The Shows (Must) Go On

If it’s May, there must be a zillion (maybe a slight exaggeration) technology events.  I had the opportunity to attend a couple recently and thought I’d pull my best Jack Kerouac and summarize my adventures on the road.

NYC skylineI started last week at TechCrunch’s Disrupt event held in New York City. The format of the main event was a single stage with fast paced interviews and speakers. The pace was rapid and the speakers and content were thought provoking and interesting. They were also pretty eclectic, from a discussion on Pinterest’s revenue plans, Mayor Bill de Blasio of NYC talking about startup innovative and STEM to the Chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, appearing in a fireside chat talking about the subject of net neutrality. The TechCrunch folks are pros; none of the sessions were infomercials for the companies or the people talking, for which I and the thousands in attendance are eternally grateful.

I was interviewed by TechCrunch contributor, Ron Miller. I go into these things excited and extremely nervous. The focus of this discussion was a Founders story. Should be easy to do you’re probably thinking. After all, I lived (and am living) the story.  Ron, being the great journalist he is did a lot of research prior to the discussion. That was clear when we were talking about the format backstage. First the questions themselves are never discussed before the interview. So you are going in a bit blind. I have long given up trying to have prepared answers. I never use them anyway. To be honest, I never know what I am going to say until I say it. This can create some interesting moments. My only hope as I step on the stage are as follows: (a) I don’t trip; (b) I don’t swear (it could happen); (c) I say something that helps someone start a company by giving them more visibility about what they are getting into. Also, for folks who are on the entrepreneurial journey, I want to let them know that it’s fun and hard for everyone. There will be highs and lows and near death experiences along the way, so accept that in the beginning and plow through it. Focusing on either too much could kill a startup.

TechCrunch Contributor Ron MillerPaula Long of DataGravity My favorite question from Ron was after the success of EqualLogic, why go do it again. He phrased the question better, but the ask was the same, the subtext was “are you nuts, you didn’t have to do this?” The simple answer was I wasn’t going to. The idea for EqualLogic was so simple and yet so compelling it’s hard to believe one can do that again. EqualLogic was about moving storage in to the automation era. Automated storage, seamless scaling and all-inclusive features were new when we launched in 2003. They are now the standard in 2015.

So what’s the next act? I knew to start a new successful company again, the ideas had to be simple, yet game changing. The industry has enough companies improving the status quo of storage. The idea for DataGravity was based on the fact that storage had missed the information/big data wave. Simply put, no one knows what they have in their stored data, they can’t leverage the information they have for a competitive advantage nor can they cap the down side (and there can be a significant downside) of finding and protecting against data challenges.

Of course a few “chick in tech” questions came up. I always feel like I mess up the narrative when I say being a woman in technology is only a disadvantage if you make it one. In fact with all the visibility on the subject women have an advantage. It feels like folks are pulling for you to succeed. You still have to make it happen and will be held to the same standards as everyone else, but you don’t start with folks assuming you’ll fail because you a women. You are measured on the idea, the market, the team and once you start shipping the results. All totally fair.

I chatted with a bunch of folks after the discussion, including some students at the Tepper School at Carnegie Mellon University. Listening to their energy and the excitement, I know these folks will be among the next generation of leaders.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay in NYC for the entire TechCruch Disrupt show. I had a commitment in Boston and then headed out to Las Vegas for the Collision show.

Welcome to Las Vegas signI hit Vegas Wednesday night. I had a talk and a panel at Collision and entered the big tents that were the home of Collision this year. At first blush, I thought I had entered a circus. The tents were massive and there were a huge number folks milling around, including human booths and human billboards for their companies. In my brief time at TechCrunch I felt the positive low-key atmosphere. I had now entered an over the top carnival (it was Vegas after all). I had a bit of angst as I walked around. I wasn’t sure if this was an Enterprise crowd. I planned on talking about Data Governance and Privacy and there isn’t an App for that. I arrived early so I decided to check out some of the sessions on the Enterprise stage. Lance Smith from PrimaryData (Fusion-IO fame) was talking about storage virtualization on a scale not seen before. At this point, I knew there was a home here for Enterprise folks. There were a few talks and panels around data security as well and I was excited to see the audience for the most part hung in for those sessions.

The venue is a little funky. There are multiple big and small stages. The big stages like the Enterprise. Builder, Marketing and Center stages are enclosed by heavy theater curtains. In that environment, you can hear some of the background noise people and people are routinely walking in and out, which is a bit disconcerting to a presenter. Overall, the presenters were seasoned and took this in stride. I wouldn’t recommend this forum for your first public presentation however, as it was a bit distracting with all the side activity.

The topics were good, but I was surprised no one was talking about at the risks at the point of storage. Most breaches result in theft, and the only thing you can steal in a virtual break-in is data. It was my job to enlighten the audience to this fact. I arrived for my session a few minutes early. I always try to do this since the person running the events always seem rushed. By being early, they don’t have to chase me down or rush to get the microphone setup. Plus in the rare cases when the event is running ahead of schedule they let you start early.

I hit the stage and the first thing I notice were people walking in and walking out. Normally, this would make me crazy, but I saw it happening most of the morning so I only sort of took it personally. I started to speak and the microphone falls off, so as gracefully as I could, I picked it up and tried to reset it (it was one of those mics that attach to your ear with a little wire for speaking). The microphone at this point stopped working. A quick person back stage handed me a real microphone. For a person who talks with her hands this was a bit of a challenge. OK, at this point I figured I should just swear and trip and the talk will be complete.

Yet, somehow I managed to complete the talk without doing either the swearing or the tripping! The title of the talk was pretty impressive: “Giving up on Disparate Data Governance.” I didn’t write the title or the abstract, but did help write the slides. The theme was pretty simple. You have two real choices to get a handle on your data. You can either (A) hire a Super Hero with: x-ray vision, psychic powers and the ability to create force fields on demand to protect your data or (B) you can let technology help.

Let’s be honest, the first option would be way more fun, however most Super Heroes are busy making movies like The Avengers. So the only real option is plan B, let technology help. I then went on to talk about governance and compliance and how they don’t have to be boring, scary and complex. I explained that it’s possible for technology to provide an MRI of your data. The MRI provides complete visibility into your data, so you can see what’s healthy and what’s broken. Using this window into your data, the goal is to leverage what’s healthy and fix what’s broken. We have an eBook that offers much of this same information entitled “Become a Data Guardian” that can be downloaded here. The session was well received, since folks asked me questions afterwards and seemed to want to create their own IT infrastructure that was data-aware. However, most of those in attendance did agree with me, plan A would definitely be easier and more fun.

My next mission was a panel discussion on the Startup Stage, about Customer Service with Dilawar Syed from Freshdesk and Kieren McCarthy from the Register moderating. Kieren did a great job moderating, and involved the audience as they were our customers for this session. The Startup University Stage is a smaller open venue, with particle board seating. So I had added an additional unique speaking fear as I walked onto stage for the event – don’t get splinters.

The Startup Stage panel was good. Dilawar talked a lot about making sure companies of all sizes (even the really small ones) have a plan and the tools for tracking and delivering great customer service. Also that customer feedback will come via multiple venues. Dilawar also mentioned that aspiring startups need to watch all the threads since they are all really important. I spoke more about the mentality that you need to take around the fact that if you built something people use, there will inevitably be problems. The first step every aspiring startup leader must do is decide what to do about those problems, then take steps to prevent them from ever happening again. We also talked about how customers are the best source of feedback for any company and that there’s no better place to learn about how the business is really doing than to hang out with the Customer Service folks. How’s the product doing, what issues can be turned into opportunities, are the Sales teams over or under selling: so much can be learned if you only take the time to listen to service and support. We also talked about how creating a culture focused on customers doesn’t just happen. It’s hard and it’s a commitment that needs to be reinforced by everyone in the company.

After the Startup Stage presentation and the resulting business card and handshake exchange, I spent the next couple of hours milling around Collision, before I headed back to my room to catch up the things I’d missed during the day.

Before leaving Las Vegas, I did my ritual single spin at the roulette table. I put $20 on Black (alas no winner, so I have to keep on working). Then I grabbed a cab and headed to the Airport hoping I still I had enough cash for the cab fare. This would be a great way to end this post, but for some reason when I travel weird things seem to find me.

juggling pinsIt turns out the Cab driver was an aspiring juggler. When we reached the Airport, he asked if I’d like to see him juggle. I said “sure” as I had time before my flight. Right on the curb in front of the airport he proceeded to put on a great show. He asked if I wanted to learn to juggle. I replied that it seems like I find myself doing that every day of my life

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Paula Long

Paula Long is the CEO and co-founder of DataGravity. She previously co-founded storage provider EqualLogic, which was acquired by Dell for $1.4 billion in 2008. She remained at Dell as vice president of storage until 2010. Prior to EqualLogic, she served in engineering management positions at Allaire Corporation and oversaw the ClusterCATS product line at Bright Tiger Technologies. She is a graduate of Westfield State College.