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Alumni Spotlight - Optimized for Success

Max Alt, the 2022 MSSM Return on Education awardee, is an expert in high-performance computing and the founder of two startups that optimized computer processing.

At which point in one’s career can the “success” box be checked? Is it upon achieving a certain title? Salary? Accolades?

According to MSSM alum Max Alt ’07, none of the above apply or even matter.

Alt is Distinguished Technologist and Director of Hybrid HPC (High-Performance Computing) at Hewlett Packard Enterprises, a role he recently started after exiting the rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship.

“On my journey I met and worked for billionaires, high profile presidents, CEOs, and CTOs. I saw that the money, power and title are last in the list of attributes of what I consider success. One of the most important achievements from my journey is the people I’ve met. I am blessed by those who worked with me, even the ones I didn’t get along with! They all taught me a lot,” Alt said.

MSSM Program Director Gladys Mercier presents Alt with the 2022 Return on Education Award during the MSSM Diploma Ceremony in mid-August. Watch Max's acceptance speech.

Alt was born and raised in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. His father was a mathematics teacher who schooled Alt in the subject from an early age, immersing him in logic, algorithms, and data structures.

“Math is a way of thinking. I grew up in a home where the sciences were my hobby, a way of life,“ Alt recalled.

Once his school bought its first computer, Alt channeled his analytical mind to programming.

“I spent all my summers learning programming and writing different applications. So, little by little, I moved into computer science from math.”

He graduated high school at 14 and started university. Alt was hooked on the language of programming, but programming wasn’t the language he would need next.

“A year or so later, my parents immigrated to Israel. We left everything behind and came with nothing. I didn’t know Hebrew or English.”

He spent six months at a language boarding school before attending Tel Aviv University to continue his studies in mathematics and computer science.

“The first semester was a disaster. I got all F’s because I couldn’t understand what they were talking about,” Alt said.

While Alt didn’t make his impact at school (though his GPA eventually recovered to “OK” status), he did excel at his first job at Scitex America, a high-tech image processing company.

Alt wrote the frontend user interface code, a task he found more fun and enjoyable than his schoolwork. He started programming, logging more hours, and pitching ideas.

“I treat every little project at work like a startup. I find a challenge and a way to innovate,” Alt said. “That passion to improve is really an indicator whether you deeply care about what you do.”

Scitex took note of his initiative. At age 19 and within one year of starting, Alt was offered a full-time role and a team of four to work on his ideas.

Several years later, the company sent him to the SIGGRAPH conference in California where Adobe recruited him for a role in its printing division, offering visa sponsorship and the opportunity to move from Israel to the United States.

Alt left Adobe within two years and landed at Intel, his professional home for the next 18 years. There, he climbed the engineering ladder and was eventually tasked with helping Fortune 500 companies optimize their software to run better on Intel’s architecture.

“My mind is wired to optimize. I became the go-to person within Intel for application engineering. That’s how I got into high performance computing because it was my job to maximize computing power. I write software, and I love to help others do so in a way that utilizes the capability of hardware to its peak. It was like a game to me to make applications run faster,” Alt said.

Alt worked next in technical marketing before managing Intel’s vendor partnerships.

“I was coasting on the career ladder. I felt that I could lead others, but there is a ceiling without a specific skillset. I enrolled in the part-time Master of Science in Software Management program because I wanted to deepen my management and software engineering skills and to develop my business acumen.”

Alt continued to work at Intel while taking classes at Carnegie Mellon's Silicon Valley campus.

“Intel was a supportive environment. They recognized my contributions and what I was good at. I got many opportunities there because I looked for the next step,” Alt said.

As Alt continued to refine his expertise over the years, he noticed a gap in the technology that began to consume him.

“Do you know how much computer capability just sits idly, or is left unutilized by inefficient software? I wanted to harvest idle capacity from computers for other projects – kind of like the Airbnb of computer processing,” Alt said.

He pitched his idea to Intel. Executives described it as “extraordinary” but declined. Soon thereafter, an investor surfaced to fund Alt.

“Many people advised me against leaving Intel, but nothing anyone would tell me could stop me from taking this opportunity,” Alt said. “Guess what? Everyone was right. What followed was brutal, thrilling, insane, scary, and the best thing that happened to me in my professional life.”

Alt’s first investor only gave him six months to go from “zero to one”, a laughable deadline given the complexity of the software. That investor backed out, and then another came aboard with a similar disposition.

Ultimately, Alt negotiated a spin out, relaunching in October 2018 as Atrio, Inc, a high-performance computing cloud services company.

The pandemic was a turning point in Alt’s entrepreneurship journey.

“I was in distress,” Alt recalled. “Every morning at like four o'clock I would wake up because I was in a cold sweat. What am I going to do? I am responsible to our customers and for 15 people’s livelihoods. The market’s falling, no one is investing, and I owe over a million dollars.”

Fortunately, Alt had options; several companies were interested in acquiring his product. He ultimately chose Core Scientific, one of Atrio’s customers, for the buyout. AMD later acquired the product.

“The product morphed into something a bit different from what I had in mind in the beginning. It was an extraordinary effort from my team. I’m proud of what we achieved against all odds,” Alt said.

Alt’s idea of an integrated HPC cloud service still consumes his attention, even after more than a decade. He may have closed the startup chapter (for now!), but he hasn’t moved on from his passion to optimize and innovate.

“Success is your ability to immerse yourself in your next endeavor. I keep pushing this idea forward, and I will continue to do that in my current role at HP. It’s the same vision and the same determination with different players, on a different field, and on a much larger scale. And now, unlike when I first started, the market demand is undisputed,” Alt said.

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