner you're looking for, uh, to, to start, start a business. And, uh, and certainly I had a background with building all kinds of systems that, uh, that I think found quite complimentary as well. Um, uh, but, but listen, that, that was, that was like seven years ago. Now we have a, uh, a C suite. Of, uh, of absolutely amazing individuals that are, they're working together, making, making, you know, the whole much greater than, than any of our individual and visual capabilities. And, um, and that's, um, that's, that's now a source of, um, um, uh, kind of drive and, uh, and strategy for the company is, is, uh, is that team we call it, we don't call it C suite, we call it Endurance, uh, the name of that, uh, that ship of, of, uh, of Sir Shackleton.

Eric Brooke:

Awesome. So let's change tack a little bit. Um, what, um, when you look at the technology market at the moment, what are you broadly seeing, um, in technology today?

Alexis Smirnov:

Well, I think that the shift, uh, towards AI is, is obvious. So, um, so that, that part is, uh, is, is kind of very obvious. And I think a lot of people, you know, say a lot of things and prognosticate about this. I'm not, I'm not going to join, like, I'm, I'm as excited as, as anybody else. So that's, that's a shift that is, is, is not a fad. It's a, it's a shift that, uh, that we will see evolve over time. There is one more shift that, uh, there is a macro shift that there is also kind of inescapable that, that maybe doesn't get that much airtime, even though it's, it's, uh, it's as present. You remember how tech industry or, or even the word tech was separate from the rest of the society, the rest of the economy. And it was like, there's this economy and then there's this tech. And then, then we started talking big tech or like, I think we're moving in a world where, where it's, it becomes inseparable. There is, there's not going to be tech. There's going to be the world economy. And, and so every company. Will become, um, just like every company is a consumer of electricity. Every company is going to be running on intelligence. Running on these, these cognitive systems are consuming, consuming that those resources, um, just like, just like they're consuming electricity. So, um, so it's that, I think that shifts the way people kind of think about tech where, you know, there's this company that does the right software. And then there's these other companies that don't write software and and these, these companies that write software sell the software to these other companies. So it's it's, um, I think the lines are blurring and that's when you're seeing the regulation conversation. You know, how do you, how do you regulate, um, in this new world? Um, and, uh, and it's, I think it'd be, uh, as a technologist, I find this, uh, amazing and, uh, and I, I welcome, um, that, that shift because at the end of the day. It allows technology to make a bigger positive impact on the world and, uh, and if you're, if you're a technologist for a long time, I think you're converging in, in, in this kind of mental space where you're trying to optimize impact. Positive impact to the world. And I certainly do.

Eric Brooke:

Is there a problem that you're figuring out now as a CTO that you're open to sharing that you're digging into and understanding at the moment?

Alexis Smirnov:

Yeah. So, so the, the game shifted for us as well, as, as we grow, we've, uh, we've reached a profitability, um, in, uh, in, uh, uh, a couple of quarters of, uh, ago. Which is, which was a tremendous achievement for, for a company in health tech, you know, seven years old, it's, uh, it's quite rare, but, uh, but that, that, uh, the, the tie in with, um, with sunlight gives, gives us tremendous opportunities in the market. Yeah. But, but it, because it makes, it makes our, like those opportunities make our. Uh, uh, our company harder to, um, to kind of articulate a single, uh, service or single product where, where all of our resources points towards that, um, you necessarily have to, uh, grow, um, via many different, um, avenues. And so balancing between different objectives, uh, while maintaining focus of individual teams, um, that that is, that is a challenge. Like, it's so easy to, uh, uh, to take on, um, a project because it's, uh, it, it makes tremendous amount of sense. It's, it's harder to simplify things. And, um, and reduce the amount of stuff you do, uh, or in our case, it is, um, remember, we're running these, um, services, uh, tech enabled services. So there is a lot of a big component of of service delivery. The service operation is a complex machine. So how do you, how do you balance the, the human provision of service with, um, automated or automation and, um, and the investment in, in war one or the other. So those are, I think, the, the balancing between different, um, different, really attractive. Opportunities, uh, or, or different pain points that are equally hard, um, or equally kind of acute that is that, that, that is the, the current challenge for us.

Eric Brooke:

Yeah, setting your priorities when you've got so many opportunities, it can be a tough one. Awesome. Um, so, um, one, um, I've got two more questions for you. One is, um, what helped you grow? What helps you grow now? And how, what's helped you scale? Um, in your career, what are the ways that you consume knowledge or experience or skills to help you become the next version of yourself?

Alexis Smirnov:

I owe my growth to people around me. Like it's, it's that's that simple. That is the biggest source of learning. And uh, Um, and an inspiration and the ability to scale, um, so some, some of that is, is, of course, um, how we hire. It's like, super hard to get hired at dialogue. Um, but, uh, but we are growing the team. We have a range of, uh, of engineering positions, uh, open that that I'm, uh, you know, uh, I'm looking for candidates. Um, and that's a big part of my, my job too. Maintain that that quality bar and, uh, and grow the team. So anybody's interested in working in health tech space, please apply. Um, so that is that that is the number 1 source of of learning and, uh, an ability to think about what oneself myself from different perspective. Um, you have to certainly listen more to, to learn from people around you. So, um, so that's a, that's a big, uh, uh, uh, big focus area is, uh, is ability to extract insights from folks that are not here to educate you. They're, they're here to like, do the job and move the company forward. That's, that's, that's what they're thinking that, um, your personal learning is kind of a by product of you being in the same room and, uh, and extracting lessons. Um, so, so that's, that's really the, the, the biggest one. Um, I, I like podcasts cause I, you know, I walk my dog, um, every morning and and, uh, most nights. And so that's, uh, it's a good time to, uh, listen to a podcast, uh, or an audio book. Um, so Lex Friedman podcast is, uh, is, uh, one of the, um, on my, on my speed dial. Um, There's another one called founders, which is, um, a, uh, a summary of books, uh, that, um, so guys actually doing these, these quick summer podcast, uh, format summaries of, uh, of books of, of, uh, biographies of, uh, of founders and entrepreneurs. Uh, so, uh, amazing resource as well. And, and I, I pick here and there different technical podcasts, um, depending on the kind of technology that I'm interested in. So like either MLOps, you know, uh, LLMs or, you know, prior to that NLP. Um, so, so when, when I have, um, when I have a question, I want to deep dive, you know, I, I'll pick up. Some of the point of dust there.

Eric Brooke:

Awesome. Thank you. And Alexey, my last question for you. What do you do for fun?

Alexis Smirnov:

Oh, what I do for fun? Um, I find, I find actually work is, is a lot of fun for me. It's, I enjoy what I do. So I'm, you know, I laugh a lot during the day. Yeah. So, so that's, that's a big part of my fun. Um, I, um, I, I play table tennis. Um, so, so that's, that's something I, I've been doing since, um, around the time, actually earlier than I started programming. So when I was a kid, uh, so, uh, so that's, that's something I do. And, um, and I have two daughters, um, that, um, that, that, uh, fulfill my, my life with joy. In fun, so so I enjoy spending spending time in family. So, the other thing that I, that I do for fun, we do for fun with my, my wife, Irene and I are, are kind of. Design oriented people, so we like, um, like designing things or like, like, and interior design is 1 of the 1 of the things that is, you know, this is our design outlet. So, um, so we certainly spend a lot of time. You know, discussing different design alternatives for some future renovation, you know, we might do.

Eric Brooke:

Alexi, thank you very much for sharing your story today and sharing your wisdom with us. I appreciate the time.

Alexis Smirnov:

It's been a lot of fun. Thank you so much, Eric.

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