Matt Kraning ’04 says he’s been “cheering from the sidelines” for a while, but he’s now ready to “get on the field” and give back to Commonwealth School in a major way.
A winding road from Commonwealth to Stanford to Afghanistan and back to Silicon Valley has led Matt to a successful career in cybersecurity. Now, he’s focused on paying that success forward and honoring retiring Headmaster Bill Wharton’s work at the school by endowing the Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers. This faculty scholarship fund will ensure Commonwealth can invest in its teachers and their academic passions for generations to come.
During a recent virtual assembly at the school, Matt reflected on his time at Commonwealth. The school, he says, taught him to “deeply engage with the world” and to “challenge what the world was telling him.” He implored students to frequently step out of their comfort zone, have a “reality-based view of reality” (that is, to not just rely on abstractions and theories), and to fundamentally believe that the world is understandable and changeable.
We recently sat down with Matt to learn more about his life since Commonwealth, what he loves most about the school, and why it’s so important to give back—and to do so in sustained ways.
Tell us more about your life since graduating from Commonwealth. What have you been up to?
After Commonwealth, I went to Stanford for undergrad and majored in physics, and I liked it so much that I decided to stick around for a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, which was really more like applied math and machine learning.
About halfway through my Ph.D., I got this call from a friend of a friend, who had crashed on my couch one night when we were both in grad school. They said, “Hey, there's something I want you to see; it's at DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. I can't tell you that much about it over the phone, but would you be interested in learning more?”
And yes, I was, though I was a bit skeptical on a few dimensions. But enough people said, “Hey, you know, this is probably pretty legit.” So I interviewed there during spring break, and it was impactful. It was both interesting technical work, as well as very mission-oriented work, because it was, at a high level, asking how you can use data to make the situation in Afghanistan better.
A lot of people were very supportive, including my Ph.D. advisor. Initially it was supposed to be just a summer working for the defense department, but we had some really high-impact results. So then I temporarily stopped out of Stanford; nine months later I was a lead data scientist for DARPA in Afghanistan. I met my co-founders out there.
Three of us from DARPA got together to start Expanse [an enterprise cybersecurity company originally named Qadium, Inc.; Learn more about it in the fall 2017 CM issue]. Over the next eight years, we grew it from something that was initially three people all the way up to about 200 while doing some interesting new things in cybersecurity. It was a very interesting transition from more traditional science academia to defense research and defense operations, to then founding a Silicon Valley company and now all the way to an $800 million acquisition.
How did Commonwealth influence your academic and professional journey?
Commonwealth really prepared me well for a science and technology career—mainly Mr. Riahi, who was my advisor, for physics and a number of teachers who are still there, including Mr. Sherry for math and Ms. Jackman for chemistry. But some of the best lessons I got at Commonwealth were in my English and history classes, where I learned how to think about and communicate problems. That comes from the way Commonwealth teaches you to deeply analyze literary meaning—how to think critically, how to read deeply, and how to respond In unambiguous, effective ways. Some of the work in Ms. Brewster's English class was some of the most important work I did that informs what I do now in business.
When most people think of technology startups, they think you're just doing computer code all the time. You might be doing that for the first small number of years, but you really need to know how to motivate and effectively communicate with people. The Expanse website makes no sense unless you're a Chief Information Security Officer. But for what we actually do, it was really important to know how to communicate well, how to communicate clearly, and how to really read and understand meaning. I like to say the language I code in the most is Gmail.
You also support Commonwealth by serving on the Board of Trustees. What inspires you to remain involved with the school in this way?
Commonwealth was one of the most, if not the most, impactful institutions in my own development and in my own career, and I want to give my time as well as my money to something that has given me so much.
Bill Wharton’s first year as Headmaster, 2000, was also your first year as a student. What did you see and learn from Bill over the years?
I always remember Bill as a strong presence. I've been extremely impressed by his leadership over the last two decades.
I think it's always interesting when you're going into a new environment, and the environment itself is changing at the same time. As a freshman coming from public school in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Commonwealth itself was a big adjustment, and I couldn’t appreciate at the time Bill's stamp on the school, because he was also just starting. But I do remember lots of new initiatives and taking his Language and Ethics, and Reading and Ethics classes in his office, which I thought were very, very powerful.
As an alumnus, I have since realized all the things that happen behind the scenes that the Headmaster is responsible for. When you're a student, you can’t see it, both because your thoughts are elsewhere and because you don’t understand what it takes to really build, lead, grow, and nurture a high-performing, fantastic organization. As I've grown in my career, I have a deeper appreciation now for the care and attention Bill has put into Commonwealth and the effort it takes to make things happen. He’s leaving the school in a fantastic place.
Why is supporting Commonwealth a philanthropic priority for you right now?
I think Commonwealth is a gem that should be known on a national stage. I believe in the mission of the school, and I want it to outlive all of us, because I think it sets an amazing example for how you can have an outstanding education and shape some of the best minds of tomorrow. It's also been great to see the school not only weather COVID well but come out stronger, I think. I'm really excited by all of this, and that’s why I support the school.
Commonwealth is a treasure, and treasures need to be protected.
The gift specifically endows the Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers. Why was that important to you?
More than anything, I think what sets Commonwealth apart is the people. The faculty in particular are extraordinarily talented. I think that’s because there is a huge amount of innate curiosity in all of them for their field and craft. This fund allows these amazing people to pursue what they are passionate about and then bring that back into the classroom. It is extraordinarily powerful, both on an individual level for all the teachers involved, and, quite frankly, on a school-wide level, when we're trying to recruit absolutely top talent and retain them for long periods of time. This fund is supporting them and their dreams throughout what is hopefully a very long and successful career at Commonwealth.
Why did you choose to make this a matching challenge? And why is an endowed gift important to you and this community?
General fundraising is obviously important, but I also think it’s important for institutions like Commonwealth to have traditions and to have those traditions be fully funded so they can continue unencumbered without having broader budget impact.
I saw, even as a student, all of the incredible sabbatical activities this fund supports. It allows very curious, creative, and passionate teachers to have unique experiences that they deserve, and it shows that the school, the Board, and everyone who donates stand behind them. I want to make sure the school never has to choose between funding faculty scholarship and something else.
In my view, everyone in the Commonwealth community has a responsibility to invest back in the school in some way, because we've all benefited greatly. And those of us, like myself, who have benefited massively, actually have an even greater obligation to pass those benefits on to the next generation, and the generation after that, and the one after that.
We're gonna put our money where our mouth is.