When I first arrived at Nutanix a few months ago, I was amazed at the energy of the people and the excitement they had for not only the product, but the company as a whole,and where it is heading. I was really pleased to be able to sit down with the Senior Vice President of World Wide Sales and Business Development, Sudheesh Nair. His enthusiasm is infectious. His management style is priceless and his vision of what can be is limitless.
DM: I recently came from Citrix Synergy where we had three solid days of people swarming our booth, and I don’t say that just to puff it up. It was amazing. I can’t recall a time when I saw that much excitement around an IT infrastructure solution. What the heck happened to cause this sudden buzz and excitement in the industry?
SN: I don’t think it’s sudden. I have always thought that in order for a company to succeed you need to have the obvious things. Good people, good technology, good investors, good market. But more important than all of that is good luck and good timing. As entrepreneurs it is very difficult for us to admit that luck and timing actually plays a part. When several of us were at Zambeel, one of the things we learned was about timing. This industry takes left turns all the time. You can build companies two different ways. You can build by saying “We’ve connected all the dots, and we can put another dot here, connect them, and you can build a “safe” company. That is incremental innovation. But the thing about incremental innovation is that you make small changes to a product and offer it cheaper. Customers are comfortable taking that one small step to that connected dot. That is what SAN has done for years and the companies that have continued down that path. Everything stays the time except you are replacing traditional drives with flash.
What we are doing is taking a disruptive approach. We said “all of the dots are here. We want to make a big bet up here.” The beauty of that is IF the industry does come up to where you made that bet, the timing is right and you are taking off. VMware did that. NetApp did that. SUN Microsystems…they all did that. But the biggest risk is that we might be waiting here while we are building something and the industry make take one of those left turns I mentioned earlier, leaving you all by yourself. Think about companies like CoRaid. Phenomenal technology, and it was fast and inexpensive, but iSCSI came out of nowhere and the next thing you know it’s become a legacy. So timing is definitely important. Look at the iPod and the iPhone for instance, and think about the data center. There used to be two types of admins. Linux admins and Windows admins. Linux admins used to have long hair, they would wear shorts to work and they would not think twice about telling someone what they thought. They got paid more…they were the king of the hill. The Windows admins were the guys that took Desktop support, constantly dealing with end users who were panicking and yelling at them. Left-click, right-click, drag this here and drop it there. Maybe configure Active Directory…stuff like that. Today if you look at it, walking around saying I’m a script junkie or I’m a Unix or Linux admin means nothing any more. Usability means that anyone can do it without being a specialist. Telling someone “I was in the data center for the last ten hours building a LUN” means nothing to the business other than wasted time. iPhones made it acceptable to click, drag and drop as opposed to having to write script to do the same task. That’s timing.
Look at Amazon. Just a few yeas ago they were selling books, and now they are the single biggest threat to the industry. That change was conceptual. Again, that is not in our control, but in our architecture, the left brain and the right brain…the left brain was about simplifying IT so that the Amazon-type conception model can be imagined in the data center. Right brain…when you think about what Apple did with the iPhone and Google did with Android, was to simplify the “what” as opposed to the “how”. That is what we are doing for the data center. Obviously, execution matters. We didn’t try to do a lot. We focused on a few things and we did them really well. For example, the first thing that the system should do when it comes to storage is make sure that the data is reliable. That is something we do very well. Reliable and high-performance. On top of that we simplify management and add features. We have been a company that has approached the market cautiously with a lot of respect and we stayed very close to customers. So if you put those three things together…our execution, good luck and timing, I can see why the buzz is happening, but then again, I think we can only take credit for one of those three things.
DM: One of the statements you made in our new hire class that really got my attention, was the hyperconvergence was never the destination, it is really a pit stop. Was that always the case when the company was started, or was hyperconvergence the destination and as you got closer you said “wait a minute…this is just the beginning”?
SN: One thing we knew is that the cycle of creative disruption is shrinking. It used to be ten years. Now it’s more like two years. When you know that the cycle is shrinking and that the left and right turns are happening faster, you can’t see far into the future. It would be stupid of us to say “we know where this is going”. That is what large companies do. They need ten-year visibility. They like marathons. They like to run at a measured and planned pace. The like to plan and review, and they do that very well. Look at Data Domain. Phenomenal company, but then years later it’s an EMC company. Look at Isilon. Good technology, good company and ten years later it’s an EMC company. Small companies cannot do marathons. They can only do sprints. What has changed is that what used to be ten years is now two years. It’s no longer a marathon but rather a series of sprints. It’s kind of like when you fire an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. It’s never point A to point B. There are course corrections along the way. It’s guided by the GPS who is constantly correcting the course until you finally hone in on the target and hit it. That is how you build a company. Two years is not a long time, so when you have a company that says it took them forty-eight months to build something and make it solid, that is a problem. I believe that Sales Engineers and Product Management need to be very close to the customer and that there should be a contact loop of feedback. You make some basic assumptions and deliver a product that is good enough, and then get the feedback to constantly improve it. In that context, Hyperconvergence for us was what the iPod was to music. Apple created the iPod Touch. It looked a lot like today’s iPhone. It started competing against Sony and the other portable music players. Microsoft saw that and decided to create the Zune as a music player so they didn’t get left behind. But when you look at the iPod and only saw a music player you were missing the potential, especially when you consider the apps and then the phone. We need that phenomenal app. For iPod it was the music. For Nutanix it was storage. But saying that the iPod and the iPhone are just music players would be stupid. Saying Nutanix is just about Hyperconvergence would be equally stupid. Storage was our first approach. It was a boat anchor, so we chopped that and made it simple and reliable. Now, servers are more mobile and agile. Now we can imagine what other values we can bring to the market. Apple built iCloud, Apple Pay, the App Store, etc to allow us to do on one device what it used to take many to accomplish. What the iPod and eventually the iPhone did for our digital life, we are going to do that for the data center. We need to imagine the next four or five years. We should be able to see the Nutanix platform doing for the data center what the iPhone did for our digital life.
DM: Shifting gears for a moment I want to talk about the culture here at Nutanix because I have to tell you that when you and Dheeraj agreed to sit down with me (and I have seen how full your calendar is) I was blown away. I come from a culture where I would have never dreamed of Executive Management giving me the time of day, yet you and Dheeraj have shown yourselves to be very approachable. When I asked Dheeraj for an interview I called him Mr. Pandey. His response was “please call me Dheeraj. I’m an employee just like you”. Is that a leadership style that you guys learned over the years from others, or was that something you said on day one that you would manage that way, because I will tell you it is not the norm…at least not when you look at the way the legacy companies are run. It really seems to work well because your employees not only respect you, but they genuinely like you. Can you tell me about that?
SN: I think the Bay area is just different in that way. I think a lot of start-ups out here are like that. I heard stories that at Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page were also very approachable. There will be some exceptions, you know, like Larry Ellison…he’s probably not as approachable. But this is a new age. Remember I talked about that compressed cycle of innovation. Four years ago, Uber did not exist. Today, New York City has more Uber drives than there are taxi cabs. It took six months for that to happen. Just think about the compressed pace in which things are happening now. Let’s think about the CRT Television…you know, the kind with the huge bump in the back. If one of your kids saw that today they’d be like “um, dad…what is this? All they know is the flat screen TV. The pace at which things are changing is amazing, so if you want to build something, you have to build a flat company because you need to have good communications and feedback from the customers. That feedback has to flow freely. You can’t put a lot of barriers in there. I mean, it’s not like Larry Ellison doesn’t want to talk to customers. It is that time management can become a real problem, especially at that scale. You cannot build a large company unless you are close to the customer. When you are a smaller company you can’t afford to build in all of the layers that a larger company has. Larger companies have this layered approach where employees, customers, analysts and Wall Street all fall at different levels. They kind of have to work that way. Again…time management. But when you look at Dheeraj and I, we are doing this for the first time. It’s not like we have been doing this for many years and have become callous about it. We really do consider that we are all in this together, pulling in the same direction. Yes, there will be different outcomes if this company goes big, but ultimately though, money is not the primary motivator, because if it was, would could have already sold this company. We feel like there is an opportunity to really change the way data centers are built, and when we met with someone at Cisco they were telling us that Cisco created ten thousand millionaires. So in the process you are able to build the financial lives of a lot of people, that is fantastic. But the fact that Cisco started with nothing and because a symbolic company for all of the technology industry, that is something money cannot buy. We have an opportunity, and we need to stay humble. We need to stay close to our customers and close to the ground and execute. People have a lot of options now. People can go and work anywhere. Smart people don’t go and work just for money. They get up from the bed in the morning and say, I’m excited to go to work because of the people, what they do, the competition, the thrill of winning, and if you lose that, smart people will leave. If they leave, everything is actually gone. So while this is in our nature as people, it is the only way you can build a company of lasting value. You need to keep good people together.
DM: So, I want to keep going on the culture here in the Silicon Valley area because I have noticed something else, again, coming from a larger, “legacy” company that has a specific way that people are to be. They will dress a certain way. They will write their blogs a certain way. They will not have a beard or mustache if they are in sales, and they will conform to what the personality of the company is. Silicon Valley appears to, at least in my opinion, like a diverse workforce.They appear to feed off of people’s individuality. Take for example the book “The Nudist on the Late Shift”…a very funny and telling book about the diverse group of people who make Silicon Valley work.
SN: Sure…but there needs to be a balanced approach, because individualism cannot mean individual agendas. The sum of the individual parts should better than the goal of an individual, and that only happens when you let individuals thrive. Let’s go back to the marathon / sprint discussion for a moment. When you are running marathons, everything is already “chalked up”. We know what we are going to do at what stage of the race. When you do it that way you align everyone and tell them “you will do it exactly this way, in this time and this will be the outcome.” But if you are running multiple sprints you have to promote individualism because we don’t know where an attack is going to come from. If we align everyone and tell them to face east, and the attack comes from the west, you’re screwed. The beauty of controlled chaos is that everyone is looking in all different directions. Google has this famous policy called twenty percent. That means eighty percent of the workday is spent on Google-specific tasks, and the other twenty percent…every Google employee is allowed to do whatever they want and this is enforced from the top down. Management must give people twenty percent time to work on the projects they want, and a lot of really good products come out of that. Someone might say “I want to work on music search” and so you are able to come up with something like you have now where you can listen to a song, and Google will tell you who the performer is if you ask it. Those kind of things are essential to innovation and companies moving forward. If you go to New York’s “Silicon Alley” you might find the attitude to be more like that you are used to…a bit more strict, but that is the culture of business there. And when you look at failure in a more strict culture like New York, it isn’t received as well. In Silicon Valley, failure is looked at as a point of pride, and it is quite liberating. You tried something and you failed. That means you are a hero. If you go to Asia or part of the east coast, failure is not tolerated. And the problem with that is when you take the option for failure out the appetite for risk goes WAY down. When the appetite for risk goes down you are forced to work in the constraints of what is safe. When you do that you don’t invent and create new things. And the beauty here…companies like Zambeel and others that failed…we talk about it, and its a good thing, and it is something about the Bay area culture that I really like. It’s like teaching a kid to walk, or learning to ride a bike. You start, you fall, and you get up and do it again. It’s a very good thing and you learn a lot in the process.