Changing the data protection conversation

Two years ago I wrote about the top 5 questions on data protection I was hearing as a Zerto Systems Engineer (SE). Back then the conversations were typically with mid-market enterprises and covered topics of interest to System Administrators and IT Managers. These are the front-line daily warriors who usually had specific questions around interoperability with our one supported platform at the time, VMware vSphere. Zerto was just a couple of years old and in hindsight it’s unsurprising that the conversations were of a “does it work?” nature.

Today these conversations are about increasing agility and reducing risk.

Since then I’ve worked with over 20% of the Fortune 100 and I’ve had the privilege of being pulled in to hundreds of meetings across the F500 space. The conversations have moved from the front lines to the VP level and the C-suite. The Enterprise Architects, VPs of IT and Operations, the CIO, CTO, and of course the CFO are all putting increased focus and resources toward IT resilience.

We’ve moved away from talking bits and bytes. Today these conversations are about increasing agility and reducing risk. It’s about maintaining a competitive edge. It’s about maximizing customer satisfaction. And it’s often about minimizing that negative press that comes with an outage through social platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn.

Let’s talk about the three most common data protection discussion topics that came up in my meetings through 2016.

1. Backups aren’t DR

Go ahead and Google it. You’ll find about 6,000,000 results to wade through. There are only about 700,000 for “backups are DR” (skim through the first several pages of results and you’ll find more arguments against backups as DR than for). Businesses have awakened to the realization – often through great pains such as lost customers, lost data, and employee terminations all the way up to the C-suite – that the customer data from last night or even from an hour ago is not good enough.

Outages today rarely touch one person or system, instead they touch the entire business.

The older the data the more orders are lost, the more customer relations work there is to do, the more order re-entry the sales and purchasing departments have to do, and so on. Outages today rarely touch one person or system, instead they touch the entire business. You need something that can return you to operations as quickly as possible with as little data loss as possible.

2. You’re not as “always on” as you think you are.

Notice how this is a direct contrast to the first issue – organizations with high-end, realtime data synchronization platforms vs hours-old backups. This discussion point is most often raised by those VPs or CTOs with a storage background who are proud of their very expensive solutions. They are naturally defensive of the senior employees and the budget requirements involved. What they built and the skills they armed their engineers with is to be respected, but we have moved on to different times. Today the discussion naturally turns to what happened the last time there was a virus or a data corruption issue. And the answer each and every time is that issue spread throughout the business and, surprise, “we had to resort to backups”. And now we’re back to the first conversation. This leads to an awakening moment similar to the last one.

The number of customers who have swapped those “stretched” systems out for more-or-faster primary storage on their next refresh cycle? High.

People in the room talk about the “resume generating event” a year or two ago, and then we start designing an updated solution. One of my colleagues at Zerto wrote about this very situation years ago. Layering a continuous data protection solution such as Zerto on top of stretched storage ultimately becomes a requirement. Many Zerto customers are running stretched systems from EMC, NetApp, HPE, and more recently on VMware vSAN. The number of customers who have swapped those “stretched” systems out for more-or-faster primary storage on their next refresh cycle? High. Some simply realize cost shifts or other capital savings altogether.

3. You need strategic platforms, not point solutions.

You’ve got a running operational plan, a 3-5 year plan, a vision for your IT/IS office and of course a vision for the business. This is a strategy. Meanwhile a majority of data protection solutions are purpose-built with tunnel vision in mind. They do a single job of getting you a backup or a copy of your data which can hopefully be recovered to the same data center or a facsimile. Vanishingly few enable application protection and mobility across private, hybrid, and public clouds;  cross multiple use-cases such as maintaining protection during data center migrations; integrate with partners like IBM to allow you to spin up entire data centers with integrated application protection in a matter of minutes. I could go on through the dozen or so use-cases this one platform fulfills.

Add that Zerto works across VMware vSphere, Microsoft Hyper-V, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Azure and that list is growing as production-class market demand shifts in new directions like cloud-native applications, containers, and more. All of this in the same product. All with simple pricing instead of Dante’s 9 circles of Hell. If you laughed at that, you know exactly where I’m coming from. On that note…

A little more for the CFOs in the room.

As someone who used to report to a CFO, I had to build a case for every product and solution over the 5-figure limit on my corporate card. I worked with resellers and vendors to toy between CAPEX and OPEX models, shift refresh cycles, adjust a variety of terms to the front or back of the deal depending on cash flow projections, any legal and ethical means to fit the solution I wanted into the budget I had available.

My colleague Darren Swift, with help from the larger Zerto team, recently built a free online tool – the Zerto Business Case Builder – that any of our partners can use to help you make the business case with as little pain as possible. Just last week I had the honor of sitting on a panel at Zerto’s annual Sales Kickoff to extol the virtues of that tool to our global sales team. I can’t stress enough the value in time saved and more rapid turnaround to purchasing this can bring you. What used to take me hours in spreadsheets now takes 15 minutes on a web page. While it isn’t available to customers today, a call to your trusted reseller is the only real barrier to entry here. Get with your partner, take the 15 minutes, you’ll be glad you did.

On Hiring

As a people manager for the last several years I’ve spoken with well over a thousand candidates. Taking in to account my job openings as well as those held by other hiring managers (a lot of the early employees at Zerto act as “trusted advisers” to each other as well as “culture checks” to newer hiring managers), it could be in the thousands. One thing has become so clear that I find myself saying it to nearly everyone I screen or interview.

First, a little background

It was spring of 2012 that I and millions of others got wind of Valve Corporation’s “Valve Handbook for New Employees” (PDF). I read through the same handbook dozens of times and always kept pausing on the quote found on page 43, figure 5-1, “Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Everything else in our world is subordinate to finding great people and keeping the bar high.”

One of the first things I did when moving to a management position was to give myself the task of building a hiring strategy (those who know me are aware I built an on-boarding strategy as well, a story for another post). Recalling my fascination with their plan, I quickly turned to Valve’s handbook, yet something didn’t feel quite right. Did I want people who were “T-shaped”, with great depth in one area and broad generalist skills, or did I want something else?

“Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Everything else in our world is subordinate to finding great people and keeping the bar high.” – Valve Corporation

I have always been drawn to those persons with two or more areas of expertise from the 60,000ft view all the way down to the bolts who can also cross those mental chasms to deliver a sum of excellent work greater than the parts. With respect to Valve and their hiring practices, the idea of a T-shaped person – same handbook, page 46 – simply didn’t fit my needs. Whether looking for my own Sales Engineers or screening Product Managers, Marketing Developers, Technical Support Engineers, or other roles I have always felt better (the hiring “gut check”) and had better success with another sort of professional.

Enter the H-shaped person

Think of a person with an expertise similar to yours but who also absolutely crushes it at communicating or developing strategy in that skill (or both). An example to the Information Technology readers might be someone who not only knows VMware vSphere virtualization down to its depths but also writes (internally or externally) on it regularly, or is called on by colleagues to write integration plans or competitive documents as other examples. Perhaps they on-board or even develop relevant employees in this area of expertise. Perhaps only they can?

I have always been drawn to those persons with two or more areas of expertise from the 60,000ft view all the way down to the bolts who can also cross those mental chasms…

While the T-shaped person has expertise in one area (the vertical bar of the “T”) and is a generalist across a few other areas (the horizontal bar of the “T”), the H-shaped person goes well beyond this. The H-shaped person has two vertical bars indicating domains of expertise, similar to the T, yet those bars go above the horizontal. Each area of expertise isn’t just deep but runs past the rooftops as well. They excel at communication or strategy development (and in practice I’ve found often both are true) in the same discipline that they can get down to the muck in.

And then they do this again in another domain. 

And then they make great leaps between the two fields, often taking approaches others may not see, or providing solutions before other singular-expertise folks can put pen to paper.

A brilliant example of this is Justin Paul. I met Justin in 2013 when working to sign his employer up as a Zerto reseller and quickly saw not only his deep expertise in VMware vSphere , but in a variety of backup solutions and storage technologies as well. More importantly, he held (and still holds!) the ability to communicate and, plainly, think at any level we could throw at him. Justin was instrumental in pushing our solution out across his team and his customers and, when his employer at the time was acquired, he again used his broad and deep skills across multiple disciplines to not only educate his new colleagues and increase time to value, but to stand up a Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) solution in a matter of days. This is something that typically takes 3-4 people in a variety of technical backgrounds.

…they make great leaps between the two fields, often taking approaches others may not see…

Later on when the opportunity presented itself to hire a Sales Engineer in his area, I moved fast to hire Justin and get him on my team. He’s now been with us for over a year and a half and he is killing it!

Hire for height, depth, and breadth all in one

Particularly when hiring senior staff such as Sales Engineers, Account Executives, Product Managers, Enterprise Architects or people managers at any level (as for all managers, directors and above, “hiring” is itself an area of expertise!), you need to go broad and deep across at least two domains. This will ensure you bring on the people who can hit problems from multiple angles, see answers where others won’t, and contribute to that culture of excellence so highly demanded in business today.

A little more on hiring.

Take an objective, rational approach in your job requisitions and initial interviews. When building a requisition, be sure to identify either internally or externally the two truly critical requirements to this job. Instruct other interviewers to ask a variety of questions that attack these requirements at both a high level and to get in the weeds – this can often require two interviewers with differing skill sets! Ultimately you’re looking for candidates who hit the two critical requirements and then cover the rest of the job requirements at a “good enough” level. Let’s face it, going so high and deep in two fields means it stands to reason they can come up to speed quickly on those other “needs”.