NetApp Insight 2016 in Retrospect

We are now a little bit over a week removed from NetApp Insight 2016. This was by far the best iteration of the conference that I’ve experienced in now having attended five consecutive years. An unprecedented sixteen new products were announced, spear-headed by next-generation hardware platforms, new cloud-centric offerings, and the next version of NetApp’s flagship operating system, ONTAP 9.1. There definitely will be no shortage of content that will accompany these new products as they are released in the months to come, as well as even more exciting news that’s guaranteed to solidify that the success of NetApp over the past year is far more than just a flash in the pan. While many others are trying to collect themselves and figure out how to convince customers that “flash changes everything”, NetApp is busy redefining the entire flash landscape to ensure the journey towards the next-generation data center is a seamless and strategic one.

Truth be told, ever since wrapping up Insight, I have been beyond anxious and excited to (unapologetically) unleash my inner nerd and dive right into the technical details surrounding many of the newly announced products. However, as I took a step back, I felt it was important to share some thoughts about this year’s Insight that have been instrumental to me personally in helping to navigate a few areas of uncertainty of my own. Sometimes, when you start to discover the parallels in two, completely different scenarios, one has to realize that there’s a much more important, bigger picture to examine. I’m hoping that you can fight the urge of TL;DR with this introductory post, and I promise that future ones will be shorter 🙂

I think that my “ah ha” moment struck at the conference opening General Session Monday afternoon as the event got underway.

What really stood out was the familiar and consistent message which three years ago, started as this tiny, simple, yet deeply impactful idea of what truly mattered in storage above all else. Data. Having the opportunity to have attended that iteration of the conference in 2013 (as well as in 2012) and then each subsequent one, I’ve noticed that same, core message has remained the focal point. If one were to look back at the couple of years NetApp had leading up to Insight 2013, however, it was apparent that not having that same level of consistency with the brand, the portfolio, and quite frankly, their own future, was taking a toll on all fronts. Scattered throughout the past five and a half years or so, I’ve watched my fair share of popular T.E.D. Talks, seen inspirational quote after inspirational quote scroll past in multiple social media feeds, and be lucky enough to have great mentors to model myself after to help me along this journey. However, perhaps the biggest impact on my career journey to this day was that year’s closing keynote from Matt Watts. While we all let out a collective sigh of relief in finding out that it was finally “cool” to proclaim, “I’m the Storage Guy” when asked about what our jobs entailed, I don’t think anyone had yet realized what we had all just become a part of.

This was the birth of the NetApp Data Fabric.

The reason I bring up this little trip down memory lane is because in the past year, NetApp has proven that you should never, ever count out the veteran. Just because something is new doesn’t mean its better. Just because something has been helping customers be successful for over twenty years doesn’t mean it’s archaic. Or bloated. Or incapable of evolving. Especially when you can compare recent years in our industry to that of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by way of Natural Selection. I mean, call it what you want, but it’s gotten down-right primitive at times. Hell, we even witnessed one occasion where someone literally went completely ape-shit. Or was that a gorilla? Perhaps I will remember in a bit.

In today’s landscape, everyone is often quick to bet on the loud, vibrant, polarizing fresh face over the loyal, experienced – and maybe even at times boring – mainstay. What the latter affords you, however, is the ability to slow down, step back, and if necessary, course correct, because they’ve been there before. And it’s not that on the inside, they’re not absolutely horrified, either. The important thing is that regardless of what’s going on internally, what they’re conveying externally is a sense of being calm, cool, and collected.

More so than not as of late, it seems I find myself in situations where somewhere along the way, something didn’t quite go as I had expected, or I just flat-out lost sight of something more important. Hopefully, wisdom prevails and I can walk away from similar such situations having learned what it is I needed to learn to move on, refine what needs refining, and deliver an even better result than before. What I’m starting to learn is that how you react, even in the most minute of ways, can have far-reaching implications that you would have no way of knowing beforehand. One of the ideals that I learned early on in my consulting career was that something that truly sets one apart from the competition is this: Be relational with your customers, not transactional. It’s about knowing that from the first handshake to whenever the final project closure document is signed, you operate with the mindset of running a marathon, not a sprint. It is exceedingly difficult to start off one way or the other and then attempt to unnecessarily switch it up. Maybe it feels as if things aren’t moving fast enough, so speeding things up could be good. Or the complete opposite, it was break-neck speed from the get-go, and even if you could see the massive concrete wall ahead in the distance, you either refused to let that phase you, or worse…you’re scared to death and don’t know how to stop.

Ultimately, I think we can all agree that it is as important as ever to be able to innovate in ways we never thought possible. Risks need to be taken and taken often. Failures need to be followed-through on, without fear of perhaps continuing to fail until it’s perfect. Without taking a risk or pressing on in spite of failure, the solution is often one that becomes a quick, easy fix leading to a false sense of having won the battle, when in reality, all it’s done is prevent you from seeing the bigger picture. You wanted to be a big-shot and swing for the fences with two out in the bottom of the 9th when all you needed for a win was drop in a double just over the short-stop’s glove. Oh, and that was Game 7 of the World Series, by the way. It’s never about the quick and easy way being the answer. Nor should that ever be the focus. Believing as such will have people doing their best to continue to take the high road, fighting off every temptation to say, “I told you so”.

So why is it that in reflecting on Insight 2016 that I felt it important to talk about the parallels I see in two separate yet strikingly similar scenarios? Because when all the pieces start to fall into place and you begin to see loyalty and hard work pay off in ways you would have never imagined…that’s when suddenly, you’re “on”. At that point, it becomes all about momentum. This is the very essence of how a simple message from three years ago turns into the very core of what’s driving NetApp’s success. Even more so, it’s being done with a level of passion that is impossible to ignore and hard not believe in. And that type of momentum is the type that when it gets going…good luck stopping it.

And actually, now that I think about it…perhaps there’s a far simpler explanation to sum up all those words of wisdom, life experiences, yadda, yadda, yadda…. that I just rambled on about: Even when it may be painstakingly obvious that there is this massive, 800 lb. gorilla in the room…that doesn’t mean that it’s ever a good idea to provoke it.