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The immigration success story represented by Indian computer scientists in Silicon Valley is almost too obvious to be remarked upon. You only have to think of the twin brothers Thomas and George Kurian, CEOs of Google Cloud and NetApp, respectively, born in India, both educated at IIT Madras and Princeton, and both alumni of McKinsey and Oracle.
Gaurav Dhillon, founder CEO of SnapLogic and Informatica, belongs to that same generation of Indian immigrants who came to the US on a scholarship route.
The company of which he is CEO today is SnapLogic, which offers a platform as a service for companies and other organisations to join up applications and data, both in the cloud and on-premise, in the cloud. Dhillon founded it in 2006, and he is well known in the data management field, and in the technology industry more broadly, as the co-founder, alongside Diaz Nesamoney, of data integration pioneer Informatica in 1993.
The story of Informatica has the hallmarks of a classic Silicon Valley startup – from the business plan on a napkin, the pivot, and that all-important initial cheque from a venture capitalist. Not to mention lots of passion and hard work.
Dhillon was educated in India, and he reflects on the phenomenon of the success story of Indian immigration into the Californian tech industry.
“I studied electrical engineering, but I feel very blessed to know that I wanted to be in technology, that I wanted to do things with electronics and computers and such,” he says. “And so I followed my passion in that area.
“A lot of my father’s friends who were engineers – this is, as you can imagine, India in the 1980s – they encouraged me to think of civil engineering, because that was the real engineering and everything else was flimsy by comparison. But it turned out these low, three-legged transistors really had legs, and so I followed my passion into that.
“And then I came to the United States to do graduate work in computer science, and ultimately started working and then branched out from that.”
“Do something you feel passionate about, otherwise it won’t work”
Gaurav Dhillon, SnapLogic
This was, says Dhillon, to the chagrin of his parents, who were both university professors, his father in horticulture and his mother in political science. His parents were even more shocked when he left a solid, respectable job as a systems architect at Unisys intent on founding, with his friend, a startup in 1992. What next? Was he to become a hippy and join a commune?
The successive levies of Indian students who swelled the companies of Silicon Valley is, he says, “a big topic”.
“There have been two generations of people from the Indian subcontinent who came to Silicon Valley,” he adds. “There is a generation, which is mine, who are now in their fifties. These are people who typically took the route of higher education, and then some stayed behind because there was no opportunity in India.
“And then there’s another generation of people who have come with more of a cross-border, globalisation trend. And similarly, I think there is the globalisation of information technology, alongside English as an almost native or well-spoken language in India.”
But it has not been a “grand design” between the US and India, says Dhillon.
While at Unisys, Dhillon says he saw the opportunities opening up as enterprise IT moved beyond the mainframe to distributed computing systems, as Y2K loomed and as the internet – pre-web in the early 1990s, but still a nascent force field – emerged.
Data integration was not initially the focus, he says. “The initial thoughts were people are going to go into this new distributed computing, and how are they going to move their applications? It was more of a migration play initially.
“And then we realised that when people moved their applications, they needed their data. How are you going to get the data? And so, some of the peripheral work that we had done turned out to be Informatica.”
That was the pivot. Then there was the small matter of raising capital. “The pitch I could do on the back of a napkin,” says Dhillon. “Indeed, I did that for one of our early investors, Neal Dempsey, in a café in Palo Alto.”
At that time – in the mid-1990s – business intelligence software had emerged as a front-end interrogation toolset in the face of data warehousing. But how to get the data from the warehouses to be reported on from the likes of BusinessObjects? That space was obvious on the napkin, he says. “I think he [Dempsey] still has it!”
Dhillon adds: “That’s the magic of Silicon Valley. They didn’t know me. I remember going to deposit that initial cheque for a few million dollars at a branch of Bank of America, and we felt like lights would go off and bells would ring!”
He moved on from Informatica in 2004, feeling a need to build new things. He took a year off, then made two investments, one of which worked and one of which did not.
The obligatory Silicon Valley “failure” was a video-on-demand service, Jaman, a move into B2C technology, and a sort of proto-Netflix. “I was the first person to show high-definition video on a laptop at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2005, which was probably 10 years too early,” says Dhillon. “People said to us, nobody’s going watch movies on a computer!”
In terms of content, the company looked to specialise in Indian and South American films. But the 2008-9 financial crash “put the kibosh on it”, he says. “It didn’t turn out to be a moneymaker for us, but it was a fun project.”
The investment that flew was SnapLogic, which Dhillon founded in 2006.
“The unifying thing to me, of Jaman and SnapLogic, was that the cloud was and is going to change everything, for example in moving large amounts of data,” he says. “When someone says to me, ‘we have a lot of data and can SnapLogic cut it [as a cloud company]?’, I reply: ‘did you see a movie last night on Netflix – they’ve probably moved two gigabytes of data on the same pipes that you’re worried about having a little bit of business data on’.”
Standing back from his own, San Mateo-based company, to reflect on Silicon Valley more broadly, especially post-pandemic, what does Dhillon see?
“I think Silicon Valley has gone from people building faster, cheaper, better things through the era of social networks and commercial B2C properties to a space where it has to think more ethically,” he says. “Even in the geekier stuff like we do, in data and artificial intelligence [AI], what would an ethical AI look like?”
In terms of the sociology of the Valley, Dhillon speculates that for twenty- and thirty-something tech workers who have family elsewhere, the pandemic will probably have the effect of a migration out of the area geographically, while people continue to work remotely.
But he still thinks that when it comes to a radical innovation, when “you are synthesising a new idea, or you’re synthesising a new product or creating a new company and looking for your co-founders and such, that is very, very hard to do remotely”.
Dhillon’s top tips for anyone planning a technology startup is get the chemistry of the founding team right, in terms of being complementary, and above all, “do something you feel passionate about, otherwise it won’t work, and don’t underestimate how hard it will be”.
He adds: “And don’t forget, culture eats strategy for breakfast, as you scale your company. Make culture a top-level agenda item.”
The pandemic itself, with its attendant lockdowns, has caused “a moment of introspection for the whole globe”, says Dhillon. “And I think that really makes us think about things. Think about what’s important. I like to say there’s a difference between motion and progress.
“I think, spiritually, sometimes we just move around, and we don’t make progress. And I think that as we have less organised religion, there’s a gap and people should really think about spirituality on a more introspective basis. To me, that needs to happen, otherwise, in moments of darkness, we are lost.”
As for his own next-level ambition, it is, he says, “to be able to really sort through this mess of enterprise data as the enterprise goes to the cloud”.
“It’s getting worse, there are more data sources, there is much more to be done. And there’s a more tech savvy audience now, generationally speaking, that if you give them the right data, they can do things with it. That wasn’t true 20 years ago.”