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Executive interview: Rajiv Ramaswami, CEO, Nutanix

We speak to the CEO of Nutanix about growing up in India, the switch from engineering to business leader, and mentoring

Rajiv Ramaswami became CEO of Nutanix in the middle of the Covid pandemic. He met customers, investors and employees all virtually and has overseen the transition of the company’s business to a subscription licensing model.

Like many people, Ramaswami found working on communications tools such as Zoom more efficient than traditional meetings. “The technology made it possible to interact and meet more people,” he says.

As the world slowly moves beyond the pandemic, like many business leaders, Ramaswami sees a hybrid work pattern emerging where people will have the flexibility to take part in in-person, face-to-face meetings or virtual conference calls. “We have to make the best of both worlds,” he says.

But it is down to people. “About 10% may want to come back to the office full-time,” says Ramaswami, “while 30% may want to work only remotely and the rest will be hybrid.”

Like many CEOs, Ramaswami recognises the virtues of flexible and remote working, but a company is a company of people. “When do you get people together?” he says.

At Nutanix, the temptation of free food may be enough of a draw to get people to leave their home office and commute to see their colleagues in the corporate office.

Ramaswami’s background is as an engineer, specifically in networking. In his current role, he is no longer the techie in the room. Instead, he speaks to senior IT decision-makers and CIOs about their business priorities.

“It’s a conversation,” he says. “It is never about me pitching Nutanix. It’s a discussion, and CIOs are happy to share.”

Recalling his childhood in India, Ramaswami says: “One of the big things was equality.” For instance, his mother had a master’s degree, something that, at the time, was highly unusual among women in India. “My mum was educated and had a philosophy of making education a top priority,” he says.

“It is never about me pitching Nutanix. It’s a discussion, and CIOs are happy to share”

Rajiv Ramaswami, Nutanix

His parents worked on the railways, which meant the young Ramaswami was frequently changing schools. “We didn’t know any better,” he says, “and we got used to being able to adapt.”

By the time he reached grade nine or 10 (equivalent to A-level), Ramaswami says he needed to decide whether to study business or sciences. Explaining why he chose sciences, Ramaswami says: “For me, everything is based on logic and first principles.” In India, studying sciences generally leads to “a middle-class career” in areas like engineering or medicine, he adds.

Ramaswami studied electrical engineering at the India Institute of Technology, Madras, followed by a master’s degree and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. His first job after university was at the research laboratory at IBM Zurich, where he worked with four Nobel laureates. He spent nine years there and did a PhD thesis in optical networking. “Networking was my first love,” he says.

Ramaswami’s career through the 1990s was in networks products. He had worked at a number of startups and was hired as CTO for Cisco’s optical networking group. He was later offered the job of general manager for Cisco’s optical networking division.

Given his love of technology, Ramaswami says moving to a business leadership role required a different approach to how his career had previously progressed. “Your success is not based on your technical knowledge,” he says.

“Business acumen is about how you rally people. You don’t want to be seen as the smartest person in the room. I had to run a technology business and learn to ask the right questions.” 

Going back to his time at IBM, Ramaswami was mentored by Paul E Green Jr, one of the pioneering US engineers of the 20th century. Green helped to develop one of the world’s first spread-spectrum systems for wireless communications – a foundational technology for cellphones developed decades later.

The meaning of mentoring

Ramaswami says mentors tend to be very business people, but they also need to be able to offer mentees constructive criticism. Discussing mentoring, Ramaswami says: “A mentor should provide unbiased personal and business-related advice.”

For Ramaswami, sponsoring represents the next level up from mentoring. “A sponsor advocates and lobbies for you,” he says.

Overall, his ambition is to continue driving growth in the Nutanix business at 25% a year and drive up profitability. Ramaswami sees a huge market opportunity to help organisations modernise IT infrastructure, but he also recognises that Nutanix is not the only company offering a way to deploy workloads in a hybrid way, whether it is on-premise or in a public cloud.

The challenge for Ramaswami is that the senior IT leaders he speaks to will, more than likely, have products and services from other IT companies, each with their own unique vision of hybrid cloud and subscription services.

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