Egnyte CEO Vineet Jain on building a culture that puts employees first

Vineet Jain founded Egnyte, the content intelligence platform, in 2007 and has been leading the company ever since. Although he has won awards for diversity and Egnyte has been recognized as a great company for work-life balance, Jain admits that he is not the type to come up with “cutsie” values and plaster them on the wall.

Ladders spoke with Jain to hear more about his management style, Egnyte’s work culture, and his thoughts on the importance of failure.

Do you believe being a founder changes your role of CEO at all?

“In the initial stages of a company, that founder title carries a lot more weight along with being the CEO, especially if you are a product or an engineering background CEO, which is true in my case. But as you progress beyond, let’s say $250 million of revenue and the company starts scaling, I don’t think that has the same level of impact as compared to the operational role of a CEO.”

What has been the most surprising aspect of the founder/CEO dynamic?

“We are in our eleventh year. If you look at companies, especially in tech, the kind of CEOs they have, in general, they either have product or engineering CEOs, typically founders. You have CEOs who come from a background in sales leadership. Rarely you see CEOs that come from a marketing or finance background…that’s kind of rare.

Hence when I look at my own evolution, the surprising part of it is, as a founder/CEO coming with a product background, the expectation of the investors initially is that you’re the guiding light, you provide a lot of strategy, competitive awareness being brought into which way you’re taking the company, but as you progress beyond a certain scale, in some cases the product or engineering CEO becomes more of a spiritual guide, more of a guiding light, Mr. or Miss Strategy, and then you bring in an outside CEO sometimes. In fact, a lot of times.

For me personally, the surprising aspect has been the joy of watching myself grow and being able to break out of the product or engineering delimiters that initially define you and become more operationally savvy to run a company worth $100 million. I wouldn’t call that a surprise, but it’s been part of the learning process for me.”

What consumer or industry trend are you most concerned with right now?

“The consumer side of things, they are fairly guided? and then specifically to what we do, which is taking care of your unstructured content, your files, the content being the lifeblood of any company. The big trend that has established itself, which is very clear, is that there’s a rapid acceleration of data to the cloud. A lot of workflows? That used to be done with infrastructure behind the firewall is absolute without any doubt moving to the cloud.

Along with that, not literally, but exponentially, there’s great concern around data security, data privacy, and compliances. It’s kind of a conundrum that on one hand, IT wants to move to the cloud but, at the same time they’re afraid of it and this balancing act between how do I manage all of this content in the cloud, so the perceived thing about losing control, which is actually more of a perception than a reality, how is that going to play out has been a very interesting trend that I have been watching in the population.

Have diversity and inclusivity been parts of the company’s fabric from the beginning? How have your practices evolved as the company has grown?

“This issue does come up a lot in terms of diversity and having more women. To be very transparent, as you steer and build the company, you just look for talent, irrespective of gender, irrespective of race.

Each of us has our own comfort zones in terms of what value system we identify ourselves with. Sometimes we have a bias of hiring people with similar value systems or backgrounds. I’ve been very careful about not falling into that trap because you can’t engineer diversity into saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to hire somebody of a particular race or a different gender.’ Diversity does bring richness into our conversation and different point of view which, leads to better productivity. It’s a balancing act to say how do you not have explicit goals to say we must hire people of certain races and certain genders, but at the same time recognizing the value of it and the impact it can make. How do you bring that in?

Sometimes the market itself drives it through. For example, in engineering, it’s much more male-centric than women, but in marketing, you get more women. It’s just the way the industry is. You drive it through the talent pool that’s available.

In our case, geography also plays a part because Silicon Valley is over-indexed with all the engineers and product people, but we have other offices in Spokane or Raleigh, which are growing tremendously and our U.K. office in Redding. There the talent pool is very different, with a lot more diversity in certain areas. Not to say there’s not diversity in the Bay Area. There’s a lot of diversity in the Bay Area. In fact, that’s a big part of why Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley, but it’s not something that you want to engineer. It should happen by itself.

There’s no unstated or stated policy to say 30% of the workforce should be women, or 20% should be African American, or Asian…nothing like that.”

Why do you think Egnyte has been recognized as a company with superior work-life balance and happiest employees? How has your management aided in achieving those outcomes?

“It’s so nice to be recognized for these, although, again, am I focused on providing a happy medium between people’s work-life balances? That’s a very specific need…what is work-life balance for you versus me. But there are certain core values that I think apply to all of us. The number one thing that I believe in, people say customers come first…I don’t agree with that. Your employees come first. If you have employees who feel valued, people who feel that there’s a career path, people who feel that they are respected, then they will be happy.

My job is not to have happy employees. My job is to build a company with a great product and build it the right way in terms of ethics and transparency. As an example, every two months we do an all-hands meeting across all of our offices worldwide, which is around 727 people at this point. We do it at 9 a.m. because that timing works for people in Poland, India, and of course the east and west coast and all of the places we have scattered all over. It’s a 90 minute meeting. The first 45 minutes are three execs from my team. It could be the CRO, the CMO, or head of product…they come in and talk to the team for 15 minutes and they use the same slide that they used from the last quarterly board meeting, so that there’s only one version of truth.

But one exec who’s always there out of the three is the CFO. He will present all the business metrics, even explain the balance sheet, the PNL, income statements, so that people can see exactly where we are in terms of how much profitability we had, if we had a loss…what has been the growth in terms of planned versus actual? So one version of truth. By doing that people believe and have the faith to say, ‘Okay, I can see where this company is at. People are sharing things with me, nothing is being hidden.’

But the most important thing beyond company level metrics is, there are two human needs that each of us wants. One is fundamental…I want to be respected. Everybody wants to be respected, whatever you might be in terms of position. The idea that humans need to be liked, frankly I don’t care about that. I’m not here to make friends. But at the same time, live the right way and if people with the same values see that, they’ll enjoy being where they are and that is shown with our attrition rate being fairly low and the fact that we’ve added 220 people in the last five and a half months.”

As the company has grown, how have you kept the culture and vision on course?

“The vision and mission statement is something that I sometimes laugh about because they are not unimportant but companies go through these exercises, especially guided by either head of HR or marketing and they say ‘we have to find our mission and vision.’ They will hire some expensive consultant who will go through a multimonth exercise and come out with some cutsie words, and then after three months people will forget about it.

I’m not one of those. I did go through that with one of my CMOs and after three months we forgot what our mission and vision statement was, because it sounds so corny. Instead, my belief is, if people see that we are trying to build a great product with the highest customer satisfaction, and that’s demonstrated in core business metrics like database retention rate, how the company is doing in terms of selling to existing customers versus new customers…all the industry metrics. If they’re trending right, that means you must be doing it the right way in terms of your customers…treating them as not just money banks, but people that you want to be associated with and people that want to be associated with Egnyte.

My best example of this is something one of my mentors told me. He said, when you’re talking about a prospect or an existing customer that you’re trying to sell more to, internally, whether in email format, internal communication or across the hallway…use words and language that if they could hear you, or if they could read you, you won’t be embarrassed about it. So the fundamental thing here is, don’t treat the customer like a money bank that you have to keep robbing. Treat them with dignity and respect. If you have that as a goal to how you approach your customers, and of course your employees as well, I think you’ll make progress. Sometimes people take shortcuts to whatever it takes to get to whatever their endgame is faster…it doesn’t last. You have to do it the right way, sometimes it’s the long way, and I’m okay with that.”

How would you describe the company culture at Egnyte? What makes it special?

“In my interviews with any roles, I get asked this question by people sitting across the table. My answer always has been, culture is not something you hire someone like a culture tsar…that’s nonsense. I would never do that.

But instead, it’s the combination of personalities. Of course, I as the founder and CEO have a disproportionate influence on what the culture should be or will be. It’s how we interact with people, how we talk to each other. What it comes down to in my opinion is radical transparency…radical candor. Try to be as direct and transparent as possible. Things like, if anyone were to be fired, they should not be surprised. They should know it’s coming.

At the same time, we don’t do this antiquated, and pardon me for calling it out, but I believe certain big-company approaches to be so antiquated. These 360 performance reviews I am absolutely against because trying to do this point in time every six months, every year performance reviews is so ridiculous. As a manager, shouldn’t you be consistently reviewing the people working with you, and then your manager does it to you? And if there are any course corrections to be had you should be having that conversation real-time rather than a point in time in six months saying your work is satisfactory, not satisfactory, requires improvement…I think that’s kind of silly.

Hence the cultural aspect to me is, if you ask me to define Egnyte, without being apologetic, we are a blue-collared entrepreneurial company…roll up your sleeves and get it done. Of course as you scale, you have to learn to delegate and trust other people…allow them to make mistakes. But the keyword that pops in my head is a radical candor. Some people may not like it, and they’re not a fit for the company, but a lot of people like that and that’s how I want this company to be.”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at Egnyte?

“It stems from an earlier part of this conversation. I’ve always wondered, what kind of people thrive at Egnyte or do well at Egnyte. The company has its own set of culture identity, it has sort of an atmosphere under which certain things thrive and certain things don’t. With that as a reference point, I would say that we like people who are sure of themselves in the sense that they stand up for what they believe in…even if they’re wrong. People who are willing to take risks…and the way I describe that is to say, ‘Hey listen, we do not have a penalty for failure. We actually have a penalty if you play too safe. If you don’t take enough risks, that means you’re not failing enough, and that means you’re not the right person for us.’

I’m an entrepreneur at heart, I like working with people who are fellow entrepreneurs in their respective area, even if you are writing code. It’s the propensity to take risks knowing that failure will happen. Out of 10 things you try probably four or five will fail and that is perfectly okay. If you just want to play it safe and just kind of make by, I don’t think that’s a good fit for our company.

So from an interview perspective, I’ll say, be yourself and show us what your true personality is and realize that we like people who are happy to talk about failures, people who are risk-takers…like fellow entrepreneurs.”