DON'T GET COMFORTABLE
Growing up in a lower middle-class household in Chennai, India, my parents made it very clear to me that if I wanted to have an impact on society, the place to start would be school. I think often there are tropes and stereotypes thrown out there about Indian students, and most of the time they are wrong. But in my case, they weren’t … completely wrong. I grew up, as I like to say, in a highly competitive and not very comfortable environment. And it’s something I’ll never forget.
My dad did logistics for a railway company that was part of the Indian government. He worked long, long hours. I remember, many days, we wouldn’t even see him until the next morning. At a young age, I remember not really understanding why he would be gone for so long, or how he could do it. But as I got a bit older, I understood how much effort it took to provide for our family. My mom stayed at home and took care of myself, my brother and my sister. She was the rock, you know? Without her, I don’t think any of us would have gotten where we are today.
“Don’t get comfortable - someone else is always working harder”
Doing well in school was a hard fought competition. My parents knew it was the only way to have a better life, and so they pushed me to be a competitor in every dimension. One day, it finally clicked. I lived across the street from a boy who was just like me - we lived in similar households, went to the same school, and had similar interests in math and engineering. I started to notice after time though, whether it was in class or at home, how driven he was. Every time I saw him, he was working on something. Or he was reading a textbook.
“Don’t get comfortable - someone else is always working harder” my father would say. So when I talk about a competitive environment, it was something I found every day. Because whenever I saw that boy, it made me want to work harder. And this became my motivation.
I want to be just as good as him, I’d think.
But then I’d picture my dad, shaking his head.
I need to be better than him.
I did well in school but it never quite felt like I was pushing myself enough. I woke up every day in fear that someone else might be trying even harder, and in my sophomore year in college I realized that I was behind everyone in something that was becoming critical for engineering: Computer Science. I know, it might seem strange that somebody who’s career is closely tied to software engineering, didn’t discover computer science until he was a sophomore … but that’s the truth. But I think every entrepreneur realizes that coming from behind is an advantage - I didn’t have much background, but that fed into my hunger to learn. And even when you are late to the race, you can still win if you want to run harder and faster than everyone else.
But I think every entrepreneur realizes that coming from behind is an advantage - I didn’t have much background, but that fed into my hunger to learn.
I graduated near the top of my class and went to one of the best research facilities in north India to do computer science and really see what the future could hold for me. I remember it being such a unique time, because the internet was in its infancy and there was so much exploration. And after a couple of years I got the call to go to America as a software engineer. And though I had finally achieved the job of my parents dreams, it was time to leave the comfort of my home in India, and my parents, for the first time.
I often think about the entrepreneurial journey as not all that dissimilar from one's life journey. There are many stages that both experiences share; Loneliness, adrenaline, fear, satisfaction, etc.
Many will tell you that going to a foreign country is exciting, but I often think about the entrepreneurial journey as not all that dissimilar from one's life journey. There are many stages that both experiences share; Loneliness, adrenaline, fear, satisfaction, etc.. I mention this because when I left for America, it felt like a leap — like an entrepreneurial bet on myself. One that could fail, and I’d have to restart somewhere else.
It was … a bit frightening.
My original intention was to go to America to get my PhD. But it became clear, quite quickly, that I would need to get a job quickly in order to afford to live in the US. So, the plan took a detour, like many great journeys do, and I adapted.
I moved to Silicon Valley and found a home in the tech industry. I also tried my hand at being an entrepreneur - I don’t always tell people this story but I failed once trying to start a company. In 2001, I tried to start a blade computing company with several friends based on the system architecture now widely used by Cisco, Amazon, Google, and the rest of the industry. But around this time, the stock market collapsed and despite our efforts to raise money for six to eight months, it just wasn’t right in the climate of the time. So we gave up. Despite failing, that feeling of having a product that was your own — that pride — hung around. I knew I wanted to do it again. I knew I would do it again.
I was feeling content. And for the first time, I was feeling comfortable. It didn’t feel right. I wasn’t being pushed, and I wasn’t pushing back.
I started interviewing for another job so I could pay my mortgage and was lucky to find a role at VMware. The company at the time was just starting to commercialize the architecture for server virtualization, which allows software to more efficiently use hardware and was the enabler for the modern era of cloud computing. The early team at VMware was unique - unlike most tech companies, VMware was founded by experienced and seasoned executives who were veterans on the tech scene. They were some of the smartest professors and PHDs I had met, and I was learning every day from them. In some ways, I felt I had found my grad school program, except this time I was getting paid.
My life changed at VMware in more ways than one. As the business grew, I met my wife Kavitha and we had our children, Pranay and Pallavi. Having a child is like starting a company at home - it is more work than you can imagine to raise a family while building a career. Kavitha was the rock of our household, and enabled me to work hard to provide for our family in ways our parents could not afford to do. VMware had also become the dominant player in server virtualization, and I had achieved the highest engineering level and had great influence over our products. And though this was one of the most exciting and fulfilling times in my life, after about 10 years, something started to change. At VMware, I was feeling content. And for the first time, I was feeling comfortable. It didn’t feel right. I wasn’t being pushed, and I wasn’t pushing back. I looked in the mirror and saw the kid next door who drove me to work hard every day. That kid was now... me.
I had noticed while at VMware that a lot of companies we worked with, even the largest ones, paid incredible amounts for data storage. These companies were using 5-10 year old products, and there was an opportunity to create a disruption point. I knew we could simplify and make storage more efficient using the same virtualization concept that transformed compute years before. The idea of Springpath was born.
It wasn’t an obvious step to take. I remember my wife one night, when I was deciding to leave my role at VMware, saying, “Do you know what you’re doing?” The answer was “Yes.” But it was also sort of “No.” If that makes sense. I knew what I wanted to do, but maybe I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I walked into Springpath on day one thinking, I am doing this because I want to experience the journey of building a company and a team, but mostly, I want to go back to working on something really hard. Don’t get comfortable. Someone else is working harder.
Our team at Springpath was truly a family - we shared the same passion for excellence and perseverance through good times and bad. Many of us had grown up in similar environments and had the same work ethic and drive that defines elite engineering cultures. I remember one night, one of our customers had a software issue that was incredibly high priority. We all spent the night fixing their bugs and would take shifts sleeping on the couch. This was the type of customer centric culture that mattered. If you make a bet on us, we will do whatever it takes to make you successful. Just because we are smaller than the incumbents, we are the disruptor and work harder than they do. That was a beautiful feeling.
We had just started to scale our business, and I realized we were only scratching the surface. Every technologist wants to see their product find the most impact in the shortest period of time, and I was convinced we could reach escape velocity with the help of a larger partner. I had grown up in Silicon Valley with a deep respect for Cisco and its people, and knew they had some of the best sales and partner distribution in the industry. It is never an easy decision to get acquired by a larger company, but I had never found success by doing the comfortable thing.
I must confess now that I’m hardwired to work on the hardest of problems, and am always just a little uncomfortable. But I love it - it is a great feeling, and one I know is shared by all entrepreneurs that push the limits.
Among entrepreneurs, it is widely known that Cisco is one of the most attractive acquirers. They value what founders have built, they respect the unique culture and expertise of acquired employees, and they understand the value of externally developed innovation that can be brought to customers. You never really think about this at the beginning, but when you have hundreds of people that bet their life for you and your company, they become your responsibility. And when it comes time to get acquired, you think a lot less about legal docs and financial considerations and a lot more about whether your team and their families will be in a good home. Many entrepreneurs at Cisco have told me the same thing - there are many companies that want to buy start-ups for many reasons, but few treat employees like Cisco.
I must confess now that I’m hardwired to work on the hardest of problems, and am always just a little uncomfortable. But I love it - it is a great feeling, and one I know is shared by all entrepreneurs that push the limits. We all want to do more part to be innovators, and there are boundless avenues for us to explore, build, compete, and succeed. I am excited to be a part of Decibel - I want to share that feeling with other entrepreneurs, I want to help them embrace the power of feeling uncomfortable.
Mallik Mahalingam, Founder of Springpath