Stealth mode is never a good idea: It’s hard enough to get people to listen to you without not telling the market anything! When I first launched Apama we were advised to go into stealth mode (I ignored that advice) as some advisors were worried that people might copy the solution or that we might not be able to meet the demand. In my view, these are good potential problems to have. It’s important to remember that it’s challenging enough to raise awareness and communicate your message when you are not in stealth.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. John Bates, CEO of Eggplant. He is a visionary technologist and highly-accomplished business leader. He currently serves as CEO of Eggplant –a leader in intelligent automation. John pioneered the space of streaming analytics as Co-founder, President and CTO of Apama (acquired by Progress Software in 2005 and now part of Software AG). He drove the evolution of platforms for digital business while serving as EVP of Corporate Strategy and CTO at Progress Software (NASDAQ:PRGS), and as CTO of Big Data, Head of Industry Solutions and CMO at Software AG (Frankfurt TecDAX:SOW). More recently he drove the commercial development of platforms to support Internet of Things applications, serving as CEO at PLAT.ONE (acquired by SAP in 2016). John holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Cambridge University, UK and is the author of the book “Thingalytics: Smart Big Data Analytics for the Internet of Things.”
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career path has taken the form of an elaborate apprenticeship. I started as a university professor at Cambridge in the UK, where I turned my research into an AI-based product that I then spun out into my first company. I have held a variety of roles, including multiple C-Level positions at a variety of organizations from startups like Apama and PLAT.ONE to global brands like SAP & Software AG. I have also lived in the US for almost 2 decades, having only recently returned to the UK. This has given me a unique perspective as I can genuinely understand how organizations, both private and public, operate and where a CEO’s focus needs to be. To me, the most valuable quality a CEO must have is an understanding of the product and the vision. When I look at the most successful CEOs, they all share a common factor: they are successful product marketing visionaries. No one encapsulates this more than Elon Musk, who is the master of the story and how to bring it to life. This ethos is something I aspire to in my current role as CEO of Eggplant, an intelligent automation provider.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
At Eggplant, I took over as CEO after the business had been in operation for almost 10 years. The company already had a customer base, several software testing products, and a team in the US & UK. It was not the case of coming into a turnaround where everything that is wrong can be blamed on prior leadership. This was a situation where the business needed to evolve from a niche provider to a market disruptor. It required establishing the vision for the next generation of intelligent automation. It was a challenge to make the necessary changes in a collaborative and cohesive manner so that the team was aligned to help accelerate the massive transition. The situation was exacerbated as the former CEO is still an active member of the Board.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The automation market was ripe for disruption. The software testing industry had barely changed in decades, predominantly relying on humans to carry out manual testing. Where test automation was used, it took an antiquated and cumbersome approach that fails to find flaws in the software, doesn’t look at the user experience and doesn’t address how people actually use the digital product. Intelligent automation was exactly what the market needed. We tapped into the power of AI, machine learning, and analytics to build new products and reworked the existing product range to make them more powerful and be able to test and measure quality as a user would use a digital product. We changed the vision and strategy to disrupt the market and create a long term, viable future that addressed a market need.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
1. VC funding is not the only path: It’s tough being a VC-funded tech entrepreneur. The decks seem to be stacked more and more to the VCs and the statistical model of “spread betting” mean that few succeed. Having lived and worked in Silicon Valley for several years, I have witnessed the boom or bust culture firsthand. Don’t be afraid to look at other options such as private equity where you are more likely to get a good return in alignment with the PE firm. In my experience, the PE model is a better path if you want to focus on building a successful and valuable business for the longer term.
2. You need a vision AND a narrative: Without these, it’s almost impossible to break through in the market and build a brand around which customers and employees can unite. When I took on the CEO role at Eggplant, this was the key challenge I had to solve: putting the vision and narrative in place for the next generation of intelligent automation.
3. Stealth mode is never a good idea: It’s hard enough to get people to listen to you without not telling the market anything! When I first launched Apama we were advised to go into stealth mode (I ignored that advice) as some advisors were worried that people might copy the solution or that we might not be able to meet the demand. In my view, these are good potential problems to have. It’s important to remember that it’s challenging enough to raise awareness and communicate your message when you are not in stealth.
4. Talent travels: Once you’ve worked with good people, you need to keep hiring them. Experimenting with people has risks. Don’t do it wholesale. But add new people in certain roles and then if they’re good — add them to your pool and keep hiring them when the need occurs, and the fit is right. I have adopted this approach, and I have worked with some colleagues multiple times. At Eggplant my CTO, Gareth Smith, and I have worked together at four different organizations. Andy Menzies, our sales EVP, and I are also on our third company together.
5. Your sales SVP must deliver results in Q1: It’s vital to get each year off to a good start otherwise you spend the rest of the time playing catch-up and having your focus pulled elsewhere. Don’t accept any excuses. With annually recurring revenue, you need to keep renewing and adding customers. The pace of business now requires that people deliver immediately. The days of letting someone take six months before they start delivering are over. The “can’t wait won’t wait” mantra applies to business and especially sales.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
My mantra is to start each day on a positive note. As I have got older, I have recognized the power, both physical and mental, of daily exercise. A typical day starts with either a run or hitting the gym before 6 am or some combination of the two. I have also incorporated some therapeutic elements, such as meditation and yoga. On the other end, it’s also essential to understand your personal threshold for sleep. I need at least six hours to be an effective leader.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been lucky enough to be inspired and mentored by many people during my career. One in particular that has had a huge impact is Bob Wardrop. We first met when he was the lead investor in Apama and he has continued to be an avid supporter since. However, no one has been tougher on me and pushed me harder than him. His philosophy is that you have to be cruel to be kind and he certainly has lived that countless times. He also transformed my personal life by introducing me to my wife, which more than made up for some of the tough conversations we have had over the years! Interestingly he has now pivoted into academia and has set up his own academic department within the Judge Business School which is part of Cambridge University in the UK. I like to think that I have inspired him on his professional journey!
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
My goal is to ensure that Eggplant is the global leader in intelligent automation. It’s important to me to create a culture of leaders that will help build an even more valuable and successful company. To achieve my goal, we will need to continue on our path of rapid growth, both organic and through acquisition. We may even IPO at some point in the future. From a personal perspective now that I’m based in the UK again, I want to be recognized as one of the most impactful UK CEOs.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I would like to be recognized as an AI visionary and innovator and one of the few who have brought AI to the commercial domain. It’s also important to me that I’m viewed as a trusted leader who helped his team be successful and that the wealth was shared. Professional success is never a solo effort.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
You can’t stop progress and automation is going to cause massive disruption over the next decade — most of it beneficial. However, there will be some people that struggle to acquire new skills and are at risk of being left behind. I think it’s critical that we help people to transition and learn new skills for the post AI robotic world. As a society, we need to plan to help everyone co-exist with algorithms. This is one of the biggest challenges we face this century.
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