Tech Leadership and Innovation

Cohesity CEO aims to be backup’s disruptor

Sanjay Poonen sees an opportunity to make Cohesity Silicon Valley’s next star

Headshot of  Sanjay Poonen, CEO at Cohesity

Tech Leadership and Innovation

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Across the road from where press are gathering to chat with new Cohesity CEO in the excellent Cinnamon Club restaurant, another sort of media scrum is taking place. The UK is changing Prime Ministers and the Palace of Westminster is a picture of chaos. But then Sanjay Poonen’s arrival as leader at Cohesity in August wasn’t a textbook transition either, as he tells us.

The disruptive backup company had filed for an IPO in late 2021 so it must have been a surprise to get a call from the company to say the then CEO Mohit Aron wanted to step down and would Sanjay be interested in replacing him.

“I didn’t quite believe the narrative of what they were saying,” Poonen recalls. “It was [unusual] for a CEO at that stage to step back so I wanted to be sure that it was his decision and not that he was fired or forced out.”

It turns out that Aron saw his future in guiding technology and product development and he wanted to provide the focus depth that would leave space for an incoming CEO to provide the breadth. And that explains why what Poonen calls the “dynamic duo” emerged.

John Updike once described fellow novelist Henry Green as “a writer’s writer’s writer”. Cohesity in that case is perhaps “a tech insider’s tech insider’s tech insider”. The person on the street will remain blissfully unaware of the company but it is another of those datacentre scale-ups likely to become rather large on the back of a critical infrastructure need. In this case it’s backup and recovery, a niche but a critical and therefore lucrative niche. He is too polite to name them but Poonen surely wants to take money away from the likes of Veritas, Commvault and the rest of the posse that got rich on the back of the need to store copies of data.

“In the same way that Snowflake and Databricks are overtaking Teradata, legacy backup players didn’t modernise themselves for the webscale architecture… for the new world of cloud,” he says. They missed what he calls a “black swan event”, referring to the bird thought not to exist until it became highly visible.

“We are sitting on a huge opportunity like Oracle 40 years ago … the key players in this space are all ripe for disruption,” Poonen says, going on to reference other fast-growth companies of past and present such as CloudStrike, ServiceNow, AWS and VMware, a company he came close to leading the last time the top job became available.

“Backup was never a boardroom topic,” he says without fear of disagreement, but as volumes moves inexorably into the exabytes range and as demand for governance, security and auditability swell, Cohesity appears to be a company in the right place at the right time. Indicators are green, certainly: the company was valued at $3.7bn in a 2021 financing round, has over 2,100 staff and is amassing a customer base populated by leaders in banking, pharmaceuticals and other bellwether segments. Investors include Amazon, Sequoia and Softbank .

Poonen won’t conjecture on a timescale for an IPO and these are frothy waters to be jumping into. In the meantime, he says his job is to “put more jets on the engine” and think beyond a mere financial event. “’How do you create a company that has longevity of architecture?’” he ponders. “There are few [veteran] companies that are still innovating: Apple and Microsoft. I hope one day we’re an iconic company.”

He doesn’t see strategic M&A as a way needed to get there and he is impressed by the current ecosystem Cohesity has built, saying its partnerships in cloud are as mature as an eight-year-old company as VMware managed in 18 years. “I wish we had done something in the cloud much earlier,” he says of his former employer.

Outside, a storm is brewing to add an element of pathetic fallacy to what is happening in the home of British politics. Sanjay Poonen leaves to help build his own version of a tornado insider and to write another chapter in the rich book of Silicon Valley datacentre disruptors.