Tech Leadership and Innovation

What the Nutanix folks did next

Dheeraj Pandey and Manoj Agarwal left Nutanix last year and now they’re trying to revolutionise software development


Tech Leadership and Innovation

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Through the 2010s, Nutanix quietly staged one of the most impressive coups of recent IT history, disintermediating datacentre storage, compute and networking giants with its revolutionary converged approach to those elements. Today, Nutanix has a market cap of nigh on $8bn but CEO and co-founder Dheeraj Pandey surprised everyone when in 2020 he announced he was leaving the company. Now he’s back together with another ex-Nutanix star Manoj Agarwal at a new company, DevRev.

I spoke to Agarwal by Zoom as he was visiting Bangalore, India to open DevRev’s R&D centre there. He tells me he is not from the area but from a small village lacking electricity, never mind colleges. But it was there that his entrepreneurial spirit was kindled. As a boy he started a building materials company with his father where he learned, avant la lettre, about the value of ecosystems, churn, customer satisfaction and net promoter scores.

“At that stage you don’t know the words but you’re thinking about suppliers, customers and how you can make them happy,” he says.

Coming to America

Like Pandey (the pair have been friends for almost 30 years) Agarwal became a star student and hotshot programmer and, like so many brilliant Indians, made the trip to study and work in the US. He joined Nutanix in 2013, four years after it was founded and when it had fewer than 200 people. He soon became a key figure in product engineering and in the various transitions Nutanix made to become a software and cloud subscription-based company.

At DevRev, he is building on what he learned at Nutanix but applying it to the knotty business of software development and as the name suggests bringing developers and customers and revenue together. The company wants to bridge the age-old chasm between developer island and business need and its product constantly polls for signals so that software can be improved even before users moan or trouble tickets are issued. It does this via a social network or CRM-like front-end that doesn’t look like any development tool you or I have ever seen. For Agarwal, this is the open sesame to product-led growth and a new world where code and organisational need are harmonised. But it is rooted in broader changes and needs.

“You don’t need to own the basic infrastructure,” he says, and “the next hook is the consumption-based economy where you pay for what you use, no more no less. If you’re not delivering the value, I’ll go somewhere else.

“At Nutanix we had this high NPS and low churn and we asked what is so unique and it was that we had all the big customers connected to the developers. We cleared the channels for real-time questions. They want to get to the truth as fast as possible and if they get to the developer faster, they’re very, very satisfied. If the customer has an issue and they ask the sales person or account manager, they won’t give them the whole truth but when the developer comes and says ‘here is the reason why it’s not as good an idea to solve an issue this way’ [that’s accepted].”

The new world

The mission is to deliver a new way to build software and “democratise this to the entire world”, Agarwal says. That means preventing churn and identifying issues through Machine Learning and AI before it’s even happening because churn is “always a lagging indicator: churn happens and you have to find out why and go all the way back”.      

With SaaS and open source, software development has already become faster. But Agarwal is betting on disintermediation again, this time by bypassing many of the people who live between the developer and the customer.

“The account manager, sales engineer, technical account manager, support engineers… the list goes on, and lots of middle-men will have to increase their skill sets,” he says.

“If you look at the consumer internet and what Amazon has done, we wondered why it’s so difficult to buy software the same way and use it and if you don’t like it, shut it off. And we do think the industry is heading in that direction. That is why developers are the most expensive assets in the organisation so how do you protect them, what do you give them to be more productive? Can you release all the friction in getting the data to the developer? Or [executives say] I don’t know what the developer team is working on, am I doing capital allocation the right way? To get that data today is all manual.

“We’re not looking to change the Agile process but we can remove a lot of meetings from the developers’ calendar and answer how you do prioritisation and who gets to work on that. We can take away the nights and long weekends debugging and make it easy, make it fun, make it social.”

So where has DevRev got to? Last Monday it released code (to “customer zero, which is us”) with the aim of a full commercial release in the second half of 2022.

Agarwal says DevRev will also be creative in internal operations, and the old model of “every time I hire engineers, I also hire a programme manager will go away”. He plans a lean and mean company where even the head of growth is a coder. DevRev is already an international company with a focus on hiring fresh talent from the best colleges globally and with a presence in the Bay Area but also Austin, Texas and Slovenia as well as Bangalore. It already has almost 100 staff, using 25 SaaS services and making extensive use of WeWork facilities rather than herding staff into offices if they don’t want to be there.

The big picture? Agarwal says software maintenance alone is a $300bn market and most of it can be rendered self-healing and autonomic via AI and ML. DevRev already has $50m in VC and the co-founders have put their money where they mouths are too. “We think this is not a 10 years idea but a three-decades long company,” Agarwal says.

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