Ontra employee spotlight: Chi Hoang, VP of engineering

January 21, 2022
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Chi Hoang was the first member of his family to go to college. As a self-motivated learner, he proved to be a great student and graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in computer science. Since then he’s forged an impressive career path, holding software development and leadership positions at some of today’s most well-known companies — like Oracle, Netflix, and Zuora to name a few. 

Chi sat down to discuss his journey to join Ontra as VP of Engineering, how the company’s employee-first approach to culture aligns with his personal and professional ethos, and his plans to scale the engineering organization during a period of exponential growth. 

Chi, that’s quite the list of companies on your resume. Can you share some of your career highlights and biggest takeaways?

I spent seven years at Oracle as a software development manager before moving onto Netflix, which is where I believe my professional career really started to develop. I joined Netflix during a time when people were still receiving DVDs in the mail — long before the company became the streaming behemoth it is today.

After a stint in the data warehouse doing analytics to identify member trends and fraud prevention, I moved on to warehouse optimization, where our goal was to increase the likelihood of members committing to the service by sending new DVDs within a day to ensure they always had another movie in hand. My team built the business intelligence solutions and architecture that predicted where DVDs needed to be, which was no easy feat given there were more than 50 strategically located warehouses that would load up the Netflix truck based on recommendations from our predictive algorithm and drive them to the post office for delivery.

After Netflix I led data systems engineering at Groupon for five years, then joined Zuora to spearhead the company’s technology direction. This was an exciting opportunity because Zuora was in prime position to capture a large and very hot subscription billing market, which is actually quite similar to where Ontra sits today in the legal tech space.

I would say one of the biggest takeaways from my time at Zuora is the importance of  advocating for and implementing change. In technology, it’s especially critical to believe that because change is constant, it’s up to the engineering team to always look for new ways to get better at doing things and proving value each step of the way. At Zuora, I managed a team of 80 smart and talented engineers, and the things they were able to accomplish once given the green light to build things that would uplevel the product offering are among my proudest accomplishments.

Ontra’s values — respect, accountability, improvement, openness, and results — drive our company culture. Can you talk about what these values mean to you?

One of my basic core values, both professionally and personally, is respect — treat people with respect by default and assume positive intent by default. By learning to put aside my ego, I’ve been able to connect with and influence people in ways that result in them being much more open and progressive about technology and adopting modern ways of doing things.

Another value that resonates deeply is openness — you have to think differently and try new things if you want to keep improving. Openness also requires the strength to give and receive honest feedback. Personally, I consider it a strength of mine that I can recognize and willingly admit my mistakes and shortcomings. I’ve been doing this long enough to understand that I don’t need to know everything or be good at everything. However, I do know who is good at certain things so that I can raise my hand for help when needed.

I’m looking forward to seeing Ontra stand behind their values — respect and openness in particular — as the values are what ultimately drew me to the company. As a leader here, I recognize the role I play in ensuring these values are upheld. In all honesty, it can be difficult to maintain as we continue to scale exponentially, but these values are extremely critical to Ontra’s overall success and I am fully dedicated to implementing processes built on those values.   

Historically, the legal industry is among the slowest to change despite being one that needs change most. With that said, one focus for Ontra this year is leading an emerging category in legal technology: Contract Automation and Intelligence. How do you plan on staking a claim at the top?

During my time at Zuora, I grew to intimately understand the subscription economy and the culture of enterprise software. As a result, I know what it takes to successfully win and subsequently dominate an emerging category. That’s part of what I bring to Ontra — the enterprise view in terms of revolution and culture combined with the understanding that achieving market dominance is much harder than what it might look like on the surface.  

At the end of the day, it comes down to building an engineering dream team. What does that look like? It’s a group of individuals who can connect with customers, possess strong critical thinking skills, and thrive off of solving problems. Lasting success calls for engineers who are not only comfortable with change but also seek to be agents of change. I want to complement our current team with players who might look and work a bit differently than what we’re accustomed to but are equally important in establishing a strong, successful foundation. 

One of the most fascinating things about the opportunity at hand is the fact that Ontra is disrupting legal technology in a way that is welcomed with open arms by customers, prospects, and pundits alike. It’s a very exciting time to be in this space. I don’t see any real competitors at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to let off the gas. Rather, it’s the opposite.

Now is the time to accelerate because there is no one in front of us and we need to continue pushing. As we define the market, it’s inevitable that the big dogs will come out to chase us. The goal is to be prepared for that moment by building a well-established and nimble team that can respond to the opportunities in front of us, even if it doesn’t match our current framework.

A significant portion of Ontra’s $200 million funding round will be dedicated to R&D. What are you most excited about building out?

I am excited to execute against the numerous interesting opportunities we have around machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). Fundamentally, we know ML will be key for us but have yet to fully realize just how many ways it can contribute to our success.

I want to stay a few steps ahead of automation and intelligence as it relates to contracts and get our systems to a point where we are running machine to machine automation. Imagine a scenario where a machine does the routine work in document management so seamlessly and accurately that customers can completely trust the end result. We all know how complex contracts can be so there is obviously a lot of work that needs to be done to get there, but that’s largely why it’s so exciting.  

In the same vein, I’m particularly impressed and delighted by the work that Mitch, Ontra’s VP of Product, has already done by building out our data team. As long as Mitch and I stay aligned on the product direction and what needs to be built in support of that, I know we will be very successful. After all, it’s this kind of intelligent, open, and collaborative culture that builds rocketships.

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