The new CEO of $3.9 billion Snowflake says he's focused on battling Amazon and Microsoft, not on 'distractions' like employee activism or politics
- Frank Slootman, the new CEO of cloud pioneer Snowflake, is a Silicon Valley veteran who has led other high-profile tech companies, Data Domain and ServiceNow.
- He witnessed the rise of cloud computing, which he expects to become more competitive. Slootman sees a future when Snowflake may even have to compete with cloud giants like Amazon and Microsoft.
- His leadership style, he said, stresses 'single-minded focus' like that displayed by his idol, General George Patton.
- Slootman also said he has little patience with "social justice issues" such as protests against tech companies doing business with law enforcement agencies, and sees them as "distractions" from running a successful company.
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Frank Slootman became CEO of Snowflake in April, taking charge of one of technology's hottest startups today.
Leading a fast-rising Silicon Valley star is a familiar role for the 60-year-old tech industry veteran, who is now at the helm of a $3.9 billion cloud data warehousing pioneer that's attracted lots of attention - and won key partnerships with industry heavyweights like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud.
Slootman has led hot startups in the past, including Data Domain, the tech storage company now owned by Dell, and ServiceNow, the cloud software giant. And there are clues to how he would lead Snowflake from his stints at these companies, which shaped his strong views on leadership and on the future of cloud computing - including the competitive brawl that he thinks Snowflake will likely have to navigate down the road.
Slootman took over Snowflake after the abrupt exit of ex-CEO Bob Muglia, who was reportedly ousted because he didn't appear to be aiming for an IPO soon enough. Slootman called the speculation "the dumbest thing I've ever heard," and said Snowflake could go public in three years.
His long track record as a tech CEO points to how he plans to get there. Slootman is big on military-style focus. He aims to emulate George Patton, the legendary general, who he said demonstrated "a single-minded focus" during World War II.
"That's my orientation as well," he told Business Insider in an interview in June.
"Companies, if you leave them to their own devices, they go slow," he added. "The standards are lowered and the focus goes away. They start doing everything like it's going to the DMV. It's slow. It sucks. It's painful."
And that's a bad idea for any company, particularly startups in a fast-growing, fast-changing market like tech, and for any CEO who, Slootman said, is bound to encounter "transformational changes."
"The question is: are you going to recognize it?" he said. "Are you going to recognize it in time? Can you execute on it? Those are every CEO's nightmare questions. Do I understand it? In time, you will understand it because it's going to force itself on you."
In fact, that's what happened to him at Data Domain, which Slootman led to a successful IPO in 2007, but which was later sold to EMC in a bidding war two years later. In a way, he looked back to the sale as one of his failures.
"The reason that happened is because I failed to recognize in a timely fashion that I was basically running out markets," he said. "I tried to expand the company to other classes of technology, and I was not able to do it."
He made sure to draw lessons from that mistake in his next stint as CEO.
"That didn't happen to me at ServiceNow," he said. Slootman was tapped to lead the cloud pioneer in 2011. "I was so tuned in to that issue by the time I got to ServiceNow. I said, 'I'm not going to run out of markets ever again.'"
He led ServiceNow to a successful IPO in 2012, just weeks after Facebook's bumpy publicly trading debut. He decided to leave ServiceNow in 2017, not because anything was wrong - but it was growing fast, which led the company to expand its focus, he said.
"They started caring about things that I had no interest in," he said. "You've got all the social justice issues and all the politics that go with that."
He helped recruit his successor, John Donahoe, the former CEO of eBay. Slootman again used a World War II analogy to explain why the change made sense, comparing Donahoe to Dwight Eisenhower, another general who went on to become US president.
"He is the Eisenhower. I'm the Patton," he said. "Eisenhower was a politician. He tried to please a lot of people. … Patton just wanted to kill Germans and he wanted to get to Berlin first."
Focus becomes more challenging as a company gets bigger, he said.
"When companies get bigger, they become political institutions by their very nature. They become sort of a microcosm of society."
He talked about some of the hot-button social and political issues that he said are distracting for a company.
Take the debate over the need for gender-appropriate bathrooms, including for members of the LGBTQ community. The discussion has underscored the heightened focus on gender identity and rights, that also sparked major legal and legislative battles.
It is a discussion that Slootman said he would rather not have to deal with: "They don't need me to have bathrooms with all kinds of unintelligible signs on it for what bathroom you're supposed to use."
"I'm a live-and-let live guy," he added. "I always tell people, 'You work here. You're included. If you aren't included, you wouldn't be here.'"
'You go somewhere else if you want that conversation.'
Slootman also said he was frustrated with those vocal Google employees who "complain that Google does business with the government and all that nonsense."
Last year, the search giant reeled from the internal backlash over Project Maven, in which the search giant helped build artificial intelligence tools that could make drone missile strikes more accurate. A petition co-authored by a former Google employee argued that Google could become "implicated in the questionable practice of targeted killings."
"I cannot possibly handle that kind of conversation," Slootman said. "You go somewhere else if you want that conversation."
He also raised the controversy over revelations that Palantir, the Silicon Valley software company, sold services to ICE and the New York Police Department. Critics charged that Palantir's technology was being used in the Trump administration's controversial campaign against immigrants, which has been described by many as cruel and extreme.
"You can't do business with ICE? It's absurd," he said. "It's a federal government agency that's in charge of law enforcement on the border. You can't do business with that? It's not even real to me. I know that popular culture thinks that we should entertain that conversation. I don't."
Dealing with political controversies is not part of his job, Slootman said.
"I'm not the leader of the free world," he also said. "I'm just a CEO. I have a very simple view of what my role is and, by the way, investors like that. We have full alignment. They don't need me to do charity."
There are debates such as the one on data privacy that are "legitimate," he said, but many discussions spin out of control - taking power away from executive leadership, and making that much harder to do business.
"When the inmates are running the asylum, you're in the wrong place," Slootman said.
'My flavor of social justice.'
Slootman says that many people in tech found themselves in the right place at the right time, at startups that he led and eventually went public." He cited the startups he led as CEO through its public offering, where he said there were "entry-level employees who made millions of dollars."
It's not clear how many ServiceNow employees became millionaires following its IPO - like most corporations, it doesn't disclose the equity of individual rank-and-file employees in its regulatory filings.
However, given that ServiceNow soared 29% in its 2012 stock market debut, and stayed well above its opening price for the rest of that year, it's entirely possible that many employees found themselves with valuable stakes in the company. Indeed, two early employees of ServiceNow would go on to found a startup called Dreamtsoft - and funded it themselves from its earliest days.
"That's my flavor of social justice for you," Slootman said. "They're really happy. They couldn't care less whether I signed my name to this petition or that petition...I deliver more social justice by succeeding as a company than I could be signing a letter stating my opposition to this issue or that issue."
While Slootman said his views give his companies an edge, experts said his rhetoric is risky, particularly for a startup looking to attract talent.
Slootman's views could make it more challenging for Snowflake to recruit the "very best employees," Jennifer Chatman, a management professor at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, who focuses on workplace culture, said.
"One thing we know about the current generation of employees, particularly in Silicon Valley and tech, is that there is an orientation toward social issues" that they expect "will be addressed within corporate settings," she told Business Insider.
Still, Slootman maintained: "Distraction is not what I'm into."
Cloud giants as rivals
What he said he is into is focusing intensely on the cloud, the battlefield where Snowflake is now a prominent player and where he expects big struggles in the future.
Snowflake quickly emerged as a fast-rising startup with a data warehousing platform that has wowed the cloud computing world, including giants like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. The cloud database market storage is expected to be worth $100 billion by 2025, according to Constellation Research.
But while the cloud market is "so insanely large," it could change dramatically in the future in a way that could weaken or take out smaller players, Slootman said.
"There is one giant elephant in the room," Slootman said. "That is that the [main] cloud players are also our competitors."
He was referring to dominant cloud companies led by Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.
"That is by far the biggest issue in this business. I've known it for a long time. It hasn't changed," he said.
This is where Slootman's experience comes into play as he points to the way dominant tech companies eventually try to "suffocate" smaller players, through intense take-no-prisoners competition or acquisitions.
"Microsoft did it. IBM did it. They all do it. It's innate. It's not good for them, but they can't help themselves. For the cloud era, that is going to be a dynamic that every company will face."
And it's a dynamic that's already at play with Snowflake's major partners, he said.
"I'm a huge customer of Amazon and at the same time, they are a huge competitor, so it's a very interesting dynamic," he said. "Microsoft is trying to make up ground so they are very partner-friendly right now. But does Microsoft have the same homicidal impulses as Amazon? Yes they do."
The cloud market challenge is what actually led him to accept the offer to lead Snowflake, Slootman said.
"I joined the company because this is an epic battle," he said. "And I love it. I think this is one of the most interesting things ever. I want to do battle with the biggest companies in the world. Why else get out of bed in the morning?"
Got a tip about Snowflake or another tech company? Contact this reporter via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, message him on Twitter @benpimentel. You can also contact Business Insider securely via SecureDrop.
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