Hire the Right Leaders — Don’t Hope They Learn on the Job: 5 Lessons With Mohit Aron
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mohit Aron, CEO of Cohesity.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
I grew up in India. At the time I was growing up it was a bit of a socialist culture, most people used to work for the government, and so did my father. I grew up with the aspiration of becoming a top government official. You are impressionable when you are young, so when I saw a lot of the smart kids were getting engineering, science and medicine degrees, I thought maybe that was a better route. That was why I chose to pursue engineering.
Eventually, I saw a bunch of the smart kids going for higher studies to the US, so that seemed like a good idea. I chose to apply for and get a PhD from Rice University, here in the US. I started having some independent thoughts at that point and didn’t always follow others, so I decided to come to the business world to really learn the ropes of bringing what I learned to the world. I joined my first company, Zambeel — which got hit by the Internet bust, but I learned a lot from the experience.
From there onwards I moved to join Google which was a startup at the time. I learned a bunch of things there, how to do software engineering, how to work in teams, how to build great systems, etc. When I joined I was the 600th employee and when I left five years later, there were more than 30,000 people. After Google, I joined another startup that was in the data warehousing space where I got the confidence to run big teams and then went on to start my first company, Nutanix — which as of this interview is a public company, worth more than five billion dollars. Huge buzz at Nutanix, we made a difference in the world, pioneering the concept of hyperconvergence and bringing it to the world.
After being the co-founder at Nutanix, I started my current company, Cohesity, which is also bringing the concepts of hyperconvergence to the data center, just to a different part of the data center, which we refer to as secondary storage. Secondary storage is the so called “boring part” of the data center ‑‑ backups, analytics, test and dev, file shares, archival, and so on and so forth.
That’s my story. I remember the time when I came to the US. I barely carried a thousand dollars in my pocket. From there to where I’ve come today, sometimes it’s very satisfying, but I know there’s a lot more to do in the future.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
The funny story that I want to tell you, starts at the time when I was graduating with my PhD. I interviewed at NetApp, Network Appliance. One of the people who spoke to me was their founder. He was talking to me about the merits of fetching the data across the network — what people used to do with Network Appliance. He was telling me how it makes way more sense than fetching the data locally from a local desk. Keep in mind he is an important guy and I’m just a poor grad student, so I don’t have any legs to debate with him; but something about that argument didn’t sit well with me, like it wasn’t quite right.
That conversation took place in 2000. Fast forward a few years to 2009 and I had co-Founded Nutanix, which challenged that very concept. Hyperconvergence is all about not going across the network to fetch your data, instead trying to fetch it, as much as possible, locally. Now the industry as a whole is moving towards hyperconvergence, including NetApp. So, I want to thank the founder of NetApp for inspiring these thoughts in me and making both Nutanix and Cohesity possible!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Cohesity stand out? In my mind, lots of things. First and foremost, it’s our employees, our people. This is family away from family. I love working with these people and I come here very excited to spend time with them! That’s why it stands out for me, but for the world it’s the coolness of stuff that we are doing which makes us stand out.
I like to compare what we are doing to a smartphone. Before the smartphone we all used to carry a phone, a music player, a pager, a camera, a flashlight, a GPS device, and so on and so forth. The smartphone came and it consolidated all of that on one platform, made it all very simple. Now I can carry it in my pocket. I don’t have to carry tens of different devices.
We are doing the same thing to the data center. Before us in the field of secondary storage our customers had to buy so many different silos from different vendors, manage them all using different UIs. Through our technology they’re able to buy something very simple and consolidate all those workflows on one platform. We have this phrase, hyperconverged secondary storage, to refer to that phenomenon.
This consolidation is what makes us stand out and we are very flattered to see the widespread adoption of hyperconvergence out there. There are companies, vendors, that are kind of our competitors that have taken that exact phrase. If you go to their websites, you’ll see hyperconverged secondary storage being used by them.
Clearly, we’ve influenced the world in a certain way. We are here to redefine the enterprise data center. That’s what is so special about our company.
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?
I would say there are a lot of people that have helped me get to where I am, but I’m going to attribute this particular one to my parents. Both my father and mother contributed a lot, but I’m going to talk in this session about my father, who is no longer with us. He passed away last year.
He had a tough childhood. Always, no matter how many times he fell, he would get up and run again. He had cancer, but the funny thing is that he would actually go to his chemo treatments all dressed up. If I was that sick I would go in my pajamas, but he would be all suited and dressed up to go to the hospital and then come out of the hospital and drive to one of his social clubs to play cards or whatever was on the docket for that day.
Throughout his life he was a fighter, always used to teach me never to take defeat, never to stay down. That’s the thing that you need if you are starting a company, because I can tell you success is never linear. Success is not just a combination of small successes.
Eventual success is always a combination of lots and lots of failures and successes interweaved with each other. On each failure if you get discouraged and stay down, we will never come to that ultimate success that I believe we are all destined for. That’s what I took away from my father.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Life is not just about accumulating stuff that life gives to you. It’s also a lot about giving back. For me personally that is both monetarily and also with one’s time. So with that in mind, I try to give back in multiple ways.
One of them is within the company. I believe it’s my job to provide a safe and enjoyable work environment for the people who work for me. I love holding sessions, maybe technical sessions, or even entrepreneurial sessions, to talk to our people here about how to build great technology or how to think about doing companies. Last year we were able to all go to Hawaii as a company, so we try to provide both career development but also fun.
Number two is people who come to me for advice externally. I love talking to them about whether they are thinking correctly about how to do a company or not and help them to evaluate their ideas. I’m also involved in the engineering advisory board for my alma mater, Rice University, where I’m helping them with some entrepreneurship. Helping faculty and students push out their ideas in the real world.
Lastly myself and our company Cohesity, are also into charitable donations. Very recently we gave a charitable donation to this foundation, Work2Future which is here in San Jose and they help people get employment and give career guidance to people.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my startup,” and why?
Doing a company teaches you a lot. I’m hard pressed to pick only five things that I learned, but let me try.
- Hire the right leaders, because good leaders make all the difference. Before I started the company, I was of the mindset that people can learn on the job.
- People can learn on the job, but they also make a lot of mistakes. Especially if you hired someone who isn’t able to learn, then that particular area of the company isn’t going to do very well and it might take six months to a year to fix that. I learned that the hard way, but when you hire the right leaders they will bring the right people and make that particular component of the company magnificent.
- The “how” behind hiring the right leaders. I was a little bit stingy on that when I first started, but I realize now that you have to use multiple ways to find the best leaders and sometimes that requires money.
- Get the best executive recruiter in town. They are often expensive, but they are well worth the money because if you hire the wrong leader, it’s going to be way more costly.
- A good way to find great leaders is to ask their network. If someone is a great leader, most likely their network knows that they’re great. For instance, if you’re hiring a sales leader, the sales network both in and outside of your company will probably know some great people who are good leaders in sales, and same thing if you’re hiring for a marketing position. Go tap into that network and ask them, “Who would be the right marketing or the right sales hire for me?” and maybe they’ll give you a couple of candidates that surprise you with their talents and capabilites.
- How to hire or interview nontechnical people. I’m an engineer. I grew up as an engineer, so I used to think that I could just hire non‑engineers like I hire engineers: ask them a couple of questions on the whiteboard, and based on the answers you know whether they are the right person or not. When you’re hiring technical people you can ask them puzzles or you can give them a programming assignment but that is not true for nontechnical people. What I realized the hard way, is that when you hire nontechnical talent, the interview is important. However, before the interview, make sure that their resume is a good fit for the job description. It’s very essential to come up with the right job description and also hire for a cultural fit. There should be good chemistry.
- The importance of references and the right kinds of references. You can’t just take the references that a person gives and go ask them. You’ve got to do some blind references. It’s very important who you do those references from. Don’t go to his/her boss. Ask that person’s peers from past life or ask people who reported to the person, because bosses would regard him like their kid, and they don’t want to say anything negative about the person. Ask the person’s peers or ask people who reported to the person, and they’ll tell you the truth. I learned that the hard way, that that’s the way to actually interview people.
- The role that social media plays in marketing. It’s amazing how many people are plugged into the likes of LinkedIn and Twitter. Having your marketing organization be very active on social media can raise your awareness well above what you can do through other traditional marketing channels. I was blown away by how important it is to make sure you are paying special attention to social media.
- Hiring the right leader for channel sales. You think about engineering, and maybe the engineering leader and the company chugs along. Then, maybe, you want to hire a marketing person, and a marketing leader, and then a sales leader but that one leader that we all never think of, especially in enterprise companies, is the head of channel sales, because your direct sales force is not going to be able to sell without the help of channel partners. Hiring the right leader for managing those channel partners or engaging and exciting those channel partners is going to make a world of difference on what your sales are going to look like. Getting the right channel leader in the beginning and getting him or her early was something that I learned the hard way. I wish I knew these things before I started the company.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Absolutely, there are multiple such people. There are multiple people in the US that I’d love to have breakfast with, but the one name that comes to my mind is Elon Musk. Why? Most of us entrepreneurs are either deep or we are broad.
By deep I mean you start a company in a certain area. We can really go dig deep in that area, or we can help other people start companies. VCs kind of do that, they are kind of broad. He is unique. He actually does both. He is starting multiple companies.
He has a company building electric cars. He has a company sending rockets to space. He has something going on speeding up travel, hyperloops and what not and something else digging tunnels in the ground. There’s a lot of breadth there.
At the same time, there’s also depth because I’ve heard that he also goes deep into each one of his companies. I’d love to learn from him how he manages to balance both of those. That’s why I would take his name.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
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