Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities, a chat with Feyzi Fatehi
In this episode of “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, sits down to chat with Feyzi Fatehi, president and chief executive officer of Corent Technology. Over coffee, the two of them discuss Fatehi’s career, what makes the Department of Philosophy at UCI stand out, and the importance of asking “how.”
Tyrus Miller (0:05–0:36): Welcome to “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities.” I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, and I’m so pleased to be joined by Feyzi Fatehi. Feyzi is president and chief executive officer of Corent Technology, a Southern California-based company that innovates in cloud computing with a novel concept: software as a service. And we’ll have a little chance to talk about that in the course of our conversation. But for now I want to thank you for joining me, Feyzi.
Feyzi Fatehi (037–0:48): Yeah, it’s such a pleasure, Dean Miller, to be with you. Always enjoyed our conversations and being affiliated with UCI. It’s a pleasure and a privilege.
Miller (0:29–1:10): Well, it’s great to have you here today. So let’s start by talking a little bit about your company, Corent Technology. How would you describe what you do and what Corent Technology is about for those who might be unfamiliar with the term “software as a service”? Why is software as a service a new thing, a breakthrough, an innovation?
Fatehi (1:10–3:57): Yeah, yeah. Please allow me to describe Corent in one sentence first, and then we get to details. When people tell me about, or ask me about, telling them about Corent, I identify it as the biggest small software company in the world. Biggest from the impact. We believe it will have the biggest impact in the software industry. And small in a sense that we are like a hundred-some people, so we are not a massive giant out there.
Unlike the hardware industry that has been disrupted, classic disruption, four times at least, the software industry, to the best of my knowledge, as one of the players, it has never been disrupted. It’s always been incremental changes and improvements. Instead of 20 lines of code, there is a new program, two lines of code. And so on and so forth.
We believe Corent is presenting the first disruption in the history of the software industry in a way that Intel introduced a disruption in the hardware industry by providing the processor and just giving it to people. And that helped proliferate the PC industry. That changed the hardware industry on people’s access to computing and so on. We’ve built a core engine that would — Corent stands for core enterprise, the core of the modern enterprise software, Corent. The same way that Intel stands for integrated electronics. So that core engine would enable the existing software of today and any software of the future to be offered as a service. So we are the enabler of delivering of any software, any software application, as a service, so people can consume it without having to download it, to manage it, to upgrade it, to maintain it.
So it’s a service. The same way we are using Zoom, it’s a service. We didn’t buy a software, we didn’t install the software, we’re just accessing a service. Our technology enables the software applications, instead of going through years of programming and development and re-architecture, within hours, same day, to become a software as a service, therefore transforming the software industry into a service industry without a single line of code.
Miller (3:48–4:27): So it sounds like also from the consumer point of view, I don’t have to have something that I only use, let’s say, 10% of my day. I don’t have to have a product that sits around 24 hours in the day, and for, you know, for months and months, that it’s not actually used, and that I might also be able to access a much greater diversity of software for the kinds of things that we’re going to be doing with computers in the future.
Fatehi (4:28–6:48): Exactly, exactly. A good example of it is — by the way, the root cause of extreme poverty a year, there are two main root causes — one is lack of access to healthcare, the other one lack of access to banking. And banking allows people to build credit, have access to credit, and therefore be able to do business. A gentleman won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Dr. Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh. I heard it was the first economist winning the Nobel Prize for peace. And his idea was micro-finance. How do we give, generally the widowers, the ladies who are left behind and there’s no social safety for them in third-world countries, giving them $10, $20 to go buy some equipment, and over time they pay it back. Basically give them access to credit.
And IBM and VMware and a few other Silicon Valley companies participated in building a free core banking software that anyone can download anywhere in the world for free. All these credit union banks, social nonprofits could offer banking access to people, the two plus billion unbanked and underbanked people, except it was not software as a service. It was software developed for free. And after 12 years, it didn’t go anywhere. Bill Gates Foundation got involved, Michael Dell, VMware, HP, Cisco, and still couldn’t turn it into software as a service. Last year, they approached us. We immediately transformed it to software as a service, and it has started to proliferate around the world and hopefully deal, in some way, shape, or form, deal with this deficiency of lack of access to core banking. But enabling that free software to be delivered as a service would give access to consumers to access a fundamental piece of software that’s been developed by some of the top global IT companies.
Miller (6:48–6:55): So it would be much more flexible and much more adaptable to even emerging needs that we’re not yet aware of, but that —
Fatehi (6:55–6:58): Exactly, exactly.
Miller (6:58–8:57): Well, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your background. You come from an engineering background, you studied mechanical engineering. You’ve gone on to be a very successful entrepreneur in the technology space. But I also know from my conversations with you that you have a really deep passion for the humanities. And we’ve talked about this specifically in relation to scientific and business leadership, the importance that you feel that that leadership is informed by a really clear set of values.
So by ethics, by an awareness of the social impacts and implications of the things that businesspeople or scientists or technologists are doing. And I would sum that up even to say, by a kind of coherent philosophy of who you are, what motivates you as a leader, and what’s the value of what you’re doing. And we’ve discussed the fact that when we’re talking about values, we’re really entering into an area where the humanities have given a lot of thought. They provide important frameworks for deeper and more discerning reflection. So let me ask you, as a technology leader, as an entrepreneur, as a scientist, what are your perspectives about how knowledge of the humanities, knowledge of fields such as literature, arts, or history, philosophy, cultural and linguistic knowledge, how might those affect leadership or make leadership more ethically and culturally sensitive, perhaps enhance creativity, ultimately make leadership better and more effective?
So, that’s a very open question, but I’m interested in your perspective about the angle that the humanities might give on the kinds of leadership that you’re practicing and are interested in.
Fatehi (8:57–11:57): Right, right, right. So yeah, very broad question, and I appreciate you elaborating and asking it. So for me, whatever we do is in a context of who we are. It’s a delicate dance between being and doing. Who we are and then what we do. One of my favorite definitions of success is you’re successful if you like who you are, you like what you do, and you like how you do it, which is the mastery of what you’re good at and you have alignment with. So who you are is about being, what you do is about doing. And what you do happens in a context of who we are. And defining who we are, humanities, we are human.
And leadership is all about inspiring other human beings to bring their best to the table to achieve a common goal. That’s my very simplistic definition of leadership. You inspire other people as a team to achieve a common goal. And because it happens in a context of humans, leadership depends on humanities in terms of, before it used to be all about IQ. And now it’s about EQ. It’s about social skills, communication skills, and emotional skills.
I had the privilege of talking to Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Boeing as well as Ford, he turned around Ford. And emotional resilience is a key in his leadership skills. And so understanding literature, understanding culture, understanding communications, and understanding everything that is embodied in humanities, I believe is a foundation of defining who we are. And then based on that, finding something that, as Steve Jobs once told me, we do best, or we do least badly. Find whatever that thing is in alignment with who we are. And that’s why humanities is such a big deal to me. Humanities is not a separate department, with all due respect, or school; it’s the foundation of who we are and how we define and how we find meaning, how we answer the question of why. Why are we? The why of science, the philosophy of science, philosophy of art, and even the philosophy of technology that I believe the school of humanities is now focused on. These are all of value to me.
Miller (11:58–13:00): I think we would have a strong agreement about that kind of holistic idea of the humanities, and looking at the whole human as people are motivated by spiritual values, by cultural values, by their sense of their history, by their imaginative capacities. As well as, obviously, their capacity to perform particular work tasks, or have particular expertise.
You have had an incredibly successful career. And you have great expectations also in terms of what will be happening with software as a service. I think that sometimes when we look at successful people, we don’t see the struggle and the risk that preceded it. And I wonder if you would be willing to tell us about a moment where you felt like you stood in the face of risk, or you needed to take a leap of faith, and how you thought about that. How did you face that situation?
Fatehi (13:00–16:15): Right, would be happy to. First of all, thank you for the compliment. I think success is subjective, but I’ll take the compliment from you. I appreciate it. When I was doing my MBA at Santa Clara University, I did it part-time while I was working for Hewlett Packard. We had a decision science class, and the professor said, generally, decision science is built in either maximizing something good, like profit, or minimizing something bad, like loss. But he said he has a different philosophy. And that is minimizing regret.
So when you want to make a decision, focus on minimizing regret. And it sounded very simplistic, but then when you focus on it, it’s very deep because regret is, “should I have done it?” Or, “wow, my God, I’m so sorry I did it.” And it’s very complex and it involves the human emotions and everything else. So when I was, I was a college hire by HP from University of Texas to Silicon Valley, and very, very rewarding, I should say, career. And HP was a trendsetter in culture. The HP way in Silicon Valley, I considered every day going to work like I was going to school. And on top of it, on part-time, I was really going to school focusing on my MBA. And after 14 years, it felt so comfortable. I’d invented, I was part of the team that invented the fastest database in the world, which still is the fastest database in the world. Building billion dollar organizations. So it was very rewarding and a tremendous amount of personal development opportunities.
But at some point when I felt too comfortable, it was time to leave, And it engaged millions of dollars in a stock option to be left behind and forfeited. And it was late ’99, and I finally made the decision that I would regret if I don’t leave at this time. It becomes harder and harder and harder. I’ve heard of the golden handcuffs. And I had to break it while I could break it. Otherwise it would have been heavier. And I just put everything on the table and just resigned with respect and with appreciation for the 14 years at HP. And that’s when Carly Fiorina just joined. And basically it started my entrepreneurial journey. A recruiter who was trying to recruit me for an executive position at AT&T, when she heard of my decision, she said, “Congratulations Feyzi. You just committed financial suicide.” And that was the first time I heard that term. And I said, “Oh my God, what did I do?”
And she was correct from the income perspective, but not from the wealth and the experience and everything else that came from an entrepreneurial journey since late ’99.
Miller (16:17–16:23): And you’ve really been able to do so much more having made that difficult leap.
Fatehi (16:23–16:58): Yes. And that was more aligned with who I was. Again, we talked about who we are, what we do, and how we do it. Leaving at that time was more aligned with who I was, and I just took that risk. And it was minimizing my regret at that point. ’Cause I didn’t want to be 80 years old and say, “I wish I had made that move.” And some of my colleagues stayed behind, and later on they expressed their regret that they should have moved, and some loved it because that was more aligned with their personalities.
Miller (16:58–17:29): Well, I wanted also to ask you, you’ve been engaged with UC Irvine. You don’t come from an alumnus background of UC Irvine, but you’re very involved, for instance, in the Chief Executive Round Table. We’ve had wonderful conversations with you in the School of Humanities. What is it that interests you in a connection with UCI, your involvement in the university? What fuels that connection?
Fatehi (17:29–19:13): Yeah, so UCI was one of the best things that happened to me when I moved from Silicon Valley in 2001 to Southern California. A lot of people were criticizing me: “Feyzi, in Silicon Valley, you are a known entity there. Why are you going to Southern California? You’re a technology visionary, inventor, entrepreneur,” and so on. And there was a lot of reasons behind moving away. It was more disrupting myself, doing something that wanted to, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, wanted to expand it, and so on.
But then coming across UCI was not part of the plan. And it was one of the best things that happened by inviting me to be on different advisory boards, like in the engineering school with Henry Samueli being on that engineering leadership advisory board, and then the School of Business and so on. And then meeting you, School of Humanities. As people say, you are the product of the last 10 books that you’ve read, and the last X number of people you keep associating with. So I feel being a lot, a better person by being affiliated with great minds like yourself and other people at UCI. It’s truly a privilege, and also in a small way, making a difference in the education of the younger generation and receive a lot of inspiration and positive energy from them.
So it’s a very symbiotic and mutual relationship. And again, I feel very privileged and honored to be affiliated with UCI.
Miller (19:14–19:47): And Feyzi, we’ve had a couple of really interesting and deep conversations with faculty in our philosophy department. You’ve shown a great deal of interest in our work in philosophy. And I wanted to ask you what has really captured your attention, or what is it that you find most interesting that you’ve learned about UCI’s philosophy and the kind of study and investigations and philosophical reflections that they’re doing?
Fatehi (19:48–21:59): As someone who chose being an engineer as opposed to a scientist in my young age, and engineering, by definition is applied science, is engineering, I like the overall mindset and attitude within your philosophy department and they want to have applied philosophy. ’Cause a lot of philosophers are so theoretical that they don’t touch the ground. I like the fact that your philosophy chair and professors are thinking about how do we bring philosophy to life, to other departments, to engineering, and build it in other disciplines. So philosophy is not a different class you take.
While you can do that, philosophy is a way of learning, a way of deciphering, a way of bringing meaning to any subject you study. One of my favorite books was from my junior year in high school in Princeton was my pre-calculus class. At the beginning of every chapter, it had a picture of, and description of, this chapter in pre-calculus helps you understand this real thing in life. So why are we studying this chapter? The meaning behind that pre-calculus effort. So that was a good — I still have the book by the way, it was such a major, major impact. It helps with the why. And if we can help other classes, whether it’s chemistry, engineering, whatever it is, bring a little bit of philosophy to it, meaning a framework. What is the framework? How do we apply this? What does it mean? Why are we studying history? Why are we studying chemistry? Bring that meaning to it. At least the way my mind works, that meaning makes all the difference. To be interested in a subject and have a reverence for that topic, and hopefully can apply it in some way, shape, or form in life and in society.
Miller (22:00–22:37): I have really also been struck by that with our philosophers as well. Of course they do their specialized research and they’re very recognized for that work, but they’re also thinking about ways in which philosophy is applied in educational context, in relation to law, medicine, a number of other areas that are of immediate concern to many, many people, and they have something to offer in terms of deepening our understanding and our reflection about what we want out of health or the law or our educational institutions.
Fatehi (22:38–22:55): I really appreciate your leadership and your philosophers within UCI for having that, being such high-level, world-class philosophers, yet having the tendency to understand how it could be used and applied.
Miller (22:56–23:27): So Feyzi, coming back to your remark about being a product of the last 10 books that you — I’m not going to ask you to list the last 10 books, but I wanted to just ask you just maybe a few more kind of intimate questions about some of your interests. So for instance, do you have a favorite artist or a work of art or period of art, type of art that particularly attracts you?
Fatehi (23:28–24:39): Right. So the answer is, my interest is very wide. I’m more of a person, I want to be close to a museum, to an art gallery, to have art in my life, as opposed to being focused on one particular artist or type of art. I believe the same way we were talking about philosophy, being involved in everything, I believe art could be involved in everything we do, whether it’s our buildings, whether it’s our offices, whether it’s community, whether it’s our parks, to help us imagine. That differentiates us from other animals in the animal kingdom. We can imagine, we can conceptualize, we can appreciate the beauty and be inspired. And the abstraction the art brings to the table that in the daily grind, we may not have the chance to deal with it. I’m a big proponent of engaging with art being everywhere, in a sense. At least that is one way of addressing your great question.
Miller (24:40–25:09): And another question, which I like because as a scholar, I’m very strongly attracted to certain kinds of periods. And I think my kind of fantasy time-travel would take me to Paris and Berlin in the 1920s. Do you have a particular historical period that either engages you or that you wish if you could step inside a time machine, that you would have the opportunity to experience?
Fatehi (25:10–25:51): Yeah, besides the time we live in, which I’m totally cool with being here, I would say the Renaissance. And the reason for it is, moving from Dark Ages to a very enlightened age, where great minds were appreciated or allowed to express themselves in the form of art, in its term of philosophy and the whole Renaissance to rebel against darkness, against rigidity. That would be a great time to be, and experience that human transformation.
Miller (25:51–26:01): And I said I wouldn’t ask you for a list of 10 books, but a couple of things that you’re reading now, or that you’ve read recently that really struck you?
Fatehi (26:01–27:37): Yeah, one book that I’m reading slowly for the last 10 years and I haven’t finished it, and it’s a small book. It’s a book called Inward Revolution by Krishnamurti, which some people say one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, and he lived most of his life in Southern California and died here. The Inward Revolution, it’s a deep, deep book, and I’m really enjoying. So one or two pages every few months.
The other one is a book named How. Just the name is How, and it focuses on why how we do things makes all the difference. And it’s a big book, actually, amazing. Written by a New York, high-power attorney. But I received it from the head of Intel Capital. And he gave it to everyone who attended one of these by-invitation events like five, 10 years ago. And I’ve bought a lot of copies of that, I’ve given to my friends.
So those are two of the books that I have read. My attention to how we do things is something that never comes to an end. It’s like learning golf. You never finish. There’s always that next stage of refinement in your swing and so on. So I believe how we do things is really critical. And this is a book titled How. How can I not like it?
Miller (27:37–28:21): And I think, you know, you have recurred at various points in our conversation to questions like “how” and “why.” And I think those are really the animating forces of the humanities is asking those sorts of questions. So I really want to thank you for this conversation. I’m happy that you were willing to take the time to share your story and your views with our viewers. I want to thank our viewers for tuning in, and I hope that you’ll join us. Actually I’m supposed to brand this by holding up my coffee cup. Coffee cup in hand, the next episode of “Over Coffee.” So thank you so much.
Fatehi (28:21–28:25): My pleasure. It’s a privilege and a pleasure. Thank you again, Dean Miller.
Miller (28:25–28:26): Thank you.