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So. A new tech upstart wants 'feedback'. Um, maybe it actually does

Astride both sides of data centre startup line

Sysadmin Blog I have met the enemy, and he is me. I stand astride a line. On one side I am an "IT decision-maker", on the other an "evangelist" for some startups I truly believe in. This year, I have learned a lot more about how the data centre sausage is truly made.

As the recipient of the unending stream of sales phone calls, surveys and interviews, I hate people like me. Just exactly how many lists am I on, anyways? Every bolt-hole startup and floundering tech titan seems to have three different people call me every month. Always, inevitably in the final week, and with agitated persistence at the end of a quarter.

As the fellow trying to get honest feedback from customers, I also hate people like me. Not every phone call is about sales! Some of us are out here beating the streets trying to gather data that can help companies act in an evidence-driven fashion. To bring the voice of the customer – and the potential customer – to the boardroom and the design meetings.

Experience working both sides of the line has made me appreciate the complexity of product evolution. Many of us envision the evolution of our data centres as subject to the whims and visions of a chosen few. Faceless executives making isolated decisions in their echo chambers. Developers coding into the night, caffeine piled high.

The truth is perhaps more disturbing. The course of IT, from the smallest of startups to the dance of giants, frequently rests on the considered opinions of the very few who take the time to offer them. Not in ranting comment threads or 140-character vitriol, but in one-on-one interviews, beta tests and proof-of-concepts.

A vendor example

Let's consider one of my current clients, a really early startup with a product that could be a pretty big deal in a few years. As with all startups, a lot of things would have to go right, but the idea is solid and the tech works.

Right now, these guys are at a stage where they are angling for their first major round of funding. As per my previously discussed guide on how to roll your own startup, their sole mission right now is to get a number of early customers willing to use their product. Normally, this is where we see some test and dev deployments, with a few brave souls pushing the solution into production. Vendors, of course, want to get paying customers, but it's usually a wink and a nod because what matters at this point isn't the revenue, but the ability to go to venture capitalists and say: "Look, people are in fact using this product and loving it."

I am not normally the guy the people turn to in order to round up those initial customers, but through a complex series of events, I ended up being one of those folks. It's been a learning experience!

Being such a young company, very few folks want to give my storage startup client the time of day, and that's entirely fair enough. We're all trained as sysadmins to be cautious to the point of paranoid, conservative to the point of actively resistant to change. It's in our nature and our training. It's part of why we took this job.

From the evangelist standpoint, this makes life hard: you strike out a lot. It gets demoralizing. Every now and again, however, you get someone willing to give the product a look-see, and almost without fail they come away wowed. So far, so normal. I'm probably not telling you anything you didn't already know.

Plotting a course

What most people don't see is what happens internal to the vendor once a sysadmin is willing to try the product out in their lab, or deploy it in production. The bees in the hive all start buzzing: they desperately want to interview the nerd in question about their experiences. They want their thoughts, their complaints, their wish lists and their pet peeves.

The vendor-side folks spend endless nights researching the individual, crunching numbers and trying to figure out what the optimal frequency of contact is to not burn them out. This feedback is discussed at length among developers, executives and the consultants/analysts they keep on retainer (nerding about the feedback is usually where I spent my time).

The really enthusiastic customers are asked to present with the vendor at conferences, participate in case studies and so forth. Tech journalists and analysts often ask vendors if they can speak to customers, and vendors often have to be choosy about honoring these requests for fear of "burning out" their star customers.

This is where pivots come from. You've heard the term. We've all made fun of it, but the idea is actually core to the evolution of products we put in our data centre.

Let's say that my startup friends were to score as their initial customers a whole bunch of mid-sized organizations who used their product as the storage backend for workloads and data that needed to be distributed across multiple sites. If they score a few dozen of this class of customer, then it tends to snowball. Others with similar use cases are easier to convince to use the product. In turn, the feedback from these early customers drives development and feature growth to meet the needs of this group of customers.

In relatively short order the founders' vision of a general purpose storage solution becomes a niche solution aimed at distributed organizations. My own personal vision of evolving the product into a hybrid cloud storage solution with a focus on data locality and sovereignty would move years down the roadmap, if it was ever realized at all.

If I have learned one thing during this process, it is that very few sysadmins or CIOs realize just how much influence they wield by taking a calculated chance at the right time. The idea of vendors as the enemy is so ingrained in us that we never really stop to think about where industry-specific software comes from, or how we can be the ones who influence things.

The pivot

Eventually the niche that the vendor has built themselves into becomes exhausted. The company needs to "pivot", that is, design themselves towards a solution that addresses new markets, preferably one seen as more all-encompassing.

Here we should consider two vendors: Tintri and Atlantis Computing. Both entered mainstream notoriety as companies serving the VDI niche. I honestly don't know enough about the history of either to know if that was the plan all along, or if they were herded there by their initial customers like so many others, but by the time they started being regularly mentioned in the trade press, it was as VDI vendors.

A few years ago the VDI niche played out. There just wasn't a lot of growth to be had and competition was becoming fierce. Both vendors started to make plays for the mainstream. Tintri started down an analytics-focused path hoping to entice people with a "VM-centric storage" pitch. Atlantis built a hyper-converged solution.

Tintri succeeded in breaking out of their niche. Atlantis didn't. Though not officially marketing policy, Tintri's real-world approach to sales has been to kick Netapp right in the customer dissatisfaction, and this has successfully broadened their appeal. Atlantis tried valiantly to go head to head with the likes of Nutanix, but ended up retreating back into the VDI niche, and are likely to pivot again in 2017.

Lingering influence

Nutanix was founded in 2009. I remember a lot of sysadmins laughing at the concept of hyper-convergence in general, and Nutanix in particular. Two months ago they crushed their IPO and are now a $5bn company. The path they took to get there was absolutely influenced by those key people willing to take them seriously.

The first large-scale customers, analysts, consultants and even tech journalists who took the time to have real conversations visibly and demonstrably shaped that company through its evolution. I wasn't one of those people, but I could easily have been and I know quite well several people who were.

As Nutanix was growing into the behemoth it became, I didn't believe in the power of one voice. My cynicism and youthful angst about "The Man" prevented me from understanding the very human dynamics of how my opinion today shapes the data centre I will work in 10 years from now.

I won't make that mistake again. My approach to dealing with vendors will – must – change. Even if the incessant sales calls drive me mad.

2016 has taught me that it isn't enough for us to whinge about how the IT industry isn't what we want it to be. We have the power to shape the data centres of the future, even if we don't know how to develop killer applications ourselves, have billionaire chums or have a soapbox to shout from.

Taking the time to work with eager young companies – even if it's just testing things out in our labs and providing honest feedback – has a more profound long-term impact on the shape of our industry than most of us are willing to let ourselves imagine. ®

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