CTO Sessions: Matt Watts, NetApp

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? “Not really, as you always have to start with the pain point, the product or service is then tailored to meet it.”


Name: Matt Watts

Company: NetApp

Job title: Chief Technology Evangelist

Date started current role: August 2020

Location: Bristol, England

Matt Watts has been with NetApp for 15 years, but in the IT industry for much longer, in fact he has more than 25 years of IT experience. Watts work closely with the Office of the CTO, Product Operations and Marketing teams at NetApp, but he spends most of his time at events or with businesses articulating NetApp’s Strategy and the business value of IT.

What was your first job? Other than various part time jobs, my first real job was as an aerospace engineer for British Aerospace. I worked on various aircraft such as the Airbus A320, A340 and was part of the conceptual design time for the A380. 

Did you always want to work in IT? I’ve always been an engineer at heart. My move from physical engineering work to computer-based was when I started working in computer-aided design (CAD). As part of that process, I realised that I really enjoyed helping others get to grips with technology too. This led to my move into pure-play IT in the early 1990s. As you can imagine, this was an exciting time - we were moving towards the dot-com bubble and I wanted to be part of it. 

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they?  I left school at 17 after my GCSEs and I went straight into a 4-year apprenticeship with British Aerospace where I got my B-tech, ONC and HNC in production engineering whilst learning a lot of on-the-job skills. It was a mixture of practical work and part-time education. 

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. No, it was a very natural evolution. I started off as an engineer for British Aerospace straight out of school, then into CAD work. Then I took on a job to essentially decommission a mainframe in Holland, where I became a programmer of sorts. This then moved me into the emerging industry of IT, growing my business development and project management skills, which lead me to where I am today at NetApp. 

What type of CTO are you? I’m an engineer at heart, BUT I do not care how something works unless I can see the value it brings. What that translates to in my role, is that when I talk to companies about our technology, I’m not really there to tell them how it works. I am there to tell them why they should care, why this piece of technology could make their lives so much better tomorrow than it currently is today. If I can convince them of that, then we might be able to discuss how we [NetApp] can make that happen. 

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning – When used to its true potential, it can truly save lives. For example, when they tried to work out the DNA sequencing for SARS it took months, for Covid-19 that time could be measured in hours.  

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? Same answer: Artificial Intelligence. At the very high-end, there are great promises of what AI can do, but there are few companies working on AI at that level of scale. What frustrates me is when we see something exciting and we all jump on it. We have this technology, these huge concepts that have the potential to change and save lives, then we reduce it down to saying something like “we have a chat-bot".  

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? My view is, in order to progress in an organisation you need to make what you currently do redundant. Every year I do two things. Firstly, I work out what I want to do next year. And secondly, I convince the company that it would have value for them so that they can create a new role for me to move into. So, in this instance, the initiative in the last 12 months was that I was a CTO, which had an important internal and external focus - but we realised we needed to split that role in two. As such I now hold a brand-new role of Chief Technology Evangelist which has a solely outward looking focus, concentrated on articulating who NetApp is and the value our technology brings. 

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? This isn’t my role – that's for our Chief Strategy Officer and also our Chief Technologists such as Grant Caley who you interviewed a while back. As I said, my role is primarily to articulate and educate externally.  

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? We’re seeing businesses look more into multiple-clouds. There is a widespread lack of insight and understanding into what resources they are consuming across these multiple clouds. There is also confusion around how to optimise their multi-cloud environments, and how to reduce the running costs. So, one of the main issues I – and NetApp – is really focused on, is helping customers achieve consistent insight across their entire hybrid-multicloud environment an reduce the cost of running it. 

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals?  As my role is externally focused, I strive to learn what issues our customers are having, and align our technology offerings to alleviate these pains, or unlock new opportunities. By understanding our customer’s business goals, we can align our services and products accordingly. 

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy?  Not really, as you always have to start with the pain point, the product or service is then tailored to meet it. The problem some vendors face is they push a product without truly understanding the customer’s need, when all you have is a hammer then every problem is made to be a nail that needs to be hit, which may not actually be the real problem. 

What makes an effective tech strategy? What makes an effective tech strategy is not starting with the tech strategy. Your focus needs to be on your customer’s business problem, and you should work from there to alleviate this pain with your technology. It’s problems and opportunities that drive tech strategy and never the other way round. 

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? At NetApp we’ve recognised that you need to split the CTO role in two. Companies need a CTO to guide the company internally, as well as a CTE (Chief Technology Evangelist) to be out there in the market communicating about the changes the company are seeing in the industry. This can be applied to any company. 

What has been your greatest career achievement?  For the last 7-8 years at NetApp, each role that I have taken on has been a role that has never existed before.  My biggest achievement is consistently creating new roles that I can take on, and getting the company to continuously embrace them.  

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? In general, I think people tend to spread themselves too thin. We try and fix everything at once, rather than dedicate time to fixing one thing really well. This is especially difficult for me as I come from an engineering background, and it is in my nature to want to fix everything immediately. But it is just as important to take the time to become an expert in one thing at a time, and do one job really well, rather than do several adequately.  

What are you reading now? I read mostly fiction, and am currently reading The Raid by Steven Konkoly. I tend to read the books that most people would only read on holiday.

Most people don't know that I… used to be a qualified helicopter pilot and once flew a helicopter underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

In my spare time, I like to… I’m a huge car fan. I really enjoy meeting with other local car owners and attend a few car clubs on weekends. I also love clay pigeon shooting.

Ask me to do anything but… Eat cheese or bungee jump.