Thirty Minutes with Steven Poitras

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This week I am beginning a series of articles entitled “Thirty Minutes With…” because I wanted to expose you to the raw talent and genius not only here at Nutanix, but also in the Silicon Valley region. For those of you who have never worked for a Silicon Valley company before, you really should try it. The people are amazing. The culture is a breath of fresh air and the sheer genius of the people out here continue to boggle my mind. In this series you will hear from Dheeraj PandeySudheesh NairSteven Poitras and Suda Srinivasan. As I expand this I’ll have some other surprise guests and will announce those as soon as they are confirmed. This week’s installment will feature Steven Poitras, Principal Solutions Architect and creator of the Nutanix Bible.

DM: I come from the culture of companies outside of the Silicon Valley area. When I watch your YouTube videos and read the Nutanix Bible, I am blow away. This isn’t something that would have necessarily come from what I’ll call “legacy” companies (as to avoid being specific with names and ending up on the wrong side of a lawsuit). The level of transparency about what takes places under the covers is not something I am used at a corporate level. Sure, there are blogs out there that people write about stuff and share what product management and legal says they can share, but apart from that there is normally a lot of “unknowns”  unless you are dealing with 100% Open Source software. How did the Nutanix Bible come about? Was this something that you came up with on your own?

SP: Actually, its beginning was kind of just random and ad-hoc. I would be doing product deep-dives, and a bunch of the guys were asking if there was a wiki where all of this information was located; where we have these details that we can go reference. At the time there was no real good authoritative source, so that, coupled with the fact that under the covers our product is complex in terms of how it works, it just made sense. Obviously we expose a very easy and simple to use front-end, but because it is a distributed system there is a lot of complexity and a lot of things that people need to understand and know about. So as a result of that I started this series called “Advanced Nutanix” which were just detailed blog posts about how to use Nutanix and how it works and things of that nature. I started seeing a lot of uptake in those and so I decided that it made sense, rather than just putting this information into a bunch of blog posts, why not just put them in once authoritative wiki-like site. So I talked to Dheeraj (Pandey) and asked him if he was cool with my writing this fairly detailed site, and he was like “go for it” and so that’s how it got started.

DM: It’s hugely popular. Have you ever thought about publishing it?

SP: I have, but when you consider the frequent changes and improvements in the product there will be many revisions that you’d need to be able to change, and as the product matures you need to be able to add on to it. Really, within a week or two the published copy could be outdated. However, in the near future we will have electronic versions for Kindle, iBooks and such. The nice thing about it being digital is that where there is update, they automatically get that update. It will be about here free to the public. It’s all about sharing the knowledge of what we do.

DM: One of my customers who regularly references the Nutanix Bible asked me the other day “why isn’t this on the Nutanix website?” I mean, it makes perfect sense if, like I mentioned in the beginning, you look at it from the perspective of a legacy company where the corporate entity own all and decides what will and what will not be published. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like that type of move would almost be going against the Silicon Valley culture that seems to, at the surface, embrace the individuality of the members of the team. Not their individual agendas, but who they are as people with their creativity and the quirks. I don’t see any pressure from anyone in Management to “conform” to a corporate standard or personality type which is, from my point of view, very common on the East Coast. Am I right in saying that individuality is embraced by the corporations here in the Valley?

SP: I absolutely think so, and you can see it in a lot of areas like the various blogs, the Nutanix Bible, Yammer conversations and groups…all things that area “extra curricular” that we just sort of do on our own. But you also see it internally from what we do from a product feature set and engineering standpoint as well. Take Splunk as an example. Back in the day when I heard about it I decided to start working on it for fun and eventually developed a reference architecture for it. Now we have some fairly large deals around it. Acropolis was something like that. A few of the engineering guys were like ‘we can build a vCenter-like interface for KVM’ so they just went and did it. That was a direct result of their individuality and creativity. But it also was a direct reflection of the flexibility and freedom that is encouraged here at Nutanix, and in the Valley as a whole. For example, I never book any meetings on Fridays. Instead my Fridays are dedicated to doing something new and different, so for me that is Docker, Containers and all of that stuff. So individuality and freedom are important, and it was what helps keep Silicon Valley very innovative and also ahead of the curve because the are not conforming to something or just doing and going through the motions, you know. You get people that are passionate about something that have the flexibility and freedom to pursue those passions. If that actually turns into something good for the business, that’s a win-win for everyone. It keeps people happy because they are doing something they are passionate about. They are experimenting, and experimentation is what leads to new breakthroughs.

DM: I know for a lot of engineers in tech there is something that went before them that inspires them…someone they look up to. For me those people would be Linus TorvaldsScott McNealyIan Murdock and Steve Jobs. Who is on your list, or if there are none, what makes Steven Poitras tick?

SP: For me it isn’t any one person, but rather it is technology itself that it is continually changing. That, and the fact that I am always on the quest for knowledge. I think those play hand in hand very nicely. As far as people I guess I would have to say, the CIO of MD AndersonDr. Lynn Vogel.  He was was applying some of these new and innovative technologies like Big Data for cancer research, and using tablets and EMR (Electronic Medical Records) before it was all mainstream. For me, Healthcare was always a big passion, and technology for healthcare is important because there is a lot of innovation that is needed there. He was doing it, so he was definitely the one person I was talking to a lot through college.

DM: When I think about my time over the past twenty plus years in this business I always noticed that at the legacy companies I worked for we were always bombarded by the things that the smaller companies were doing. We were constantly looking over our shoulders and then coming up with a fancy way to respond to the industry that put a positive spin on just about everything. It was, at times, very distracting, or at least I thought it was because you had to spend time and resources responding to every little announcement from, well…everyone. But I contrast that to what I experienced around here a couple of weeks ago when one of our competitors announced they had an all-flash system. The attitude I felt here was like ‘that’s nice. We’ve had one for a while. Moving on…’ It seems like the distraction of competition just does not get in the way out there.

SP: I think that is true to a point. You know, when you are talking about legacy companies and the way they operate, they tend to be more reactive than proactive most cases. They see what is going on in the industry, and they say ‘does this actually play into our strategy? Is this going to be big and do we need to start to formulate an effort here’. They are looking at what has the potential to be successful, and that is where they focus their investments on.  But by doing so they normally lack any real innovation or create anything revolutionary. For Nutanix, I sort of feel like we are paving the way for certain things, the bringing of hyper-converged to mainstream, the leveraging of commodity resources creating this massive distributed platform that scales out linearly and it built to be purely autonomous.  That’s what we do and we’re paving the path for a lot of companies to do something very similar. But for me I always like to focus forward than be constantly looking backward, because when you are constantly looking behind you, you are diverting resources from your main goal, which is to continue to move forward. Announcements from new start-ups might be interesting because perhaps they are coming up with something we have not thought of, but larger companies coming out with a new product that does something that we have already done is really not that interesting because we’re not focused on what others are doing. We are focused on what we’re doing and where we’re going.

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