I recently had the opportunity to sit down my boss, Ajay Aggarwal, Nutanix Vice President for Systems Engineering, Americas, to talk about a very broad range of topics. A veteran of the start-up world, Ajay has “been there and done that” and what started off as a discussion about start-ups quickly went on to other topics such as the perfect Systems Engineer and what it is like to manage a team that spans two continents, four languages and any number of cultures. It was a fascinating conversation, and if only one thing shows as true, Ajay has a passion not only for technology and the business, but the people who work for him.
DM: You have done this before…working a start-up. Palo Alto Networks was an amazing success and is still held up today as a shining star of what is possible when start-ups go public. With all signs pointing to an eventual IPO at some point by Nutanix, can you share with me any similarities between Palo Alto and Nutanix in terms of the buzz inside of the company? What things feel the same?
AA: From my perspective there are a few similarities but a few stand out. First are the similarities amongst our customers…there is a real level of excitement in the change and what it is doing for their careers. They are really excited about working with us and even evangelizing our technology along side us. The other similarity is that people inside the company are very excited about the technology and where we are going as a company overall. They really feel like we are truly better than every other solution out there. The other thing that is very similar between us and Palo Alto Networks is the growth. The biggest similarity in terms of the growth scenario is the “Snowball Effect”. You get a few customers with excitement and a few people that are successful and that itself breeds more success. The excitement continues to build and it doesn’t stop. It keeps rolling along getting bigger and bigger. It picks up speed and there becomes less resistance to growing, and it just becomes really fun.
DM: You were recently promoted to Vice President for Americas SE’s. Congratulations on that promotion. The Americas is a very diverse area when you consider the makeup of the people and cultures from Northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego in South America. I know from my own background when I covered the Americas that doing business in Buenos Aires is very different than doing business in Vancouver or Newfoundland. What unique challenges do you have, if any, in managing SE teams across such a board range of cultures?
AA: I think the first thing is that I am really fortunate that we have really good managers in place that manage most of the day to day. We have about twenty regions that I manage and they are full of really talented people, our managers know the local culture and the Nutanix culture. They know how to get things done. They will come to me for direction and we work together as a team to make sure everyone is successful. That makes my job easier and less challenging. The way that I view all of our regions is that they are like children. You care for them and love them, but they all have different needs. Some of them may need more help and attention and some may need less help and attention. I focus on the areas where I feel they need the most help. I know Sudheesh (Nair) believes the same and has mentored me to navigate all of the different needs. We learn from the regions and teams that are very successful and try to use those best practices and help the regions that are being less successful. It isn’t a matter of cultural differences really, it’s a matter of understanding the differences that they have and understanding what requirements they have. It’s looking at the socio-economic situation and then correlating all of that information to provide as much help as possible. Whether it is a specific resource, or my time with the team…working with the other regions…whatever it is. It has definitely been a learning experience for me.
DM: Describe your perfect System Engineer. Does that description change with the culture or does this description remain a constant across the board?
AA: For me, early on in my career I used to equate being a successful Systems Engineer as having a very high level of technical acumen. When you are early in your career as an SE it is very easy to think that you have all you need when you have all of the various technical certifications and knowledge. Yes, customers like to get answers to questions and they like to find solutions to their problems, but at the end of the day they are looking for people to partner with that are going to really listen to them, understand their situation and then come up with plans to help solve their problems. I want systems engineers that that listen and have empathy. That’s a key word in this company…you’ve heard Dheeraj mention it more than once. I think that being empathetic with our customers is the most important. Our SE’s need to truly listen and understand what our customer’s needs are. At some point in the career as an SE we’re all guilty of walking into a meeting, and for fifty-five minutes of an hour you spew a bunch of information from PowerPoint slides just assuming we knew what the customer was interested in, but over time you learn to ask questions so you can learn and understand, and really help them rather than just pushing an agenda. We also need to have humility, and I want our SE’s to be humble because it goes in lock-step with having empathy. If we think we are too good or too important we run the risk of skipping steps and taking shortcuts, and not really listening, but assuming we know what is best. So humility is very important. Obviously work ethic is incredibly important. The people I like to hire have a long history of wanting to actively contribute. And finally, people that are quick on their feet. They are natural problem solvers with positive can-do type of attitudes. Those are the things that make for great SE’s. They understand there is a problem, then they set out to find a solution to solve it.
DM: As the Vice President of Americas SE’s what keeps you up at night? Did whatever that is change when you became a Vice President of do the concerns of management remain largely the same?
AA: Actually, I get that question a lot. But really, nothing has changed in terms of my concerns and my day-to-day life. I mean, I have more help which is great, but overall, my concerns have not changed. I think we need to continue hiring the people that are great culture fits. Although it is cliché in this business, we really do have a unique culture here that is very collaborative and very approachable with a bunch of people that have can-do attitudes. We’ve built that here and it’s about maintaining that as you continue to grow the team rapidly. When you think of all the people you have interviewed for this blog that is probably a similar attitude across the board (and it is). At this point we have a very good technology roadmap, and you can hire the right kind of Engineers and the people to manage them and have them deliver a product. But to find the right people that are willing to go and take us to the next two, three or four levels is very very hard to find. The second concern is that a lot of our SE’s have felt in-touch and connected through the different Social Media tools that we use and the various meetings that we have. But as I go around you can kind of feel some of the SE’s are starting to feel disconnected from an enablement and collaboration perspective, so how do we maintain the feeling of being connected and in-touch as we double the size of the team? That’s a hard problem, but we need to work on that, and we’ll get it done. We’ll get our teams together regionally and we’ll continue to leverage the tools that we have so that you can be remote and still be connected to the team.
DM: What is the one thing you like best about your job, and what is the one thing you like least about your job?
AA: There is a lot that I absolutely love about my job. It’s been a great experience. I love hearing the stories, especially when I interview people and meet people for the first time. I love to hear how they got here, where they grew up, their experiences in the industry and outside of the industry that they have gained to this point in their life and how those experiences have brought them here. Secondly, I love to see them become successful at Nutanix and see their excitement be the same at six, twelve and even eighteen months as it was the first month after they joined the company. Not to say that they don’t have challenges because we have people that have experienced personal and professional challenges along the way. But they are all very committed to the company and they are excited to be here. Its great seeing how the team celebrates and congratulate each other when we win. So it’s all of these things. Again, it is that snowball effect that I mentioned earlier that gets the whole team excited. And then when we start to promote people, and you start to see them progress in their careers, those are all things that make this job very rewarding for me. For what I don’t like, well, that is personal in nature. My family makes a great sacrifice for me to do this, and it is hard sometimes when you see them suffer because I can’t be at one of their evening events or something like that because of the job. That stinks. But that is not unlike other members of the team. We have a lot of people working hard. Lots of long hours and airplane rides, so I’m not the only one dealing with that.
DM: Thinking back over your career, was there a point in time, or a defining moment in your career that defined who you are today in terms of your management style? I ask this because I have interviewed some great people who had examples of managers they worked for who were either really really good, or insanely bad. I am not asking you to name names or companies, but rather a situation, and the lesson you took from it that impacts you to this day.
AA: Yes, actually there was. I think my empathetic side and how I try to relate to people is definitely from my upbringing. I think how we grow up definitely influences who we are as people, as employees, as managers…all of it. So that is definitely a big part of me. I think if there was that one person early in my career it was my first project manager at Accenture, which was known at that time as Andersen Consulting. It was my first job out of college, and when you are coming out of college those “Big Five” consulting firms do a really good job of teaching you how to be a professional. The “dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s” …they are very good at it. They understand how to go execute on things and my manager there was incredible. He actually helped get me started down the road of being a Systems Engineer. I had been there two years and he said to me “I think you’d be a great fit for the Systems Engineering role”. He taught me leading by example, by being there for your team and mentoring people. Coaching and being involved but not to the point of micromanaging. He was humble…very very humble and empathetic, but at the end of the day business is business, and we have to go deliver on something. He taught me all of those things at a very young age. I was twenty-two coming out of college and I had to learn very quickly how to become a professional. He definitely taught me, and we remain friends to this very day. He’s a great guy and what is even better is that at this stage in my career we can reciprocate to each other for various things. He won’t come work for me, but that is a separate discussion (said with a smile). It’s a relationship I cherish today and it definitely helped me form my management style.