SOMETIMES PLAN B IS JUST BETTER THAN PLAN A
I grew up in a lower-middle class family in India and from the time I was a young child, my father had a plan for me.
He was a research scientist at the India Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, which is basically like the MIT of India. My family all lived together in a tiny one room studio located on campus. Like pretty much every other kid raised around IIT, basically from the time I was born, my future path was already determined: Study really, really hard, get perfect marks, then attend IIT.
That’s not to say I didn’t have some choice in what I wanted to be when I grew up. Like most kids, I had one choice: I could decide whether I wanted to become either a doctor or an engineer. But that was about it.
And that’s just how it was. There was no backup plan. It was get into IIT and follow that path or bust. There was no plan B.
I became an incredibly dedicated student and was involved in a ton of extracurricular activities. But from the first time I started tinkering around with BASIC on a small Casio computer as a seven year old, programming became a passion for me. Computers had just started to find their way into our community, and although my dad was familiar with them, he only used them for scientific computation or other academic purposes. There wasn’t much imagination attached to computers, and certainly no kind of future for me.
There is a certain peace that comes when you’ve been following a path that is not your passion, and you are forced to change course.
For most of my childhood I excelled at just about everything academically, but around the time I reached 9th or 10th grade, I began to follow my talents in software and my grades began to slip. As a result, I didn’t get into IIT. Plan A suddenly went out the window.
I remember at the time that this was a really disappointing turn of events for me and my family, but I also remember the relief I felt. There is a certain peace that comes when you’ve been following a path that is not your passion, and you are forced to change course. This setback gave me a chance to discover what I really wanted to do with my life, and not surprisingly I fell in love with programming.
I still vividly remember the first program I ever created.
I was only seven or eight years old at the time, and while I’d never ridden on an airplane, trains were everywhere in India. That served as my inspiration.
On most trains people sat in berths, which, if you’re unfamiliar, are basically these sleeping compartments. The program I created would have passengers input their seat number and then tell them what type of berth they were staying in. I was so proud of it that I would show it off to anyone who visited our house.
To me, programming came so naturally and I never viewed it as work. It was just a hobby while I was growing up, just something that came naturally to me so I did it for fun. When I got to college, my major was computer science. To my surprise, I found out they were teaching concepts in those classes that I had learned as a young kid. After spending a long time searching for what I was meant to do, I finally found a lane where I was in my element.
During my final semester of college, I stumbled across a programming book for something called “middleware” that introduced a concept to me called the ‘Object Web.’ I didn’t realize it at the time, but this book would go on to change my life.
Most people outside of the tech world don’t know anything about middleware, and certainly don’t think it’s cool. Whenever I’m asked to explain it to someone who’s unfamiliar, I’ll usually lean on Wikipedia’s description: software glue.
Glue isn’t exactly exciting to most people, but for me I think the fascination came from the way software glue works. In order to create middleware, you had to understand how computers talked to each other, and learn how to connect them all together in a common language. When I first began learning about middleware, computer programs were starting to grow in a disconnected fashion all over the world and connecting them was becoming an increasingly difficult (yet necessary) challenge.
Having a passion sometimes brings you luck for it, and I was very fortunate to land a job at a middleware systems company called Pramati. You may not have ever heard of this company, but it was one of the only software companies in India that built products that shipped to multinational companies. Working at Pramati taught me how to think about building software that was designed to connect systems everywhere around the world, and opened up my mind to life outside of India. And it also gave me a chance to go to America.
Because I was a young teenager on the other side of the world who basically only had access to ESPN and MTV, I pictured America as this huge sports nation where everyone drank Gatorade and threw giant hip hop parties...
I should admit now that though I had always had a fascination with the US, my only window into American culture came through television. Cable TV in India became very popular in my formative years and it was very expensive, so our family would huddle around a television in the local neighborhood just to get a glimpse of what was going on around the world. Because I was a young teenager on the other side of the world who basically only had access to ESPN and MTV, I pictured America as this huge sports nation where everyone drank Gatorade and threw giant hip hop parties with Dr. Dre. That all sounded pretty good to me! I fell in love with the NBA and became a huge Michael Jordan fan. And I also remember hearing about this place called Silicon Valley and the Netscape browser. For all those reasons America just seemed like a magical place. I knew that was where I wanted to go.
I’d never been on an airplane before. But I knew moving to the valley was the opportunity of a lifetime, so I packed my things and traveled across the world. It was time to take the leap and build my software career in America. I guess you could call it my Plan B.
I had several jobs in the middleware industry, and after a couple of years in the Bay Area. A couple years after I moved to the Bay Area, I became best friends with Jyoti Bansal. In 2008 we had both fallen in love with the idea of starting a company, and I joined him on day one to start AppDynamics. The main inspiration came when we started to notice that big companies were were moving more and more of their code to outsourced partners. The concept of cloud computing was in its infancy, but we knew everyone would be heading in that direction. We wanted to capitalize on the next big thing.
We actually had to pivot before pivoting was cool. And while it’s not fun having to change plans, it wasn’t a first for me.
Most people know that our company became wildly successful and invented a new category of software called APM, or application performance monitoring, which basically gave customers the ability to do an MRI of their digital applications and measure their health every day. But what many people don’t know is that our initial idea started out a bit different. We actually had to pivot before pivoting was cool. And while it’s not fun having to change plans, it wasn’t a first for me.
When AppDynamics was initially started by Jyoti, we had a vision that was a bit ahead of its time. I’ll spare you the details, but the buzzwords in our initial pitch 10 years ago were “data driven insights,” “automated capacity planning,” “on-demand infrastructure” and “elastic cloud computing.” I am sure the software engineers and students of the industry can guess that our idea was forward leaning, and as a result we were funded by venture capitalists. But after several months of pitching the idea to real customers, it became clear that nobody had this problem yet. Sometimes even the most forward leaning customers think you are ahead of your time, and we had to start over from scratch and ditch our original plan.
I always coach founders to lean in hard to their ideas with an unrelenting passion and vision that is required to create new products and imagine new markets.
I should say at this point that there is nothing harder as an entrepreneur than hearing that your initial plan is not a good one. I always coach founders to lean in hard to their ideas with an unrelenting passion and vision that is required to create new products and imagine new markets. But when you start hearing from the market that your plan isn’t going to work, it’s time to change plans. The entrepreneurs that have the courage to do so survive and thrive. Those that don’t usually hit a wall.
Jyoti and I went back to the drawing board and did something I think all founders should do when pivoting: We went back to our original passion, which happened to be the origins of APM. And ultimately that was the right thing to do because as a result we went back to the fundamentals that we believed in, which was talking to customers about their real problems and pains, and how we could help them immediately.
It was our customers that inspired us to rethink how software companies were building applications, and to give them a platform that could help them run their new digital businesses and take advantage of modern computing while integrating with their existing systems. They wanted someone to be the bridge between the past, the present, and the future. This became our calling and the way that AppDynamics took shape.
After the pivot, I swore that I would never build a product in a bubble and it’s fair to say that I’m customer obsessed at this point. As we were building up AppDynamics, I worked closely with every single one of our biggest accounts. I worked with some of the largest banks, retailers, insurance and travel companies — including almost half of the Fortune 100 — in order to get our software deployed as widely as possible. A lot of our success came from leaning into our passion and past experience, but I really think our biggest edge came from a culture of listening. If there’s no dialogue between you and your customers about what you’re building and whether it serves them, there’s no viable product and, as a result, no company.
You may think it’s unusual for a founding CTO to spend so much time with customers in the field, but I think another significant cultural pillar was our personal commitment to the success of our early adopters. When you are just getting off the ground, you don’t have the luxury of a large rolodex of clients. You have limited opportunities, and your survival comes down to making the most of them. The best early customers are demanding — they push you to do things that will make you more competitive. We never ran away from the challenge, even when it stretched us to the limit. It matters to customers that you show up, and I always made sure we let them know they were our lifeblood. To this day, that is still the culture at AppDynamics.
After living a life that always seems to have its twists and turns for the better, I’ve come to have a slightly different view of entrepreneurship than what you read in the classroom. If you’re going to start something great, your two biggest most important resources are passion and flexibility. Passion will give you the drive to pursue something great, and flexibility will give you the ability to bend your vision in order to fit the needs of the market. And it’s finding that correct balance of both that will determine your success.
I’m excited to work with founders at Decibel and am looking forward to helping founders find their path. With resilience and drive, every founder can be wildly successful with Plan B. And with a little luck, it may even be better than your Plan A.
Bhaskar Sunkara, Founding CTO of AppDynamics