The CEO of NetApp talks about moving to the cloud, transforming the business, and the lessons he learned from his twin brother — who happens to be the CEO of Google Cloud (NTAP)
Category : entrepreneur
Growing up in India, George Kurian and his twin brother Thomas enjoyed playing pranks at home and in school by taking advantage of the fact that they look so much alike.
“He has sat in classes for me and I’ve sat in classes for him,” George Kurian told Business Insider. “Occasionally, we’d be found out. Most of the time people couldn’t tell…We got into lots of trouble together.”
The Kurian brothers are the most famous and most important twins in Silicon Valley, where they are leading two major tech giants. George is CEO of NetApp, the data storage and management powerhouse, while Thomas is CEO of Google Cloud.
The brothers no longer engage in juvenile deceptions, although George Kurian laughed as he pondered the possibility of a prank: “I never got to Google Cloud for a day as CEO and he hasn’t come to NetApp as CEO for a day. But that’s likely something we want to think about.”
He’s joking, of course. The Kurian brothers have far more serious matters to think about as CEOs of two tech behemoths going through difficult transitions, which underscore the parallel paths they’ve taken since leaving India.
‘We have common themes in our two journeys’
“We have common themes in our two journeys, him at Google and me at NetApp,” George said. “Each of us inherited an organization that was successful in one aspect of the business and we’re trying to pivot the organizations to go in a different direction.”
That direction is the cloud, the fast growing trend in corporate tech which allows businesses to set up and run their networks on web-based platforms, and, in most cases, doing away with the enormous costs of setting up their own data centers.
Google is challenging Amazon and Microsoft in the battle to dominate the public cloud market. NetApp is reinventing itself from a seller of data storage appliances installed by customers in private data centers to one that offers a broader portfolio of cloud-focused data management products and services.
“He has to take a consumer internet-focused business and make it enterprise ready,” George Kurian said of his brother Thomas’s challenge. “And I have to take a traditional enterprise systems company and make it cloud-ready.”
These are tough challenges, and George Kurian says he has benefitted from the feedback he and his brother still routinely give one another. “We’ve helped each other think through things,” he said.
Coming to America was not easy
It’s a bond they shared growing up in Bangalore and in their journey to America.
It was not an easy journey.
“I would not have had such an easy time coming to the US if I had not come with him,” George Kurian said.
They came from a close family of four boys. “We have three engineers and a doctor — classic Indian situation,” George said. Their father was also an engineer and their mother had worked as a teacher.
“We both stayed up the night before we left,” he said. “I’ll just tell you that it was not easy to leave.”
Their mother was a particularly “big influence in our lives,” George said
“She instilled in us the idea of resilience and toughness when you are two immigrant kids who came by yourselves to the US with 300 bucks in our pockets,” he said. “You had to learn to make do, to find jobs, and both us worked while we were in college.”
That made their bond stronger: “Both of us have been best friends for most of our lives.”
They have also followed fairly similar paths in the US. They each earned an engineering degree from Princeton, and got their MBAs at Stanford.
They both worked at McKinsey and Oracle, where Thomas worked for 22 years, eventually rising to become president reporting directly to founder and former CEO Larry Ellison.
George worked for Cisco for nine years, before joining NetApp in 2011. When he was offered the CEO post, he checked with Thomas who he said told him, “Listen, they wouldn’t make a change and give you the opportunity to be CEO if everything was going swimmingly well.”
In fact, NetApp was wrestling with significant challenges then, George said. It was late in the transition to the emerging solid state storage technology, although NetApp subsequently managed to catch up with other rivals. The cloud trend was also accelerating, but NetApp had “in our go-to-market team a group of tired leaders who were out of ideas,” George said.
When Thomas left Oracle in January to become CEO of Google Cloud, it was George’s turn to give his brother some advice. “He was curious about how you manage a board and how you manage various stakeholders,” he said. George stressed the importance of being transparent and spelling out a multi-year journey for the company.
The Kurian brothers take on the cloud
The journey and the challenges they each face is strikingly similar. “It is challenging to to take an organization that has been very successful in one paradigm and take it to another paradigm,” George said.
At Google, Thomas Kurian is at the helm of a major cloud player, but one that lags two bigger rivals, Amazon and Microsoft. He is also leading a company with a limited enterprise track record. In fact, some of his ideas, including sales strategies based on his Oracle experience, have been met with skepticism.
George Kurian is steering NetApp toward a more cloud-enabled future. When he joined the company in 2011, NetApp was focused “on selling infrastructure to telecom providers and had for the most part not done much with the big cloud providers, like Amazon, Google and Microsoft.”
NetApp “made the hard pivot” to the cloud by shifting its focus from data stored and managed “on a few servers in a special location called a data center” to a new model where data is in many more places, from social media platforms to the shop floor.
The bet pays off
The pivot paid off.
“NetApp was an early mover in recognizing the importance of the public cloud and trying to take advantage of building relationships with public cloud vendors,” Gartner analyst Roger Cox told Business Insider.
Today, Amazon, Microsoft and Google are “important partners” of NetApp, George said. (He notes that NetApp began working with Google even before his brother became CEO of Google Cloud.)
“We have big aspirations for our cloud business and we’re doing it with partnerships with cloud providers,” Kurian said. “The lesson we learned. You can’t go it alone. It’s important to partner. And customers like companies that partner well.”
Cox said NetApp has become a leading provider of data storage management systems in which a business “can run applications on prem, on the core, on the edge, using common software,” he said.
NetApp’s share of the $20.6 billion external data storage market edged up from 11.2% in December 2016 to 13% in June 2019, according to Gartner. NetApp’s longtime rival EMC, which is owned by Dell, remains number one with 30% market share in June. But Cox said EMC “does not have anything like what NetApp has.”
He gives Kurian credit for NetApp’s gains.
George Kurian led major changes at NetApp
“When you look at the turnaround NetApp has had since 2015, you’ve got to give credit to the person who is leading the parade, that’s George,” Cox added. “During that period of time, he completely revitalized the leadership of NetApp.”
But the company’s transformation has also been bumpy. NetApp has reported a year-over-year drop in revenue in the last two quarters. The company’s stock has slipped about 9% year to date.
Cox said a big challenge for NetApp is being able to grow its customer base: “Their biggest problem is they don’t have enough accounts,” he said. “They rely too much on too few very large accounts for their revenue. When those large accounts don’t come through, then they have a revenue problem.”
Kurian acknowledged that this is a problem for a company that’s very successful in the traditional way of selling and using data storage systems.
“You know our success in the old paradigm gives us an enormous install base and franchise, and you can lull yourself into complacency because of all that success we had and continue to have with that traditional customer base,” he said.
That simply won’t work in the cloud era, where customers are buying and using data storage systems in new and flexible ways. The challenge for NetApp, Kurian said, is “to continue to push people to lean in to the future as opposed to resting on their laurels from the past.”
Reconnecting with the past
His role at NetApp has allowed him to reconnect with his past. Two years ago, he led the inauguration of NetApp’s new R&D facility in his native Bangalore. It was located just half a mile from where his dad used to work.
“We used to drive by there to go to my dad’s office,” he said, smiling.
His father died shortly before the facility opened, but George was able to tell him about it before he passed on.
“It was nice to see him smile when I told him about where it was and we talked about the memories of driving by it. It’s a sweet memory. I’ll always remember that.”
He remembers his own journey at a time when immigration has become a hot-button political issue, and immigrants have become a target.
“They’re giving up a lot to come here,” he said. “They’re giving up their families. They’re giving up their friendships. They’re giving up the comfort of the language and the culture they grew up in to come here. They’re not making that decision lightly.”
Sharing that journey with his twin brother did make it easier, he said. “It was nice to have your best friend around you.”
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