Clément Pellegrini (EPITA class of 2014), CTO of Qarnot Computing: “My work can make a difference”
Reusing the heat released by servers to ecologically heat buildings: this was the goal set by Qarnot Computing when it was founded in 2010. Ten years later, this has proven to be a great accomplishment for French company Qarnot Computing, which is one of the European leaders in green computing. Clément Pellegrini (EPITA class of 2014), its current Chief Technical Officer (CTO), is no stranger to success. EPITA met up with this Alumni for an interview!
Clément with a radiator designed by Qarnot
Before entering Epita, did you know what you wanted to do later on?
Clément Pellegrini: At a fairly young age, I knew I wanted to work in the IT field. However, as this sector is extremely vast, it took me a little longer to know which areas to focus on. And since I was interested in systems, networks and programming in general, I was quite happy with my studies at EPITA!
What did you study at EPITA?
Like many EPITA students, I began by doing the first two years of the integrated preparatory program on the Villejuif campus, and then I had the opportunity to study in South Africa for six months for my 2nd year semester abroad. When I returned, I started the engineering cycle. During this time, I worked as an assistant – as a YAKA and then as an ACU – with new students before finally majoring in Computer Engineering, Real-Time and Embedded Systems – GISTRE . I chose the GISTRE major because I felt that it would allow me to do the most “technical” work, with low-level code and system development. At that time, I was not really focused on embedded systems. In fact, my end-of-studies internship had nothing to do with this subject at all. I was more interested in networks.
You did your internship abroad, didn’t you?
Yes, in Vancouver, Canada, at Coho Data, a start-up specialized in data storage which, unfortunately, no longer exists. When I arrived, they had about 40 employees, and when I left six months later, the number had nearly doubled. Most of the staff was highly experienced. It was a great opportunity for me, as the youngest employee in the company, to be able to work with and learn from them. I was in charge of networking and was able to develop my skills in this area, thanks to my colleagues.
Once you came back from Canada and graduated from EPITA, you rapidly joined Qarnot Computing. How did you hear about this company?
While I was doing my 4th year internship, a friend of mine was doing his at Qarnot. As I had heard good things about the company and knew that they were hiring, I decided to apply when I got back to France. I had an interview and then received an offer for a permanent contract as a Software Engineer. In short, my job was to develop software. Indeed, Qarnot is known for providing its customers with a computing platform. I worked on writing the code to set up a structure for the company’s computing API. When I arrived, we were a team of three developers, including the CTO at the time, who was also involved in the development process.
Back then, in 2014, Qarnot wasn’t as big as it is today. Would you consider it as a start-up?
It’s true that we were a small team: the two founders, the CTO, another developer and me. And today, from 5 people, we have grown to over 50, some of whom are also EPITA alumni.
A part of the Qarnot team
Did you choose to work at Qarnot based on this “start-up” aspect as well?
Yes, especially since I’ve always wanted to work in startups or small structures: I’ve never been drawn to big groups or large companies. In fact, my 4th year internship was in a video game studio where there were only about 15 employees. And after my internship at Coho Data, I wanted to come back to France only if I could work in a small structure. I really want to have an impact on the company in which I work. This is often easier in a start-up than in a large group where, for example, you only work on one part of a product. What is interesting at Qarnot is that we manufacture our radiators and boilers, and develop all the embedded software, web and mobile applications, platform, etc. There was and still is a lot of work to do. I know that my work can have an impact on Qarnot, and that Qarnot can, in turn, have an impact on society at large, thanks to its ecological positioning.
Joining a company that works in so many fields must be exciting for a young engineer straight out of school…
There was so much to do! Of course, there was already a base, which existed before I arrived, but there was still a lot to develop. It was obviously very motivating to see what there was to explore and what remained to be built.
How can you describe Qarnot Computing’s activity?
It is a company that offers distributed computing power and has the particularity of using radiators or boilers as systems for high performance computing . The principle of Qarnot is to recover the unavoidable heat emitted from computing processes to heat the air or water in private homes. The company now operates as a so-called “BtoBtoB” model. As the radiators and boilers are heated using the heat released by embedded servers, they become ecological heating devices. Moreover, the heating is free. Qarnot reimburses the electricity used by these devices for people who have them at home. And as a bonus, Qarnot is working towards Intelligent buildings: containing radiators that are also equipped with air quality, humidity, brightness and temperature sensors, data that we collect and display in order to monitor a building’s life cycle, for example. In some installations, the radiator also provides WiFi Internet access. Qarnot is then paid for a second part of its activity, namely the sale of computing power through the Cloud. Today, we have two main sectors of activity, namely banking – for everything related to calculations, such as risk calculations and financial simulations – and 3D animation/rendering – an area that is extremely demanding in terms of computing power. Above and beyond these two sectors, we will explore the areas that require this power, i.e. everything related to Machine Learning, artificial intelligence, fluid mechanics, meteorological simulations, MedTech/Biotech…
Qarnot’s radiators and boilers in private homes are good for the economy.
That’s right. We sell our devices to existing buildings, and we don’t have to pay for the cooling system. Thanks to this, we can offer our customers a less expensive solution as compared to other cloud providers, but also one with a lower carbon footprint than traditional data centers. Finally, our positioning is that of a French and European company. which is our brand DNA.
So, your radiators and boilers may be considered as outsourced micro Data Centers?
Yes. The traditional data center approach consists of concentrating a maximum amount of electrical power and servers in a limited space. If you look at the figures of certain recent data centers, which reach dozens of Gigawatts, it is really shocking. Above all, classic data centers raise other issues. Take, for example, the city of Aubervilliers: Data Centers account for 50% of the electricity consumed by the city. The day when there is a drop in electrical activity, who will be deprived of electricity first: the data centers or the residents? This is a real social issue. Moreover, people are also working on recovering the heat emitted by data centers in order to reinject it into urban heating networks. This approach is different from ours. Instead of trying to recover the heat, we directly distribute the source of this heat.
In your career path at Qarnot, you started as a Software Engineer before becoming the CTO. Do you see that as an advantage in your professional life today?
It was indeed a great opportunity for me! I’ve held this position for three years now and my job is constantly evolving, because teams naturally grow. The more people there are, the more I can delegate, allowing for a better understanding of the tasks at hand. My first few months as CTO, I was still doing more or less the same thing that I did as a Software Engineer – of course, the organization was different, but my day-to-day tasks were quite similar. Today, I hardly do any programming anymore, but still take care of IT, via the system and network, except that it is now done on a greater scale. As far as project management is concerned, I have taken on a managerial position. My role is that of liaison between our various technical teams, which are specialized in many areas, such as the computing platform, embedded systems, interfaces, mobile web applications and internal tools. My job is to liaise with them, as well as the other Qarnot teams working in sales, marketing and communications. I am the contact, who oversees the work distribution between these different groups.
The boiler developed by Qarnot
Were you already interested in green computing, i.e. the ecological and sustainable approach to IT, before joining Qarnot?
Definitely, although six years ago, this subject was not widely spoken about. After graduating from EPITA, it was important for me to get a job that would have a positive impact on the world. At Qarnot, we don’t say that data centers should not be built, but rather that a certain type of computing does not need to be performed in a data center maintained at 17°, and that other alternatives exist. We feel that we can do better. This is all the more important as the demand for computing power will continue to increase and the number of data centers will continue to grow.
What do you like about your job?
Many things! First of all, seeing the company grow. To think that we have gone from 5 to 50 people since I joined the company is quite exceptional. Then, there is the business activity itself. Given all the areas where we strive to make progress, I definitely have my work cut out for me! Finally, as CTO, I really enjoy the fact that no two days are alike. I sometimes work on several very different projects in one day. I’ve always enjoyed juggling numerous projects and in fact, that perfectly defines my job position. It’s as interesting as it is motivating.
What advice would you give future engineers, from EPITA or elsewhere?
Don’t be afraid to take the plunge or leave your comfort zone. As we are in a business sector that is constantly evolving, you should not be afraid to question or renew your way of working. In this business, you have to be vigilant and stay up to date on new technologies and new subjects. That’s what makes this field so exciting every single day!