New Manager

Why NetApp is a great place to work

Venkatesh Ganesh | Updated on March 04, 2014

Anil Valluri, President - India & SAARC at NetApp.

The company cherry-picks its employees and encourages them, without pampering them

This office does not have the crossover look of a lounge bar, vast green spaces with food courts, or playgrounds that are reminiscent of colleges in the US.

Neither does it have giant slides that take employees to a floor below. It also does not work on devices that remind you of Robocop movies, nor does its building look like a spaceship.

In fact, this company operates out of a leased facility in Bangalore’s Embassy Golf Links Business Park.

And, it is in the business of data storage — not exactly ‘cool’. Yet, NetApp has figured in the Top 3 best global multinational companies to work for, in the past three years.

Great Place to Work’s annual World’s Best Multinational Workplaces list ranks the top 25 global companies to work for; to qualify, a firm must have at least 5,000 employees worldwide and at least 40 per cent of the workforce must be outside of the company’s home country.

Data management

NetApp is a California headquartered enterprise that builds storage and data management solutions used by banks and such other businesses.

So, in this day and age, when almost every budding software engineer wants to build apps or work for ‘cool’ companies, how does this company manage to be the among the best places to work for?

“We understand that storage is ‘boring’ but we do not target engineers who primarily want to work in ‘cool’ companies,” says Anil Valluri, President - India & SAARC at NetApp.

This approach to cherry-pick talent has paid off. The company targets coders who have a passion for designing and architecting new kinds of storage systems based on existing big hard drive boxes, as well as future storage software that can support data coming from any kind of device — be it a smartphone, tablet or PC.

This, Valluri says, is backed by the fact that 5-20 people conduct interviews, depending on the position.

He wasn’t spared either — he went through a dozen interviews before the management zeroed on him as President.

Employee referrals

Every firm wants to hire the best at the most affordable cost. One of the things which sounds simple but often gets overlooked is an employee referring another to join the company.

“You need to get the basic fact right — whether an employee is satisfied enough with his company to refer another,” explains Valluri.

While there are no official studies on this, HR personnel point out that unsatisfied employees will usually not refer other people to join up.

Multi-department approach

While other multinationals are following this mantra in some form, NetApp has put in parameters that involve total customer satisfaction and not just ‘My department did the job right but am not accountable for the other departments work’ attitude.

“Ultimately, we get an engineering and a field sales person on the same table and thrash out what needs to be done,” says Valluri.

In the IT industry, getting this facet right is often difficult, as engineers and other teams have different views of the business and, when the twain don’t meet, blame game ensues.

Valluri cites the example of scale-out storage systems.

“Our engineering team figured that instead of adding more storage boxes to store data, why not have a system that will add storage as and when needed,” he recalls.

However, logically, sales people objected to it, as selling boxes meant more commissions, whereas in a scale-out approach, determining this would be complex, says a NetApp employee who cannot be quoted as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Yet, when both sat across the table and agreed that this can redefine their business and make it more affordable to customers, the case was clear.

All this has shown up in the performance. At the end of the second quarter of fiscal 2014, NetApp had cash on the books to the tune of $5.27 billion and was second in terms of market cap after EMC, the leader in storage solutions.

Open door policy

One of the key things that Western style management teaches is how to deal with disagreements.

NetApp is building it amongst Indian employees but admits that the going is not easy.

The word ‘values’ is oft used but not always understood.

“I was partly aware of this (values) but once I was onboard, I got to understand the meaning of this fully after a few months in the company,” says a mid-level executive in the company who works on futuristic storage technologies.

As an example, he cites disagreements with his manager who had certain fixed ideas on what has worked in the past and was reasoning that rationale with growth numbers. “What worked in the past need not work in the future” says this employee.

Senior managers are increasingly realising the relevance of this concept.

“I do not have a cabin of my own and, in meetings, I am the switchboard that connects different thoughts,” explains Valluri.

Employees seem to appreciate this.

“I am a recent joinee but I have personally been appreciated for bringing a fresh perspective and challenging ideas and people always make it a point to highlight your good work through callouts in meetings or just while chatting,” says Philips Ranjit, Director, System Integrators, NetApp.

To be fair, other firms have similar policies, too. For example, Citrix CEO Mark Templeton does not have a cabin of his own and adopts the switchboard strategy to deal with employees.

So does Aarif Aziz, GE India Technology Centre GM, and Maclean Raphael, Executive Director - HR, India & Sri Lanka at 3M.

NetApp’s VP, Tom Mendonza, personally calls employees on the phone and thanks them when they do a particularly good job.

“Doing the simple things right, such as listening to employee concerns and providing them with intangible benefits at work, is a huge differentiator at a time when most companies are struggling with top-line growth,” says Simran Oberoi, HR specialist at SHRM India.

Measuring metrics

A lot of what corporates do to motivate employees has a strong business sense embedded in it.

Industry watchers feel a lot of Indian companies and MNCs do not walk the talk when it comes to employee retention, motivation or innovation and all this has resulted in the country not quickly moving up the value chain.

“Companies have not been measuring performance of employees in a holistic way and have been using outdated HR measurement systems,” says Vasu Saksena, CEO, MeriTrac, an employee measurement and assessment company. This is also reflected in the constant struggle by academia and bodies like National Skills Development Council (NSDC) to get engineers employable in quick time.

MeriTrac estimates the cost of getting new talent up to speed can cost a company anywhere around ₹20 lakh.

To achieve this, there is the usual work-out-of-home policies, beer bashes, spot bonuses, buddy systems (for new employees) and innovation challenges, among other perks.

Unlike buddy systems in other companies, at NetApp, it is not seen as a chore and is a part of the company’s values, says an employee who has also worked with Oracle and EMC. (In a buddy system, two people, or buddies, operate as a single unit. The aim is to help and monitor each other.)

NetApp makes it clear that it does not want employees who expect to be pampered, and that it does not want a generation that believes it is entitled to a work atmosphere that resembles a college dorm.

“If you are looking for things to pamper yourself, join another company,” says Valluri.

Here it is about work and life balance that goes beyond lip service.

Published on March 04, 2014

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