Brocade Builds a Team of Visionaries

When you’re a smaller, perhaps insurgent company, you must overcome an inherent trust deficit. Having industry heavyweights on your team can help. Bring known visionaries to your team, let them do what they do, and you naturally create a center of gravity that attracts like-minded disruptors. This is easier said than done, though, since those types of people don’t job-hop for the hell of it. They have to believe in you.

Brocade shifts from SAN to open source

With a market cap of $4.7 billion, Brocade is certainly not small, although put up against Cisco at $109 billion and HP at $55 billion, it might seem that way. According to IDC, Brocade holds the second position in worldwide market share in datacenter networking and continues pushing forward in that area. But this is largely based on the strength of their SAN switches, a market in decline.

Brocade CEO Lloyd Carney, in prepared remarks, recently said that Brocade will “continue to invest in maintaining our considerable installed base in SAN, and growing our footprint in data center IP and emerging technologies, such as software networking.” It remains to be seen how much traction they can get, however, as their footprint in Ethernet switching is very small.

This may be part of the reason for Brocade’s shift into an embrace of open source software projects, specifically the OpenStack and OpenDaylight projects. For at least the last 30 years, open source has been a disruptive force. Markets have shifted, product lines have been made irrelevant, and entire industries have been predicated on the idea of passionate and visionary hackers building the next big thing in an open, collaborative manner.

Cisco and Juniper lose heavyweights to Brocade

But how do you attract these people to your cause? You can’t buy people like that. The concept of a company “buying experts” from its competitors is patently offensive and silly. I’ve suspected for a long time that it is an idea hatched by people who have never made more than a certain threshold of income, and whose perception of what motivates people is inherently flawed or colored by their own situations. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says of money and motivation: “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.”

People like Dave Meyer do not come to a company like Brocade simply for the money. They come for an idea.

The 2012 announcement that Dave Meyer was coming to Brocade made big news in the industry. Brocade hasn’t ever represented more than a statistical anomaly in the market space of Ethernet switching. Dave Meyer is known for being a visionary force in the industry, sitting on many standards bodies, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), North American Network Operator’s Group (NANOG), and the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). The synergies between the man and the company weren’t readily apparent, despite Brocade’s acquisitions of Foundry in 2008 and Vyatta in 2012.

A clue to what was happening might lie in the fact that Mr. Meyer most recently held a position at rival Cisco as a distinguished network engineer focusing on the emerging markets of SDN and OpenFlow. While you might think someone in such a visionary position at an industry giant like Cisco would be well-positioned to act as a change agent, that is not always the case. Intransigence and organizational bureaucracy can run deep, and we observers don’t always see how the proverbial sausage is made. So, for whatever reason, Mr. Meyer took his services to Brocade.

If that had been the end of things, we might not find things so interesting a couple of years down the road. But following Mr. Meyer’s defection to Brocade, we also had Benson Schliesser of Juniper and Tom Nadeau, also recently with Juniper, jump ship for the Brocade team. A company’s value proposition is highly fungible. Good kit alone doesn’t do it, and neither does talent in a vacuum. Does so much intellectual defection to Brocade mean they are on the cusp of something great?

What top talent could do for Brocade

When you see such a significant influx of high-profile talent coming to one company, you have to wonder what’s going on both at the source and at the destination. In this case Brocade is the beneficiary and the more interesting story. What is Brocade doing today that makes it such a compelling place to work for so many of the Valley’s best and brightest?

Perhaps it’s the gravity created by so many industry luminaries working together in one place, with the benefit of a lot of amazing but as of yet unfocused intellectual property. What could such an environment create?

Assume that every vendor possesses a certain amount of intellectual property. If we assume that the value of a company in the marketplace of ideas is much more than the sum total of its intellectual property, then what weight do we give the people who make up the company?

I read a study years ago that claimed if you redistributed all of the wealth in the United States to everyone evenly, within five years it would return almost exactly to where it was when you started. Why? Because the rich by and large know how to get that way again, while the poorer do not. Is it that way with the talent and the intellectual property of a company? If you take a high enough percentage of talent from different pools and apply it to a company with some good IP, would that then allow that company to create something bigger and better than not only the sum of its parts, but also than that of where they came from? Put another way; will the defection of so much talent from company X to company Y lead company Y to succeed?

Dave Meyer knows that what does at Brocade is under scrutiny and that the best way to prove value and create industry change is by contributing. Code, in this case. In a recent talk Mr. Meyer gave at the Network Field Day 7 event in Silicon Valley, he said of Brocade’s contributions to the OpenDaylight Project, “code is the coin of the realm” and that we “need more automation and less humans” involved in the creation process. In a nod to pop culture and his own infallibility, he followed up by clarifying that “of course, you don’t want to boot Skynet.”

Early adopters tend to be visionaries or unhinged crackpots, with little middle ground. Oftentimes they are motivated by nothing more than a hatred for the incumbent vendor in the space, and are willing to do absolutely anything—even unreasonably so—to get away. If the company to which they defect succeeds or even takes over the market, then the crackpots can rebrand as visionaries. Without that subsequent success, however, even the true visionaries can slip into the warm embrace of historical mediocrity. Only time will tell which way Brocade is headed.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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