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Leadership Lab: Mark Leslie on Building Culture and Transformative Technology

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How do transformational leaders build game-changing companies? We bring you the first part of our Leadership Lab series where we ask next-gen executives, investors, and academics to share their perspectives on what they learned and what is driving future innovation.

We sat down with Mark Leslie at Nutanix .NEXT, who is an investor in, prior board member of, and current senior advisor to Nutanix. He is the Managing Partner of Leslie Ventures and was the Founding Chairman and CEO of VERITAS Software.

What lessons did you learn in building two companies before Veritas?

One of the lessons I learned early on was that I used to say, “We are going to ship it on Tuesday no matter what.” This created a war inside the company. We ended up being sorry we shipped it on Tuesday, and I learned that it is all about shipping great products that work well – and you can’t ship them before their time.

When you were CEO of Veritas, how did you address the issue of technical debt?

We didn’t have that word in our vocabulary when we started. It is great that we have that definition now because we can define the delta between what it should be and what it isn’t. There is no short answer to this problem. You just have to break it out day by day, line of code by line of code. Veritas was an enterprise company. It takes about 10 years to build a bulletproof enterprise company. I’ll give you an example. How many years did it take from Windows Version 1 until you didn’t have to reboot it every day (or every hour). It took about 15 to 20 years. Microsoft had all the resources in the world. It still takes 10 years to discover all the nooks and crannies. And, you never get to the end. You merely approach asymptotically until you are stable.

How do you motivate engineers?

It’s simple  – interesting work and on products that customers buy.

How does that philosophy change when motivating them during times of difficulty?

Leadership has to do with trust. You build trust over a long period of time. Once you have a highly trusting relationship, you can come over and ask engineers to build or do something they may not want to do.

If you want trust, you have to invest first. I describe it as the “Bank of Trust.” You can make withdrawals and deposits, but there are no loans.

How did you build an engineering culture?

We had a culture in the company of building enterprise-class quality code. Not a lot of companies do that today. The metric of “coolness” in our engineers was how good the code was and how fast we got it out. Our code in the early days was embedded in all the operating systems of major suppliers, so it had to be enterprise-class. You have to build it into the culture of the company that you don’t write crap.

From A CEO’s point of view, engineering always gave us schedules, but I never put a gun to their head and said we had to ship it on a certain date. It is a very zen thing for people who have a very activist approach to life. People want to control the outcome of everything, but you have to say, “It’s not going to be ready until it’s ready, and you have to live with that.”

One of the lessons I learned early on was that I used to say, “We are going to ship it on Tuesday no matter what.” We ended up being sorry we shipped it on Tuesday, and I learned that it is all about shipping great products that work well – and you can’t ship them before their time.

How did you scale culture?

We had a corporate culture of open communication, high trust, and high respect. However, the engineer-to-engineer culture was by the engineers. You tell engineers what to do, and they leave. Ultimately, culture is not what you have framed in the front lobby. Culture is what you do every day. It is how you make decisions, how you act, and how you react.

When you are looking at an investment, how do you evaluate new technology?

When I look at technology, I look at it from an entrepreneur’s point of view. As a rule of thumb, the technology has to be 10x to have an opportunity. You get the market if you are 2x, but by the time you shape out the product and get into the market, that 2x may turn out to be 1.2x. No one is going to take a risk on that startup. If you can offer 100x, then it’s a pretty good shot.

What advice would you give to CIOs as you help them evaluate new technology?

CIOs should always have room to take risks. In their world, there’s not a lot of upside and a lot downside to taking risk. However, it behooves them to keep a small part of their world where they take risks on great new things and distinguish themselves from their competitors. My general advice – be conservative with production and be aggressive with the future.

If you want trust, you have to invest first. I describe it as the “Bank of Trust.” You can make withdrawals and deposits, but there are no loans.

What trends are transformative in the storage industry?

In storage, what’s transformative relies on the very basic technology. Flash has changed the world in so many ways. Before flash, there was ram and disk. There’s a collection of new technologies, such as MRAM and 3D Xpoint, that are going to again change the horizons and outlook of storage.

An idea I’ve been toying with is in the next 8 to 12 years, we are going to have single level memory that has a hierarchy of performance. Everything is going to have a universal name-space. Think about the cost of getting to I/O. When the disk is 10,000x slower than memory, going through the I/O path doesn’t matter. However, when it’s only 100x slower, the I/O path might be more expensive. We are going to see this gradation of memory speed that is going to become more continuous than it is right now. Nothing is happening right now, but there is going to be future innovation here.

Mark Leslie is a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business where he teaches courses in entrepreneurship, ethics, and sales organization. He is also the managing director of Leslie Ventures, a private investment company, and serves on the boards of two public companies, six private companies, and three nonprofit organizations. Prior, Leslie was the founding chairman and chief executive officer of Veritas Software.



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