10 Questions: Gus Hunt, advisor, Artis Ventures

March 20, 2014, 3:57 PM UTC
Hunt speaking at a technology conference in San Francisco in 2013.

FORTUNE — Gus Hunt — who, as of February, has taken on an advisory role at the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Artis Ventures — recently retired from his position as the chief technology officer of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

In the 28 years that he spent at the CIA, Hunt made it his mission to bring the government up to speed on technological innovations that were sweeping across Silicon Valley. He noticed that the cycle from idea to implementation for the government took too long — so to help his organization stay relevant, Hunt would make connections with venture capitalists who could give him early insight on up-and-coming technologies. It was during this time that he saw the potential for big data analysis and cloud storage in the CIA, so he went to work on building a highly secure government cloud that helped employees transfer information quicker.

Before he joined the CIA, Hunt was an aerospace engineer for Rockwell International where he built space shuttles. He holds a master’s degree in civil engineering from Vanderbilt University. Hunt, 58, spoke with Fortune about what he sees for the future of technology, what he’s learned throughout his career, and what he does in his free time.

1. Who in technology do you admire most? Why?

Jeff Bezos of Amazon. I love his intense focus on always trying to innovate and his commitment to forward-thinking investment. He’s completely reinvented the retail space, and a lot people wondered if that was even possible. They’re so effective leveraging scale. At its core, Amazon’s DNA is all about how to be successful in markets where you sell lots of goods at really thin margins.

If you look at the invention of AWS [Amazon Web Services] that came out of that, that’s a perfect play for them into the cloud world. How do you sell a lot of computing capacity at really thin margins and still be successful and make money on it? They knew exactly how to do it, based on their retail experience.

Another thing that I really respect him for is the courage to push back on Wall Street and others when they’ve tried to force a push for profits instead of reinvesting to build in the future. And with the acquisition of the Washington Post, he will also be an important part of reinventing the media space.

2. Which companies do you admire? Why?

23andMe. I respect her [Anne Wojcicki’s] drive to allow people to have access to and understand their genetic make-up. I was very disappointed with the FDA ruling regarding my right to access my personal genetic profile. I just couldn’t understand that. I’m a firm believer that use of the genome is a good thing, and that the decision to know about it and have access to it should be up to the individual. I thought they had done an enormous amount of good to try to get that moving forward.

It also goes without saying but I think Google is a terrific company. I have so much information at my fingertips. When I was in college, everything was locked away in a library, and books delivered from Amazon didn’t exist. To make information egalitarian and find new mechanisms of engagement, I think they deserve a lot of credit.

3. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?

Read, study, and be a continuous learner. If you’re not, I think this world is going to pass you by in a big way. You have to constantly pay attention to what’s going on. You have to foster a desire to be curious and to learn. You have to take and do hard jobs that are outside of your comfort zone. That’s how growth occurs. Have the courage to step into something that you may not know how to do really well. It allows you the opportunity to invent that space as opposed to inheriting a space.

4. What is the best advice you ever received?

The hardest jobs are the most satisfying jobs. I got that from my dad. Both my parents have been hard workers their whole lives.

5. What’s the next big project you want to tackle?

I like bringing ideas to fruition. I’m enjoying the role of consulting for Artis Ventures, and looking forward to it eventually evolving into an opportunity to help create something. That’s where the real satisfaction is, the ability to do something new. It’s been the focus of my whole career, to do something new and drive to the future.

6. If you could have done anything differently in your career, what would it have been?

First and foremost, I wish I had a better understanding of entrepreneurship and innovation back in university. I grew up as a [Baby] Boomer, and the principal assumption of most Boomers was that you go to work in a corporate hierarchy. There wasn’t this talk about innovation and entrepreneurship. I wish I had understood that better because now it’s the single most exciting space that’s out there.

7. What was the most important thing you learned in school?

Thinking, analyzing, and adapting to solve problems. It was the best thing that I got out of my education at Vanderbilt across the board. Today, it scares me that standardized testing focuses on rote knowledge without testing for problem solving abilities in the real world. Starting about my junior year and all through grad school, most of my course work came in the form of take-home exams and weekend projects that were extraordinarily difficult and the answer couldn’t be looked up in a book. You actually had to sit down and work through a problem and apply what you learned.

8. What do you do for fun?

I like to go skiing, particularly in Tahoe, and I like to bike. I read a lot. I do photography and panoramic work. I like to travel a lot. I love going to new places, doing new things, and of course wine and food goes with the travel. I also play tennis for exercise.

9. What was the last book you read? What did you learn from it? Why did you choose it?

Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism by George Gilder. It’s a terrific read, and I will admit to not quite being through the whole book. I really love his thought on innovation and why supply side is the one that matters and how innovation is not currently captured in economic theories. It’s been the major factor in driving economic growth across the board. It’s a really interesting treatise.

10. What is one unique or quirky habit that you have?

The quirky habit that I’ll confess to is parallel reading, I start many books simultaneously. It’s a habit that used to drive my poor wife nuts because I would have stacks of books everywhere all through the house. With the Kindle, I don’t have quite as many stacks around the house. I still have them, but I can concentrate them to fewer areas.

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