Interview: Ron Sege, Executive Chairman of Virtana

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Ron Sege, executive chairman of Virtana, talks about how to take a company from good to great

Executive Chairman of Virtana Ron Sege was appointed to the post as well as the position of acting CEO in April 2020. He now sits at the top of a company, an “AIOPs leader for enterprise hybrid cloud transformation.” While working as executive chairman, he assumes the task of leading the company into its next round of growth.

Ron Sege also joins Virtana as “the company focuses plans to help IT professionals modernize their infrastructure to optimize performance, cost, and scale using hybrid cloud architectures.”

At Virtana, Ron Sege “brings a formidable body of experience working within disruptive technology companies, making him well-suited to Virtana.” John adds that Ron “is a strong leader, well connected and is deeply invested in the digital transformation market.” He should be able to “leverage his unique go-to-market experience to position Virtana for global hyper-growth.”

Before Virtana, Ron Sege has been president, CEO, and chairman in a number of private and public companies. Thanks to his vast experience, he holds keen insights into several markets, including telecom, enterprise networking and cybersecurity, wireless technologies, and industrial IOT.

Other than Virtana, Ron Sege has also sat on the Boards of non-profit groups such as the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Check out more interviews with experienced executives here.

A company that’s great, frankly, has a culture that prizes always asking questions that lead to insights about the customer’s fundamental business objectives and challenges. Ron Sege, Virtana

Jerome Knyszewski: The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Ron Sege: A good company provides a valuable product or service and has a decent balance sheet and reputation. A great company reimagines a product or service or creates an entirely new category. It brings such superior value that customers can’t imagine life without it.

A company that’s great, frankly, has a culture that prizes always asking questions that lead to insights about the customer’s fundamental business objectives and challenges. Too many companies in Silicon Valley have a culture that revolves around building widgets. They focus on widgets that are faster, cheaper, better…that leads to good. But once the technology runs its course, chances are, the company withers away and dies.

Whereas if you’re constantly thinking about how to apply your skills and your technical capabilities to solving customers’ evolving business problems, that’s an important thing that creates a great company.

Great companies are constantly evolving, constantly reinventing themselves…we’re doing that at Virtana. We are deeply engaged with customers in understanding their business needs, which informs their technology and product needs.

Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Ron Sege: Companies are no different than individuals- we all evolve and change at different rates. Eventually any company that has been in business long enough will face the challenge of change. Scheduled annual brainstorms and strategies with staff or industry analysts can uncover new ideas or future directions. However, the most effective strategy is to have a close ear to the ground with customers and partners for what works, what doesn’t, and who may be doing things better. And don’t be afraid of change — it can be exhilarating and energizing.

Stay focused and agile to bend and bounce back for difficult times.

Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Ron Sege: The stock market crash of 2008, the bubble, and the current COVID crisis were certainly turbulent. Businesses in all of these crises had to learn how to do things in a new way, or to reinvent themselves completely, find new partners, or enter new geographic markets. There is no one-size-fits-all advice that can navigate a crisis except keep calm, communicate, and keep an open mind for new strategies. Stay focused and agile to bend and bounce back for difficult times.

While our high-fidelity performance monitoring is great for customers, as a company, we were flirting with performing at good. We found ourselves in a slowing market, and as a consequence, we weren’t growing at the level that we aspired to.

We were monitoring data centers, but our customers are not accelerating their investments in data centers as rapidly as they are choosing to leverage the cloud. We have great customers and partners, great net-promoter scores, near zero churn in a market that’s maturing. The fast growth market is cloud.

At Virtana, when the pandemic hit, our core market shrunk. Our topline was at risk to shrink as well. Luckily, we were ahead of it. Before that downturn, we were restructuring — cutting costs and moving to a fast-growing market that could benefit from our core competencies and assets. This is a difficult but necessary thing to do. We chose to do it critically, strategically, and as deeply as we could. Again, guided by our customers’ business needs.

Too many companies take an incremental approach. They restructure and cut five or ten percent. Then, six months later they realize that wasn’t enough restructuring, and cut another small percent. It ends up being death by a thousand cuts.

It destroys the culture because team members end up looking over their shoulder wondering when’s the next cut. So, in these kinds of downturns, like the downturn in 2008 or 2000, I recommend companies do as much zero-based lifeboat analysis as possible.

Cut once, and cut as severely as possible, without cutting into your seed corn and without sacrificing your commitments to your customers and partners. This is best to protect the culture and preserve a trusting relationship between management and employees.

And, yes, on the one hand it is tough to do all this during a pandemic, on the other, a crisis can be the catalyst for impactful change. “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste” as they say.

Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Ron Sege: Front line experience at a company is underestimated. As I shared with my first job out of grad school, I learned more about how companies create value for customers by being right there on the front line, which is, in the end, where it all happens. Because I started in service, and then I went onto the firing line of sales, I learned ten times as much as any of the business graduates who went into marketing or finance. That really informed the rest of my career.

A great company delivering a ‘Wow” has solved a previously unsolvable issue or saved money or delivered new efficiencies that exceed customer expectations. Ron Sege, Virtana

Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Ron Sege: A great company delivering a ‘Wow” has solved a previously unsolvable issue or saved money or delivered new efficiencies that exceed customer expectations. At Virtana, we just launched our new platform for migrating and managing the complexities of hybrid and multi-cloud environments. Many companies are in the early stages of migrating to the public cloud because they are fearful of unexpected cost and performance issues. We have harnessed our 15 plus years of cloud monitoring experience with AIOps to provide customers and partners with the confidence to ‘Know before they go” to get the migration right and manage it effectively. It is tremendously gratifying for companies like AstraZeneca to share their experience of a 20% cost savings with Virtana for a ‘Wow’ factor that matters during this crisis.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Ron Sege: I am no expert on social media but understand that companies need a favorable social presence to shape corporate reputation. The real challenge is to balance messages that fit a business audience that are not overly promotional but engage the relevant community with a conversation that is meaningful. Posting and tweeting for the sake of activity rather than relevance is always a mistake.

Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Ron Sege: Startups fail at an alarming rate because many founders only have a short-term view of making a splash with a shiny new thing and capturing investors and attention. Once the first round of funding is gone, it is tough to make the case for more investors if the path to profitability and sustainability is not front and center.

In the time I’ve been in venture, the last couple of years, I’ve seen many founders in Silicon Valley make the mistake of way-overestimating the power of their technology, and way-underestimating the importance of the go-to market, which is where the value of the product or service is created for and delivered to the customer.

The critical questions for leaders are, “Who are you going to sell to? What is the positioning? How are you going to explain it to the average 13-year-old? How are you going to get a C-level person interested in thirty seconds?” Often CEOs and founders have a lot of trouble with that. In some sense they are too smart, and too close to their technologies.

When CEOs start to say vague things like “we improve customer service,” or even “dramatically improve customer service.” I ask, “OK, what do you mean by “dramatically?’ and, ‘how does it make a big difference to the customer’s business?’ You’ve got to explain it in plain English. You’ve got to substantiate and quantify claims — and make it relevant to the listening CEO or investor. And it can’t be 20% better to punch through, it needs to be 5x, 10x.

I learned there are two kinds of presentations: lean in and lean back. The minute you start talking to an audience of one, or thousands, one of the two presentation types is established. With lean in, the audience leans forward, and you’ve got their attention. With lean back, they put their cell phones on their lap underneath the table and continue to type — you’ve lost them. To get them to lean in you must be relevant in a fundamental way to their needs, issues and goals.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. For me I have stood on the shoulders of many people great and small.  

Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Ron Sege: We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. For me I have stood on the shoulders of many people great and small. For the challenge at Virtana, as one mentor of mine once told me, “If you want to lead a parade, find one that’s marching down the street and jump in front of it.” We’re pivoting the company to a parade that’s marching down the street, which is hybrid, multi-cloud planning, and optimization.

Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Ron Sege: First, spend a lot of time with customers and with salespeople. I think I have five million actual airline miles to my name in my career. I spend almost half of my time just hanging around with customers and partners and salespeople in unstructured situations. This is where you learn the most, develop relationships and regain your energy.

Pre-pandemic it was having late night dinners, or after work at a bar. It is really getting to know these folks. That’s when they open up and are candid about issues and opportunities. You get to know them as people, and they drop the pretense. It opens the door for open feedback. That’s when you get the best insights into what your company is doing well and what you could be doing better. Today we are doing as much of that as possible through Zoom.

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Ron Sege: I recently became involved with the Montalvo Arts Center. It is a donor-supported non-profit organization dedicated to the arts. Montalvo Montalvo’s mission is to engage people in the creative process, acting as a catalyst for exploring the arts, unleashing creativity, and advancing different cultural and cross-cultural perspectives. In my view, the value of the arts is often under-rated, especially during difficult financial times and this has a very negative impact on our society.

On a professional front for a movement- I stand behind a movement to optimize the cloud to help develop, distribute, and administer a vaccine for COVID-19. It is something we think about.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Ron Sege: Follow me and Virtana on LinkedIn.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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