“Luck happens to a lot of companies, but they are not always ready to take advantage of it.”
- Kevin Rowett, vice president of engineering at Violin Memory
Violin Memory, a provider of top-of-the-line enterprise flash memory arrays, is on a roll. At six years old, Violin has over 100 engineers, and brings an average of 2-3 new engineers on board every week. Its flash memory services have been described as “insanely powerful” and “beautifully simple,” and Violin recently released a new product that delivers over one million IOPS—a very fast processing speed.
But when Kevin Rowett, vice president of engineering at Violin Memory, joined the company over two years ago, things were much different.
At that time, Violin had a team of 20 engineers and a product that did not perform at the desired level. I spoke with Kevin to find out how Violin took advantage of key opportunities (and a little bit of luck) for a successful turn-around.
Interview with Violin Memory—a provider of top quality flash memory arrays
Alyssa: A lot has happened for Violin in the last six years. Is there something in particular that has led to your success?
Kevin: We have turned around a lot in the last six years, and I would attribute that to three things.
First, we have always valued and encouraged all kinds of innovation in the workplace. I believe innovation is most powerful when it solves tough problems in a new way—and that’s what I push my team to strive for.
Secondly, we work very hard to assemble a motivated and energized team that desires to win. Because I believe the desire to win is contagious, I always try to highlight team successes and recognize the importance of each employee’s contribution. When we fail, we try to learn from our mistakes and find concrete improvements to make in the future. If everyone on the team believes in our products and company goals, then it’s not hard to believe our failures will be followed by successes.
Lastly, we were in the right place at the right time. In other words, a little bit of our success is due to sheer luck. When Violin first began, storage arrays were in low demand simply because no one was interested in the technology. Then, Larry Ellison delivered his turtle speech, in which he declared that adopting flash memory is a no-brainer for enterprise database storage. His statement essentially created the flash memory market that has sustained Violin ever since—and the rest is history. We did not have a hand in Ellison’s statement, but we jumped on the opportunity to capitalize on it.
Alyssa: Adding 2-3 new engineers a week is quite a feat, but you seem to be handling it well. What advice could you give another company who is faced with rapid growth?
Kevin: The speed with which we’ve scaled is definitely a challenge, but the energy we’ve created in our company is contagious—and that keeps up our motivation.
For example, our engineering department is broken down into about six teams, and we pair new hires with someone in their target group for the first few weeks. This allows our engineers to grow, and our new engineers to find their place in the team. Once a month, we gather the whole engineering team together to review company goals and progress, which also serves to build team morale and focus our efforts.
We have remained loyal to our open office philosophy, which has helped us sustain rapid growth as an engineering team. I believe an open office policy minimizes hierarchical barriers and keeps open lines of communication within departments.
We also believe in creating clear visibility between engineering and sales, so we can gain a better understanding of our customers and their needs, and get quicker feedback on how we’re faring against competition. This goes hand in hand with making sure everyone understands their role within the team, and how engineering and sales both roll up into the larger goals.
Finally, embracing technology in the cloud has been valuable to our company as we’ve grown. The consistent interface and easy shareability of cloud programs like Arena has made it easier to scale and add more partners across the globe. It is much easier to provide suppliers with access to our data in the cloud than it would be to give them access to our servers.
Alyssa: What have you learned from developing an overseas supply chain?
Kevin: With the instability in the market today, choosing a supplier is one of a company’s most important decisions—an unreliable supplier partnership can really leave you stranded.
One way to make strategic supplier choices is to watch how different suppliers react to changes in the market. For example, when the tsunami happened in Japan this year, I saw how different suppliers reacted with different levels of professionalism and preparedness. Some suppliers contacted us immediately to explain how the natural disaster disrupted workflow, and how they planned to mitigate the setbacks. Other suppliers were clueless as to the business consequences. Though I have always believed it is important, this experience reinforced the critical value of establishing stable supplier relationships.
Alyssa: What is a major challenge Violin faces today?
Kevin: Almost every quarter, a new competitor emerges in the flash market. This high level of competition has been a challenge. Not only do we need to keep up with demand for our product, we also need to constantly look ahead, and decide what new product features to build to stay competitive.
To adapt, we have tried to really focus on listening to our customers. And as we have opened up our lines of communication, product demand has skyrocketed. We have already been asked to build almost 100 different product features.
Opportunities for growth can be often disguised in everyday transactions, unforeseen obstacles and even apparently obvious setbacks. As your company looks to its future, keep in mind that, with the right business priorities and a desire to win, you can make a bit of your own luck.
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To learn more about Violin Memory, you can visit the company website and read more on the company’s flash memory array and new #FlashForward campaign. If you would like to be featured in an upcoming customer spotlight, post to our comments section below and I’ll be in touch.