Editor’s note: Poojan Kumar’s 12 years of software leadership and entrepreneurial experience includes having been co-founder and creator of Oracle Exadata and former head of data products at VMware. Today he is co-founder and CEO of Silicon Valley startup PernixData. He’s also a chess champion and played national-level chess in India, defeating over 150 players including India’s and the world’s #1 and #3 ranked players. In his teens, Kumar spent six to seven hours playing chess each day after school and was well on his way to grandmaster level when he left his chess career for software engineering. In this interview for SandHill’s article series on profiles of software leaders, he shares how he approaches business leadership problem solving by applying chess strategies.
Who is your role model as a leader?
Poojan Kumar: I spent a good part of my career at Oracle, so I take a lot of inspiration from the leadership there. And of course it starts with Larry Ellison. I learned what it takes for somebody to start a company like this, take it through the ups and downs, and more importantly, keep all the important people in the company along with you on the ride.
In the important divisions of Oracle, the leaders three, four, five or six levels under Larry Ellison are folks who have been in the company for 15-20 years. I feel that is an awesome achievement, especially when I compare it to other companies and how they falter. Of course he made them rich, and I’m sure that had something to do with it. But keeping those folks through to today is an interesting achievement, especially in a place like Silicon Valley.
You talk about the stages of a chess game being similar to the growth stages of a company. Please elaborate.
Poojan Kumar: A typical game of chess has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is where you lay the foundation. The first 10-20 chess moves define a lot about the future. If you make one misstep at the beginning, it’s like laying a bad foundation.
That foundation has implications for building a product, whether it’s in a big company like Oracle or VMware, or in a startup. But it’s extremely important in a startup because there is the foundation of the product as well as the foundation of the people. That is key. If you get the foundation wrong, you can move forward to some point; but in the end it will fall.
Then comes the middle game with many things happening at once. Leadership at this stage is about grappling with the possibilities in front of you and carving a direction to get to the end game. I look at a company’s life as a bell curve. While going up in that bell curve, which is the middle game, the leader takes it to the next level where it becomes a very different company or the game becomes very difficult and ends.
How did your chess expertise come into play at Oracle and VMware?
Poojan Kumar: It has to do with strategy, thinking ahead and future-proofing. A good chess player can play the game without touching anything or even looking at the board. In fact, I had a coach who played blindfolded all the time. A good chess player keeps each square’s unique position and each piece in his mind and mentally creates a tree for all the possibilities that can happen in the future. For maybe the next 20 moves, he knows what to do because he already created that path in his mind and follows it.
The same thing applies as you grow a company. When you’re running a five-person company, you touch everything that goes on. But as it grows to 50 or 5,000 people, there are a whole bunch of things that you don’t touch. A leader must be able to grasp those things without touching them.
In the software world, what happens to that path in times of disruption?
Poojan Kumar: Similar to a game of chess, there are going to be bad times and bad positions. It’s about how much resilience you build in the system so that the company can go through those bad times. Of course in chess or leading a company you can make huge blunders from which you cannot recover. But I’m talking about the usual missteps. If you build the right resiliency in the system, you can get through those missteps.
As a leader or a chess player, when you make a step, your ability to have foreseen the future and not be surprised by the outcome is extremely important. It won’t work if you do things very tactically, one move at a time. You really have to think in the future and build resiliency as you do that.
What do you look at to foresee the future?
Poojan Kumar: In a game of chess, sometimes you go behind your opponent and look at the game from his point of view. It changes the perspective. Similarly, in a company you build an ecosystem. You try to understand what the other person’s perspective is if you’re trying to strike a partnership or trying to build the ecosystem. That helps a lot to arrive at a win-win situation (if one exists).
For example, everybody knows VMware became what it became because early on IBM took it up, and it took off from there. It was a win-win situation when they signed the first big deal with IBM.
You mentioned blunders earlier. When leaders fail, is there a leadership attribute or skill that is most often missing?
Poojan Kumar: In chess, some players are defensive and some are good at attacking. Tell a defensive player to play an attacking game, and he will lose. The biggest thing that causes business leaders to fail is not understanding their strengths and weaknesses. Anytime you go in a direction against your own strengths and you don’t have clarity, your gut will tell you that you’re not making the right move. If you still go ahead and make that move, it will typically be a blunder.
There are a lot of examples of this. Oracle was never good at hardware. Anytime they attempted to do hardware 10-15 years ago, it didn’t always go as planned. It all changed around with Exadata and the Sun acquisition. VMware is a good example too. They were very good at building enterprise data centers and built an amazing platform that was in every server in the world. Then they decided they wanted to follow the Microsoft strategy and build applications on top of it and build a whole stack. But it did not pan out, and they lost three or four years. Today they are back to focusing squarely on their data center strategy and are doing well because that’s their strength.
Of course you can get lucky with an acquisition. But as a leader you have to understand your company’s strengths and go in that direction.
Spending six to seven hours every day learning to play chess indicates to me that you are a very disciplined person. How does that mindset work when you need to be flexible in a volatile marketplace?
Poojan Kumar: I believe discipline strengthens concentration and focus when tackling a problem. But you’re right that leaders must be flexible and nimble in today’s dynamic marketplace. And all startups must be nimble to succeed.
I believe flexibility and discipline work together in anything you want to do well, as there will be bumps in the road. As I did with chess, you have to put your heart and soul into it and say, “This is what I’m going to do.”
Tell me about your startup, PernixData. What was your vision when you founded it?
Poojan Kumar: I spent a good bit of time at Oracle and VMware, and my co-founder spent time at VMware. We saw that VMware solved a very big problem when it created a dynamic data center that allows people to create virtual machines and create an infrastructure with the click of a button. They did an amazing transformation of the data center. But that led to issues, as the storage infrastructure was not able to keep up with what VMware did.
I created Exadata while at Oracle, which was storage performance for Big Data (defined as Oracle queries and Oracle data warehousing), and it solved the problem very well. My co-founder and I then realized we needed to do the same thing in performance and storage for virtualization. We raised money from top venture capitalists and built our platform that people can use without vendor lock-in.
Is there anything you’ve encountered so far that made you change direction?
Poojan Kumar: There was a time when we thought to do just 50 percent of our vision so we could get to market faster. But then we realized that was not a good idea, so we took almost a year to get to 95 percent of our vision. Looking at the kind of traction we’re getting in the marketplace today, it’s evident that we did the right thing.
And we’re ahead of schedule for what we initially planned in the international area. This story is very similar to the VMware story. When they released their first product, people downloaded their software across the globe. We experienced a similar thing during our beta program, which led us to go international faster than we initially planned.
It seems to me that playing chess is a singular approach to a game, but leadership needs to be involved in directing or participating in a team approach. How do you reconcile those different approaches?
Poojan Kumar: That’s a good point. In the mind of a chess player, the 16 pieces on the board are a team. Every piece has to do its best to win the game. A player can’t even take a pawn lightly, and nothing is dispensable.
That’s extremely important for a business leader. Everything has to work together to win the game, whether it’s engineering, marketing and sales or customer support. At the end of the day, a good company can do one or two or three of these things well; but a great company must do all of these things very well.
It’s clear from what you’ve been saying that winning at chess and leading a business require a long-term strategy and a commitment to win. What happens if a leader no longer believes in the path and needs to go in a different direction?
Poojan Kumar: It’s very important in life to be self-aware, whether it’s in your personal or professional life or in a chess game. I’ll tell you the story of when I played a national championship chess game with somebody that I came to know later was the world’s #3 chess champion. There was a point when I felt the game was going to be extremely hard for me to win. I also saw that it would be hard for him to win.
I asked him, “Do you want to take a draw?” He said, “No.” He knew who he was and he knew that I was in my teens and it was my first time to play in a national championship game. But he underestimated me. So we continued the game. An hour later I was feeling better and things were looking good for me. Then he asked me for a draw and I told him no. I won the game, and he was extremely disappointed.
My point is that as a leader you have to be self-aware and realize where you are headed and know whether you are on the path that you want to be on. If you’re not, and if you can change the direction, you should do that. If it means asking for a draw or taking an exit, do the right thing for the company. And if you think the right decision for the company is to go all the way, you should go all the way.
So now you’re a startup founder and CEO again. Do you have any final advice for others?
Poojan Kumar: You must have a lot of clarity on the motivation behind why you are doing what you are doing. I strongly believe that financial motivation cannot be the only motivation. Of course, you have to succeed financially, but it can’t be a primary motivation. The startup journey is fun, but it’s hard and you’ll have setbacks. So you need to figure out what you’re in it for because that’s what will motivate you through setbacks. Hopefully it will last for many years like Larry Ellison’s journey with Oracle.
Is there anything in your life that you always wanted to do but you haven’t done yet?
Poojan Kumar: Run a large public company before I turn 40. Hopefully that’s the path that we are on.
Poojan Kumar has 12 years of leadership and entrepreneurship experience and is CEO and co-founder of PernixData, a startup based in Silicon Valley. Previously, Poojan led all data products at VMware and co-founded Oracle Exadata. At Oracle, Poojan led the product development of Exadata from its inception and played a strategic role in Oracle’s foray into the software/hardware integrated appliance business. Today Poojan plays chess to relax, and you can find him on Twitter @poojan.
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.