Meet Puppet CEO Sanjay Mirchandani

Sanjay Mirchandani joined Puppet in April this year as the company's first president and COO. A couple of weeks ago, Puppet founder Luke Kanies handed the reins — that is, the CEO role — to Sanjay. I thought this would be a great time to get together with Sanjay, ask him a few questions and let our community get to know him better.

Nigel Kersten: How did you first get into tech?

Sanjay Mirchandani: I've always been into technology. My first computer was a Sinclair Z80, basically a 1K computer. You could write BASIC on it, and that got me hooked.

I moved to the States to study math/computer science. I loved it, but I had more passion for science combined with business, which is why I went on to get my MBA. Then I started my career in tech, and did a bunch of things, mostly around databases. When Visual Basic came out, I began doing Visual development. I loved the instant gratification; loved the GUI interface; loved what the technology could do for customers.

In the mid-1980s when I started doing programming and development work, it was a whole lot different from what it is today. You couldn't sit in a Starbucks with your computer, writing mission-critical code. You were pretty much strapped to your desk and the mini or client server.

I found it hard to sit at a desk all day. I wanted to get up, be in front of people. I wanted to engage. And I was surrounded by people who were brilliant, who were writing amazing things. By comparison, I knew that if I was going to build a career in technology, it wouldn't be about writing code, because I wasn't the best. I wrote a bunch of Y2K programs that probably should never have been written, but let's not go there.

I realized that I enjoyed working with customers using technology more than anything else.

I joined Microsoft in the early days, and had an amazing ride. Then I joined EMC, which was and is a tech leader in storage and information. I had an amazing ride there, too, and most recently at VMware. Over the years, I was given opportunities to manage technical teams, all with a customer focus.

Nigel: As someone who was very much on the Mac/Linux side of the fence in those times, it’s been really interesting to see what Microsoft is doing these days. What have you got from working at a couple of large global tech companies?

Sanjay: Among other things, I've enjoyed seeing how different industries and different regions around the world use technology. Some are leading. Some follow. Some are conservative. Some are right on the bleeding edge. I thoroughly enjoy seeing that mix of customers, customer types, industries and locations, all working with technology.

I made the decision — and I was fortunate to be able to do this when my family was young — to go spend some time overseas, to really see the world and get some broader experiences. Our first port of call was Dubai in early ‘93.

Back then in early '95, it was the Microsoft 95 wave, Microsoft's early foray into the internet, and a very significant milestone in technology at the time. I spent five years in Dubai working with customers, launching new Microsoft products and services. Those products not only changed the company; they changed the world. I loved being part of those waves of new technology, helping customers embrace and then adopt them, and making these technologies mainstream.

My next port of call was as the managing director for Microsoft in India. It was a very small market at the time, but India had all the potential in the world to become a major IT consumer and, as it turns out, a contributor to the world stage in IT services. Again, I was part of that wave when the Indian systems integrators made their mark with the Y2K work they did for companies all over the world.

This wave eventually dropped me in Singapore, where I became president of a geographic region, South Asia. Eventually, I got moved up to run Asia Pacific, which was a broader market for Microsoft. I did that for a few years, and really enjoyed it. That's where I really got experience running a global business, because even though it's considered one region from a P&L point of view, it is hugely diverse. And doing business in that region is so varied. It's not the same in Japan as it is in Vietnam, for example. It's a very different model.

I gained a tremendous amount of experience around the value of technology, the value of education around technology in society, and a great respect for global brands and what they bring. I had a front row seat to witness how technology was flattening of the world and the desire to catch up — and in fact, in some cases, to take the lead. People wanted to leapfrog generations of technology and get to where everyone else already was, or beyond. Mobile technologies and cheap connectivity further accelerated this.

Nigel: As someone who grew up in Malaysia and Australia, I love having someone with more experience of Asia in the company, and the different adoption paths for tech in Asia fascinate me. What opportunities do you see for Puppet in the compression and consumerization of technology in Asia and the rest of the world?

Sanjay: Well, that's one of the reasons I joined — because the opportunities for Puppet are immense. As companies want to compete on the global stage — whether it's a Chinese company buying into a European company, or buying into a Latin American company, or a Latin American company moving into the European market — every company, regardless of industry, wants and needs to act like a software company.

The work we do is pivotal in helping customers make that leap from being a traditional business in a traditional world to a world where they compete based on the software they can create around their product or service. I believe we, Puppet, are absolutely the control plane to help them get there.

The work done by the folks inside Puppet, and by the Puppet community, has been nothing short of amazing. This relatively small company of less than 500 people is known in any corner of the world. People marvel at the technology. There are user groups all over the world. It is truly amazing.

Nigel: How did Puppet first come across your radar?

Sanjay: As it should for everyone: As a customer. When I was the CIO, we were deploying a massive, transformational ERP system. Well, actually, it was more than an ERP system — it was the lifeblood of the company. The future of the company, at the time.

One of my most senior architects decided we needed a tool like Puppet. We deployed it, and got very quick results. There was a host of technologies that we were working with at the time, and Puppet was not the most expensive technology I had to sign off on — not by a long shot. The deployment we were doing may not have been the largest deployment in the world, but it was really critical, so it made a big impression on me. Plus, people I respected inside my IT organization endorsed Puppet highly, and it did what it was supposed to do. To me, that's check, check, check.

Nigel: Nothing quite so good as positive feedback from practitioners, especially when you have managers who listen to them :) What's the worst ops disaster you've ever seen?

Sanjay: Gosh, there were so many. I try not to remember these … for good reason. For example, the supply chain system or the email system going down at a manufacturing company at the end of the quarter, when you're trying to communicate across time zones and trying to make things happen. Something as simple as the factory systems that actually print labels — when that goes down, it can be disastrous. You need those labels on boxes, and the equipment to get it out the door so you can book revenue. When those things don't work perfectly, there can be a massive financial impact.

I'll get into trouble for saying this, but I'm going to say it anyway. I don't think technology companies, over the years, have made life easier for IT professionals. You have the technology du jour; you have the standard du jour; you have the integration du jour — and you're left with a ton of institutional debris. Technology debris. And this pile-up of technology debris somehow becomes mission-critical, a single point of failure. It's not there because the professionals made wrong decisions. Actually, the IT professionals did the magic to make those technologies, some of them quite substandard, really work.

I will tell you, the one thing I walked away with is an amazing amount of respect for the IT professionals who work with the technology. And often enough, it's technology they didn't even have a decision around. Really, what they do is nothing short of magic.

That's why Puppet, for me, makes a huge difference. We keep those systems consistent, and configured the way they need to be to do what they're supposed to do. We are the tool practioners love.

Nigel: One of the things I like about the DevOps movement over the past few years is that wider recognition of what IT ops folks actually do, and how it’s connected to the business. What are you most proud of your team at EMC achieving?

Sanjay: I want to start by saying I was blessed with an incredible team. They had more IT knowledge in their pinky fingers than I would have in my lifetime. As I got to know them, I realized that their job was one of the hardest I've ever seen. Because being the tech for a tech company is like having 50,000 employees, and 49,999 of them think they’re the CIO. Everyone is a techie, and everyone thinks they know better. We had to harness that DNA to deliver more as an organization.

We set one mission for ourselves: to be a showcase for how we used our technology for our customers. So we rallied around every system, tool, process, and transformation to make it happen. Paul Maritz is credited for coining the phrase "eating your own dog food" at Microsoft, and we took it to a whole new level. We created a program called IT Proven, which continues even today. Essentially, we said, "It was proven by IT to work the way we documented it." We opened up every single thing we did organizationally. Our technology. Our directions and choices. Cost models. Transformational capabilities. Organizational design and capabilities. And then we got into the bits and bytes too.

We put it all out there. Our people wrote white papers. They were unvarnished; they were not written by marketing. They were written by techies, for techies. The ultimate proof point for me was when I walked into the briefing center and sometimes saw more of my IT team walking the halls, doing customer briefings, than salespeople.

We had made that shift from being an internally-focused organization that did great work to becoming an externally-focused organization that was recognized and respected for its work. We won numerous awards over the years, both internal and external, but you know what? Those awards were just the icing on the cake. What was real was the fantastic work this IT group did, and they were core to the company.

Nigel: You were a CIO. What's your perspective on how enterprise IT is evolving?

Sanjay: A CIO's job is one of the hardest jobs in the business today. Five, 10 years ago, it was about technology choices made to support the business. Today, technology isn't an afterthought to enable the business; it is the business. If you believe that, then the role of the CIO in companies is more difficult and more paramount than it's ever been.

Another factor is compression. People want instant results. There's compression on time to market, on technology, on ROI, on competitiveness. Cloud and mobile allow you to have almost instant results. Movements like DevOps have changed how business and the internal technology providers work together, so they're now able to create value faster, in cycles that are unprecedented.

For the CIO, there's a lot of pressure. Technology itself is no longer a competitive advantage; technology is getting commoditized. What matters is how you use that technology to gain a competitive advantage for the business.

Nigel: Those adoption cycles are getting faster and faster in terms of future investment, for sure. Where do you see Puppet in this movement from present technology to future technology?

Sanjay: I think more than ever, our time is now. I think we sit right in the heart of this evolution, because the whole space around automating, the DevOps cycles, we're in the heart of it. We make sure things work the way they're supposed to. We give you the agility. We give you the compression of time to value. You can start small and go big. We're in the heart of it.

I'm super-proud of the fact that most people associate the term DevOps with us. I think the research and knowledge we've shared through our DevOps survey and report has really helped companies understand how they should embrace DevOps, extend it, and deal with it. What we do, and the places we are taking our technology, are at the heart of this whole thing.

Nigel: DevOps has certainly gotten a lot of traction in more traditional enterprises over the past few years. Why do big enterprises care so much about DevOps, in your experience?

Sanjay: I remember reading an article that said the maximum amount of complexity in any organization lives inside its IT organization. Big enterprises are looking for ways to embrace change, and get away from the complexity of how they've been doing things. The problem is that they build systems and processes for a particular outcome — and then those outcomes need to evolve very rapidly.

Then there's a lag between how IT needs to evolve and how the business itself is evolving. Good IT shops are always looking at ways to implement radical changes. They're looking to increase velocity and throughput, and to deliver value.

DevOps has given businesses the ability to shake off things that have held them back from getting value. It's breaking the traditional boundaries between the business, the technology, and the value cycles. It's given IT and the business ways to work together more closely.

I think when most companies look at digital transformation, they take the approach of saying, "Let's carve out a completely separate unit that looks at this." It's almost like a startup inside an enterprise, and you let that startup go do things the way they should be done. Puppet is at the heart of that. It gives people the stability, the dependability and the flexibility to break away from the old ways of doing things, and create the new ways.

Nigel: Have you got to know the Puppet community over the past few months?

Sanjay: I'm beginning to. I certainly appreciate that our community is a big part of why we're so well known around the world, for a company of just 500 people. We have this amazing community of, what, 50,000 people who get out in front of things, who contribute to Puppet and help each other, who are proud to be part of Puppet. A company of 500 without this community simply couldn't do what we have done. So to me, that's the litmus test. That's the appreciation I have for the community.

Nigel: You've been at Puppet for a few months. What observations do you have about Puppet's company culture?

Sanjay: Well, I will start by saying it's a unique culture. It's a culture that has a very strong customer-centric bias. People at Puppet like building things they see customers using. Then we also have a very strong customer culture on the go-to-market side — our marketing teams, our sales teams, our services organizations, all love enabling our customers to get the value of Puppet. So there's a nice balance.

Having that customer centricity as a core nerve that runs through a business holds you in good stead, because then you will deliver value to your customer at all points. You're always working towards building the things that customers want, and working to make sure they can get value out of it.

Puppet's culture is about making a difference, whether that's in the community, in the technology, or to our customers and how they do their work. This gives Puppet a really nice feeling.

It's a culture where people aren't afraid to ask questions, where they get involved and speak their minds. Most of the time, you are not guessing whether people agree or disagree with you.

Something that struck me right away, and has continued to surprise me every single day I've been here, is the level of transparency and openness with which things get done here. I thought I knew what that meant until I came here. I've developed a whole new level of respect for this degree of openness. What I mean by that is that we can share anything — and inside the company, we share everything. There's a high degree of appreciation and maturity around openness.

Nigel: What’s your experience been as you’ve traveled between the different Puppet offices?

Sanjay: Whichever Puppet office I go to, I see microcosms of Puppet’s amazing culture. I say microcosms because they're just smaller physical units across the planet.

Our people, no matter where they are — they bleed Puppet. You can say it with an Australian accent, you can say it with an English accent, or a west coast American accent, but it's true everywhere: Our people bleed Puppet. They're passionate about the product. They're passionate about the technology. They’re passionate about customers.

Our people are proud to be part of Puppet; I love that. This love and desire to be here, and to be part of a family, is common to all our people, wherever they happen to be located.

Nigel: What is the feeling you get when you walk in here?

Sanjay: Open, vibrant, transparent, friendly. It's like family. You have your pet here with you. You can sit anywhere you want. You're not strapped to your desk. You can stand. You can sit. Heck, you can take a nap!

It's not hip for the sake of being hip. It's just the way people feel comfortable, and it allows us to do our best work. That DNA is what we're trying to transport around the world.

Nigel: What's something we don't know about you yet, but would like to?

Sanjay: I've always traveled a whole lot. It's been part of every job I've had. For the last three decades, I've traveled for work, but funnily enough, one of the things I love doing when I'm not working is traveling. Like I don't get enough of that.

I like to go to places that are off the path of my work travels. I'm a history buff, and I like archaeology. Something I started doing quite by chance a couple of years ago was seeing the modern wonders of the world. I visited Chichen Itza a couple of weeks ago. I've got to get to Machu Picchu next. I’ve done five out of seven wonders at this point.

Travel is something my kids share with me. I have two girls, almost 21 and 24. They tend to be busier than I am, and I'm working all over the world, so we try and do one trip per year together. We pick something totally different and make it happen — which really means I do all the planning! Then I do a short break with each of the girls separately, catering to their personal vacation choices. Wouldn’t trade that time for the world.

Travel is part of who we are as a family. There just aren't enough weeks in the year to do it all.

Nigel: Do you binge-watch any shows?

Sanjay: House of Cards — I did binge-watch that. I missed a few of Homeland, so I'm going back and watching all of those.

Nigel: What about food and drink? Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Sanjay: I love all food, any kind of food. Small portions annoy me. I eat everything under the sun. I have a soft spot for Japanese single malt whiskies. That’s something I indulge in once in awhile.

Nigel: As one of the resident cricket nerds at Puppet welcoming another, who's the greatest cricketer alive today?

Sanjay: The greatest? Sachin Tendulkar, of course. He recently retired, but I saw him play his entire career, and I've never seen a better role model for children, or a more accomplished professional, in my life. There was just never a scandal. No drugs, nothing. He was just an amazingly hard-working, gifted cricketer who just got better with time. He broke every record on planet Earth.

Nigel: Sachin’s backfoot punch and upper cuts are truly things of beauty, and it’s amazing how he performed in life and cricket, all with such immense pressure on him. A lifelong cricket fan, I take it?

Sanjay: It goes without saying. There's not a match that I wouldn't watch. It doesn't matter who is playing.

Nigel: Favorite things about Portland since you've moved here?

Sanjay: I like the closeness of things, because I've always lived in really big cities. The fact that I can walk to work is a first-time pleasure for me. I've always had to commute. Even if I had to take a train, or even if it was just 20 minutes away, I still couldn't walk. I love being able to walk to work.

I'm spoiled for choice in restaurants and bars, and just being able to get out and enjoy the city. All the things Portland is known for, I love it all. I can't say I've indulged in a lot yet, but I'm getting there. I'm starting. It's also amazing how many friends have shown up since I moved here. It's like I didn't even know I had so many friends.

Nigel Kersten is CIO and vice president of operations at Puppet.

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