Business Savvy

Janet Lustgarten MS’86 has spent three decades bringing game-changing software to the marketplace

Oct 15 2020 | By Mary Kaye Schilling | PHOTO CREDIT: Jörg Meyer

Janet Lustgarten

For Janet Lustgarten MS’86 there is BPC, Before Personal Computers, and APC. The moment desktops replaced mainframes was “the most exciting in modern technology.” And Lustgarten speaks from experience. In the early ‘80s she spent a summer working at the now defunct chain ComputerLand, which IBM chose to introduce its first PC (codenamed “Acorn”) in 1981. The store was on Maiden Lane in New York City’s financial district, and she spent her days, she says, trying to convince potential customers “why anyone who wasn’t an engineer would have a PC.”

Her success rate was low. It would take another two decades before PCs went mainstream, but for Lustgarten it was love at first sight; in them she saw a source of limitless potential, as well as her own course forward. The ComputerLand job inspired her to apply to Columbia Engineering for a graduate degree in computer science, and to spend over three decades bringing game-changing software to the marketplace.

Lustgarten co-founded her first company, Kx Systems, in 1993, with then-husband Arthur Whitney. They had both started working in the financial sector: Lustgarten at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Whitney at Morgan Stanley, where he had built the programming platform A+ in the late ‘80s. Together they would reinvent the big data wheel.

Kx introduced the kdb database, built on new programming languages—first k, followed by q in 2003. “Arthur’s technology handled structured data,” says Lustgarten, “which is data you can define in columns and rows.” The software was created for capital markets (and would eventually support most algorithmic trading systems in the world), but as big data began to drive virtually every sector of business Lustgarten convinced other vertical markets—like the energy and telecommunications industries—to adopt the system.

And then the next revolution: Data got personal. As iPhones, heart monitors and smart watches (among other devices) began unleashing huge volumes of unstructured data—all of it stored in the Cloud—a new language was required, one “with a flexibility that wasn’t needed in the past,” says Lustgarten.

In 2018, Kx Systems was bought by First Derivatives, and Lustgarten and Whitney founded Shakti Software, built on his latest, far more sophisticated platform, capable of merging database, language, connectivity and stream processing. Shakti, named for Hinduism’s primordial cosmic energy, has the potential to revolutionize data analysis yet again.

As the new company’s president, Lustgarten has an ideal vehicle for putting her unique mix of talents to use. “It would be too simple to say that I run the business and he runs the tech,” she says. “It’s just that when he says things they can sound kooky—he’s usually way ahead of everyone else. I’m so close to him that I can tap into those instincts, translate them, and move them forward.”

And, critically, Lusgarten thoroughly understands the technology. “When I was selling Kx it wasn’t just a sales pitch,” she says. “I saw and could explain clearly how [the system] could benefit a business.” She sees that confidence, built on her education at Columbia Engineering, as essential to her success, and the reason she thrived in the notoriously male-dominated worlds of banking and tech. “I’m a small woman, too,” she says. “But because I was knowledgeable, I never felt like [gender] made a difference in my success.”

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Lustgarten’s story could double as a guide to defying expectations and convention

Lustgarten’s story could double as a guide to defying expectations and convention. It begins with her father, Natalio, a Polish Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Colombia after World War II. There he married Tana, whose family came from Syria and Egypt. As a little girl, she loved playing with numbers, and Lustgarten is often asked how she sustained an interest in math, at a time when girls were discouraged from the subject. “It began at an early age,” she says, when she was empowered by her parents and teachers to stick with it. That, she adds, is still important today. “The encouragement has to start in elementary school.”

It was math that “gave me the mindset to look at things in analytic ways,” says Lustgarten. It also gave her an invaluable universal language when her parents relocated again, to Miami Beach, when she was 8. “I spoke no English, so the classes that were easiest for me were math.”

Credit that analytic mindset, but she has a knack for maneuvering around problems and calculating solutions, often by thinking outside the box. In 12th grade, for example, Lustgarten convinced a teacher to let her swap physics credits, a subject she disliked, for the opportunity to work with a massive computer, in its mainframe infancy, at Miami University. It was her introduction to programming.

At Mount Holyoke college she majored in philosophy, for the logic classes, but went off campus, to the University of Massachusetts, for early courses in computer science. One of her Holyoke professors, a key mentor, “helped me design a major that had enough mathematical logic that it could be described as a science degree rather than a BA.” Her stint at ComputerLand, following graduation, inspired her to apply to the graduate program at Columbia Engineering.

Lustgarten was rejected, and, typically, she dug into the problem and engineered a solution. “Spanish is my first language,” she says, “and I figured that I must have misread questions on the standardized test.” She wrote to the school, arguing that her grades and capabilities in qualitative analysis should count for something. Lustgarten’s reasoning was persuasive enough that Columbia revoked its rejection.

“I’ve had the perspective ever since that Columbia is an admirably openminded institution, and that matches my own value system,” says Lustgarten, who recently made a generous donation to the Bridge to PhD in STEM program at Columbia Engineering, which aims to enhance the participation of students from underrepresented groups in Ph.D. programs. It’s a way for her to mentor young people, as she was by her Columbia professors.

In the meantime, Lustgarten has one more career goal: Turning Shakti into a household name. “What I’m looking forward to is bringing [Arthur’s] computer programming language into the marketplace, so that it becomes part of the AI language set that anyone can use,” she says. “[Other c]omputer languages are good, but there hasn’t been anything like Arthur’s, which handles massive amounts of data so much more efficiently. It’s groundbreaking.”