Chris Kanaan joined Ripple Labs two months ago to become the company’s VP of Engineering. The Yelp alum and Stanford grad is working closely with Ripple Labs CTO Stefan Thomas to oversee the engineering department, making sure teams are aligned with each other as well as the company’s product needs and vision. With headcount at nearly ninety, Chris’s arrival is timely, to say the least.
One reason the search took so long is because it was important to find someone who was not only qualified but was also the right cultural fit. Chris wholeheartedly checks both boxes and we’re all incredibly excited to have him on the team.
I sat down with him for a brief interview to learn more about the man named Kanaan and also to check in and see how his first eight weeks have been.
That’s when I came across Ripple. Something just clicked. It seemed like this was absolutely the next chapter in this movement. It took the best aspects of Bitcoin—like the ledger—but improved on the concept, such as the system for closing ledgers and the ability to support all currencies. I stared into the face of everyone on the “About” page on the company website, and I wondered, “Do I think these people can do it?” The answer was a resounding “Yes.”
Tell us about yourself!
Chris: After college, I moved to Kansas City, Missouri to take a very specific job doing 3D medical imaging at this huge 6,000 person multinational. I realized quickly that it wasn’t for me. They’d just paved their parking lot so I’d bring my skateboard in on the weekends to work. I’d code. Then I’d skateboard and think. And I just remember getting badgered by campus cops even though the entire lot was empty. It clearly wasn’t a good fit. I ended up getting an EMT license and working on an ambulance at night. I was on a rotational program and I ended up in London for a bit but the change of scenery didn’t help.
I’d always dreamed of moving to San Francisco—ever since I saw it for the first time as a little kid. I had this picture of me standing below the TransAmerica building in my dorm room. I thought it’d be the coolest place to be. So I got a one way ticket to the U.S. and stayed on a friend’s couch in Berkeley.
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I ended up at a company called Quantcast after reading a Craigslist ad. They do real-time bidding for advertising. It was just a few people in a mostly empty room. Now it’s grown past 600. After Quantcast, I ended up at Yelp, where I worked for two years. I was an engineering manager, overseeing one team, then two. After Yelp, I took some time to be with my family and spent lots of quiet time exploring technologies I had been interested in, but hadn’t had time to investigate.
A few years back, I had mined some Bitcoin. I thought—This is so different from any of the other ideas I’ve heard. It wasn’t just another app. Plus, Bitcoin had this very mysterious character in Satoshi Nakamoto.
Fast forward to today, I had moved on from Bitcoin and forgotten my wallet. That’s when I came across Ripple. Something just clicked. It seemed like this was absolutely the next chapter in this movement. It took the best aspects of Bitcoin—like the ledger—but improved on the concept, such as the system for closing ledgers and the ability to support all currencies. I stared into the face of everyone on the “About” page on the company website, and I wondered, “Do I think these people can do it?” The answer was a resounding “Yes.”
I was lucky enough to join.
What are you working on at Ripple Labs?
Last year was about finding product market fit, and we figured out we needed to focus on liquidity first by integrating with the existing financial system before we can focus on end consumers. As a result, I’m very mindful of developing best practices to improve stability and our software development process, which will be key to becoming a true enterprise company.
What exactly are the responsibilities of a VP of Engineering?
I think Stefan (CTO at Ripple Labs) takes care of forward thinking and R&D. I complement him by growing the team and making sure everyone is on the same page—communicating well from across the aisle and also within teams. My job is to make sure we are all working together efficiently, productively, and most of all collectively. So I’m working closely with product, with all the engineering teams, and with HR and recruiting.
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I’m also keeping tabs on what the business development team has up next for integration so we can adjust our product roadmap accordingly. It’s important that our products can scale, that they are applicable to a wide range of integration clients.
We also need to continue to maintain the engine that powers the entire network. I was very keen to meet everyone on the rippled team—where a lot of people are remote.
How’s it been so far?
I’ve been here eight weeks so far and it’s definitely been great. It’s excellent—not only what people have already done but also what we’re working on for the future.
It’s important that engineering is clearly focused now. Last year was grounded in explorations and experimentations. Now we have to drive that to completion if we want to have a strong, stable value network and to have partners using our technology across the world.
Chris Kanaan with Monica Long, VP of Marketing and Communications
How would you describe the team?
The way I view the rippled team, they are probably part of the top one percent of C++ developers. Each one individually was probably the smartest person at the previous company that they worked at. So it’s a big draw for them to work together—whereas at their previous job, their peers could only give them a rubber stamp because they couldn’t quite understand the scope and subtlety of their work. Now there is wide discussion across topics by compelling characters with diverse opinions. Above all, they’re working on a product that is completely fascinating.
In terms of the rest of the engineering team, they’re truly exceptional. It’s a nice mix of people who have worked in payments and finance as well as the startup world. So there’s good combination of experiences and the energy is apparent here. Everyone has a really good vibe, a buzz. Everyone is smiling. There’s an excitement but also this great attitude. As advertised, the culture has been humble and inclusive. And of course, as a young company, we have quite a bit of youth.
Can you tell us a little bit about who the real Chris Kanaan is?
I’m really interested in backpacking. The way I got into it—I had hiked the John Muir trail with a friend, in the winter. We didn’t see another human being for a month in these snowy mountains.
Toward the end of the trip, we saw two people. One woman was trying to set the speed record for the PCT. The other was a man named Scott, who was trying to do what he described as “the yo-yo,” a back and forth between Mexico and Canada on the PCT. I was just blown away.
The whole experience just opened my eyes. It was so cool, so surreal—not seeing anyone, then to see these people take it even further. I knew I had to try it myself one day. So my brother and I are planning to do it in 2020 or 2022.
Oh yeah, I also like to surf.
You’re just the quintessential Cali bro aren’t you?
I was actually born in the mountains overlooking Beirut. I moved here when I was nine.
Do you ever visit?
I go every couple of years. My dad’s side of the family is there so I always have to keep my Arabic up. But my mom is actually Swedish-American.
What about school, what did you study—given your wide range of interests?
I went to Stanford University and studied computer science. Later, I got a Master’s in sociology.
My advisor was on the board for Friendster and I got interested in understanding networks of people and representing that through code. I scraped websites of different companies to build a network of investors and C-level employees from different companies, looking for patterns in their social relationships. I wanted to see if you could use social distance to predict investment outcomes.
Any final thoughts?