As part of my series, “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild in the Post-COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deepak Kumar.
Dr. Deepak Kumar is the founder and CEO at Adaptiva. He is responsible for strategic product direction and leads the development organization. He was the lead program manager with Microsoft’s Systems Management Server 2003 team and program manager with the Windows NT Networking team. Prior to Microsoft, he was a group manager for IP Telephony products at Nortel. Dr. Kumar has received five patents related to his work on SMS 2003 at Microsoft and has written more than 50 publications, including a book on Windows programming. While at Microsoft, Dr. Kumar also authored the Think Week paper for Bill Gates that became Project Greenwich, now known as Microsoft Office Communications Server/Lync. Deepak is an avid outdoorsman and hiker.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory” and how you got started?
Early in my career, I was involved in building Microsoft’s classic enterprise apps, helping to build monolithic, heavy infrastructure needed for deployment. It was very successful in terms of its function, but administrators hated it, users hated it, and customers were saying it was the most expensive app they owned from a management perspective, which is ironic because it was a management app.
My work at Microsoft shifted to making these incredibly valuable applications something that people actually wanted to use, something that didn’t create new problems as it solved the old ones. My core idea was to break down the monolithic enterprise app into components and then weave them back together using a flexible workflow engine. This would allow actions within each component to thematize intent, so an administrator could express his intent using this new schema. That sounds complicated and technical, but really this approach enabled us to deliver a more focused product that could enable the right kind of interaction; software should adapt itself to what is being asked of it rather than the other way around, and it should do that in a network-sensitive way so that product and platform work together seamlessly to do what the administrator wants.
This was at the beginning of the movement to make software more user-friendly. Developing good technology wasn’t good enough if people hated using it.
But this idea, this fundamental concept of weaving together components through a workflow engine that helps everything work better, smarter and more efficiently together, stuck with me. It formed the foundation of what is now Adaptiva, which comes from Adaptive Protocols.
So, Adaptiva was started because we figured out how to mend a bunch of stuff that didn’t exist. Since then, we’ve continued to push the envelope to solve some really big and painful enterprise issues, and now we are here getting into the cloud and taking a build app schema approach to management even further.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways” you learned from that?
Oh, I’ve made so many mistakes, most of which have been decidedly unfunny but all of which helped Adaptiva get to where it is today.
But, thinking about the early days, I didn’t know a whole lot about the fundraising process at the time. There was this myth that every startup had to sort of run the VC gauntlet to get funding in order to be successful. So, I went out on the circuit and was soundly declined by most of the VCs I met with. One in particular stands out though.
He not only declined me after our meeting, but when I followed up with him on email, he actually asked me to never contact him again. I will not call him out by name now, but he’s a very well-known figure. Funny enough, about seven years after our meeting, he replied to his own email saying, “I’m hearing good things about Adaptiva. How about we get together for a coffee?” And I was like, “Dude, did you read the bottom part of this email when you asked me not to contact you?”
That said, my takeaway from his initial reaction was, “You’re on your own.” I knew how good our technology was, and I knew how big the pain points were, so I just went ahead and bootstrapped the whole thing myself and didn’t waste any further time with the dog and pony shows.
I realized I needed to find allies, not VCs. So, I set out to build my network and overall ecosystem with people who wanted to be part of our future success. No one should rely on being served something on a plate. Go deserve it and make it happen.
Is there a particular book that you read or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There have been many books! I’ll share one though that I read very early on called “The C Programming Language” by Kernighan and Ritchie, which is considered the bible of C. It was a fundamental part of computer science literature — at least it used to be. The thing that struck me when reading it was not only the beauty of the subject — the programming language was very exotic at the time this came out — but the prose.
I was struck by a couple of things. First was how brief, concise and terse it was and, secondly, how unambiguous every sentence was. Like, you couldn’t possibly derive two meanings from any sentence in the whole book. You couldn’t even drive 1.1 meanings from a sentence. It was very explicit, simple as daylight, unambiguous. It was striking — concise, precise expression which didn’t leave room for confusion, no matter who the audience was. It’s still one of my favorite books.
In terms of podcasts, I really enjoy, Preet Bharara. When his new book, “Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law,” came out, I went to the book signing and found him to be very funny and incisive about what IP should be about and that we should care about things that are bigger than ourselves — the point of justice, fairness, rule of law, just punishment for crimes, integrity, and so forth. With his podcasts, I think he has a way of connecting what’s happening around us to what’s important, aside from everyone’s focus on being invalid.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
While part of it was the technical vision, I really wanted to create an environment where people could come together and do the best work of their lives.
For many years, we saw ourselves and operated as a bunch of artists creating elegant designs. Software is science and engineering, but there is also an aesthetic to it. I see these things very visually, and it’s possible to create software with an underlying elegance and sophistication. To me, it’s an art form, almost like I see these things in the sky.
Then of course, in the process of creating these elegant things, we discovered that we had developed a very successful business. At that point, we had to embrace more business-like thinking to really grow and sustain the company in a way that would enable our contributions to matter. But even today, as we look at enterprise problems that we want to address through product development, we infuse a bit of art into the solution, which I believe is why we have been able to accomplish some things technically that no one else has been able to achieve or replicate.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I think the number one principle is to achieve excellence. In every decision, I try to ascertain whether this contributes to being an excellent company, being an excellent partner, delivering the most excellent product. We always want to aspire to that; there is always room to grow and push forward, but always striving for excellence has served us well. Our customers have been extremely happy with our products and the level of service they receive.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with them a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My son is in college, and he was studying in St. Louis during the early days of the pandemic. My wife and I live in Seattle, which was the first real hot spot, so we really debated whether we should bring him home to a much more high-risk area or leave him there and endure the uncertainty. The university took the stance that once a student leaves the county, they will not admit them back on campus. Ultimately, we made the decision to bring him home.
Our thinking was that even if the world outside was unsafe, our home would be safe — it would certainly be safer for him than the communal environment that the university provided, where young, restless kids who felt invincible against this virus would be. So, we got him on a plane, and he self-quarantined within our house for two weeks, which worked out well in the longer term. We agonized over it, but I’m so happy we made that decision.
Aside from that, just being forced to abandon our everyday lifestyle has been challenging, of course, just like everyone else. I like to be in the office and around my team.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Obviously, we are not going to risk our team members’ health, but you still have to balance the financial side of things, right? As a business, you absolutely do not want any backwards production — especially at a time when we’ve experienced so much momentum and were expanding rather aggressively. So, how do you remain a successful business that can continue to operate financially in a stable way without exposing the team and individuals to risk? It’s a massive challenge, and one I think we have handled reasonably well.
We put our people’s needs first and made sure we got them whatever they required to work from home as quickly as possible, so we eliminated a lot of red tape that can come with purchasing things like monitors or desk chairs. We also tried really hard to reassure our people that their jobs were secure and that we could be flexible and adapt together to this very strange new environment. By being highly transparent, I think it took a lot of stress and anxiety away from our team. When you’re not worried about losing your job and you know that everyone is in the same situation, it is a lot easier to sort of settle in and figure out a way to get work done. You want to be there for your team; you want to be there for your company because you know they have your back.
And fortunately, our company’s technology — our own products — help overcome the issues that many other enterprises have struggled with in terms of overwhelming their networks when everyone is connecting remotely and managing the configurations and security of devices and machines for a totally remote workforce. As such, I think we’ve come to value our products in a new way.
At the same time, the experience has shown us how we can innovate and push further to address issues that never existed previously — or at least that enterprises had kept on the back burner, like moving to the cloud, because of certain complexities. After all, challenge breeds innovation.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It actually feels a bit like “Lord of the Flies” right now, doesn’t it? In terms of news, I’ve tried to communicate to the people around me that we essentially need to return to the fundamentals of research from college. When you come across a piece of information, is it a primary source or not? If it’s not a primary source, there must be volumes of information — more information than we can consume. So, there is no basis for us to consume anything but primary information. Everything else, just discard. That has helped my family separate the noise, which can feel overwhelming and toxic, from actual substance, which is much easier to deal with from a calm, rational place.
Now, of course even in substance, there are many different perspectives. So for me, it comes down to evaluating the competence of the primary source. By paying attention to the most competent and the most uninterested, unbiased sources, you can get to the truth and the facts. There should be no individual side of this — just do what the scientists are saying. Yes, it’s inconvenient, but so is dying. Protecting ourselves based on reliable information becomes a mission or a duty that is to be completed without fanfare or commentary. When you apply a fact-based approach to daily life, you understand why certain measures are needed; you can use your value system to make decisions grounded in science, not fear.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
In the post-COVID world, who really knows? Will another event like this ever happen? I think because of the huge impact COVID has had on all aspects of life, companies will be forced to plan for the unexpected by making their businesses more agile and adaptable.
They’ll become more loosely coupled from physical infrastructure, more virtualized. I think they will need to take the shape of a Lego in a sense, where they can change themselves by reorganizing very quickly and recombining the pieces in new ways.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
COVID seems to have succeeded in crystallizing the polarization of society along political lines. It will take a while before communities grow back together. Individual actions appear to be falling in line with both edges of the spectrum according to beliefs, so I think we’ll continue to see extremes of behavior for the foreseeable future, which is truly unfortunate.
In fact, I’ve put filters on my social media activity because there’s a new normal in how people communicate that is quite troublesome to me. It’s become normal to be vicious, outspoken and completely inconsiderate in full public view, whether your conversations are with strangers, business associates, or friends and family who think differently. It saddens me to think it’s going to be a nasty world for a while, and many people may become more reserved and cautious in engaging and expressing themselves as we go. It feels a bit like it will be every man for himself or every family for themselves, which is certainly far from ideal when trying to recover from such a catastrophic situation.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID economy?
We reprioritized our product strategy, and we’ve become more adaptable not just with remote work but in terms of how we respond to customer needs. As a result, Adaptiva is able to help other companies be more nimble and agile as well so that they are ready for the post-COVID economy.
Large companies have to reorganize themselves if they’re going to survive, and Adaptiva enables those companies to do that with ease. And when you enable large companies to achieve their objectives, it continues to fuel your business, which is already happening in our case.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Many businesses need to rethink their core value proposition and how they deliver that value. Some value propositions may not lend themselves to long-term success anymore. As sad as it is, if companies are not set up for this strange new world, exiting gracefully might be the best course of action, as we’ve seen in past economic downturns.
My suggestion would be to go to the drawing board and examine the viability of the business. Does it make sense to pivot or re frame your brand and offerings? In some cases, businesses have a fundamentally viable value proposition, and they simply need to be more flexible in how they are able to deliver in different circumstances, but they really have to take an honest look at what they have today and what it will require to move forward effectively. Don’t just try to tread water — take the steps that will help your business over the long term.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
George Bernard Shaw: “Imagination is the beginning of creation.” It applies to how the company started and how we build products. I see them in my imagination and go from there. Creation is a beautiful thing.
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