David Clarke: Driving Technology Development at Workday

If you’re in a technology strategy meeting with David Clarke, senior vice president of technology development at Workday, you may also get a brief lesson in history. Clarke has been known to present slides featuring authors, economists, and cartographers from other eras to support a point about what history has taught us, to better prepare for the future ahead.

Clarke’s coworkers recognize him as a technology visionary, with a keen ability to see future opportunities and the confidence in his vision to convince others. Yet he is also a scholar of the past. His voracious appetite for reading includes historical nonfiction and 18th century literature. A few years ago, he decided to learn to play an instrument and chose the cello—his goal is to learn all six “Cello Suites” that Bach finished composing in 1723.

One can see where this past/future duality plays into his contributions and leadership at Workday. Clarke oversees Workday’s core transaction processing, reporting, and integration frameworks. He also leads the company’s technology initiatives for data center infrastructure, public cloud operations, and software development and deployment processes. Most of his team works out of either the U.S. headquarters in Pleasanton, California, or the European headquarters in Dublin, Ireland.

Simply put, Clarke and his team are responsible for driving the foundational technology decisions that power and support all Workday applications today and well into the future.

David Clarke Workday
David Clarke’s team works out of the U.S. headquarters in Pleasanton and European headquarters in Dublin.

It’s a massive responsibility, and benefits under the leadership of a person whose vision is more panoramic in nature—spanning from the past, through what history has taught us, to future opportunities—rather than simply tunnel-vision forward.

“In the last 10 years, Workday has emerged from startup to a leader in the market for enterprise cloud applications,” says Clarke. “We are on the right side of history, with the right combination of people, customers, and partners. And we have so much more opportunity ahead.”

Over the past year, Clarke spearheaded a multi-year partnership between Workday and Amazon Web Services (AWS). With its global network of highly scalable and secure data centers, AWS is now Workday’s preferred provider for public cloud customer workloads. This partnership allows Workday to reduce its investment in building and maintaining its own data centers, so that it can focus even more on innovating for customers.

It also means Workday can offer customers more choices in terms of how and where they deploy their applications, and for those who have specific requirements around where data is stored, Clarke says.

Not surprisingly, the well-read history buff gives a nod to an early 19th century economist in explaining the decision.

“In the spirit of David Ricardo’s Doctrine of Comparative Advantage, we can focus on what we do best: building great applications for our global customer base,” Clarke says.

The Right Technology Bets

Clarke joined Workday in 2008 through the acquisition of Cape Clear, a Dublin-based company he co-founded in his 20s. Cape Clear’s team and enterprise service bus (ESB) technology would form the foundation of Workday’s integrations strategy and offerings.

David Clarke has championed single codeline, zero downtime, and public cloud initiatives.

Clarke also made the case to move Workday to a single codeline, meaning that since late 2013, the company has used just one line of code for both the current release of its applications and the features under development for its next release. This change has allowed Workday teams to work more tightly and collaboratively with each other and with customers on new features and innovations, and to move even more quickly to update Workday applications for such changes as new regulations and compliance requirements.

A single codeline also reduced downtime for the Workday system, and was an important step in another goal Clarke is leading: zero system downtime—both planned and unplanned—for Workday customers.  Currently, zero downtime for business critical applications is unheard of in the cloud-based enterprise software industry. Workday is making great progress on this goal, says Clarke, having reduced downtime for customers to less than two hours per year.

Part of Clarke’s job is educating others on Workday’s technology strategy decisions, including the thinking behind them and how they benefit customers.

“He always presents to analysts on Workday’s evolving architecture, and it is refreshing to hear him talk of new dimensions, be it scaling the cloud to new heights or industrializing it from a security and resilience point of view,” says Vinnie Mirchandani, founder of the Deal Architect Inc. technology consultancy and blog.

“At a recent meeting, he nicely described how the focus has moved in the last few years from process to data, and discussed the coming excitement around training machines with large datasets. He’s definitely a visionary—a quiet, likable one.”

“We’re using an advanced spectrum of technology—a lot of components of the modern web, and front-end and back-end stacks, to solve interesting problems.”

Innovating in Ireland

Clarke was born in Dublin; his father was a manager at Dublin Airport and his mother a manager at Ryanair. He grew up in an era when the first personal computers such as the Apple II and Commodore 64 were hitting the market, and by his teens he was writing machine code. “I thought it was astonishing the things you could do, like write your own computer games,” he recalls.

After graduating with a degree in computer science from Trinity College Dublin in 1993, he accepted a job with Royal Dutch Shell doing technology work for safety procedures related to oil exploration. He also set up Shell’s first web site, using a Mosaic browser.

David Clarke co-founded Cape Clear in Dublin, later acquired by Workday.

A few years later, Annrai O’Toole, co-founder and CTO at IONA Technologies in Dublin, offered Clarke a job in product management. O’Toole first met Clarke when he was lecturing at Trinity College, and Clarke was a student. “I could see David was a pretty smart individual,” O’Toole recalls. IONA, which specialized in service-oriented architecture (SOA) technology, launched a successful IPO on NASDAQ in 1997 and helped put the Irish technology industry on the map.

By 1999, Clarke decided he wanted a change. He and O’Toole left to start Cape Clear in Dublin. “These things called web services had emerged, and we could instantly see that they could be the next generation of integration technology. That’s what led to the Cape Clear ESB,” says O’Toole.

Clarke and O’Toole made frequent trips to Silicon Valley to build their business, and that’s where they met Aneel Bhusri, co-founder and CEO at Workday. The three developed a good relationship, and the Cape Clear team was acquired by Workday in 2008.

“Many connections and integrations are needed to continue in this new world of cloud computing, and the Cape Clear technology enabled that,” explains Clarke. “Workday’s core foundation has certainly gotten bigger and more powerful over the years, but Cape Clear’s ESB is still the kernel of integration.”

After establishing operations in Dublin with the acquisition, Workday went on to make the city the home of its European headquarters. In 2015, the headquarters was moved to a larger space in Dublin’s north inner city to accommodate Workday’s rapidly growing local workforce, which now exceeds 850 people.

Clarke moved back to Ireland from California in 2017, switching his primary workplace to the European headquarters. O’Toole also works out of Dublin, serving as chief technology officer, Europe. The European headquarters employs engineers from a wide range of countries, all of whom are tasked with solving some of the most complex challenges and opportunities for scaling and managing enterprise applications in the cloud.

“At Workday, we’re using an advanced spectrum of technology—a lot of components of the modern web, and front-end and back-end stacks, to solve interesting problems,” Clarke says.

Trusting His Team

When Clarke joined Workday, he was employee number 213. Now, Workday has more than 7,900 employees worldwide. Did he ever expect Workday would grow to become a leader in the market for enterprise cloud applications within 10 years?

“We certainly felt we had the potential,” he says. “After you’ve been in a few startups, you figure out the ingredients for success—the right product, team, marketing, and timing. All the ingredients were there. It was never a question of how successful we would be, just how quickly. It turned out to be very successful, very quickly.”

David Clarke Workday
“David has read a lot of history, and history teaches us that we’re all mortal, we all make mistakes, and pomposity and arrogance are fatal flaws,” says Annrai O’Toole, Workday European CTO.

Catherine Renwick, vice president of platform engineering at Workday, has worked with David since 2001, back at Cape Clear. “David is a visionary,” she says. “He sees things and says, ‘This is something we have to do.’ He helps push our company forward.”

Clarke has a management style that’s based on putting trust in his team members, Renwick adds. “He’s very good at working with the team to set the direction, then letting us get on with it.”

“He’s also extremely well read in lots of areas—literature, our industry, and the psychology of business,” Renwick says. And like others interviewed for this profile, she remarks about Clarke’s large vocabulary.

“Every talk David gives, he uses at least two words no one has heard before,” Renwick says. “At an all-hands meeting, he was talking about the importance of not being sclerotic in our decision-making. We all starting tapping the definition of sclerotic in our laptops.”

According to Oxford Dictionaries, sclerotic means: “Becoming rigid and unresponsive; losing the ability to adapt.”

The Irish Way

That kind of intellectualism can sometimes be accompanied by arrogance, but that’s not David Clarke. He’s approachable, engaging, and chances are he’ll make you laugh. In conversation he might share a startling vision of the future of technology, yet is also likely to deliver several well-played jokes.

“David has read a lot of history, and history teaches us that we’re all mortal, we all make mistakes, and pomposity and arrogance are fatal flaws,” says O’Toole. “Any successful leader in any variety of life understands that.”

“What defines successful people are those who have a deep curiosity about technology and systems and are always asking questions.”

O’Toole suspects Clarke’s Irish heritage plays a part as well. “In Ireland, you never get ahead of yourself,” he says. “It’s a small country, and if someone doesn’t know you, they know someone who knows you. There’s no way you’d get away with the pumped-up pomposity you sometimes see in Silicon Valley.”

Still, he pushes others to be their best. “If you’re meeting with David, you have to be on the top of your game, because he’ll challenge you—he won’t let you off the hook easily,” says O’Toole. “He wants you to be able to show that you know what you’re doing, and are in control.”

When asked what advice he’d give to next-generation engineers, his answer is to stay curious. “What defines successful people are those who have a deep curiosity about technology and systems and are always asking questions,” Clarke says. “It’s a great way to develop, learn, engage, and be able to do truly satisfying and meaningful work.”