David Cheng, Top–Ranking Pioneering Chairman, Software Developer, and World Innovation Technology Leader and Entrepreneur

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with David Cheng.

David ChengDavid Cheng can be described as a chronic entrepreneur and an angel investor passionate about helping technology startups. He is currently the CEO of Zaka, a mobile and social CRM for SME. David is an angel investor in several startups and an active board member for Social Rewards and Jio Health. David is also a venture partner with K5 Venture, which runs K5Launch, OC's own startup accelerator that David helped found.

David was formerly the CEO of Accenx Technologies, a healthcare software company which he founded in 1997. At Accenx, David grew the company organically for several years and then raised a Series A investment along with two follow-up bridge rounds. He was the CEO and Chairman until 2009 when the company was merged into Initiate Systems and then together, they were immediately sold to IBM in an all cash transaction for an undisclosed amount. As part of the IBM acquisition, David committed to and completed a "tour of duty" at IBM where he was an industry executive for their Smarter Healthcare Initiative with a focus on Big Data. Prior to Accenx, David was with another startup for four years called Seebeyond, where he held several positions ranging from software developer to Director of Marketing.

David also has a passion for helping the community. He is currently on the leadership council for the Dean at UC Irvine's Brent School of Computer Science. He was also on the executive committee for the board of the Irvine Chamber of Commerce for several years. David holds a B.S. in Computer Science from UC Irvine.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

Can you share your remarkable journey before residing in the US and some lessons you have learned?
"....I was born in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City) during what people refer to as the Vietnam War. So I was growing up at that time and I thought being in a military zone was normal and seeing soldiers hanging in the streets, fighter jets overhead and bombs being dropped – I thought that was pretty normal. It came to my mind later that it wasn't....As far as lessons go, I came here when I was 12 so I can't really say that I could learn a whole lot, but there are a couple of things that I carried with me that I guess I learned from my Dad. Looking back I realized there were a couple of reasons why we survived the storm and survived the pirates (stories from my Dad and others on the boat). My dad encouraged the boat crew when we were preparing to leave to replace their engine with a more powerful, reliable engine and they did and we truly believe that is the reason we got away from the pirates. He also led the crew to add additional floats around the boat. Without these preparations we probably wouldn't be here and I realize from listening to these stories and from my experience I carry that with me all my life. To try to be prepared for everything, try to look ahead and prepare for the worst. A lot of times the worst never happens, but I still carry with me to be prepared. Another thing that I've learned is that when you are in that little boat out in the open ocean it's really humbling. You feel how little you are and how a small change, for example, in the weather that could have ended our lives and it kind of makes me live my life the way I do, to try to experience as much as I can and to try to make a difference...."

You were able to persevere through all of those challenges and hardships and then you land on the shores of the US, but your journey continues. How did this journey continue in the US up to the founding of your first company and its successful exit and perhaps some lessons you may want to share?
"..... I will try to describe this in stages.....We first landed in the US and that was quite a culture shock for me. From living in a militarized zone, seeing soldiers all the time, the only other thing I knew about America was from watching the TV show Gunsmoke. For me the idea of America was military soldiers and cowboys so to my surprise when I landed in San Francisco I didn't see any military or cowboys and that was a culture shock for me. I would say that was my first stage – learning about the culture and overcoming a lot of those challenges....Then onto college, that's my second stage. That's where I figured out what I wanted to do in my career. I took some computer courses in college and it came naturally. I originally wanted some sort of engineering but I wasn't sure what it was so I tried different things and took some computer programming courses. The first one was Basic like everybody else, then onto Fortran and Cobol (this was years ago so some of you may not even know what that is), and these programming skills came pretty easily to me. I went on to UC Irvine for their Information and Computer Science. I had a great time there and learned quite a bit and met some lifelong friends. I was recruited straight out of college by Xerox. At the time they wanted to build a team to rewrite their printer operating system and basically took a million lines of Assembly code to convert to C. There were a lot of great people in that team and we were creating some cool operating systems during that time....After that I learned that I really didn't want to be with a big company so I joined a startup. So my time with that company is where I learned quite a bit. I learned a lot about how to build companies, how a company is built, learned a lot about building teams, building products, getting products to the market and getting them to work. I also learned that keeping your customers happy was one of the keys to keeping a team happy and learning how to put together a strong team and keeping them motivated and inspired was key to achieving objectives....I would say that's the final stage before I started my own company where I've learned quite a bit. I started a consulting company back in 1997 and it did pretty well. It had a lot of great customers. We had the consulting company for about 8 years and during those 8 years I brought on a lot of great customers, notable customers, and we focused on healthcare so we had a major healthcare institution as our customer....That was quite an experience, building my company, going through advanced stages, going through the organic stage, as well as raising capital and getting it acquired....so I learned quite a bit...."

What are some areas that developers should focus on and why?
"....Social and mobile. Look at the influences that social and mobile have on our lives - everything from helping us make our daily chores more convenient and getting our tasks done quicker to social and mobile influencing our global events. We hear about things much quicker and people are expecting changes much quicker so these two areas certainly need to be considered whenever we develop new technology, especially ones that are used by our society.....In addition to that, another thing that I always tell developers (including ours and I've also applied this to my previous company), was to make sure what you are developing is practical and that it helps someone or something.....The other thing is to take some chances, take some risks. You have an idea to create a product that you think can change the world, take a chance and go for it. If you don't try, you will never know...."

You've also had considerable business success in your past, currently and now into the future because you are involved in many other things today. What are some of your tips for business success?
"....I can only speak from my experiences.....Keep your eyes on the prize (which is the market opportunity), stay focused on that and do whatever it takes to get to that point....Persevere and focus on the opportunity and be nimble, flexible and able to evolve your company and your product to achieve that goal...."

What are some tips for outstanding leadership?
"....I've learned a lot over the years and I read about other leaders and what they do and what worked for them. There were some things that stood out for me, some things that I carry with me.....First, be a leader and not a manager. You lead by inspiring people....Second, I don't want to be the smartest source in my company or at any meeting. I always try to hire smarter people; everyone from finding my co-founder, CTO and lead developers to finding my QA person is that they can do this job better than I can. If I am sitting in the room and I'm the smartest person there, I find that wrong because then I've pretty much set a limit for my team. I have limitations and I know that they'll have them. I think I need to build a team that can surpass those limitations....Third, you have to be able to communicate the vision very clearly to your team and communicate your company product very clearly to your customers. Having great communication is one of the key aspects and a key foundation to being a great leader...."

Can you share some of your tips for entrepreneurial success?
"....I've had the pleasure to work with a lot of the entrepreneurs, and one of the top characteristics that I recognize in professional entrepreneurs is perseverance and never giving up on your vision. Accompanying perseverance is the ability to support that vision so it also includes finding ways to support that business and venture....The second tip I would give entrepreneurs (and one I try to practice myself) is don't be married to your product, but be married to your vision. So if you have a vision which is associated with the opportunity in a certain market, be faithful to that vision but don't get tied down or too attached to the product itself. Even in my current venture, the product has evolved probably 3 times in about 12 months, but the objective and the vision are still the same....Lastly, as an entrepreneur it could get lonely sometimes so having a good support system helps a lot...."

Can you give some of your insights in terms of forecasts for the future?
".....If you asked me this a few years ago I would have given you bunch of forecasts and I would probably have been wrong, just because things have changed so quickly in the past few years....So I guess one of my first forecasts would be there will be a lot of changes coming and they will come pretty quickly. Make sure you recognize these changes and the opportunities and the only thing I would recommend is to recognize these changes and to jump in....As far as forecasting what's going to happen, we can pretty much bet that social networks, or at least the characteristics that come with the social networks, will be ingrained in almost everything we do...."

Share the value of your latest venture and lessons you are learning?
"....One of the key elements to sustaining the company is the ability to predict, forecast and see what businesses are coming in from and we use CRM systems for that. When you look at a small business they don't have the capability and the majority of them would not be able to do that because CRM systems are quite expensive and are quite resource-intensive. At Zaka what we wanted to do with our vision was to build a system that allows small businesses to have that insight, and at the same time we are learning that in order for that to happen we should really leverage the current trend in the marketplace which is social and mobile. We developed this platform that allows the everyday people/consumers to be able to connect to businesses, places, services or people that they use on a regular basis who make up the fabric of their daily lives and allow people to connect with them easily (mobile) and allow them to socialize about these places. What we want to do at Zaka is to allow people to socialize about places that they like and care about and be able to share that with their friends and family. Another thing that we learned was that we instinctively trust our friends and family a lot more that any kind of advertisements or reviews. As it turns out a lot of small businesses see referrals as the primary source for new customers. If we could combine all of those things, the trusted referrals, to combine social and mobile and combine some element of our CRM system. When you combine all those things what do you have? You have kind of an eco-system, a system that allows businesses to get connected closer to the customer, allow these customers connect with these businesses that they like and socialize about and refer to their friends and family and results in more business for these local businesses. So you can somehow put them all together which is what we do at Zaka....."

What do you wish to accomplish in the next three years?
"....On a professional basis I want to make sure that Zaka is a success. I believe that the vision and the opportunity is a solid one. At the same time, on a professional level I want to continue to learn, continue to work with entrepreneurs and other startups to make a difference in this world and hopefully continue to learn along the way....On a personal level, I actually have a lot of overlap to my professional objectives to keep learning. I'd like to try and learn new things, travel to new places and learn about new cultures. One of the things I've wanted to learn though the years is to try to learn a new language...."

What surprises you?
"....Through my experiences and the things I've seen I've tried not get surprised by anything, but I'm sure there were things that have surprised me, but not a lot has....."

How can the world's leading scientific, educational and innovation associations like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) play a role?
"....I spoke a lot about how the world is changing so quickly and we should be expecting a lot of changes over the next decade. I think ACM has been foundational and will continue to be foundational to the advancements we are seeing. I talk a lot about these changes that would be difficult to forecast, but for the next decade or so I think a lot of these changes could have roots back to organizations like the ACM. I think it is a critical and important part of our world and an important part of us advancing this world...."

Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials? [See www.ipthree.organd the Global Industry Council, http://www.ipthree.org/about-ip3/global-advisory-council]
"....The world is changing quickly and it's changing quickly because of the advancement in technology....We have standards and codes of ethics for people who affect our lives and who can make decisions that can affect our lives (like doctors and lawyers and accountants), but if you look at the IT profession they are indeed changing our lives, so yes I think there should be some sort of code of ethics and accountability that needs to be considered....In order for our growth to continuously expand we want to make sure that the creativity is encouraged and continues to be encouraged, but at the same time we need to be accountable for our actions...."

From your extensive speaking, travels and work, please share some stories (perhaps something amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing).
"....One of the nice things about being able to travel is just being able to see the culture and meet the people, both domestically and abroad. One of the things that still surprises me when I'm travelling domestically is seeing the diversity within the United States alone....It is meeting people, meeting people from different cultures that I find amazing. On an international level, it is just being able to talk to these people and see how they perceive the world. One of the things that I try to do is look at things through their eyes; there's a lot to be learned from that. How they look at you, how they look at the world, how they look at their culture or how they look at your culture. Sometimes it's quite a humbling experience; sometimes it's quite funny..."

If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....How do you make decisions in your business and your life?....How do you view life?...."

David, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.
"....It's my pleasure and thank you so much for this opportunity to share my experiences...."