“Sit at the table and don’t be afraid to speak out”, With Douglas Brown and Soni Jiandani

Sit at the table and don’t be afraid to speak out: According to a recent study by Jobs for Her, 30% of women express a need for more leadership opportunities — and that means sometimes women need to be vocal and speak up about pursuing these opportunities. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, because you’re often […]

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Sit at the table and don’t be afraid to speak out: According to a recent study by Jobs for Her, 30% of women express a need for more leadership opportunities — and that means sometimes women need to be vocal and speak up about pursuing these opportunities. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, because you’re often your own biggest advocate, especially when starting a career in tech. While we’re working remotely, there isn’t a physical table to make sure you’re seen, but the same principle applies. During video calls, make sure people know your name and hear your ideas, and if you aren’t given space to speak, contribute to in-meeting chats. Remember that no one person has all the answers — continue to voice your opinions and provide data points to back them up. Before you know it, your ideas will become the team’s ideas.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Soni Jiandani, Chief Business Officer and Co-Founder of Pensando Systems, a cloud and enterprise data center startup founded in 2017 by four former executives from Cisco Systems. Prior to co-founding Pensando Systems, Soni spent over 23 years as part of the “MPLS” team who were financed by Cisco to create innovative new start-ups. Soni has extensive experience in marketing and driving industry transformation through disruption and commercializing innovative technologies.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I left India, my country of origin, at a very young age when I was only 15. I continued my higher education in London, where I eventually finished with an undergraduate degree in computer science. After moving to the United States in my early twenties, it became evident to me that the internet was going to be a powerful piece of technology. I got into the networking industry as part of my first job, and it was really exciting to contribute to foundational technology that has shaped our world today. It’s hard to imagine now, but in those days it wasn’t even called the internet or the world wide web, and the term wasn’t common knowledge because it wasn’t yet a part of our everyday lives.

As my career progressed, one of the things I found particularly interesting was the role and impact that disruptive technologies have in our world. It was fascinating to learn that just having a disruptive technology doesn’t mean it will be embraced. Timing is everything. If you bring a product into the market too early, it’s not applicable to the masses. If you are too late, you are yet another deliverer, but not a disruptor. That aspect of having the right product and the right timing was always compelling to me, and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve spent the last 27 years designing products and building startups that are focused on market disruption.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most interesting thing that’s happened since starting Pensando has to be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. No one at the company would have predicted that just months after launching from stealth, we would be experiencing something that would dramatically shift how we live our lives and run our business. We had to think about how this would change our organization internally, but it also meant trying to figure out how our customers, suppliers, investors, competitors, and partners would react.

While this has created a chaotic environment, it’s very encouraging to see that the hunger for market innovation and disruption hasn’t disappeared but has actually increased. In the very midst of the pandemic, we exceeded our yearly sales projections by more than 150%. We’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the timing of the market transition that we’re embracing is still on track, and we’ve found that there are new opportunities emerging out of the pandemic — like supporting remote work IT infrastructure and advancing edge computing technology.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Very early in my career, with less than five years in the industry, I began working on a piece of technology called LAN switching that was very disruptive at the time. I remember having a dialogue with a customer where I asked them how many virtual LANs (VLANs) they planned to deploy in their environment. The customer came back and said maybe 10–15, but no more than 20–25. I took that information and thought that was going to work, because that’s what the customer told me. I didn’t even realize at the time that I was so wrong it was comical. Later on, it became apparent to me that even a number like 250 VLANs or 500 VLANs, was not going to cut it.

I learned that when you receive customer input, you also have to apply your own experience in developing an implementation strategy especially when it comes to disruptive technology. A customer might have an idea of what they want today, but it’s sometimes up to you to think about what they’ll really need down the line. When working with transformational technology, it’s important to think about what the market could look like two-four years in the future, and then plan accordingly.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I’m a firm believer that you must have tough times to take a step forward, and in many ways, difficult circumstances become the building blocks of who you are and who you will become. It’s ironic because people generally don’t embrace moments that are uncomfortable and challenging, but we often find that when we look back, we are grateful for the obstacles that stood in our way because they instilled a level of strength and resilience. When things are fine, we simply don’t grow. I’ve learned to turn challenging times into opportunities for introspection. Success has a funny way of masking flaws, but failure can make a great teacher, if you let it.

I’ve learned many valuable lessons from every startup I’ve done, especially when faced with a new challenge. For example, my very first startup after I left Cisco was a company called Nuova Systems. At that time, the only thing we knew is that we were going to do a startup. We didn’t know what our product would be. We didn’t know what space we would be in. The only thing we really knew is what we weren’t going to do. Times like those seemed daunting, but we really took it as an opportunity to grow and take risks. With that frame of mind, we had the drive to keep going, and the ability to view that time as exciting rather than scary.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

First, I’m very grateful for my family. I dedicate much of my time to the technology field, but if it weren’t for my husband, my kids, my parents, and my entire family, I simply wouldn’t have that time. And without time, your passions and dreams can only go so far.

Second, I immensely value my relationships with Mario Mazzola, Luca Cafiero, and Prem Jain, who along with me, form the “MPLS” team. It’s astonishing to think that we’ve worked with each other for almost 27 years. They’ve really become family to me, and having that level of trust and experience together has been the driving force behind much of my success.

I feel the same way about John Chambers, who was CEO at Cisco while I was there and is now Chairman of the Board at Pensando. He’s one of the rare individuals I’ve met that is so accomplished, yet so humble, approachable, and caring. To this day, even with a portfolio of multiple companies, he does everything he can to support me and care for his colleagues.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s an Indian philosopher named Swami Vivekananda who used to say that when you want to accomplish something, think about it, dream about it, breath it in, and consume yourself in it. That is something that I’ve embraced in my day to day life and in my work.

If there’s a particular thing that I want to focus on or that I recognize as essential to my growth, then I’ll put my heart, soul, and mind into it. The result is a determined focus that leads to execution. If you are constantly reflecting on something, then you build it into something that is more than just a thought. It will become an action and become attainable.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

The explosion of data generated by applications inside and outside of the data center has enterprises of all sizes facing stark choices — scale up capacity with a traditional IT architecture or move more workloads to public clouds. Either approach means IT staff often end up spending more time managing complexity and infrastructure than they do innovating for the business.

Pensando has created a third option that overcomes the constraints of the other two, with the first secure, programmable, edge-accelerated platform that directly addresses the generational shift occurring as data pushes to the edge of the cloud. The foundation of the Pensando platform is a custom, fully-programmable processor optimized to execute a software stack delivering cloud, compute, networking, storage and security services wherever data is located. In addition, our platform creates simple data center architectures that integrate with existing frameworks and feature always-on, end-to-end telemetry — meaning the transition to next-gen technology is seamless.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

It starts with the founding “MPLS” team of Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain, Luca Cafiero, and me. It’s hard to find another team that has this much technical expertise and that has worked together for so long. Starting in 1993 with Crescendo Communications, we co-founded multiple startups including Andiamo Systems, Nuova Systems, and Insieme Networks, all of which were eventually acquired by Cisco for over $2 billion. After this track record of success lasting for nearly 30 years, our team was actually thinking about retiring. But we realized that there was still more we could contribute to the tech industry, and we co-founded Pensando.

This internal expertise is bolstered by a strong partner and customer ecosystem surrounding the company. We’ve raised $290 million in funding backed by investors including Lightspeed, HPE, Goldman Sachs and JC2 Ventures. The platform was developed in collaboration with the world’s largest cloud, enterprise, storage, and telecommunications leaders and is supported by partnerships with HPE, NetApp, Equinix, and multiple Fortune 500 customers.

Our product is a turning point for the cloud marketplace. In order to turn legacy architectures into next generation cloud-like environments, most enterprises were turning to Amazon Web Services (AWS) and their Nitro platform. The problem is that this led to vendor-lock in, and only companies willingly to immerse themselves into the AWS ecosystem could benefit from the technology. Pensando offers a software-defined platform that is democratizing the cloud by giving enterprises freedom from AWS lock-in, and giving cloud providers the chance to compete, due to our technology that delivers 5–9x improvements in productivity, performance and scale. I’ve compared our platform as the open Android platform of the cloud versus AWS’ closed-off iOS.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Pensando, I find that I’m excited to come to work every day with the same people that I’ve worked with for the last 27 years. It’s also thrilling to have the chance to change the industry, something we’ve done with our prior startups. I’ve been encouraged to see that throughout our new projects, the pandemic has not dampened the spirit of the market nor the appetite of our customer base to embrace innovation. Our customers are intent on transforming themselves by seeking disruptive technologies instead of the status quo.

I’m particularly excited about our collaboration with VMware on Project Monterey, which we recently announced. Together, we are creating a next generation infrastructure platform that will bring cloud-like capabilities and efficiencies to enterprises, cloud providers and SP’s who are aiming to deploy next-generation applications and services. This is crucial for the digital transformation of companies that are seeking to modernize and compete in an increasingly digital world that relies heavily on next-gen applications.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I’m not satisfied with the status quo. It’s so important to provide opportunities for women in areas like science and math, but as a society we need to carve out more time toward this activity and provide platforms for women to advocate for themselves. I used to sit on the board of a company, but as Pensando was starting to take off, I realized I would no longer have the time to perform my duties as a board member. The very first thought I had was to approach the chairman and recommend that he hire a woman in my place. I submitted a few names of qualified women, and I’m grateful that one of them was hired.

I was so thankful to be able to use my influence and platform to advocate for other women, but I was just wishing that there were more opportunities to help beyond singular opportunities. I’m hoping that women in tech will have a broader platform to promote more women on a more regular basis. This would benefit the entire tech industry because we all win from increased diversity that sparks new innovation.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

In addition to holding a full-time job in tech, women have additional responsibilities that their male counterparts don’t encounter. Despite growing awareness of gender norms, women still find that they have to take on much of the work for homemaking and raising kids. Mothers have been especially stressed out during the pandemic because they have an added responsibility of playing the teacher.

It’s so important that when possible, family members step up. While women have historically had to sacrifice their career dreams in service of the family, it’s time that the rest of the family jump in to help. What family member wouldn’t want to see their daughter, sister, or mother thrive and achieve career success? To allow that to happen, it can’t just be one woman running the show.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Having a highly differentiated product or platform is a necessary condition of growth, and companies that achieve this often experience early success. But the emergence of competitors, or even conditions in the market that are beyond your control such as the pandemic, emerge over time. When that happens, your company might hit a standstill.

It’s then that leaders need to go back to the drawing board and assess what it is about their technology and their company that customers value most. It’s crucial to latch onto that aspect, while also considering how the company can pivot in a way that fortifies what customers value the most and developing news services or features that can jumpstart new growth. During this process, stay close to your teams. When you are pivoting, you can’t go it alone — the whole company needs to get onboard. Without that, your organization won’t be able to execute in a timely fashion.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

It’s important to have deep customer engagements through deep customer relationships. These relationships will reveal insights that sales teams can leverage to their advantage. For example, the company’s technology roadmap may be heading in one direction, but your customers may reveal that they want you to take it in the opposite direction. At that point, it’s important to have the right sales culture that is able to harness that insight into the rest of the business. For example, communicating that feedback directly to the engineering teams will eventually result in a stronger product that is easier to sell.

When a customer is sold on a product, your job isn’t done. You need to be able to work with your customers on an implementation strategy that makes adoption of your technology seamless. This is especially important when working with disruptive technologies that don’t always seem to fit into legacy structures. Having strong background domain knowledge becomes a critical facet in these situations.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

It often starts with relationships. Many of our initial customers were secured through prior relationships that our team had at other companies. When you’ve proven you can add value in the past, you’re more likely to be trusted in the future. When you’ve invested in those relationships, and you prove to them that your goal is their success, your customers can become your champions. It’s never about creating tech for the sake of tech, but creating tech to solve real world problems that your customers are facing. When customers feel that you really do have their backs, then they advocate on your behalf.

We are also very fortunate that our MPLS team has worked with some of the largest enterprises, service providers, and cloud customers at Cisco and our previous startups. These customers would often ponder where they wanted to be in the next 3–5 years. Since our startups have always dealt with market transitions, there have been natural opportunities to show how our product would fit into their roadmap. Once we have their blueprint and we’re able to show how we can add value, we would continue to iterate with the customer to let their feedback guide the direction of our product development. This goes to show that customer relationships are not transactional, but relational. When you anticipate customer needs and bring them into the process, they begin to view you as a partner, rather than just a vendor.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

  • UX is a journey: When you’re onboarding a customer, user experience will revolve around implementation and deployment. When your technology has been implemented and deployed, user experience will center on things like scaling and uptime. UX is not something to be solved once and for all, but will evolve as your customers and your product evolves.
  • Utilize automation: A smooth customer experience involves human interaction, but many times automated responses to problems are necessary for quick resolution. In the technology sector, as you move to a cloud-first model, the fewer people that touch your platform the better. Ideally, you will bake elements into your product that make it interact seamlessly with the environment your customer already has. Then, automated responses can resolve manners in a way that isn’t overbearing or time-consuming.
  • Stay humble and stay hungry: When you’ve achieved success in the past, it’s very tempting to think that you’ll be able to do it again. But nothing is a given. I’ve been fortunate enough to have multiple successful startups, but it would be a mistake to let that track record chip away at my drive. The same principle applies with your customers. Just because you please your customers one day, doesn’t mean they’ll be eternally satisfied with your product. Quite the opposite — your customers will expect continual innovation.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

By staying in touch with your customers, your customers will tell you the things that they want you to do. It’s very important to then follow through on those things. For example, if your customer asks you to improve your UI, pay heed to that. If you don’t, then they will automatically go out into the market and find something that is easier to use. It’s amazing how much organizations can limit customer churn by simply listening and responding. The problem is that many organizations don’t have a process for doing this. The business needs to be structured in a way that allows the flow of information coming from customers to be turned into insights, then actions. Finally, close the loop with your customers and tell them exactly how you solved their problem, which will demonstrate that you were listening to them.

Proactive communication is another important facet of limiting customer attrition. For example, if you are aware that there could be a security vulnerability in your product, tell them! It’s better to proactively share potential problems than for your customer to be blindsided by an issue that could have been avoided just because you didn’t want to admit a mistake. Transparency and honesty pay off in the long run, and you’ll build a reputation that you can be trusted.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Invest in relationships: Personal relationships are often your greatest currency, and it’s important to maintain touch-points with former mentors and coworkers as well as people within your current organization. For example, if you read an article or listen to a podcast that reminds you of someone, share it with that person and use it as an opportunity to check-in. The relationships I’ve made and kept, including those from the beginning of my career, have propelled me to new opportunities and partnerships along my journey.
  • Sit at the table and don’t be afraid to speak out: According to a recent study by Jobs for Her, 30% of women express a need for more leadership opportunities — and that means sometimes women need to be vocal and speak up about pursuing these opportunities. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, because you’re often your own biggest advocate, especially when starting a career in tech. While we’re working remotely, there isn’t a physical table to make sure you’re seen, but the same principle applies. During video calls, make sure people know your name and hear your ideas, and if you aren’t given space to speak, contribute to in-meeting chats. Remember that no one person has all the answers — continue to voice your opinions and provide data points to back them up. Before you know it, your ideas will become the team’s ideas.
  • The right idea with the right timing can take you far: Entrepreneurial success is never easy, but it’s often harder for women in tech — only 28% of all tech startups have a female founder. That’s why it’s crucial to capitalize on the right opportunity, but you have to know what to look for. All of my entrepreneurial tech success has started with looking for a market transition and then developing technology to address it. But even before beginning the process, it’s important to receive feedback to determine the challenges that customers in a market segment face. With technology suited toward a specific customer need during a market transition, you’re more likely to achieve success. And now with widespread disruption prompted by COVID-19, there are numerous market transitions that can turn into opportunities.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out: I first started at Cisco over 27 years ago and I am where I am today because of the connections I made during my time there. By fostering relationships with my former-Cisco colleagues and now fellow Pensando co-founders, Mario Mazzola, Prem Jain, and Luca Cafiero as well as making myself known to then-CEO, John Chambers, we were able to start Pensando and secure funding from John’s venture capital company, JC2 Ventures. While it may seem intimidating at first, once you make a practice out of introducing yourself, these relationships will be ones that you carry throughout your career. Additionally, the connections we made with colleagues, customers and partners over the past few decades have given us the opportunities to reconnect and rebuild our business relationships and partnerships at Pensando.
  • Remember GIG: I first heard about GIG rather recently when reading an article about Kamala Harris redefining perceptions of women in leadership. In the article, the reporter shared three prerequisite qualities that research shows to make a successful woman in leadership — grit, influence, and grace — or GIG. I absolutely love the concept and breakdown of GIG that the article gives. I believe we are living yet another pinnacle moment for women’s progress. In the workplace and in society, remembering to strive for and live by grit, influence, and grace can empower all women in tech.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would inspire a movement of global education, especially for women and underprivileged groups that either don’t receive a quality education or don’t receive an education at all. Knowledge is power, and I believe that with widespread education, the next generation of people would live in a fundamentally different manner. There is a tremendous amount of potential that exists in our world, but without proper education, social growth is hampered or never realized. I’m hoping that once we have achieved tremendous success at Pensando and I eventually retire, I’ll be able to dedicate my time to that sector.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Prime Minister Modi of India. I find him to be an inspirational leader of my home country, and his journey to his position today is equally inspiring. He used to sell tea on the streets of India, and for him to rise to become the prime minister of one of the largest democracies in the world is remarkable. But the main reason that I’d want to meet with him is to discuss his vision for India in the next 10–20 years. As the leader of the country, he knows some of the issues that India faces in a very real and intimate way. With that understanding, I think I would have a picture of how I could contribute to solving some of the biggest problems in India, even in a small way.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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