NetApp, SolidFire and the Turning of Big Ships

Wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here. Startup life, yo. I’ve written probably more than a blog post or media byline a week for the last two years, but all of them had a SolidFire logo on them, and none of that content ended up here. Cobbler’s shoes and all of that stuff, I guess…

It’s been a busy time, what with being acquired and all, and I’m sure there’s a ton we could talk about just with the move from a startup company to a multi-national behemoth. It’s had its good days and days where I struggle to get my palm unstuck from my face. For those of you who have been through, who are going through, that process, I’m sure my experience is much the same as what you remember. I do my best to wake up every day excited about the SolidFire tech and the people I get to work with, and I trust that the rest will take care of itself.

Of course, there’s more to worry about these days than just my personal motivation! One of the big, frequently asked, overly discussed questions that arose during the acquisition of SolidFire was whether it was too little, too late for NetApp, especially when it came to their position in the flash market. There were many people, especially those who had come to know SolidFire and our culture, who worried that it would get brutally stomped out by a messy integration process, killing the heart and soul that powered the tech that NetApp found so special.

The bigger picture, however, doesn’t have anything to do with SolidFire at all, and has everything to do with where NetApp is today as a company, and where it’s headed.

I’ve been in whichever camp opposed NetApp for almost the entirety of my career. My first, and only, real hands on experience with their products was in 2003, when I wrote and executed on an RFP for a hospital system I was working for. We had NetApp (Filer), HP (EVA) and EMC come to the table to provide us with shared storage. EMC was a predictable mess (The sales rep came into the final meeting and said “If you are looking at NetApp and HP, you aren’t in the right league for EMC, we are going to no-bid this. Let me know when you need grown up storage.” Thus ended my relationship with EMC for the next half-dozen years.), NetApp did a reasonable job with their fancy chrome bezel, but had some performance challenges and wasn’t really capable of pushing anything significant over fibre channel, which we insisted on using for some reason. HP was our server vendor and we chose them, a decision which I regretted both at that job and my next one for many different reasons.

After I moved to Peak 10 in 2004, we replaced a couple old Series30 Compellent arrays with a whole bunch of HP hardware, and when it failed in 2010 (like I should have known it would), we replaced everything with EMC Clariion and Celerra boxes, ultimately standardizing on them in all of our data centers. NetApp never once called Peak 10 to introduce themselves, and never tried to win any of our business.

Then I moved to VCE, and obviously my perspective on NetApp was influenced pretty significantly. 2010 was (ironically considering the recent news and revelations) the height of the NetApp/Vaughn vs. EMC/Chad public/Twitter battles, and I shared my frustration with the way those antics were perceived by customers and potential employees both here on the blog and on Twitter.

These comments got a very…aggressive back-channel response from Vaughn, and it very much reinforced my opinions of the company he represented. It became easy to get on-board when EMC declared them Public Enemy #1. NetApp wasn’t a company I respected. Even as I got to know more and more of their employees that I respected and became friends with, and even as Vaughn and I buried the hatchet and he became someone I looked to for advice and opinions, my impression of NetApp never really came around.

With that as context, I think it’s fair to say that when it was announced internally that NetApp was going to buy the company I worked for, there was a considerable amount of concern. NetApp? Seriously?

But then something happened that I didn’t expect. Dave Hitz, one of the original founders of NetApp, and the rest of the executive team flew to Boulder, got on stage in front of the entire company and…..apologized. He apologized that we were going to hear unkind things about the company that was so excited to have SolidFire as part of the family. He apologized that NetApp had let early successes in the flash space blind them to the larger AFA transition, and for the perception that NetApp was bad at integrating acquisitions. He told us that everyone at the company was committed to the success of the SolidFire culture and tech, that we were a critical inflection point for NetApp, and that while they didn’t necessarily deserve the benefit of the doubt until there was a track record of success to look back on, he asked us to give them a chance.

To say it wasn’t what I expected is a massive understatement. There was no ego. No entitlement. No attempt to hide the mistakes that had been made in the past or the challenges that would exist going forward. There was just enthusiasm. From almost everyone at NetApp. At almost every level. Very strange and unexpected. At the end of the process, NetApp made some promises to SolidFire about the org structure, how quickly the deal would close, how the tech would be integrated and how the existing employees would be treated as part of the process. I’m not sure it’s fair to say it made me a believer, but it gave me hope. I was willing to see the acquisition process through, and see what happened.

Behind the scenes, it hasn’t been perfect. I don’t think any acquisition of any significant size is. But NetApp have kept their promises. Even when they were hard promises to keep. And I respect them for it.

But after all of that, we get back to the bigger issue. How do you change the public perception of a company that is so big, that has made so many perceived missteps, that has become a symbol of stagnation and legacy thinking?

I’m sure there are many ways to start, but in my opinion there are three pillars that you have to put in place:

  1. Commit to the transformation, internally and externally
  2. Be open and honest about the good and the bad
  3. Be consistent with employees, customers, partners and influencers

On the first point, it’s been pretty obvious if you’ve been following NetApp in the news lately that the transformation of the company is well underway. It’s been hard to watch from the inside as priorities and staffing are readjusted, especially as the new kid on the block. The executive team has been very clear that these changes are not tactical cost-cutting so much as they are re-aligning the company and its resources with the reality of the storage market and what customers are demanding.

On the second point, if you haven’t yet watched the Storage Field Day 9 videos from the NetApp presentation, please go do it. There are four parts to the session, and if you only watch the first one and the last one, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Dave Hitz has quickly become one of my favorite people in tech.

The mistake we made, was as flash prices came down and down and down and people started saying well what about all flash, we were, like, bathing in our own bath water on hey, we convinced everyone caching was better…cause it was…but it became not better.

It’s ironic, I believe it was actually our success in flash, we sold petabytes of flash before anybody else, I believe it was our success that blinded us to the change that was going on.

Dave Hitz, SFD9

That’s pretty open and honest right there. And unexpected. And refreshing. And while the people internal to the company have seen so many of these kinds of conversations from executives at every level, to have that attitude and level of humble come out in a forum like SFD makes me really happy.

Being consistent, my third bullet point, is all about the right people delivering the right messages. The final presentation of the day was from Dave Wright, the founder of SolidFire, and the SFD stage is one that he’s very, very good at presenting from. It was very interesting to watch DW put up his first slide, titled NetApp’s All Flash Portfolio and hear the air go out of the room. You could see delegates look at each other with looks like “Oh no, not Dave too…” With a smile and some creative editing over the title slide, DW turned the presentation upside down, declared “My check cleared, I’ll answer any question you have for me” and launched into the kind of presentation he’s known for: smart, insightful, irreverent, on point, honest, funny. He’s one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever worked with, and as much as he frets over it, he’s so good in these settings, answering hard questions with a smile, sharing his experience and making it look easy.

It’s fair to say that the SolidFire team spent a lot of time and energy working with our counterparts on this SFD experience. Mr. Foskett and crew are fun and engaging, but if you don’t go in with the right technical message presented in with the right amount of detail, with the right level of clarity, the results can be messy. SolidFire has done so well with this group, and has built up such credibility, and we didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize that. It was very important to us, and to NetApp. This was an opportunity to re-frame the questions, to re-position NetApp’s place in the industry, especially with all of the chaos going on with mergers and acquisitions and IPOs around them.

And, for the most part, I’d call the event a success. The delegates had a couple “Wait and minute, what did you just say?” and “Hold on, can you show that again?” moments. The comments, even when they were challenging and to the point were very reflective and respectful of the effort that we’d put into preparing the content and the presenters.

We didn’t screw it up.

In the days since, it’s been great to catch up with the long time NetApp folks and just listen to them talk about the SFD event. About the response. About how good it felt to not be defensive or trying to catch up, but instead creating a compelling narrative about data mobility and data fabric and using that to position both NetApp as well as storage infrastructure in general in a whole new light. I heard them repeat comments from the delegates and watch them send links to the follow-up blog posts by delegates like this one from Enrico, and this one from Mark. You see the internal responses from the field and executives alike, and watch how it makes people feel.

2016-03-16 12.22.35

Congratulations, NetApp, it’s been a long time coming. Feels pretty good, doesn’t it? Now, no more being defensive about our products or positioning, please. Be confident in the value we bring to customers, and be clear in how that value is delivered. The world doesn’t care about storage anymore, it cares about outcomes, and as long as we stay focused on that, and continue working hard every day to turn this ship in the right direction and do the right things by our customers, partners and shareholders, we’ll all get to feel this way more.

Trust me. I worked at SolidFire for two years and pretty much the whole company felt this way every single day. We’ll show you how. Let’s get to work.