A technologist’s advice to President Elect Donald Trump on…well…technology.

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A technologist’s advice to President Elect Donald Trump on…well…technology.

As a technology leader who relies on and believes wholeheartedly in diversity and inclusion it is hard not to want more insight into our election results – summed up brilliantly by my friend and Box CEO Aaron Levie. Many people are upset and trying to come to terms with the outcome. After much thought, I have come to believe the election results simply reflect individual priorities, needs and desires. 

If you’re a coal miner in Pennsylvania, your priority is to keep a decent paying job; it’s probably not going to be tackling climate change. If you’re a millennial in San Francisco working at a tech company with a 6-figure salary, then your priority might be something loftier like social change. Priorities are simply relative to where people are in their life and it always starts with getting the most basic needs met. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy? Pretty logical stuff. 

Many of us had a hard time with some of President-Elect Trump’s actions and comments during the campaign. Obviously, many others were willing to overlook the “rough edges” and elect him. As I thought more about it - it is not that surprising.  For a person who has lost their high-paying job in auto manufacturing or coal mining, the most important thing is electing a President that claims they can bring these jobs back. To them, that is what it would take to “make America great again.” I am sure many blame bad trade deals and illegal immigrants for their loss of prosperity. It makes perfect sense to ignore a few imperfections in the person that promises to make things great again.

The bad news is that this ship has sailed and we are never going back to the “good ole days.” No amount of deportations or protectionism can turn back the clock. In fact, attempting to isolate the U.S. from the rest of the world will almost surely do more harm than good. But there is a silver lining - technology advancements have had a major positive impact and will continue to create even more jobs.  So Mr. Trump – if you really want to make America great again, technology must remain a driving force. We need a plan for more – but different - growth.  We must evolve to grow. And our definition of “greatness” must evolve as well.

That said, those of us who espouse the merits of technology and innovation must be sensitive to how modernization and globalization can negatively impact individuals and existing societies. For example, within the next 10 years, autonomous trucks are likely to become an integral part of our delivery infrastructure. Their creators envision higher degrees of safety, better economics for trucking companies and lower costs for consumers. However, I bet the truck drivers don’t feel the same optimism about the shift. If there is one thing the election has highlighted is that lots of U.S. citizens feel disenfranchised.

So President-elect Trump. Forget about forcing Apple to produce iPhones here. I mean, you yourself don’t produce one thing in the U.S. You will never be able to force companies to comply. But there are lots of things you can do to make America “better than before!” 

1. Modernize the current U.S. student curriculum for the digital economy

As we develop automation to replace human labor, we need to think about how we can train and re-train people and build the skill sets we need for the future. Our education system is integral to our ability to maintain greatness.  As we have advanced from the industrial era to the technology era our workforce needs have dramatically changed. Suffice to say that our education system has not transformed to meet these needs. To spend cycles debating things like Common Core and the voucher system is akin to debating the position of the lounge chairs on the Titanic. 

Instead we must transform our current educational curriculum. My children had a mandatory choice beginning in 5th grade to learn either French, German or Spanish. But global commerce is done in English. Period. So let’s make computer languages, not romance languages, mandatory. And let’s start in Kindergarten. We must think about the workforce of the future and fulfilling those careers begins by preparing children in elementary school for the jobs that will be available by the time they finish college. And those jobs are going to be in the digital economy.

2. Invest in STEM education

“Over the past six years, 775,957 H-1B visas were issued to foreign workers” according to the State Department. And even so “employers still worry that there won’t be enough STEM graduates to fill IT and engineering jobs in the coming years” says Dawn Kawamoto, Dice Insights. “New data reveals that 86% of the total H-1B visas issued in 2014 for technology firms was used to hire IT professionals from India” (and another 5% from China) according to Computerworld. 

U.S. companies imported nearly 800,000 jobs from overseas because the U.S. population lacks scientists and engineers. Imagine the results if we’d retrained those who lost their legacy-economy jobs and moved 800,000 more U.S. citizens into these competitive, high paying jobs? 

We are obligated to our children to invest in their STEM education to make them more competitive and more prepared for the jobs of the future. We need to provide our students with the tools and resources to support the next generation of innovators. Without a quality STEM education for all children we will continue to fill the ranks of our labor force from overseas.  

3. Year Round School

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tackles the tough question “Are Asian and Indian children smarter than kids in the U.S.?” Without taking you through his entire analysis the answer is simply NO. Gladwell’s analysis reveals that Asian and Indian children are not smarter, they just spend more time in school… a lot more time.

According to an Atlantic article from 1990 children in Japan are in school 243 days a year (compared with 180 in America) and that gap has only widened. In Japan formal education is then supplemented by attendance at ‘juku”. Jukus are the private, for profit tutorial services ubiquitous in Japan. “By ninth grade more than 47 percent of Japanese students attend juku, averaging five hours a week in addition to regular school time.” In this Atlantic ranking of hours in school, United States comes in 25th.

If we want our kids to be competitive in the digital economy they must attend more school, plain and simple. Summer vacations were the result of agricultural demand when children were needed to harvest summer crops. I don’t know anyplace where kids are still tilling fields. To better serve our children and prepare them for the jobs of the future (where they will be competing with the aforementioned Asian and Indian students) they need more education. The time has come to end the 3-month summer vacation.

4. Free college – Build a Wall?

Bernie Sanders took the relatively extreme position of “free college for everyone” which I give the same viability as Mexico buying a big wall - it is just political hype - I get it.  That said, we do need to address both education costs as well as focus education funding where it will provide the most benefit.

College costs have risen faster than almost every other expense.  I believe this is due in large part to not effectively integrating technology into education. There are colleges and universities that still require students to purchase artificially expensive textbooks even after they have paid tuition for a class.  We need to drive a complete overhaul and modernization of our education system.

In terms of any government funding, it should be targeted for education for the jobs we need filled. Engineering, science, math, medicine, nursing, healthcare…and other degrees for which we need able bodies or for which we’re issuing H-1B visas. Yep, let’s help pay for those.  Russian Lit. Philosophy. Music. Sorry, you’re on your own. OK cue the haters…I know I will get a lot of grief for this one…the whole liberal arts, education for education sake, thing. If your child loves music that’s great, they should study it but tax dollars should not be spent to pay for it.

I am optimistic about our future but the only path we can take is forward.  Regardless of what many may want, many jobs are in the rear view mirror and are not coming back.  A better way and in fact the only way, to “make this country great again” is to leverage technology and innovation to improve our lives and our society. We need our new leader to move us forward to the digital economy of the future and provide the foundation to help make all Americans a part of this future.

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Rackspace: It’s not scale, it’s technology.

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Rackspace: It’s not scale, it’s technology.

Rackspace just went private in a pivot highlighting to everyone how difficult it is to compete with the likes of AWS and Azure. The interesting question is why couldn’t they compete? Most analysts would argue that Rackspace just didn’t have enough scale. I believe the primary reason is that they lacked the technology to compete.

Rackspace built their business model around leveraging open source, specifically OpenStack and related components, and attempted to deliver an experience similar to that of the public cloud giants like AWS. I believe they felt that if they could get the “community” to develop their product, they could leverage essentially free technology and compete more effectively. Unfortunately, the old adage “you get what you pay for” applies here, as OpenStack has yet to live up to the marketing hype around it. 

Meanwhile AWS keeps marching forward offering what are essentially proprietary solutions that are more cost effective, and easy to use. 

The lesson here is that, while open source software can serve as technology “bricks,” companies need to be prepared to add the “mortar” with differentiated technology or use vendors delivering differentiated solutions.

Scale is a factor, but you cannot compete with players like Amazon and Microsoft without investing in technology.

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Dropbox and AWS: Answering the question: Should I Rent, Build, or Buy?

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Dropbox and AWS: Answering the question: Should I Rent, Build, or Buy?

The recent story of Dropbox leaving AWS brought about a wide mix of reactions from my friends. Some thought it was only logical that Dropbox needed to get more control of its solution stack while others saw the change as a waste of time and money. What is the real right answer?

Most disruptive technologies seem to exist in hyperbolic bi-polar cycles of emotion.  Markets either want to believe that a new technology is irrelevant or a complete world domination.  Companies delivery new technology are either DOA or the next “Facebook.” The problem is this; most of the time even the most disruptive events aren’t binary. For example, mobile devices clearly have had an impact on the PC market but they didn’t eliminate it. Things have just settled into a new normal.

Let’s look at Public Cloud and AWS.  When I was at EMC back in 2006 and saw what AWS was delivering, I was concerned. If they could get people to adopt their approach to infrastructure-as-a service, they would be able to deliver a flexible product at a great price. This, to me, was a big deal. At the time, some folks understood the potential but most chose to believe is was “just a toy” and could only be used for a few applications and would be only adopted by startups that weren’t “real” businesses. These folks were proved very, very wrong.

The situation 10 years later in 2016 is just the reverse. AWS has run away with the show and taken a big lead in public cloud technology. Now, all I hear in the VC community is that they are unstoppable and the no individual company will have any IT infrastructure in 10 years.  The Dropbox article was disturbing to many because it went against the current hyperbolic thinking that all private infrastructure is dead.

When it comes to clouds, the fact is that we are in the early stages of a not just a long game but a long season.  AWS has made Public Clouds a major market segment that is here to stay but it will not be the only way IT infrastructure is delivered. I am pretty sure that companies like Facebook and Google will continue to build their own infrastructure stacks because it gives them competitive advantages. While I acknowledge that Private Clouds are not competitive today, that is due in large part because they are mostly built with legacy solutions marketed with a “private cloud” label. As real cloud technology moves into private environments, the game will change – again.

In my next blog I will talk about the critical factors that I think should drive a rent, build, buy infrastructure decision.

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The Coming Enterprise IT Disruption

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The Coming Enterprise IT Disruption

Disruption is the word on everyone’s lips in the tech sector these days. Yet over the past few years the enterprise IT market has, for the most part, been characterized by incremental rather than wholesale technology advancements.  However, three recent developments – IT industry consolidation and reorganization, rising demand for private clouds and increasing pressure on IT departments – will foster the development of technology platforms that promise to fundamentally transform enterprise IT.

The first trend is the move by many major IT companies to consolidate and reorganize their businesses.  From Dell’s acquisition of EMC, to Western Digital’s acquisition of SanDisk, HP’s split into two separate companies, and IBM’s massive reorganization, major enterprise IT players are completely restructuring and repositioning their companies. While they do this, these companies will be less interested in and able to acquire startups offering piecemeal IT technology enhancements. In addition, these companies have less of a need for incremental IT technology enhancements now that, with consolidation, many of them possess a complete set of enterprise IT offerings. With major enterprise IT players less interested in acquiring startups offering point solutions or incremental technology enhancements, the major route of exit for these startups has been cut-off. This, along with the fact that high late-stage valuations have made tech IPOs more difficult, means that VCs are less interested in investing in “incremental” startups. Instead, VCs are increasingly investing in enterprise IT startups that offer transformative technology platforms with viable long-term business models – in other words, companies that are highly motivated and ready to disrupt the enterprise IT market. 

The second trend is enterprises’ increasing demand for private clouds. In many ways, this trend has been prompted by one of the few developments over the past few years that has caused some level of disruption in the enterprise IT market – the rise of the public cloud. Just as the iPhone changed people’s perspective on how phones should work, the public cloud has changed enterprises’ perspective on how IT should work. With the iPhone, if someone wants a song, a video, or an app, they just download it and, assuming they have enough room on their phone, it is there and just works. With the public cloud if an enterprise wants more capacity, computing power, etc., they just request it and (assuming they can pay for it) they have it. Yet, enterprises are finding that the simplicity, scale and agility of the public cloud comes at a price. Putting their applications and data on the public cloud results in a loss of security and control. Not to mention the fact that public clouds aren’t actually that much cheaper than existing storage solutions. Responding to this, leading enterprises are trying to bring the public cloud “in-house” by deploying private clouds that deliver the benefits of the public cloud, along with the security and control they expect from enterprise IT. However, this is proving difficult, since existing enterprise IT technology platforms – especially storage – were not built to support private clouds. This is creating a massive opportunity for platforms that can support the deployment of private clouds.

Increasing pressure on IT is the final trend that is fostering an environment for disruption in the enterprise IT market. As more and more economic activity takes place digitally, IT departments are being tasked with a multitude of ambitious tasks. As mentioned above, they are being asked to find a way to use their existing legacy IT infrastructure to create private clouds. They are also being told that they need to support the development and rollout of new web, mobile and other digital services, as well as frequent updates to these services after they are launched. In addition, they are being assigned other, long-term strategic IT initiatives, including datacenter modernization, big data, and IoT projects. They have to do all this while continuing to maintain and support their existing IT infrastructure using their existing budgets. All of this is leading them to consider the deployment of disruptive new enterprise IT technologies in an attempt to find some way to relieve the pressure all these forces are placing on their departments. This creates a fertile environment for platforms that “change the game” and allow IT departments to cost-effectively deploy private clouds, enable faster and more agile digital service development, increase IT automation, and implement datacenter modernization, big data, IoT and other strategic IT initiatives.

The enterprise IT market has been dozing while the emerging digital economy has fundamentally transformed numerous other markets. However, these three trends – IT industry consolidation and reorganization, rising demand for private clouds and increasing pressure on IT departments – has created fertile ground for companies with disruptive technology platforms. It is about time for the enterprise IT market to wake up.

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Building a company culture: What I have learned as a startup CEO

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Building a company culture: What I have learned as a startup CEO

“What’s the culture of your organization?” You hear this question asked all the time in the Valley. Whether you’re interviewing for a job or the interviewer yourself, it’s an important question that shouldn’t be undervalued. If you’re the one going for a job, you will want to listen carefully for those elements of corporate culture that are important to you. If you’re the interviewer, you should know the answer to this question because if the candidate is serious about a career move they will undoubtedly ask.

Whether it’s the HBR, Peter Drucker or grad students in organizational psychology working on their dissertations, there’s no shortage of articles, blogs, news stories and academic studies generated on the topic of corporate culture. But the thing is, from my experience, you can’t establish or control a culture. It’s going to happen one way or the other. That’s how human beings work in groups – a culture, an ethos, a gestalt, some overall “personality” is woven into the place.

While culture will inevitably happen within any organization, what you can do as a leader is shape your company’s culture. And the best way to do that is to have a clear idea of the people you want to bring onto your team. I’ve blogged about it before, and I keep coming back to it as a critical element. For us at Formation, it’s about prioritizing passion over personal achievement, and team players over the solo rider. Sure, we hire engineers who thrive on solving complex technical problems. And, our sales and marketing folks come with a proven track record of success. Those things are table stakes. What’s different about our recruitment process is that we find people who like working in teams and who value the contributions and opinions of others. Because our culture is driven by the philosophy that we will all be more motivated to come into work each day when we have the opportunity to to grow, learn and tackle a challenge together from all angles. I can sum up our culture in one word. Synergy. The whole is greater than the simple sum of its parts.

Building a culture is also about what you do as an employer to set a certain tone within your organization. And I’m not talking about these grand “creative gestures” or gimmicks you read in the news about how companies these days have free beer and fireman’s poles. No, I’m talking about other gestures that, while smaller in nature, can make a world of difference. I am a big believer in understanding some of the challenges our employees face in their day-to-day lives and doing what we can to make things a little easier and less stressful. For instance, we do free lunches at the Formation offices in the Bay Area because it’s a total nuisance to drive to a restaurant. We also offer better health insurance benefits than major competitors in the industry because I don’t want people worrying about their families’ health benefits. We save the creative things for good causes like our See-a-Demo-Give-a-Goat campaign.

At the end of the day, culture happens – whether you want it to or not. But you can definitely take steps to shape it. It’s setting the right tone and putting in some occasional guardrails that allow it to flourish in the right direction for your organization.

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A New Way to Store

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A New Way to Store

          When someone asks me, “Mark, now tell me exactly what is the new way to store?” I like to offer VMware as an analogy. That company radically altered the way we viewed modern computing. It ushered in a new way to do computing because it fundamentally and irrevocably separated hardware and operational software elements in the compute environment. The same thing can happen with storage. Sure, storage has dabbled in virtualization for decades but in the end it’s still largely built on proprietary hardware and singular solutions that aren’t scalable. There was no underpinning of infrastructure that was like a hypervisor where you could run different service levels and infrastructures. If you wanted a flash array, here you go. A SCSI array? It’s over here. While we’re at it, let’s stack this on top of that and shove this over here and spackle it all together.

            The New Way to Store is all about simplicity, flexibility, control and convergence. It’s modern, revolutionary virtualization technology that provides block, file and object storage across flash, disk and cloud storage media. It has data deduplication, QOS, disaster recovery, data tiering and archiving in one converged platform. If you look at data storage today (excluding tape), it’s made up of two nonvolatile storage media: disk and flash. That’s it. Yet we have literally hundreds of different types of storage arrays. When it comes to MIPS, the industry has coalesced around x86 architecture. For the most part, we run voice, video and data on one network that we call Ethernet. If we’re only talking about disk and flash, why make it so complicated?

            Instead, we have the weirdness of storage where vendors think legacy compatibility is layering arrays on top of arrays. You wouldn’t run a new OS on top of a legacy OS, would you? When Linux first came on the scene, did we all say, “Oh, Linux is great but it’ll have to run on top of Windows.” Nope. Another analogy for the storage morass we’re in is what I call the overmedication analogy. You go to the doctor to treat a condition and you get a pill. But that pill gives you a stomach ache. So the doctor then gives you another pill to treat your symptoms. Yet that pill for your stomach ache makes you dizzy. So, you get another pill to fix those symptoms, too. And so on. This is how enterprise storage operates now.

            Thirty years ago when one gigabyte of storage cost $100,000, it made economic sense to develop specialized hardware and software. But what about now, when a gigabyte of storage costs a penny? Not so much. We can do better, far better in storage. And we can do it all 100 percent in software.

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The Elements of Modern Storage

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The Elements of Modern Storage

 I could write a novel about what’s wrong with enterprise storage today, but I’ll spare you all what would be a really dull read. Let me sum it up in two words: Storage sucks. Ok, perhaps it’s a bit more nuanced than that but not by much. Instead, it’s easier to talk about what should be the essential elements of modern storage, in light of the digital, connected and increasingly cloud-driven world we live in.

 Here are some terms we should all come to associate with modern storage: Elastic, adaptable, agile, dynamic and self-managing. Plenty of people have claimed they are moving storage this way, but in my view to date it’s all been marketing baloney. The difference today is that it is actually possible to transform storage into a strategic and tactical asset of an organization, thanks to ongoing advances in software, sophisticated algorithms and processing horsepower.

Modern storage has to be both agile and elastic. It needs to be able to change and adapt to your applications’ needs, and, obviously, these needs require dynamic storage. For example, you shouldn’t have to know how much you need to provision or what performance an application is going to need when you first set up your storage platform. If you look at much of the new service infrastructure in the cloud today, you’re never required to say what you need tomorrow, are you? You just determine what you need today and everything is flexible and it adapts. That to me makes sense.

Tied to this is the need for modern storage to be application-compatible. This is essential for storage today as more applications become composite applications. For instance, if you use a mobile app, on the back end it has some sort of transactional database that logs you in, there are some analytics and an SQL database, too, and it might be delivering up files and folders that are in object storage. Because of this, storage needs to be adaptable and open to all these types of connectivity instead of captured in prehistoric data silos. Today, storage needs to be completely flexible around data types as well as accept and work with both modern and legacy applications.

Modern storage should also be able to manage data throughout its lifecycle. When you’re on Facebook, how often do you dig around until you find a picture that is four years old? Not all that often, right? So, why would Facebook store a photo you uploaded four years ago in flash? Ideally, they would have built in data-tiering and lifecycle policies that as the data ages, it’s moved to cheaper forms of storage media. Just like water, there are different “qualities” of storage, and quality costs money. You can have good water, polluted water, potable water or filtered water. I’m using this analogy because there are varying costs of storage media and various methodologies, which in a lot of today’s systems aren’t scalable. Modern storage should tie all of this data together over their lifecycle so that the stuff that deserves the performance gets stored in flash and the rest goes on the cheapest storage media you have.

I’m not suggesting that every enterprise go out and wholesale rip and replace their platforms. That’s unrealistic. What I am saying is that the smart organizations will figure out ways to take divisions or parts of the business or application delivery and implement a step-like move to this new world of modern enterprise storage. We know there is a big change coming in modern storage, and it’s partly because we hope to drive it. Yes, this is a coming sea change in storage, but it’s such a big one that organizations should be fearful of not having a foot in this new land.

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Canary

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Canary

I think most would agree that NetApp is struggling right now. I believe that the real question is whether this is an isolated execution thing or is NetApp the "canary" in the legacy storage environment (coal mine).  

Back "in the day" (meaning 15 years ago) I hated competing with NetApp. They had a new architecture and product set, good economics, and their single platform offered simplicity, flexibility and unified new features. At the time, it was hard to compete because we always had three different products and NetApp sold a single, unified solution.

Then the world changed; technologies like data de-duplication, flash, and scale out NAS,  evolved so rapidly that adding features to a single aging platform became almost impossible. The advantage shifted to the players with a broad portfolio (of acquisitions). One could easily argue that the model of "a specialty storage platform for every need" became the new (2010) model for storage.

NetApp is clearly in the toughest spot in the market today as other companies have acquired so many new storage properties. With broader portfolios most other players simply have more near-term strength. 

I say "near-term" because this current weakness just might turn out to be a long-term advantage for NetApp. Yes, they need a complete refresh of their platform but they have two big things in their favor. First, they only have ONE platform to "re-invent" (not 5 or even 10) and second, they are hitting the crisis point early in the disruptive cycle.

Ultimately, by feeling the pain early, NetApp has a better chance for long-term success.

==

Note: If you don't get the Canary analogy go here.

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Get the Role You Want or Accept the Role You Get

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Get the Role You Want or Accept the Role You Get

As a large number of tech companies undergo CEO transitions one interesting element seems pretty clear; it is impossible to predict successors. Seems to me that, more often than not, the individual that was viewed as the “front-runner” didn’t land the top job. Naturally, there are various reasons why this happens. Perhaps the external world becomes jaded; the front-runner gets smug; the board decides to shake things up. Or maybe good old-fashioned politics changed the executive landscape. I believe that it’s almost impossible to be a succession candidate for too long.

My advice… when you’re considering a company change, fight for the role you really want. If you don’t land it think long and hard whether you should accept any alternate or “potential successor” role you’re offered. Imagine it’s permanent.  If you can’t envision yourself in that role permanently then it’s probably best not to take the job.  

Lets say you’re being recruited as a “potential successor CEO”. The board or current CEO says “be COO for a while and we’ll work toward a transition to CEO”. In this case I would say, “Buyer beware” because there are no guarantees. CEOs sometimes postpone retirement and new potential successors may come and go. And, consider this, if you enter as an “heir-apparent” there is nowhere to go but down (in terms of succession likelihood). Every perceived failure becomes a reason NOT to promote you.

If you're tempted to take the role you're offered (vs. the one you really want) also consider whether you will be GREAT at the interim role and if the skills needed for the job play to your strengths. For example, the typical “in waiting” role for CEO is COO yet these roles require significantly different skill sets and even contradictory personalities. And yet there is often the assumption that the COO is the next CEO. Many great CEOs don’t make especially great COOs and visa versa.

The problem with interim roles is that they have a way of becoming permanent. Settling for an interim role that you are not well suited may set you up for a failure; one that you probably will be judged for. And then you might never have the opportunity to excel at the job you really want.  My 2 cents…hold out for the role you really want… the one where you know you can kick ass. 

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Perspective

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Perspective

Early in my career I was group engineering manager of the high-end storage division at Digital. The team was comprised of a couple of hundred people. And, it was my first, large management role. The technology had been built over a decade and was, at the time, the most sophisticated storage array technology in the world. It was also a foundational element of VMS clustering. If a customer wanted a VAX cluster they also had to have an "HSC" (Hierarchical Storage Controller).

The product was wildly successful and garnered many large customers. Our largest customer was a bank. A really big bank. And they had, as you would suspect, built the largest VMS cluster in the world. This came to be my misfortune. 

The bank's massive VMS cluster helped run its ATM network. At that time, ATMs were brand new (the equivalent to mobile banking apps today). Unfortunately, every 30-60 days, the system would crash and reboot. We discovered that the problem was in the HSC. Bummer. As you can imagine, the bank wasn't very happy but the technology was new so, initially at least, they were understanding.

It seemed like overnight I went from cog in the machine to a sort-of (undesirable) infamy within the company. The team became more and more consumed trying to solve the problem. I became more and more consumed with writing status updates and flying back and forth to NYC to appease the customer.

The problem was every software engineer's worst nightmare. It happened infrequently, was not consistently reproducible and was on a system larger than any system we had ever had in our lab! It took months to get detailed trace logs because we had to set up the customer's systems and then wait a month or two for a crash.

Over the next three months more of the team became involved. The simple fact remained -- we had absolutely no idea what the problem was. I am an engineer but this stuff was way past my skill set. All I could do was to facilitate and be the front man for the arrows. In desperation, I called the original architect of the system (now the division CTO) and begged for help.

Richard Lary (Richie) is one, if not the, smartest person I know. He reminds me of Kramer from Seinfeld (but much smarter).  Asking for Richie's time was a huge imposition but we were desperate. Richie met with the software team one Friday afternoon. When I returned Monday morning Richie came by (it looked like he slept there all weekend) and declared the problem fixed. Needless to say I was stunned. How could one guy who hadn't written, or even been involved with the code set for years, come in and fix something in a weekend that eluded and perplexed 60 people for three months?

We tested the code and, sure enough, it worked. The customer was happy, my job saved. I was desperate to know how he solved it.  I went to Ritchie and asked "What was the problem?" His answer was "I have no idea." Now, totally lost I asked "How did you fix the problem if you didn't even understand what it was?" His answer "I just looked at the set of conditions that needed to exist for the crash to happen and changed the code so those conditions would never exist."

He changed the rules. Instead of the trying to change the outcome of the game.

I apply this life lesson almost every day now when thinking about how to solve a problem. Look at every problem from every perspective. Some problems you solve head on. Others might require you to change the rules... 

 

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Delivery - The New Differentiator

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Delivery - The New Differentiator

 "Content is king"  is one of those axioms of business that seems eternal. So logical and obvious. Of course, it is more of a value differentiator to produce movies (vs. being the distributor). Clearly it is more profitable to make products rather than selling or distributing them.

Not any more.

First, the examples: Uber, AirBNB, Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in and Amazon (save a couple of exceptions) are all examples of new-era stars that create little to no products or content. How did an axiom of business get turned upside down? Two reasons. First, for decades we focused on product and content "innovation;" this drove both competition and commoditization. Trying to find meaningful differences between hotels, airlines, toilet paper, or even local news is hard. Most of us probably start with price. With their focus mostly on product, most of these same companies did not worry about distribution; that was "low value" so it was outsourced or given little attention. The second major change was technology, specifically the "cloud-mobile-social" revolution; this served as the second enabler for the disruption. 

With existing leaders focused in other areas new entrants have entered the market with little direct competition and have had enormous impact. The delivery disruptor list is long: Apple iTunes and Pandora for music, AirBnB for lodging, Uber for taxis, etc. Even where products are involved, delivery has become a key differentiator. For instance, SaaS delivery with companies like Salesforce. 

In an era where content and even most products are much closer to commodities, delivery becomes the new area for innovation.  If I want to buy toilet paper there are literally hundreds of viable choices. If I don't care about brand there are thousands of options. Even for a specific thing, like a movie, I have many options in terms of consumption.  I no longer even think about the product or thing I need that much. My value determination is mostly around how to obtain the product.

Here is a simple example,  I need toilet paper. I have planned enough ahead so its not a dire emergency, therefore, I have many options. I could wait until Saturday and, along with a million other people, make the trek to Costco. I would battle traffic getting there, seethe that the parking lot looks like a scene from Mad Max, deal with bumper-to-bumper shopping cart mayhem and spend 30 minutes in the checkout line only to pack up my own cart.

Or..... from my comfy chair at home reading a book and having a scotch I can tell my Amazon Echo to "buy toilet paper" and it's done.  I don't care if it costs a bit more (it probably doesn't if you include all the cost factors like time, travel costs, etc).  This decision is a no-brainer. Same product, two completely different experiences.

As I look at the market today, there are still so many opportunities for "delivery disruption."  Just look for things where the core offering (product, content, service) is pretty much a commodity (like a taxi ride) and the delivery model is poor and outdated (like waiting in a line).  While the opportunity pendulum has clearly swung toward delivery model innovation note that, at some point, it is likely to again be focused on content and products.  Innovation tends to come from individuals who imagine the world differently. The common element becomes unpredictability.

 

 

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The "Too Much Technology" Problem

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The "Too Much Technology" Problem

There exists a fundamental trade-off in the product world.  Should a customer buy many speciality products? Or would a limited number of more universal product(s) be better.  I have blogged on this trade-off in the past and believe there is no single right answer.  However, when looking at storage anyone can see that it has become crazy-insanely-complex due, in large part, to the plethora of point products in use today.  I believe we are about to see a fundamental shift in direction from many speciality products using custom software and hardware to unified, converged, virtualized, software-defined systems that provide more complete solutions.  Storage technology has evolved to the point where it will converge in similar ways to what has already happened in compute and networking. 

One only need look at what technology startups are doing to predict the future. Virtually none of them purchase storage from the large storage systems vendors. This is a very strong indicator of where the market is headed. The largest of these companies (e.g. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, etc) have gone to the extreme of building their own custom storage platforms! When new companies "start from scratch" because they can't use your technology...well, suffice it to say that that's a bad sign. The writing is on the wall. Now the only question is how long the existing technology will last.

Large storage vendors like EMC have an interesting dilemma. Sure, there is the classic "innovator's dilemma" in terms of self-commoditization but they also have a "technology gap." This interesting issue is that this gap is really about having too much technology vs. too little.

The large storage players have grown much of their business through the acquisition of speciality storage start-ups. In most cases, acquired products are only minimally integrated with existing products. More often than not, these products are simply added to the catalog, new positioning documents created to segment (and sell) the acquired products.

The problem for the large players is that "convergence" is a technology in and of itself.  Having six different products that each virtualize different data types is just not the same as having a single product that can virtualize all six data types.

I learned this lesson personally as the market moved towards SaaS-based solutions. Having lots of existing technology was a disadvantage for existing software companies because most tried to "leverage" old products into a SaaS model rather than develop a new platform. Having lots of existing technology sent them down the wrong path and actually hurt their ability to execute.  It became very clear that the best SaaS offerings were ones designed ground-up for cloud, multi-tenancy and other core capabilities. Instead of being an advantage, existing technology actually became an anchor that dramatically slowed many existing company's ability to transform to the new model.

Convergence, simplicity, multi-tenancy, hyper-scalability are all key capabilities that will be a part of next-generation storage.  As with SaaS, having lots of existing technology to "leverage" may not be a good thing.

 

 

 

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Today's Storage Buzzword is - DataLake

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Today's Storage Buzzword is - DataLake

In technology, we create words and phrases to describe the things we invent; it is a necessary element of innovation. Sometimes the words and meanings are clear and well defined but many times they are not.  Sometimes, when we haven't invented anything in a while, the marketing department will get scared and just create some new term anyway. 

Probably the biggest new "tech" word in the last decade is "cloud." Its use has solidified over the years to the point where it actually has some meaning yet the first rule that everyone needs to understand about tech terms is -- there are no rules.

If I go make some wine from the grapes in my backyard and put  "Napa Merlot" on the label and try to sell it I will likely get fined. Heck, I might even go to jail (as I don't live in Napa and I think most of the grapes there are Cabernet). No such rules apply in technology. I can pretty much say I have a cloud internet of things data lake and no one can say boo about it.

With cloud, I am reminded of the Gartner Magic Quadrant that came out for "Public Cloud" several years back. Even with tens of players claiming to be delivering Public Clouds, only about four vendors even made the quadrant. Only one, AWS, was considered a leader.

The latest storage buzzword is Data Lake. I have now been asked by several people if we are building one. My response, "If you can tell me what it is, then I will tell you if we do it." So far, no one has taken me up on the offer.

You get the point. Terms are a necessary part of technology but, buyer beware, there are no rules about using them. Now excuse me, I need to check my Quantified Self...

 

 

 

 

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Shades of Grey - Part 2

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Shades of Grey - Part 2

At this point it was clear. Inserting some flexibility or "shades of grey" into our development path would have an impact.

There is an old adage of engineering managers that says "Schedule, features, and engineering funding. You pick two and I will set the third." When you really think about this statement it's almost humorous.  Imagine a sales leader saying "revenue, sales expenses, products to sell. You pick two and I will set the other." Sales would always be "successful" but your company would also be bankrupt.

The key was to find a way to put some "grey" into the system. We had precise knowledge of the features we needed. Our engineering team size was set. And we had a fixed date for delivery.  Success for our next product feature set was pretty much black and white. What we needed was to insert some grey into the path to get there. This is management in the real world.

First, we set a realistic goal that everyone believed was challenging but achievable. We carded (Agile) and prioritized the work. The traditional method of Agile was to add cards (work) when we encountered unanticipated tasks that need to be completed. These work additions were crushing our schedule so we implemented a group review and approval process before any new cards (work) could be added to the project.

If these cases either simplified the design or reduced the scope in a way that wouldn't impact core features they were included. But we scrapped cards that moved us farther away from our goals. This process was incredibly successful.  What we found was that with more team interaction from architects, engineers and product management we were able to find a way to reach our goals.  In some cases we found more simple solutions. In other cases we eliminated non-critical work. When necessary, we constrained the scope of use for some features.

In the end, is was all about team interaction and building a more flexible and interactive development process. In true fashion, it came down to working smarter, not harder.

 

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Shades of Grey - Part 1

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Shades of Grey - Part 1

I recently faced a challenging situation with my engineering team. We needed to get a ton of product features completed in a very short period of time and yet it was pretty clear we weren't going to make it. The team was working hard so effort was not the issue. I knew it was up to me, the CEO, to lead us to victory. After a couple of sleepless nights trying to think of the best way to motivate the team I didn't have a plan; I felt baffled. 

For those that have not led both engineering and sales teams, the first thing to know is that, motivationally, they are very different. With a sales team I would seek to inspire folks to "believe and achieve." I might play the Pacino clip from Any Given Sunday. But I knew that with an engineering team that approach would fall flat. They already believe in Formation so showing movie clips would be considered as management wasting valuable time, time that they would rather spend coding.

I went back to the basics thinking about what motivates individuals. The problem was that the team is already highly motivated and there was little I could do to create more motivation. I tried a monetary (here is a extra bonus if we get this done) carrot and that hadn't worked either. In fact, I think we might have worked harder and delivered less.

Now totally stuck and desperate - I thought about how different individuals see both the path to success and the success itself. Like an athlete, a typical salesperson has some very simple ways to judge if they are successful, typically "Did I win the deal or not?" It's black and white.  What makes a good salesperson is understanding that getting there is not a black and white process. For a salesperson, the process to win has many shades of grey; just the win itself is black and white.

My revelation was that engineers typically see the world in just the opposite way.  The path or route to get from A to B is black and white (we need to create a spec, do a design, code, test, etc.) but the success of the result has many shades of grey.  An engineer or engineering team achieving 95% of a feature goal might consider that a major success because it was difficult and required incredible talent just to get that far. Imagine a salesperson getting a deal 95% done, losing and then asking for sales commission because it was hard and he/she almost got there.

Two different worlds.

Armed with this newfound insight I thought about what I needed to do to inspire the team. I decided that I needed to change the perspective of my engineering team in terms of the path options. I needed get them to see shades of grey.

In part 2 I will tell you what I did.

 

 

 

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RAID IS DEAD - Part 2

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RAID IS DEAD - Part 2

Determining the exact cost of storing information is incredibly complicated.  Simply calculating the cost of a disk drive or a storage array is meaningless. There are a ton of variables including how many total copies of the data exist, performance requirements, administration and governance costs, etc.

Given that, I am not going to try to create a single calculation as everyone would, justifiably, poke holes in it. Instead, I will make a few points about relative cost and their potential impact on total cost leaving the complicated math (and assumptions) to you.  Obviously key cost elements have changed in the last 30 years. The good news is that emerging technologies have created more economical alternatives.

First, there are many storage capabilities that can be offered regardless of the storage environment. Some examples:

  • In-line compression/deduplication
  • Thin provisioning
  • Space-efficient snapshots/clones

Theses features offer value but are ordinarily leveraged within any system type so it makes sense to exclude them from this discussion. In a RAID system, storage space is saved by using algorithms to reduce the overall storage capacity while maintaining data resiliency. The negative impacts of this approach are:

  • RAID requires a tightly-coupled system with specialized hardened software
  • For high availability, RAID requires sophisticated failover capabilities across controllers and memory
  • RAID requires an increase in computational and local I/O requirements for processing and can have significant rebuild times.

While simple two or three-way replication seemed like a crazy waste money of 20 years ago, replication across independent nodes now makes total economic sense:

  • For replication, while disk costs might double (assuming 1.5X capacity for RAID and 3X for replication) there is no need for the individual nodes/arrays to have redundant controllers or shared memory. There also is no RAID algorithm to calculate - reducing processing and IOPs requirements
  • No proprietary or customized hardware is needed
  • Read operations only have to occur on one node and, in the event of a failure, are simply moved to another node - data never needs to be reconstructed from parity

30 years ago, RAID was a clear winner for storage cost but the RELATIVE 20-30 year price decline of various technology elements has been dramatically different. Elements like storage (disk drives) have declined faster than Moore's law while x86 computing has declined almost as rapidly. On the other hand, the relative costs for customized hardware and specialized software have not experienced this rate of decline. Today the total cost of replication-based systems is likely on par or lower than most RAID systems.

At this point, the cost dynamics are interesting but hardly compelling enough to make a statement like "RAID is dead." But, the story doesn't end here. The advent and use of this new model for storage enables a whole new set of technology advances that are truly disruptive.

In Part 3 I will go through the new technologies that will be used in conjunction with this scale out replication model and why this combination will totally disrupt traditional RAID approaches.

 

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School of Hard Knocks

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School of Hard Knocks

While we would never wish it on our children, there is tons of evidence that we learn the most from our struggles, our failures and hardship. As I think back, the only teachers I remember were the really tough ones that challenged me to do better.

As parents it is natural to want  to protect our children  from pain and harm. As leaders, we naturally seek to make our employees successful. This behavior may appear to be kind but can also take away key learning opportunities.

In the right situations, I suggest that you should let your kids and/or employees fail. This includes times when we could jump in and "save the day" so to speak.

It may seems counter-intuitive but letting your kids/employees experience failure may be the key to ensuring their future success.

And besides - the only way to appreciate success is to have experienced failure.

 

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