Companies never go just up and up. It’s always ups with downs, with more ups and more downs.
If you’re going to make it as a tech entrepreneur, it helps if you are able to acclimate quickly to change. That’s been a constant theme throughout Mohit Aron’s career.
Aron grew up in Chandigarh, a picturesque city in northern India. In fact, Chandigarh is renowned for being one of India’s earliest planned cities after independence, and its architecture and urban design was planned by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. It also was rated as the happiest city in India in a 2015 national survey.
Aron wasn’t particularly drawn to computers or technology during young adulthood. But he did excel in the sciences and, with his parents encouraging him to get the best education possible, he left the idyllic surroundings of his hometown for the nonstop tumult that is New Delhi to study at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. That’s also where his interest in technology blossomed into an all-consuming passion, one that would lead him to the United States, where he received a PhD in computer science from Rice University.
A career in academia beckoned after graduation, but while Aron was tempted, he was more drawn to the tech industry. So, as the world celebrated a new millennium, Aron set out for Silicon Valley where the internet revolution was now underway. Aron joined Google in 2003 and stayed nearly five years, where he worked as a lead developer on the Google File System engineering project. After leaving Google and a subsequent stay at a startup, it was eventually time for Aron to take everything he soaked up over the years and try his hand as an entrepreneur, first as a co-founder of Nutanix in 2009 and then, four years later, as the founder of Cohesity, where he is the CEO today.
How’s he doing? The numbers tell the story: With a recent Series E round, Cohesity is now valued at $2.5 billion, more than double the valuation when the company raised its Series D less than two years ago.
Q: Can you talk a little about what it was like growing up in your parent’s house?
My father was a forest officer and my mother was a housewife. I’m from Chandigarh, which is about five hours by road from New Delhi. It’s very beautiful. I think it was India’s only planned city at the time.
Q: I read about your father, was he a very determined person?
He was very resilient. The biggest thing I learned from my father was that no matter how many times life throws you down, the person who can get up and run again will have the edge. The people who give up — they never reach their destination — wherever that is. My father taught me that no matter how hard life is or what life does to you, you just need to keep getting up and start walking and then running again.
Q: Did your parents encourage you in any direction?
My father and mother both had ambitions for myself and for my brother. Remember that India had received independence from the British in 1947 and for a while it was socialist and influenced by leaders with ties to Russia. Everything was connected to the government and there was little privatization. There were very few companies and whatever companies [existed] had government support. But my father had friends and relatives who had gone to the US, and he always knew there was another side. They both wanted the best for their kids. That’s why my parents pushed us to get the best possible education.
Q: Did you have any inkling back then what you wanted to do in life?
To be very honest, I think every kid is very confused about that. When I grew up in the 1980s, computers were in their infancy. The only thing I knew was that there is a world beyond us that we’ve never seen and that it would look very different 10 years from today.
Q: You wound up studying computer science. What was it about the topic that attracted you?
My parents pushed me to get the best education possible and do cutting-edge stuff. Computer science was an up-and-coming field, and it seemed like the future was going to be in computers and software and that sort of stuff. So, I opted for that, but I still had no clue.
Q: Up to that point, what was your familiarity with technology?
I had no formal training in computer science at the time. Even my schools barely taught the topic — they were still teaching us flow charts. We didn’t really have good computers so I had no taste of what it would be like to be studying computer science. I was an expert in subjects like physics, chemistry, and math. When I started studying computer science, I had no idea whether I was going to enjoy it or not. But once I began, I’ve got to tell you that I loved it.
Q: When you arrived in Houston to study at Rice University, did it take a while to acclimate?
Oh my God. Everything was upside down. The Indian system is very British. In India, if you need to turn on the light switches, you flip them down. In the US, it’s just the opposite. In the US, you drive on the right side of the road. In India, they drive on the left side of the road. I also expected it would be cooler than India, which is a tropical country. But I landed in Houston and the climate was actually hotter and more humid than what I had left behind.
Q: Was the plan to ultimately return to India after graduation or find work in the US?
My father definitely did not want me to return to India because he didn’t want me to work in the government with all of its bureaucracy. Nowadays, there are plenty of startups in India and entrepreneurship. But back then, India was behind. So, after graduating with my PhD, I decided to come to California because this was where the industry was established. And you know — once you’re in a place for a while, you get used to it. Plus, California has great weather.
Q: After receiving your PhD, you could have gone into academia. But you chose not to. Why?
I knew that I needed to learn what was on the other side, to push the boundaries. When I was doing my PhD, I was asked by the top universities to come interview for faculty jobs. But it seemed to me that the industry was going to get out ahead of academia in terms of technology’s cutting edge. This was the time when you had companies like Google and Yahoo coming up and all indications were that the cool stuff was going to happen at these companies. So, I made a conscious choice to work in the industry.
Q: What was the thought process that led you to becoming an entrepreneur?
The way you get there is to first take jobs at existing companies. I spent nearly two years at a company called Zambeel building scalable storage. After that I joined Google and then later worked at Aster Data Systems. But all throughout, the idea was to learn the ropes of becoming an entrepreneur. So, I reached the point where I felt that I knew enough about being an entrepreneur that I could carry myself and lead people.
Q: As you look back to that time, was there one thing that you wish somebody had told you before becoming an entrepreneur that might’ve proved useful to you?
Oh, lots of things.
Q: Can you give me just one?
OK. I guess it would be the importance of hiring the right way. A company is eventually all about its people and if you end up hiring the wrong people, it can set you back. Over time, I learned how to approach and refine the hiring process.
I’m an engineer and I used to believe that every kind of role can be hired as if you are interviewing an engineer. Just ask a few questions on the white board and if it all feels good and looks good, it must be good. Right? That’s so not true. You can hire engineers by asking them algorithms or puzzles, but you can’t do that with a marketing person or a salesperson. I learned that in order to hire good businesspeople, you need to rely on blind reference checks from their peers, who are very familiar with their work, or people who reported directly to them. Ex-bosses tend to hide the negatives, so only checking with ex-bosses is not sufficient.
Q: You’ve talked about some of the things that you’ve learned as a leader. What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome?
It depends on the role. I went from being a technical person to a CEO. The challenge that all CEOs have to understand is that a CEO is inherently in an inspection business. It’s a breadth role. So, you have to inspect, and you have to be able to be broad. You need to know whether marketing is working well, if sales is working well, whether your engineering is working well, or finance is working well. You don’t have the luxury to go deep for extended periods of time. If you do that, you’re doing a disservice to your role as the CEO. If you find the need to be deep in something all the time, the fault is with the leader.
Q: Did the challenges also extend to the personal side?
Companies never go just up and up. It’s always ups with downs, with more ups and more downs. Everything that’s bad bubbles up to the CEO. Every day, I’m dealing with just the bad parts. That can take a toll on you, especially given that the CEO is a lonely job.
Q: How have you dealt with that?
I had some good mentors, I have an executive coach, and I also read a lot of books. Between all of them, I’ve trained my mind to deal with this.
Q: I don’t think anybody was prepared for what we’re going through now. How do you deal with the challenges of managing through something as severe as the COVID-19 crisis?
First, be at ease with the reality. If you keep thinking, “I wish the reality was something else,” well, that is a self-defeating thought. You’re not going to be happy if you keep doing that.
You’ve got to realize that the only power we really have is the power of now. We always have to think about the future in the sense that we need to get somewhere, and our actions now determine where we are going to go. But don’t keep obsessing about the future and about how things should be. Make peace with the reality that exists. There is the crisis. And you know, “OK, I need to take the company somewhere. So, in order to do that, you need to think in terms of what is the best we can do today.” And once you’ve done that, your mind should be at peace because you’ve done what’s in your control. That’s it.
It’s possible this crisis might take the economy down, but nobody’s seen what tomorrow will bring. Why obsess about that? Why hurt yourself unnecessarily once you’ve done your best? I tell my executive staff what we have in hand is the present. Let’s do the best we can today, and you’ll see how we can do the best tomorrow and the day after. And hopefully, it will work out in a way that leads to a good outcome.
Q: When you came to the US, you had maybe a thousand bucks in your pocket. Since then, it’s a classic rags-to-riches story. I’ve asked other entrepreneurs in this series who grew up overseas about their immigrant experience and what it means to them. What do you think about watching the backlash against immigration over the last three and a half years?
I believe that the greatness of the US is due to the fact it is enlightened enough to invite people to this country to fill a scarcity. Why not get smart people? Imagine if the US had shut its borders to all these people. If you go to any great universities, so many of the professors are immigrants. America has basically taken all the great people in other countries and made it a very welcoming place for them. And when this is all said and done, the benefit comes back to America.
I think that’s been a great strategy and whoever came up with it was a brilliant, brilliant person. I still believe in that strategy. I endorse it and I think this is how the country can continue to become great — by bringing in the best people from around the world. I think it’s a very enlightened strategy.
Q: Are you a film buff? Do you have a favorite movie?
I actually have a couple. Since I grew up in India, I have a favorite film from Indian cinema called Sholay. It’s just an evergreen film that’s loved by Indians. And on the Hollywood side, my favorite is The Godfather Part II.
Q: You mentioned before that you like to read. So, if you were isolated for a period, sort of like sheltering in place, and you could bring along only one book for the duration, what would it be?
One title that I really like is Psycho-Cybernetics. It’s a book by Maxwell Maltz. It’s all about how you can train your subconscious to actually bring about a great outcome.
Q: Is there a motto that you use as a touchstone as you go about your daily life?
The phrase I use is be humble and keep learning. You’ll see that phrase plastered on our walls in Cohesity. It basically means that if you’re full of yourself, you’ll shut yourself off from learning because you think you already know everything. Life is all about learning and we need to keep absorbing new stuff.
Q: Last but not least, is there one person, you have admired over time?
Albert Einstein. I admire him for one reason: he studied light for 18 years. He was constantly asking why light behaves the way it does. And when you do that, you’re going to know everything there is to know about light. That was the reason for his success. And I believe that if you’re so passionate about a subject, if you’re maniacally focused like that, then you become an expert like no other.