Build Your Career: Interviews 


BIO: Shmuel Shottan

TITLE: Chief Technology Officer, BlueArc

ACADEMIC DEGREE: BSEE degree from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: He is an industry veteran with thorough experience in the research and development of hardware and software, and in engineering management for firms ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies. Most recently, he was the Chief Strategy Officer for SNAP Appliances. Previously, he was Senior VP of Engineering and CTO at Meridian Data, leading development of the Snap Server. Earlier, he held engineering development and management positions with Parallan Computer, AST Research, where he led the development of the Manhattan Multiprocessor server, and ICL North America/ CCI division.

CS ACTIVITIES: Member, Industry Advisory Boar

 

A Passion for What You Do

An Interview with Shmuel Shottan

Shmuel Shottan

Dick Price: Today we’re talking with Shmuel Shottan, Chief Technology Officer of BlueArc and a member of the Computer Society’s Industry Advisory Board. Shmuel, Tell us about your career at BlueArc.
Shmuel Shottan: BlueArc is the network storage company, founded in 2000 or ‘99. BlueArc has developed a novel implementation of accelerating file system storage by a hardware implementation implemented in FPGAs.

I joined BlueArc in September 2001 as the senior vice president of engineering. About four years ago, I took on the job of chief technology officer, at a stage of the company that required that we look around corners beyond resource roadmaps—18 months, two years ahead, looking at where to move BlueArc in the next stage.

Prior to BlueArc, I was a founder, vice president of engineering, and CTO of a company called Snap Appliances, between ‘94 and 2000. Snap Appliances was founded to develop a small business, home business network storage—basically, a disk drive, multiplicity of disk drives that can be deployed in small businesses, home businesses to a multiplicity of clients.
In ’97, ’98, the company became the leading provider—pretty much we created an industry—of network-attached storage (NAS) to small businesses. Through the channel, we worked about 40,000 units annually.

The company was acquired in ‘99 by Quantum Corp., at that time a leading disk drive manufacturer. While at Quantum, between late ‘99 and 2001, I was a general partner at the corporate venture capital fund named Quantum Technology Ventures, looking at the storage and networking business.

Among the companies I've looked at was BlueArc. I never expected to return to an operational role. But, apparently, that's where my heart was and when it became apparent that BlueArc needed help to go to the next level, I joined in the operational role as the senior vice president of engineering.

DP: So, you’re the CTO there. From a technological point of view, what's the biggest challenge or opportunity in front of BlueArc?
SS: In the NAS business, BlueArc has an innovative solution but is competing against gorillas—Fortune 500 companies, established companies. The most established gorilla is EMC.

The challenges are to innovate enough, such that the segment that is relying on BlueArc to do the job will continue to buy. The other challenge is to move to the next stage—and the next stage is always defined by revenue—to move from being a vertical player to almost a horizontal player.

For a small company, the only way to succeed in the marketplace is also to focus on a solution where your product is clearly understood by your customers and gives them benefit. If not, people will always prefer to buy from an established player.
Because BlueArc’s implementation is about higher performance, you can't position the product horizontally. If you go into the enterprise and say, “Hey, the performance is such and such and you can replace, well, 15-20 NetApp mass servers with one BlueArc server.”

This pitch basically defines in substitution, not an addition. It's very difficult to replace an incumbent. It's very difficult to say, “I will give you my system and take 12 systems off the established player and replace them.” “In addition” versus “in substitution” means, “Use my product as a solution in your enterprise where the current player cannot perform and solve your problems.”
As a result, and by trial and error, we have become a dominant player in creating movies, media, and entertainment, mostly in rendering.

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DP: Do you have an example?
SS: An example is “Avatar” the movie. I came back from a visit to New Zealand, where movies were created on BlueArc. Because when 20,000 artists need server storage and time is money. we have become a dominant player in this segment.
Another segment is genomic research. Again, the network-attached storage is all about performance. You have to go beyond those segments and that's the challenge for BlueArc.

DP: To turn that question on its head a bit, many people in the industry are concerned about having enough scientists and engineers, especially as the Baby Boom generation begins to retire. Is that an issue at BlueArc and is there anything you’re doing about it?
SS: BlueArc is in Silicon Valley. That's a unique place. Once I inhaled—and I did inhale—I became addicted. Hiring is not an issue because we are midway between Stanford University and UC Berkeley, and we get a large number of candidates. The issue at BlueArc is really about how to attract engineers. We attract them by saying, “You get to do unique development. Your career will be enhanced,” and it works.

Saying the obvious, if you walk around the engineering department at BlueArc—which is about 100 people—the dominant accent is not a pure born-here accent.

So, shortage of candidates, I don't see in Silicon Valley. Competition I see, but that's obvious—by the people in my department, and also the people I interview who came to this country to study and elect to stay. I, myself, came to this country but I got educated outside of this country, and I came as a result of an acquisition.

DP: Does it concern you at all that the public college system—Berkeley and so forth—are under the gun. Budgets are drastically cut. Do you think, over the next 20 years, that's going to affect Silicon Valley?
SS: Very much so. Taking it to a personal level, I used to explain to colleagues and friends how lucky I am. All three of my kids have been educated in the UC system—starting from UC San Diego, to UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. My daughter just graduated in June, my eldest son graduated from UCLA about five or six years ago. Having talked to them—the number of courses offerings, the labs—yes, I am concerned.

California has created the best and the best for the money. We will miss it and regret it. I am not a doomsayer. I think we’ll come to our senses earlier.

DP: So, you've also been involved through Steve Bollweg with the IEEE Computer Society’s Industry Advisory Board. What motivated that and how does that relate to your work at BlueArc?
SS: I needed a wakeup call and Steve has known me for a quarter century. When I first met Steve, I was completely focused. All I cared was about building the next, better, best innovative multi-processor computer system. I don't think the spark has disappeared. But you reach a stage in your career when you realize what you really enjoy doing. I like to mentor, and I do it a lot at work since I’m not an individual contributor anymore.

I’ve realized that the amount of time I spend sharing my experience with younger engineers, which pays 10 times, rather than at the beginning of the career, which was “Do it yourself.” I realized that I enjoy mentoring and I know that I had a wonderful career—I love this profession, and, yes, I’m pretty humble—but I do have experience I can share. With Steve’s wakeup call, I didn't need a lot of time to say, “Wow, yes, that's a wonderful opportunity.”

DP: As you moved through your career, is there some decision you made that stands out that was really smart that you could recommend to newcomers?
SS: Number one, you have to become a true leader, as in mentoring, as in sharing, as in being patient, as in understanding the big project you're only going to do through others. Very early in my career, I realized that the sooner I'm not the star of the team, the better. So, my success has always been attributed to having hired people who are, in my mind, better than me.
Second, if you want your career to advance, start looking outwards, which means market dynamics. What's happening in the industry? What wave in the industry is going to lift all boats? Try to find the better solution. Start thinking as a general manager; don’t think as an engineer. Start thinking as general manager while you're still considered the technology guru.

DP: Did these realizations about how to be a leader and how to become a visionary, were they results of any particular reading or training you did, or are they just in living your life?
SS: It's about getting out of your cubicle starting to going to conferences, talking to other people, enrolling in advanced education.

DP: In your field, what do you think will be the most startling advance or change will see in the next five to 10 years?
SS: I’ll start with my specific field because none of us have crystal balls. We started BlueArc because we looked holistically in data centers. If you look at the network storage industry, you have a multiplicity of clients on one side—clients mean Window machines, Linux machines, where the application is running. You have storage on the other side, which is the media where you retain your storage, and you had controller in between. When we started BlueArc, the bottleneck was with the controllers in between—that's why we started BlueArc.

If you look at where the bottlenecks are going, number one, we are still using the same rotating media, Winchesters – yes, I know we’ve now got 2 terabytes, 3 terabytes per disk drive, 4 terabytes and so on. And I can see a sea change there through advances in flash technology, what's now SSDs. Prices are still high, but media will change and it will change the industry. It will change the fluidity of data, what gets archived on the disk drive and what gets on the SD faster, et cetera.

Don't shoot me for saying that the network is ubiquitous, but that's the sea change in my field. Everybody calls it "The Cloud", but utility computing, the Cloud—in the next five years, it's going to happen in a big way.

DP: Do you have any final comment you'd like to make?
SS: Sooner or later—and for me it was after one change—one will find the place in his or her career where he falls in love with what he’s doing.
When I graduated, I assumed I was on the path to a PhD. I started to work at a large government research institute on a project that started eons before I joined. Who knows, maybe 20,000 researchers had worked on it. I did patent research algorithms, got hooked up with the university, and assumed that within the next five years that’s what I'm going to do.
But I wasn't passionate about it. When one of my lecturers said—it was in '80 or '81—"Hey, we have a startup that’s building the greatest Unix supermini. Why don't you join us?"

Did I know how to spell Unix? No. Did I know how to spell supermini? No. I joined not because I knew how to spell it, but for some reason I said, "Hey, why not? It's early in my career." I have been building superminis, multi-processor, computer systems ever since.

I realized that what I really like is computer architecture, understanding computer architecture completely, not just the skills of "I can do this, I can do that."

My advice is, it's not about the career only, it's not about making a living, it's not about the salary. The only way you won't regret the 30, 40, whatever, I hope 50 years you're going to spend in this business is if you have passion for what you do. Passion means you'll enjoy it.

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