Applying an innovative funding model. We didn’t take the traditional venture capital route, partly due to VC investing parameters and partly because I could self-fund and find other sources of capital.
In an age where industries evolve at lightning speed, there exists a special breed of C-suite executives who are not just navigating the changes, but driving them. These are the pioneers who think outside the box, championing novel strategies that shatter the status quo and set new industry standards. Their approach fosters innovation, spurs growth, and leads to disruptive change that redefines their sectors. In this interview series, we are talking to disruptive C-suite executives to share their experiences, insights, and the secrets behind the innovative approaches they are taking to disrupt their industries. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing David Flynn, Founder & CEO, Hammerspace.
Hammerspace co-founder and Chief Executive Officer David Flynn is a recognized leader in IT innovation who has been architecting disruptive computing platforms since his early work in supercomputing and Linux systems. David pioneered the use of Flash for enterprise application acceleration as founder and former CEO of Fusion-io, which was acquired by SanDisk in 2014. Previously, David served as Chief-Architect at Linux Networx, where he was instrumental in the creation of the OpenFabrics stack and designed several of the world’s largest supercomputers leveraging Linux clustering, InfiniBand, and RDMA-based technologies. David holds more than 100 patents in areas across web browser technologies, mobile device management, network switching and protocols to distributed storage systems.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about disruption, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I was fortunate to have an arc of career experiences, providing deep technical expertise and insights that ultimately led me to build embedded systems. Early in my career, I worked for Larry Ellison’s Network Computer Inc., building web technologies for television set-top boxes and corporate smart terminals, embedding alternate open-source software like Linux onto tiny systems. In the early 2000s, I was privileged to build supercomputers in the HPC industry. It was the dream job for any engineer, the technical building of the world’s largest supercomputers for Los Alamos National Labs and the Department of Energy Laboratories.
I went from building some of the tiniest embedded systems with minimal hardware horsepower, like a television set-top box circa 1998, to creating some of the world’s largest supercomputers. I found a common theme at both ends: the need to glean every ounce of horsepower in the system to get the most performance from the hardware. So those tiny embedded systems, which seem very distant versus large supercomputers, have that same commonality. Those experiences led me to create Fusion-io in 2006, pioneering the use of flash technology for enterprise application acceleration, which until that point was generally used for embedded systems in consumer electronics — for example, the flash on your iPods and early cell phones.
Early on, I recognized the opportunity to retrofit the consumer electronics-driven innovation into the slower-evolving data center world, disrupting data center storage infrastructure by shifting towards solid-state storage and away from mechanical hard drives.
The challenge then became that the hardware was changing from mechanical hard drives to solid state drives and moving to extremely fast performance levels, requiring the data to be physically distributed across a set of servers or to have decentralized data across third-party storage systems and entire data centers.
The introduction of ultra-high-performance flash led me to foresee the need to solve the challenge of decentralized data and abstracting data from the underlying infrastructure. The fact that most data is not organized in a pre-defined manner makes it difficult for enterprises to recognize, find, and extract the value held within their digital assets. This realization ultimately led to the creation of Hammerspace and its powerful data orchestration system.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One interesting aspect of Hammerspace is our name. According to Wikipedia, Hammerspace (the concept) is a “fan-envisioned, multidimensional, instantly accessible storage area in fiction, allowing animated characters to produce objects out of thin air.”
We’ve seen this fictional trick pop up in many places over the years, such as in the new Spider-Verse movie when a character produces a hammer out of thin air or in an earlier era when Mary Poppins reached into her carpet bag for a floor lamp or hat stand. This ability to manifest something valuable from thin air is a convenient fictional solution to otherwise unsolvable problems in cartoons and films going back to the earliest days.
So, we called our technology and company Hammerspace. Because with Hammerspace (the technology), enterprises can now solve otherwise intractable data problems by “reaching inside” their existing silos of data on-premises, in the cloud, and across multiple locations to get immediate value and solve one of the industry’s biggest problems: Using data when and where you want it no matter where it is stored.
The mission of Hammerspace (the company) is to empower enterprises to realize the value of their unstructured data across the organization, regardless of which platform or location it is on today or needs to move to in the future.
The Hammerspace Data Orchestration System empowers organizations to realize value from their data by providing global access and data placement to use data created and stored anywhere, with an application or compute environment located anywhere, allowing organizations to create new revenue streams, ensure global data protection, and drive operational efficiency. With non-disruptive, metadata-driven data orchestration, even on live data, Hammerspace enables our customers to unlock the value of their unstructured data across the enterprise.
Data is the lifeblood of every business; it’s just a matter of seamlessly accessing it across the inevitable silos. That is, to enable customers to extract the total value held within those digital assets, reducing the friction and cost that has traditionally been the struggle in siloed environments in all industries.
What makes Hammerspace stand out from the competition? The validator for me was when Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, selected Hammerspace as his company’s data platform for the hybrid cloud. The potential is to orchestrate data in space! Data orchestration is necessary to automate data movement when contemplating those kinds of distances, bandwidth, and other constraints.
As one of our customers said recently, Hammerspace’s software feels magical. It allows one to optimize the maximum value from their digital assets across an entire global data environment that can span vendor silos, clouds, and locations. Even in outer space!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Being highly technical and working closely with our engineering team and customers. I still wear an engineering architect hat and am closely involved in engineering. It was a learning experience in my career when I thought moving up the management hierarchy, especially at the CEO level, meant you had to distance yourself from the engineering side. I’ve experienced failure along the way, but it was a maturing process. I’ve realized that even though I lead the company as CEO, it’s important to me to stay actively involved with driving the technology.
- Risk-taking and making difficult decisions. When facing roadblocks or pushback against innovative ideas, leaders must look ahead and understand the demands that will escalate and work to break down the opposition. Customers will usually stand with you as you develop your product or service to the point of breaking through the barriers — because they need those barriers removed. I have avoided failure many times by doubling down and staying on course, even when things got tough.
- Leadership. As a leader, I have always tried to get the best performance from people through intrinsic motivation, being motivated by sharing a common goal, allowing a degree of autonomy, recognizing competency, and encouraging an internal drive for excellence. I discovered that to be a successful leader, I needed to hire people who were themselves successful, confident, and capable, and to understand that I did not need to feel threatened by that.
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.
The decision to dive in and fund my own business (Hammerspace) versus retiring and sailing off into the sunset was a hard personal decision. And my eventual decision to continue pursuing my vision has dramatically shaped how I approach my company’s leadership. When it’s your own money, it gives you a different perspective.
Stepping up and taking over the company’s financial backing made me more diligent in contributing technically. And it required a risk-taking approach to how I led the company. If not done properly, this could lead to the disempowerment of others, being over-controlling and micro-managing the team, which is not conducive to success.
Driving things on the technical front was motivational and gave me a sense of owning my destiny. It is equally essential to foster that feeling among your team. People achieve excellence when they have a sense of control, the knowledge that they are making a difference, and the empowerment to create. The key is to recognize people with the capacity and motivation and then let them do their jobs.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that we all are on the same page. In the context of a business, what exactly is “Disruption”
You disrupt an industry by recognizing tipping points and innovations on the volume side and, for us, designing a system that competes, displaces, and disrupts the old-school data center approach. At the same time, disruption leads to the chance to build something as a replacement that creates a watershed event.
Hammerspace focuses on two major industries: the data infrastructure industry, including storage, compute, and IT infrastructure, and the data management industry. Both industries are broken. The entire data management industry is built upon the inverted broken layer of having a data platform subjugated to infrastructure. That is why moving data across the infrastructure freely to run it in other places is so hard. Disruption is a chance to correct things that have often become organically wrong. In this case, there is an inversion between platform, data, and infrastructure storage, leading to all kinds of difficulties, pain, and inefficiency. Disrupting this dynamic allowed us to build a replacement that is ordered correctly and provides an infrastructure-independent data platform.
How do you perceive the role of ‘disruption’ within your industry, and how have you personally embraced it? Is it a necessity, a strategy, or something else entirely in your view?
The role of disruption is to disrupt creative destruction. It’s the emergence of the phoenix rising from the ashes. The behemoths that we thought were untouchable, the giant monopolies, are undermined by unexpected and unanticipated changes.
I embrace disruption by recognizing the role of the startup and the ability to do things that large companies cannot, like threatening their business model and principal revenue streams with something new that offers so much cost savings and efficiency that the old business model can’t endure. This has to happen in the tech world because you need the cost to continue to decline exponentially so that technology can go wider and drive significant transformation.
The tech industry is one of the fastest to innovate and disrupt itself. Significant disruptions are occurring in technology business models as companies grapple with how to prepare for and succeed in the Next Data Cycle. Artificial intelligence (AI) stands to be a major disruption in this next data frontier, and we must fix the broken relationship between the data and the data infrastructure where it is stored.
What lessons have you learned from challenging conventional wisdom, and how have those lessons shaped your leadership style?
Much of the business world would make you believe you must focus on metrics as a leader. In my experience, it’s much more qualitative than quantitative.
I may feel this way because I generally work with earlier-stage companies than many CEOs. Once a company gets large and harder to oversee, you focus on measurable things that can be tracked and managed. This approach focuses on management rather than leadership, and there is a vast difference between the two. Leadership inspires and empowers team members to be self-directed and give their best effort. When the priority is strictly on metrics accountability, it focuses on subordinate goals instead of overarching goals such as customer success, technology adoption, and industry transformation.
Disruptive ideas often meet resistance. Could you describe a time when you faced significant pushback for a disruptive idea? How did you navigate the opposition, and what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?
People look at past failed efforts without recognizing that they may have failed because the technology was ahead of its time or the execution faltered. These assumptions are especially true with disruptive innovation. Failed attempts can erroneously reinforce the belief that you should not try to break out of conventional constraints.
Going through the early-stage funding process for Hammerspace, I tried to share my vision and set realistic expectations. I cautioned that this was going to be a heavy lift. Developing an entirely new file system that can span entire data centers, third-party storage systems, and flash inside servers in a software-defined environment would require much time and effort to build. After about four years, Hammerspace’s top-tier investors got fatigued with the process and discouraged that we had at least another four years to go. After much thought, I decided to continue to fund the development with my own money. And it has been only in the last year that our success has become, in my view, inevitable.
I advise anyone facing that type of opposition to have the self-confidence to go for it. When I proposed the idea behind the company Fusion-io and said I could get more performance than an entire multimillion-dollar storage array from a single solid-state device that would fit within a server, cost a fraction of the storage array, and deliver 100,000 I/Os per second, I was met with disbelief. Today, it’s common to see millions of I/Os per second from these devices, but when I said we could do a hundred thousand I/Os per second, people were taking bets against us — even those involved in funding the company.
So, if you genuinely believe in what you are doing, persevere. Push your boundaries, and don’t be complacent with where you are because time is magical. It’s a lot longer than you think. They say there is a boundary between chaos and order, where the most exciting things happen. For a disruptor, that means being at the edge of your skills and knowledge and repeatedly working at it.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Innovative Approaches We Are Using To Disrupt Our Industry”?
- Developing an innovative parallel file system architecture. From an architectural perspective, we took a concept from the supercomputing world and retro-applied it to traditional IT and network-attached storage (NAS). Designed to unlock performance for supercomputers, we’re using this technology to decouple data and metadata so that the data is free to move decoupled from the infrastructure.
- Applying an innovative funding model. We didn’t take the traditional venture capital route, partly due to VC investing parameters and partly because I could self-fund and find other sources of capital.
- Leveraging the power of disintermediation. Disintermediation is a crucial principle to disruption, and we applied this concept in many critical areas at Hammerspace, including removing disintermediated intermediaries from the financing process and eliminating the choke points inherent in the middle of storage systems that prevent the scaling of performance and storage capacity in lockstep when adding additional storage nodes.
- Looking for innovations that can be cross-applied or applied differently. We could drive new cost points through disintermediation and the cross-application of technology innovation. For example, we identified flash for consumer electronics devices like iPods and cell phones at Fusion-io and introduced the same technology into the enterprise world. We also used the concept of disintermediation by eliminating the need for legacy storage systems, buses, controllers, and other equipment designed for slower disk drives. This approach allowed us to create a new, high-performance data architecture.
- Using machine learning to automate data movement. When we started Hammerspace eight years ago, our goal was to build a file system and data infrastructure that could automate the movement of data. We achieved that, and now that automation can apply machine learning intelligence to optimize data movement, ensuring it resides on the best and/or most cost-efficient infrastructure and can be moved as needs dictate. The result is a smart way to distribute data across decentralized infrastructures and move data without disrupting its access and industry.
Looking back at your career, in what ways has being disruptive defined or redefined your path? What surprises have you encountered along the way?
The success of Fusion-io was a defining moment in my career. And it has enabled me to undertake my most recent endeavor, founding Hammerspace, to disrupt an industry once again.
My entire career has been all about disrupting the world of legacy, proprietary interconnects, and other technologies. Technology innovation is about continually disrupting and renovating on a fast track. It’s a very fast cycle.
Regarding surprises I have encountered along the way, what stands out the most is how inspiring it is to attract bright, talented people who share a common vision and are excited about the journey.
Beyond professional accomplishments, how has embracing disruption affected you personally?
Being a business leader and embracing disruption impacts your work/life balance. Success has its rewards, including providing financial security. Earlier in my career, I had much more time available for myself and my family but a lot less money. The historical “time versus money” dynamic is ever-present.
In your role as a C-suite leader, driving innovation and embracing disruption, what thoughts or concerns keep you awake at night? How do these reflections guide your decisions and leadership?
Ensuring customers’ successful adoption of the Hammerspace technology — especially as our deployment sizes scale — is always on my mind. Our next challenges surround hyperscale customers and the scale requirements of their deployments. So, that might sound mundane, but it’s what I’m most obsessed about because everything else flows from it — financial security, the company’s prosperity and growth, and most importantly, whether we are doing all we can to make a difference for our customers. If we can do that, everything else flows from it. And nothing else matters if we can’t.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would focus on education — an aspect that would bring the most good to the most people. People and their inherent brain power are the most valuable assets on the planet. If I could start a movement, my main focus wouldn’t be as much on STEM education but on the lost arts of civic engagement and understanding human nature. Our modern era is fraught with many contending views that need to be openly debated. Uninhibited, wide-open debate helps everyone. Learning to use critical thinking skills and making decisions with emotional intelligence have been identified as fundamental leadership skills. Developing these skill sets in a disciplined way would benefit humanity on many levels. If I were free from constraints, this is a movement I would support and one that I can see having a beneficial global impact on future generations.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.