Kelly Beavers co-founder of Exabyte Corp.

Jul 01 2006

View From the Top

Exabyte's Kelly Beavers offers his take on growing a small business and its IT leadership.

BizTech editor-in-chief Lee Copeland about Exabyte's early trials and tribulations and the pragmatic approach he's taken for getting the most out of IT people, processes and products.


An electrical engineer by training, Beavers now serves as the vice president of product marketing at Exabyte. During his tenure at Exabyte, Beavers has served in a number of leadership roles, bolstering the company from a small storage start-up to a perennial favorite with small businesses due to the company's price-competitive and automation-driven offerings. Here's his view from the top.


BizTech: There's a trend toward co-CEOs and other shared co-posts in many organizations. What's your perspective on role sharing?
Beavers: Anytime you have tasks that are definable and distinct, you can't have two people in charge of getting those things done. You can't have two people in charge of engineering or sales or marketing. Every area is different and they don't produce the same content, so it's important to have someone who understands what's needed in each area. When you see many co-roles, there's usually some accommodation of the personalities involved as opposed to the work required. Also, you have to ask if those types of co-roles confuse the organization, and the people tasked with doing the work. If the structure of the organization makes it hard for them to understand how to get the work done, then you have a problem.


BizTech: What's your litmus test for knowing whether you have the right organizational structure in place?
Beavers: In the long run, we've always come back to traditional organizational structures that are time-tested. For us, the driver should always be the people at the bottom of the organization and ensuring that the structure makes it easier for them to get work done and resolve issues.


BizTech: For most growing businesses, one of the other big challenges is determining if they have the right people on the bus. What's your take on that?
Beavers: I wish I could say that we have a sniff test, but our approach has been to look at the problems that the individual has the opportunity to resolve and whether they've faced analogous problems in the past.


BizTech: So, how do you know when it's time to add in a management layer?
Beavers: In my experience, a key question for my managers has been: How many people can you effectively manage? I had a great technical support manager once, who managed a big team. He was doing a good job, but at some point, you have to ask the individual how many decisions are they making every day? What is the accuracy on those decisions? And how much extra time are you spending to fix the resulting problems when the wrong decision is being made. Finally, I had to tell him that he needed to hire two managers this month, or I would hire three managers next month.


BizTech: How do you deal with the extra measure of complexity that bringing in new people adds?
Beavers: Planning for change is extremely important and when change is not well communicated, it seems as if everything is happening by accident or intuition. Good managers make good plans and measure execution, and without a strong plan, there's not much a manager can do to have an impact. The key is to prep the organization for a new individual's arrival and make sure that there is a clear understanding of why the new person is here and what they are going to be doing. All that stuff needs to be talked about and worked through. Don't assume that the organization can figure it out for itself.


BizTech: When you're looking to bring new people onboard, where does Exabyte look?
Beavers: The easiest solution is to attract people who other colleagues have worked with before. That provides a good way to ensure that there's a track record about what they can do. You still do the interview process to make sure that there's a fit; it's very important. You want to make sure that they're exposed to as many people as possible who will be concerned about their future performance, and make sure that there's a strong consensus. With a small organization, that's important because you want to incorporate new people but not abandon the culture that you have.


BizTech: A persistent question that we get from readers is how to grow your career as an IT professional. Any advice?
Beavers: In a company where IT is critical to the business, if IT doesn't grow, then the company doesn't grow. So, in that situation, I would say don't worry about promotions.Just make sure that you are in the middle of problem solving and get reasonable visibility within the organization. Make sure you're not creating problems or being a roadblock to growth. To do that, you need to reach outside of IT and understand how sales does its job, and how engineering does its job. Analyze what's being done in other key areas and come up with solutions and proposals. IT takes a thick skin. There are always complaints. My advice is to get involved with the momentum of the company and see where the pressure points are and go back and think about how IT can resolve or improve those situations.


BizTech: How does a small business CEO gauge whether he or she is getting the most out of the company's IT resources?
Beavers: Most people are happy to go into silos and never come out. The company you work at may not know whether they need your help or how to ask for your help, but they still need you. So, if your IT folks are out and about, then they will tend to be more successful. Make sure that they are concerned with making IT easy and more productive.


BizTech: What has been the easiest thing about running a small company?
Beavers: My first impulse is to say, "Nothing." But the best thing has been a real intangible — the feeling or culture of a small business, especially in our early days when we had fewer than 20 people. There's a real camaraderie among the people working together to start a new business. People work really hard and make sacrifices. People don't take vacations unless they have to. It's a very special feeling that you don't often get from working inside a big company. People feel differently when they understand the goals and the mission, and they don't feel like just another wheel in the machine.


BizTech: What is the hardest thing about running a small company?
Beavers: You can get exhausted. There are all kinds of problems to solve. You have to change plans — often. And, there's the nail biting that goes on when you're trying to raise money.


BizTech: If you could give one piece of advice to our readers about aligning IT and business strategy, what would it be?
Beavers: Benchmark your spending and your performance. If you're spending 10 times more than everyone else in your industry, find out why. If you're spending 1/10th of what everyone else is spending, and the business is not inhibited and the product is getting to customers, find out why. If spending is low, you might have the right formula, so stick with it. Still, you should always look for things that IT can automate or facilitate. If you're overspending and have problems, then something is wrong. You might be set up for high transaction volume and still running like a turtle. If you're doing unnatural acts to close sales and process P/Os, something is wrong. Look for the things that you're not supposed to hear and see, and assess if things are right or wrong. Our natural tendency is to hide problems, and unless you're looking at your benchmarks, you may never know it.

Stephen Collector