Recalled: The best of 2016 tech exec interviews
Business Management

Recalled: The best of 2016 tech exec interviews

A busy year then, but aren’t they all? Over the course of the year I conducted over 300 interviews, according to my notes, from five-minute chats to long briefings. It’s the nature of the job that many of these turn out to be close to worthless while some supply seeds of ideas or quotes for features and a minority become fully-fledged pieces in their own right. The following is a look back over some of the more notable encounters, salted with memories from them; note that not every recollection and comment made it into the interviews themselves for reasons to do with time, editing, taste and fear of libel laws. Also note that what are referred to here as interviews were mostly one-to-one face-to-face or phone interviews but a minority were pieces culled from roundtables, press conferences and the like. Links should take you to the stories themselves if your interest has been piqued.

 

Politics

This was a year when politics and technology intersected like never before with Facebook and “fake news” linked with Donald Trump’s ascendancy to become President of the United States. When I spoke to the former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency Chis Inglis he was noncommittal on the (at the time) pending question of which candidate’s digital policies might lead to a “safer” America and world but he was forthright on other controversial topics, notably the cases of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.

 

Modern royalty

It’s a symptom of getting old that companies you knew in their infancy are today part of the well-upholstered furniture of modern tech. This was the case with email management and security company Mimecast that is now doing very nicely after a slightly turbulent start to life as a public company a year ago – I spoke to CEO Peter Bauer amid that turbulence and after it in an interview to be posted in the new year. Datacentre disruptor Nutanix is another company that recently made it to a trumpeted IPO after eyeing the prize for years, with CEO Dheeraj Pandey joining his peer Scott Dietzen of Pure Storage in recalling the process. I remember Workday when it was in beta, rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of Oracle’s hostile takeover of PeopleSoft. Today, CEO Aneel Bhusri leads the biggest thing in human resources tech and the PeopleSoft name would mean nothing to thirtysomething types. Pivotal is another company that has eased its way into the mainstream and CEO Rob Mee might do better yet, so long as the development operations firm does not get caught up in the machinations of the Dell empire. NetSuite, which in the last decade-plus became a cloud superpower alongside Workday and Salesforce.com, finally exited this year to Oracle for a fat sum as that company’s co-CEO Mark Hurd spied huge opportunities in recalibrating the company’s focus. It’s to be hoped that the database behemoth treats its fun-loving new asset with due care and respect.

 

Next Big Things

I occasionally get asked for share tips by people who obviously don’t know that my betting record is a sorry tale of unseated riders, fallers, ‘tailed off’ and ‘pulled up at the third’ equine types. But it’s hard sometimes, despite this being a curse on those about to be mentioned, not to see a company and think: ‘they might get big’. I certainly feel like that about InsideSales.com whose President and CRO Jim Steele I met at the end of the year – the article will appear soon. This company is in many ways the natural successor to Salesforce.com: a programmatic way to hone sales processes by telling sales executives what to do next. Another potential giant is Lz Labs which is attempting to take mainframe workloads and run them in the cloud or on commodity servers, and I also admired App Annie which hits the zeitgeist by providing app developers with clear insights into how they’re doing - and hence clues as to what they should be doing. The only question over Big Data leader Cloudera might be exactly how big it is, as it has held off from an IPO for now. The fortunes of its similarly minded rival Hortonworks are easier to gauge as it is publicly quoted. I also liked FinancialForce.com, another Salesforce-related acolyte with power to add to its already impressive progress in financial management, especially if NetSuite slips up. Finally, Mendix is a Dutch company operating in the growing ‘low-code’ software development field and has a solid ‘there to stay’ look about it.

 

The xBoxes

A recurring theme of the last few years has been the battle royal for supremacy among companies in the sync/share/collaborate space (if there’s one thing they all have in common it’s a hatred for being described as ‘online storage’ firms.) This year I added Dropbox, Egnyte and another Box CEO to the Q&A pile – a Syncplicity piece got squeezed out in the end-of-year rush and will follow in the new year. All these companies are worthy of examination but the company that eventually becomes the clear leader will repay the faith of investors – in the case of Dropbox that’s worth over $1.1bn – and perhaps a lot more.

 

Comeback kids

Will anybody this year join the like of Apple in creating a big second wave years after their first salad days if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor? BlackBerry has an outside chance having exited making smartphones and pursued security software and services – look out for an interview very soon. A different type of transformation is taking place at IBM (which this year bought Bluewolf) and Accenture, which are trying to reinvent themselves for the new realities of ICT services in the cloud-first age of digital transformation. Accenture is also notable for its laudable graduate apprenticeship scheme in the world’s greatest city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. A sidebar to the renaissance of these services giants is the strategy of SAP, attempting to fight off a ‘fugly’ reputation and taking on the challenge of cloud-born rivals.

 

Security is the gift that keeps on giving

Security is a goose that lays its golden eggs perpetually. In 2016 I met several possible contenders for ‘next security giant’ in Lookout, BlueTalon and Digital Guardian while veteran Motorola Solutions also retains a colourful vision of the future of our security agencies.

 

Notable others

Talking to anybody that has even come close to touching the hem of Bob Dylan’s garment is always a thrill and Digital Relab with its software to manage stars’ archives was one such. Another company close to momentous matters was Nuix which combed over the emails that led to the Panama Papers tax haven revelations but also had other fascinating stories to tell (here and here). The CEO of LivePerson, Rob LoCascio, has lived through the history of the web age and survived to tell the tale.

 

Highly quotable

Scott McNealy has the right in perpetuity to be known as the most quotable person in tech today and in our interview this year he (for the second time here) didn’t hold back, discussing everything from his sons’ superb golfing abilities to his support for Mr. Trump.

‘Montana’ Williams of infosec group ISACA had strong views on the security landscape and how to alter it. It was fun to talk to the datacentre company SimpliVity about how it got involved in the Silicon Valley TV series and from real Valley denizens on their thoughts about the show. But it was scary to talk about the future of work in the bot and AI era with Valley veteran turned author and academic Jerry Kaplan; ditto identity management with Eve Maler of ForgeRock. AMD and Associated Press discussed (ulp) the future of journalism in the time of VR and AR.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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