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Leadership Series

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A Discussion with BigFix's Dave Robbins

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Boyden’s Leadership Series presents discussions with business and thought leaders from organizations across the globe. The series focuses on topical issues that offer executives, political leaders and the media insight into current trends in business and talent management in the global marketplace.

This issue features Dave Robbins, CEO of Quantivo, a provider of cloud-based behavioral analytics. Mr. Robbins is the former  Chairman, President and CEO of BigFix, a company acquired by IBM in 2010. He discusses the benefits of BigFix’s having been acquired by IBM, the new world of powerful mobile devices, the “good guys” and “bad guys” of IT security, and the keys to managing a major turnaround.

As the CEO of Quantivo, Dave Robbins brings more than 20 years of senior management experience. Previously he served as Chairman, President and CEO of BigFix, acquired by IBM. Robbins has extensive executive leadership experience in the enterprise software industry, and has led operations and business development efforts at both public and private technology companies over the course of his career. Prior to joining BigFix, Robbins served as CEO of Quippe Technologies, a provider of procurement services for the equipment manufacturing industry. Before Quippe, he was CEO of Lucidity, Inc., and also held senior management positions at Cephren Corporation (acquired by Citadon, Inc.), ULTRADATA, Inc., Automatic Data Processing and Progressive Insurance Companies.

Discussion with Dave Robbins

Boyden: BigFix is one of Silicon Valley’s success stories. Can a case be made that this region is America’s greatest business jewel now?

Robbins: The Silicon Valley has always been a jewel in the crown of American business. From the standpoint of innovation and job creation, I can’t imagine a more concentrated geographic area of excellence than this part of Northern California. If you want to be in tech, this is the place to be. Like any region, Northern California has hard and soft cycles. What has been impressive is the area’s ability to persevere.

I come from the industrial Northeast, which depended on steel and coal mines to keep the region thriving and people employed.  When the steel industry collapsed in the 1980’s, there was hope that the mills would go back to running full shifts and sending products around the world. It never happened. Foreign mills could produce products cheaper and faster. In Silicon Valley, downturns happen but we tend to see it as an opportunity to reload and find the next great trend. The tech sector is also not a closed system. It takes people and innovation from all parts of the world and learns and evolves from what it sees elsewhere. Other regions and industries haven’t been able to do the same.  

Boyden: What’s unique about the region? Is it talent? 

Robbins: Talent and the fact that plenty of people want to live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area is surely one of the advantages the region has. The other is the educational support you have in this area of California. We have many schools with great technology programs that support the growth of our companies by graduating students who not only use the technology the region produces, but actually understand the underlying technology and how it is built. 

BigFix was a success for many reasons, but the real competitive advantage we had was that interns and graduates from UC Berkeley fueled the bulk of our development organization. Our corporate offices were a few miles from campus. We would hire sophomore and junior year interns, and pay them more than they could make working at the local café. The ones that appreciated BigFix and understood what we were trying to accomplish as a next generation systems and security management company were usually hired full-time after graduation. 

The value of such a “feeder system” is like the minor leagues to a major league baseball team. We always had a strong pool of talent to choose from. Over the years, we looked at other regions to extend our development efforts and found similar areas around Boston and Pittsburgh. We even spent a fair amount of time looking at Belfast, Ireland. In the end, we had all we needed in the Bay Area. It allowed us to stay close to home and not lose our focus with an extended development team. 

Boyden: California has a reputation for being tough on business. What needs to change?

Robbins:  Smaller companies are somewhat insulated from the more difficult issues that larger businesses face in California. So, to be fair, I can’t offer much of an opinion in this area, other than to say HP, Cisco and other companies of size deal with this issue on a daily basis. As a smaller company, you don’t have to deal as much with the impact of excessive taxation and the expense of massively scaling a business in quite the same context as the larger companies. 

I think the bigger issue is how companies in California can continue to attract the type of employees that strive to innovate and create products that solve real problems for both enterprises and consumers. While the business environment can be harder on larger companies, the real issue they face is a workforce that focuses on building great products and not feeding the bureaucracy that often kills large companies. 

Boyden: The IBM acquisition closed August 2010. What have been the benefits now that you’re part of one of the biggest names in business?

Robbins:  Scale and brand recognition are clearly the top two. BigFix was growing at a rapid rate but it was difficult to compete against Microsoft, HP, IBM and other companies of size and attempt to sell and market against them at scale. We worked hard and were successful at creating space in a market that is many billions in size, and picking the selling opportunities that demanded BigFix products. But, there is no replacement for a global brand as well known as IBM. There is also no replacement for the sales and marketing heft that comes from being a part of such a great organization. BigFix could have continued to execute perfectly, but we never would have found the reach that IBM has. IBM was a natural home for BigFix.  We complemented their product offerings very well, and the company culture at IBM, while different, was complementary to BigFix’s core values. In time BigFix customers, who are often IBM customers, will begin to see the logic in the product portfolio that IBM brings to market with the full force of BigFix innovative technology underlying many of the solutions coming from IBM Tivoli. 

Boyden: Where do you see the future of IT going? 

Robbins:  We are seeing absolute consumerization of IT. The technology deployed at home and at the café are generally the same ones deployed at work. The separation between work and home is no longer obvious, and why should it be? With continuous connectivity, employees work practically all day, every day. IT’s job should be one of enablement.  In the past, IT was really an enforcer and less of an enabler. The job was to set your perimeter and keep all unwanted things out. Desktops and servers ruled the day. Now, my smartphone has as much computing power as a server did in the mid-90’s. We carry critical data around in our pockets. We come and go from the corporate network accessing mail, customer data, and important files all the while from Starbucks, on a plane, or traveling down the road in our cars. The shift has happened and IT needs to respond.  Have your firewalls, deal with intruders, but you have to know a good guy from a bad guy and you have to be able to make that distinction in real time. I realized this was not a trend but reality when I noticed most investment bankers carrying around an ancient corporate-issued Blackberry but reaching for their iPhone or Android when they wanted to do something beyond check their corporate mail or calendar. The real work is being done on very small, very powerful devices. Laptops, tablets and smart phones now rule. IT has to find ways to deal with it. 

We live and work in a highly distributed environment that enables employees to be constantly connected. If you want to make them productive, support the device that’s in their hand and give them access. 

The good news is that, after being in the business of selling technology to IT while at BigFix, the message is being heard loud and clear by IT. But, those of us in the business of providing technology have to show them how to manage in this environment. BigFix was founded based on the principle that devices and data are far- flung.  We now need to help build an entire ecosystem of technology and products that support IT’s current reality. 

In the future, all things get smaller, more powerful, and devices become more distributed. Centralized data and application provisioning through cloud-based services helps this become manageable, but this is only a small part of the total technology solution IT will require. 

Boyden: What are the IT challenges that are often not being dealt with, and where are the potential crises?

Robbins:  IT has to continue to invest and focus on the basic building blocks of a strong IT presence: how many assets are deployed in the organization, who owns the asset, is it up-to-date, what applications are in use, which aren’t in use. In general, how does IT best manage the lifecycle of all of their assets? The truth is, many IT organizations today lack these basic tools. If you think about that in the context of the highly distributed environment we just discussed, trouble is ahead. You can’t manage what you can’t see or change in your network. IT has to get better at managing their blind spots. 

Boyden: You played a big role in transforming BigFix from an unprofitable company to one that caught the attention of IBM and other important players. What are the challenges of managing a turnaround?

Robbins: If you find yourself at a company like BigFix that had a great architectural idea and some of the basic parts of the technology implemented, the job is easier. The issue at BigFix was one of a lack of market understanding and lack of proper execution at the earlier stages of the company. Once we got the market and product alignment corrected, the rest was all about building out the company and executing the plan. In general, having worked several restart and turnaround opportunities, you look for a few things:

  • Base technology that is sound and well-architected. In other words, are the building blocks in place for a build-out versus a complete reengineering project?
  • Are there key people at the company who are smart and well-focused, with a basic understanding of what they are trying to accomplish?
  • Is the chosen market addressable, and is there direct or indirect competition? This seems basic, but many early- to late-stage companies miss this basic point.
  • Is the company fundable? In theory, if you have a core of good people, a product and an addressable market, the answer should be positive. 

BigFix fit most of the above criteria. The company’s original concept was pointed at a consumer user. We moved it exclusively to the enterprise market. The downside was that our competitors were all well-established, very large companies. It made the fund-raising pitch a bit more difficult, but we were able to sell the idea of a huge market that was highly dysfunctional and in need of change and that BigFix was the next generation systems and security management tool.  

Boyden:  What are the keys to motivating staff and managers at the bottom of the trough? How do you motivate people? What are the keys to keeping people on board doing their best work?

Robbins:  You have to provide to all employees and managers a compelling vision, and make that vision one they can relate to and directly understand how they can impact the company’s success.  Building a company culture of openness and honesty is something most people appreciate. Clichéd as that is, it seems to be somewhat rare.   

At BigFix we always took the position that we were trying to build a great company that built products that exceeded our customers’ expectations. We never really got caught up in the ups and downs of quarter over quarter success. We certainly discussed our financial and sales success, but we always took the long view of it. BigFix was a big deal company so we would see some choppy results from quarter to quarter. I think the company understood this was simply a fact of the business we were in and no one was prone to panic. We also developed a clear set of core values that directed our day-to-day behavior. We focused on truth-telling and welcomed bad news. I always say it is hard enough to build a business based on truth, so don’t confuse matters with lies or a poor rendition of the facts. 

I think our directness around our values allowed the entire company to feel they had a hand in our success, and they did. We were also a performance-oriented company that focused on objective- setting throughout the entire organization, taking time to make sure everyone in the company had a clear set of goals that related to top line company objectives. This made each person’s personal impact clear. 

We encouraged regular feedback and annual reviews. All basic stuff, but we made sure it happened every day of every year. As executives, we asked for and received candid feedback from the company. We admitted that the process of building a great company was littered with imperfection. We made mistakes on a regular basis and our employees had no issue pointing those things out. Building a company is mistake-intensive. You have to be able to hold yourself to the same standard you set for the rest of the company. I loved it when an employee called me on something. It told me the system was working.

The best leaders focus on enabling the rest of the company to do their jobs. Our ethic was that if something went wrong, we first looked at ourselves as mangers to see what we did wrong. Everyone comes to work every day wanting to do great things. As managers, we had to find out how to put each of our employees in a good position to succeed. We weren’t too worried about liquidity events and other things that can distract you because the idea was that if we build something great, the end results take care of themselves. At some point, I think everyone realized we were telling the truth and found ways to support that effort.

Boyden: In an earlier Boyden Leadership interview with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, he affirmed the ultimate motivator is not money. People want to be paid fairly, but they want to be motivated by something greater.

Robbins:  Everyone wants to serve a higher purpose in life. We all need enough money to live comfortably, but beyond that, we want to feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. In that sense, being a part of a company where you feel as though you are directly connected to its growth and success is part of a “compensation” system. It isn’t just about money, but absent the appropriate financial compensation, the rest of that system won’t help you retain an employee. A compensation system includes everything from salary and bonus to benefits, work hours, office location, and company culture. Motivation, in general, is something a person innately has and the company can either stoke the flames of that motivation or dampen them. Connecting the individual to the whole is not always an easy thing to do. Being a part of a company that creates great software, on the surface, isn’t as satisfying, potentially, as a biotech company inventing a new drug that cures a disease. But, if you look deeply into what any company does beyond the superficial, i.e. develop software, you see that it serves a distinct public good by providing employment for hundreds of people. That employment gives each person the ability to pay rent, buy food, and put shoes on their children’s feet. It is that greater good that you have to seek and communicate to all of your employees. Unfortunately, we have all worked for companies that treat employees simply as an expense item that can be manipulated at will. Hard times do require difficult actions, but that shouldn’t mean that in the process of building a company, you don’t try to make it as personal an experience as possible for all employees. In the end, I think that is how you achieve the proper level of motivation in your employees beyond simply offering a salary.

Boyden: IT talent was hard hit by the crash in the early 2000’s. Now new priorities appear to have given this type of talent a revival. What type of manager is successful in your sector?

Robbins:  Managers in the tech sector have to be both technology leaders and people leaders. Having worked in non-tech sectors, it is always refreshing to see the level of self-motivation IT workers have. They see their technical skills as a transferable so they typically invest deeply in their own knowledge base. Because of this, managers need to continually focus IT workers on challenging projects that excite the employee or stretch their knowledge in some way. IT is all about growth. If a tech professional begins to stagnate, typically that is when other opportunities begin to look more attractive.

Boyden:  What has been the biggest personal challenge of your career and how did you overcome it?

Robbins:  Gaining the patience to be the kind of leader I wanted to be and learning the general business skills I think are required to be a CEO.

I was born with very little patience, it seems, so I had to learn over time that building something great doesn’t happen fast.  I have worked with other managers that simply ran out of time due to their inability to stay focused over longer periods. Most companies take time and you need to find the patience to let it develop. BigFix was a good example of that. From its founding in 1997 it took many turns before it hit its stride. Looking back, it would have been a poor decision to bail in the early 2000’s when the market was collapsing and it didn’t seem that BigFix had a future.  We are an instant gratification culture, but building a great company takes time. 

Developing general business skills was a crucial issue for me, since I’ve always believed a CEO should be a generalist that had primary experience with most jobs inside an organization. Over the years, I have been a product manager, marketer, sales person, support person and dealt with all kinds of financial issues and managed the development of organizations. I felt that running a business was mostly a technical skill that couldn’t be taught in school so you had to experience it. 

We are in a world today, especially in tech, where very young people with no experience are CEO’s. That can work, but isn’t the path I chose. I think a leader should be a coach, and in order to do that, you have to have some fundamental knowledge of each of the functions.  Gaining that experience took a long time but when I finally decided I wanted to be a CEO, I knew I was ready. 

Boyden:  Can you mention any specific blunders or management decisions that you made and how you worked around them?

Robbins:  If you commit yourself to building a business, you are going to take risks and sometimes fail. 

In the years when I worked at a division of a Fortune 500 company, I thought I could fix all that was wrong with the company’s product and culture. The truth is malaise, poor product development and selfishness are hard to purge out of a company. I took the direct, head-on approach and created too many enemies too quickly. The net is, change on a large scale takes time and, much like politics, it takes the building of a coalition. I prefer smaller companies, where personal initiative is more directly related to results on a daily basis.

At a one of my earlier CEO jobs, I thought, in the midst of a financial collapse, I could raise money on the back of a good idea with a company that had very little traction. There are realities in life that you can’t deny.  Sometimes the best course of action is to recognize it is fourth and long; so you better punt and hope for a better opportunity on the next set of downs. In this case, the bubble had burst.  Investors were looking hard at divesting from much of their portfolio. Putting money on another long shot was not a prudent expectation to have. Your personal belief in an idea or a company has to be well-informed by the world around you. Tilting at windmills makes for a great novel but not a business.

Boyden: How would you describe your leadership style?

Robbins:  It is always better to have someone else describe your style. Others have told me I am open, honest, direct, and one who is performance-driven with high expectations. That sounds like a good list I would subscribe to. I am also sure I fail at many of those things from time to time, so I try to be resilient. I think life is about risk and rebound from failure that helps inform your success.

I would hope anyone that has worked with me would think they had my full attention in helping them succeed and that we learned how to check our egos at the door. I often told the executive team at BigFix that we served at the pleasure of our employees, shareholders and customers, and our own interests fell somewhere down the list. I always felt that if we kept that perspective we would ultimately have the best opportunity to build a great company.

At least that is my version of it. Go ask someone who has worked with me.

Boyden: Now that you’ve left IBM, how do you view your next challenge?

Robbins: As the CEO of Quantivo, I like change and I appreciate the risks that go with building early-stage companies and learning new markets. Quantivo provides cloud-based behavior analytics for companies of all sizes. Turning massive amounts of data into useful business information is a huge challenge. Quantivo does this at scale and for very little up-front investment due to its cloud-based service delivery platform. You don’t need software, just your data and a browser and you are ready to go.

Much like BigFix in 2003, Quantivo has built a great architecture and has a core group of talented employees. Behavior analytics is a large and well-defined market, in need of rapid change. I look forward to building another great company.

We would like to thank John Holland of Boyden San Francisco for making this edition of Boyden’s Leadership Series possible.

The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Boyden; only those of Mr. Robbins.