Five lessons in leadership from Snowflake CEO, Frank Slootman

Since the start of the pandemic nearly a year ago, there's been one word on the lips of every business leader, analyst, and investor around the world: cloud. 

COVID-19 fundamentally changed the way businesses operate. In response, organizations went all in on cloud, betting on the unmatched scale, speed, and security of SaaS applications to help them weather the storm. Nowhere was this shift more pronounced that in our own data and analytics industry. Suddenly, cloud data migrations that customers had been planning for years were fast tracked almost overnight. And in the midst of it all, Snowflake went public in what would be software’s largest and tech’s fifth largest IPO ever. 

Today, it’s nearly impossible to talk about cloud data without talking about Snowflake. With a market cap of $81 billion, a robust partner ecosystem and strategic investments in complimentary analytics technologies, Snowflake is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. At its helm is serial CEO and entrepreneur, Frank Slootman. A revered business leader in his own right, Slootman is also a friend of ThoughtSpot. At Beyond 2020, ThoughtSpot’s annual user conference, he sat down with Co-founder and Executive Chairman, Ajeet Singh to share his thoughts on what makes a good leader, how companies can address the data talent gap, and the future of our industry. Read on for more.

Ajeet Singh: From Data Domain to ServiceNow and now to Snowflake, you’ve had an amazing run in different parts of the technology industry. What has been the common thread across these and what keeps you coming back?

Frank Slootman: Yeah, it's a little bit like playing professional sports. It's a very addictive game for people with our temperament. Maybe in some ways it's a bit of a curse, but we obviously enjoy it and we've been in completely different businesses. So we get very challenged in new ways and in every new adventure and Snowflake is no exception. It's a super interesting company which was one of the things that sort of got me sucked back in the game.

AS: You are clearly a very successful leader. What are some of the biggest leadership lessons that you have learned along the way?

FS:  Well to start, there's no playbook or silver bullet. I often get asked that question and the truth is that leadership is situational. At Snowflake, we're very first principles-oriented. But thematically, I would say we're super focused. We're maniacally focused and obsessed with our product and product experience, and we're driving the mission every hour of the day. There’s no coasting and we're not at all a self-congratulatory bunch. We don’t take victory laps. 

I think when leaders join a company we're handed a promise. We're handed a potential. And our role is to fully develop and deliver on what we've been handed. It's hard to do because you always feel like there's more to be done. There’s this constant drive to be better in every aspect of every dimension of how we do things. It's one foot in front of the other, and one brick in the wall after the other.

AS: How do you handle success and failure as you're building these companies over decades?

FS: Failure is actually great for me because that's a learning opportunity. It's something that we can pick apart and get ownership for and say, let's not do this again. Let's do it this way. So failure is incredibly instructive. That's why we actually embrace it. 

AS: How do you create an environment for a team to operate with so much intensity, while at the same time, with a lot of psychological safety?

FS: It hasn't always been easy. I think the biggest thing is that we don't talk about people. We talk about issues. People can become issues, sure, but that’s not where we start. We try to be very apolitical with how we go about our business. And once there's high trust on the team, you can operate that way. When the trust is lacking, it becomes almost impossible. So people need to know it's okay to call each other out. Once people trust that we're not trying to make anybody look bad and that’s just about learning from difficult situations, it’s easier to have intellectually honest conversations. 

AS: How do you think traditional industries in the Fortune 500 and Global 2000, or even mid-sized companies, should address talent gaps so that they’re not left behind in this digital transformation?

FS: The talent gap is considerable. There's almost a deer-in-the-headlight type of reaction from some enterprises in reaction to data science, like what does that even mean? What do these skill sets even look like? What do these specialists do day-to-day and what’s the point? 

But if there’s one good thing about COVID is that it has really highlighted the need for building these capabilities, for building the talent and to get going. 

In the past we’d see organizations hire maybe one data scientist for every nine analysts. Now it's inverted. They're hiring almost mostly data scientists now, and they're using data science to really predict and drive signals. It's no longer, “I have a hunch. I'm going to try and prove it with data. I mean, data really discovers the signals that they act on. And that's how far we've come now on the leading edge of that world.

AS: As you look forward, where do you think the industry is going to be in the next five to 10 years?

FS:  Today data lives in a million places. We as an industry haven’t been able to create a single place to effortlessly and frictionlessly blend data, and data operations has just been absolutely hardcore. Our vision is to bring about a data universe where we can just go and plug in to data providers without doing the heavy lifting of copying and replicating and so on. And as customers modernize their data platform, they're also looking at modern analytics technologies and moving beyond what they've done with dashboarding and visualization. It’s an exciting time for our industry and for our partnership with you at ThoughtSpot.

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