We recently announced the appointment of Bill Barton as Chief Product and Engineering Officer at Rokt. With more than 35 years of product and engineering experience at companies that include Amazon, Nokia, and Microsoft, Bill brings a proven record of inspiring innovation and building high-performing engineering teams to Rokt. In this role, Barton reports directly to CEO Bruce Buchanan and leads the Rokt Product Development organization, spanning product management and development. We sat down with Bill to learn more about him, his career, his plans for Rokt, and his passions outside of work.
Bill’s experience and career at Amazon
Where were you before Rokt?
For the 10 years before I got here, I was at Amazon working on Alexa the entire time. All Alexa, all the time. I started in just the first few months of Alexa’s project launch. My initial role was to build the team that developed all the speech and language technology that powers Alexa. I spent four years doing that. Then I spent the next six years focusing on knowledge graphs and question answering. And then my last year there, I was working on proactive experiences, where Alexa does things for customers without the customer having asked, which included serving ads to customers and things of that nature.
How would you describe your leadership style when developing new products?
Relentless. I think when I get my teeth sunk into something, I can’t let it go. For example, building Alexa at Amazon. Go back 10 years to February 2012 – what we were trying to build completely didn’t exist. So many things seem obvious in hindsight but were so challenging during the creation process. You have to be relentless when you’re creating things like that. Once I have a vision in my head and I realize it can exist, even though it might take two years, three years, four years, I can’t let it go and I’m determined to create it, whatever it takes. And that applies to diving deep into whatever the architecture and technical issues are, building the right team, getting the right help that the team may need from the organization, whether it’s funding, headcount…just relentless pursuit.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career so far?
Building Alexa. I think people can work their entire career in tech and not be lucky enough to be part of something like that. We released Alexa two years before Google released Google Home, and Apple didn’t release HomePod until a year after that. It was incredible to be a part of that experience.
What’s been your most challenging project so far?
Can I say Alexa again?! Alexa! This reminds me of 25 years ago now, which is hard to believe, when I climbed Denali in Alaska. And I remember the guide said to the group, “Some of you are going to have the best day of your life on this trip. Some of you are going to have the worst day of your life on this trip. And for some of you, you’re going to have both of the best and the worst days of your life on your trip. And for some of you, it’s going to be the same day.” That’s Alexa for me. It’s definitely the best project of my career but it was incredibly challenging and there were absolutely some dark days.
Bill and Rokt
What stood out to you about Rokt as a place to work?
I was totally pulled into the vortex of Rokt. That starts with Bruce, the CEO, and extends to the purpose and the vision and mission statement for the company. Part of the element there is we are a founder-led company, so it’s important not to belittle that or dismiss it. What Bruce has helped create is a place where there’s a sense of optimism and possibility, and a ton of energy in the office. Plus, I think the business opportunity is huge, even though Rokt is already a successful business. I don’t even think of it as a startup. It may be pre-IPO, but it’s not a startup. It’s been around for 10 years, hundreds of million in revenue, profitable, hundreds of employees, lots of corporate level tools and processes around finance and people, and so on. It’s a mature company, but still has an order or two magnitude of growth ahead of it. All of that is part of how I got pulled into the vortex. And I’m glad I did.
What intrigues you about the Rokt product?
First of all, I love two-sided platforms, which often mean some sort of advertising type platforms. I’ve worked on them before and they’re just really interesting from an economics perspective, business perspective, technical perspective. It is so intellectually challenging to work on that type of thing. Second reason is the uniqueness of the Rokt solution, which is not conventional advertising, and the opportunity it offers our clients. It’s fascinating to be a part of building something like that.
What Rokt value do you most identify with?
Easy. Conquer new frontiers. I’m just a “conquer new frontiers” kind of guy. It’s the fun of doing something new, of creating something from nothing.
What are you looking forward to in the next three to five years at Rokt?
Unleashing the potential, and there is just so, so much. I’m here to make the business successful, but also growing the Rokt product development organization. Ideally there’s no organization at Rokt that will scale linearly with our business, so hopefully we can scale sub-linearly. If we grow by two orders of magnitude in revenue, maybe we’ll only grow by an order of magnitude in headcount, from 100s to 1000s, but maybe our revenue is going up to multiple tens of billions of dollars, for example. But still, growing the business, growing the organization, growing individuals within the organization, I have a lot of fun when people grow and flourish and discover what they can do. Maybe it isn’t even that they didn’t think they could do them, maybe they didn’t even think of doing them. I can’t wait.
Getting to know Bill outside of work
What was your favorite band or musical artist in high school?
Led Zeppelin in high school, for sure. Now I’m more of a Strokes, White Stripes kind of guy.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I love road cycling. I frequently do long 70-100 mile rides, always alone. I also like to read. I play some piano when I get enough time and I love horsing around with my dogs and hanging out with the family.
Do you have any pets that you might bring to the office?
My commute is a bit far, so I won’t be bringing them to work with me, but I do have two beautiful collies, Charlie and Sasha, plus my son Ben’s dog, Fira, who I refer to as my “granddaughter”.