Rocketing to the top
Rob Castaneda, shares his remarkable journey from UTS to Silicon Valley.
Rob Castaneda is the founder and CEO of ServiceRocket, a multi-million dollar IT company with more than 220 staff and offices in Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, Santiago and Palo Alto. The company is a quintessential reflection of Silicon Valley, where robust change, innovation and bold entrepreneurship have turned companies such as Apple, eBay, Google and Netflix into household names.
The company specialises in facilitating relationships between software creators and their users. In Castaneda's own words, they amplify the effect of what other companies are doing with their software.
"We're not going to create the magical technology, but we'll help our clients get it out to their customers and help them be more successful with how they use it. It's more useful than selling shelfware and just leaving it."
He counts enterprise software giant Atlassian among his many clients. Castaneda himself defies many of the common stereotypes of big business. Dressed in a casual T-shirt and jeans at our interview, the UTS computing science graduate will tell you first and foremost that he is a data nerd.
"I started studying at UTS in 1997. At the time, UTS was boasting about a 98 per cent placement rate," he says. "I knew I was the second-last person admitted to the course, so I said 'Well if I'm the second-last person in the course, and they have a 98 per cent placement rate, I'm not going to get placed.' So I went out and looked for some work experience."
He quickly found work at Borland Software providing customer support. To fit the job into his schedule, he switched from full-time to part-time study after his first semester.
"I hate wasting time. I knew I could walk from Borland to UTS in 16 minutes after work, so I knew exactly when I'd get to class without having to catch the bus," he recalls.
One could say this is where Castaneda's passion for helping people use software took root.
"Support is about helping people when they've got problems," he says. "Sometimes not even solving the problem, but just helping them progress whatever they're doing really resonated with me."
It wasn't long before Castaneda moved up the ranks from support to training and then to pre-sales, eventually being sent to Silicon Valley for further training. He was also the first member of his team to learn Java, before it became a ubiquitous programming language.
"I realised if you're hungry to learn new technology, you would get ahead," he says. "It felt good to learn something and be recognised for it."
One of those Silicon Valley training conferences brought him face to face with Bruce Eckel, the author of Thinking in Java. Eckel was so taken by Castaneda's knowledge of the subject that he asked him on the spot to write a chapter about it in his next book. He said yes.
"So I wrote a chapter in his book, just from that chance meeting, because I'd picked it up off the web, and it was in my head. It was crazy," he says somewhat incredulously. "I knew then and there I've got to move to the US. I've got to be there, where there are all these inspirational people from our industry."
That opportunity came in 2000 when, at 21 years of age, he joined Silicon Valley-based CustomWare to teach enterprise-level Java. Facing a laundry list of clients that included Toyota and United Airlines, his job was to teach in the US in alternating weeks; five days of intense training, followed by a week off before the next round of training. However, he was able to negotiate a working arrangement where he'd teach for three weeks in a row and then take three weeks off.
I told myself, 'If you're going to grow a billion dollar company and it's going to take 10 years, this is where you've got to start'."
"And I did not stop my degree," he laughs. "I would fly back to Sydney, I would catch up, I would get ahead, then I'd fly back over and do it all again. I finished a four-year degree in four and a half years and I still graduated with the class I started with!"
When the dot-com bubble burst later that year, he found himself back in Sydney teaching the same courses to the Australian offices of his US clients. He created a new company, CustomWare Asia Pacific, as a subsidiary of the US office. However, when the US office was acquired, Castaneda was left with a lot of clients and a company that was a subsidiary to nothing.
Over time, he decided to rename the company ServiceRocket and move back to Silicon Valley.
"When we transitioned to ServiceRocket, that was a defining moment for me," says Castaneda. "It was time to stop being the nerd writing code. I told myself, 'If you're going to grow a billion dollar company and it's going to take 10 years, this is where you've got to start'."
Beyond founding a successful IT business, Castaneda has been recognised extensively for his entrepreneurship. In 2010, he represented Australia at the G20 Summit for Entrepreneurs. He also earned a letter of recognition from US President Barack Obama for his involvement in hosting a group of entrepreneurs from Islamic countries on behalf of the US State Department. In 2014, he was named by the Silicon Valley Business Journal as one of the "40 Under 40".
Not bad for a boy from Toongabbie.
"I'm a global citizen," he says. "My mother is from Malta and my father moved to Australia from El Salvador… and even though we have offices in Malaysia and Chile, I think country boundaries don't really mean much to me."
That said, now that he lives in the US, he does occasionally correct his eldest son's pronunciation of certain words such as glass.
"My accent moves around depending where I am in the world. When you're teaching Americans how to use software and you're using terminology like 'router' or 'cache', you actually have to speak the way they want you to speak"
"My accent moves around depending where I am in the world," he says. "When you're teaching Americans how to use software and you're using terminology like 'router' or 'cache', you actually have to speak the way they want you to speak. At 20, I was already changing the way I was talking so that people could understand me."
He measures his success against the people around him, however. "I get a lot of satisfaction when I see staff members get married, moving to their own places, watching them grow… even the ones who leave." He continues, "My director of engineering started with us as a graduate, worked in support, left to a start-up, went to another start-up, came back, and now leads our worldwide engineering out of Malaysia. You watch people grow and it's amazing to think I've enabled that."
Even though Rob lives in Silicon Valley, he still spends regular time working in the ServiceRocket office in Sydney, and continues to support UTS and regularly employs graduates and near-graduates across its teams and offices around the world. He encourages students to reach out to him for thoughts and advice following one of ServiceRockets' core values – Share the Knowledge.
Story and photography by Kevin Cheung