Automation, End Users, and Industry Trends — SolarWinds TechPod 002

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This episode of SolarWinds TechPod features Stephen Foskett, discussing his takeaways from Gestalt IT's Tech Field Day Austin event, including behind-the-scenes insight into what it takes to be selected as a Tech Field Day delegate. He also discusses themes that have emerged from Tech Field Day events and how end users are shaping the IT industry and influencing marketing trends. Related Links:  
Stephen Foskett


Stephen Foskett is an active participant in the world of enterprise information technology, currently focusing on enterprise storage, server virtualization, networking, and cloud computing. He… Read More

Episode Transcript

This episode of SolarWinds TechPod was recorded on-site during Tech Field Day Austin, hosted by SolarWinds on February 8, 2019.

Alex: At SolarWinds headquarters in Austin, Texas, I’m Alex Navarro with SolarWinds TechPod. This is Tech Talks.

Stephen: If you’re buying a garage door opener or a sweater or a storage system, you know, one of the first things you’re going to do is you’re going to Google it, right?

Alex: My guest today is the incomparable Stephen Foskett, long-time voice in the storage industry and organizer-in-chief of Gestalt IT’s Tech Field Day. Thank you for being here.

Stephen: It’s great to be here. I’m always happy to join SolarWinds for these discussions.

Alex: Well, so we just wrapped Tech Field Day Austin, and I want to know, how are you feeling?

Stephen: Well, I’m actually feeling really, really relaxed because SolarWinds was the last presentation of Tech Field Day and I’ve got to tell ya, it is pretty nerve-wracking to put these events on, and it is, makes me feel a lot better knowing that everything worked.

Alex: Well, and now you have a little bit of a break, right?

Stephen: Yeah, actually I do. I used to do every Tech Field Day event myself and now, you know, we’ve got a few more people and so I’m not doing another event for almost a month, so I, indeed, I get to relax, I get to be home.

Alex: A whole month?

Stephen: A whole month. Yep.

Alex: And so, of course, we love having you here at SolarWinds. What’s your favorite part about visiting us?

Stephen: Well, I have to say my favorite part is the people because every time I come here I see all sorts of people that I know. It’s always great…to walk in the door and have Patrick come give me a hug or, you know…randomly run into Leon or Tom LaRock or somebody like that. I mean it’s, it’s just such a great group of people in here and you know, that’s great.

Alex: OK, I sat in on a few of the sessions and I know we’re not going to get into the nitty-gritty because obviously people can find that for themselves on your website and hopefully they were live-streaming the event as well, but just some sort of high-level takeaways. What you really… maybe were surprised by in the presentations.

Stephen: Well, you know, one of the things that comes up with Tech Field Day that’s kind of interesting, we don’t really have a theme beyond tech or storage or networking or security or whatever. But, yet, we always have a theme anyway. And the theme of Tech Field Day in Austin this year is clearly automation. Every presentation, everyone we talked to, is talking about the pros and cons, the right way to automate technology, the right way to, you know, integrate different systems, and they’re all talking about interoperability between systems and between automation engines. And it was, it’s always amazing to watch that happen because, in my opinion, that seems to be the theme of the industry. Whatever comes out of Tech Field Day is whatever people are talking about right now. It’s kind of like the buzz.

Alex: Well, and that’s what I really like about the events that you host because it really is that community feeling. It’s what people are interested in. It’s what is actually going to help them solve the problems that they’re experiencing in the here and now. And that’s one of the ways that the industry is changing.

Stephen: Yeah, absolutely. And I agree. That’s actually what we’re going for. You know, if I can maybe give a little secret here, one of the things about Tech Field Day that we do; we have a really good pro video crew. We actually asked them to turn it down a notch so that it doesn’t look quite so slick and slope, so “pro,” because it really is more oriented toward people and what they’re seeing and what they’re feeling. And what we found is that if we made it too slick and professional, it became less relatable. So, I’d rather have people feel like they’re sitting at the table instead of watching something that was staged.

Alex: It definitely does feel like you’re right there, participating in the event. Even if you’re sitting at home or you’re at work in a conference room and you’re just watching the live-stream.

Stephen: Yup. And that’s really what we’re going for.

Alex: And so for you personally, how does it feel to be able to see these changes incorporated into, let’s say, marketing efforts?

Stephen: Oh, it’s so much fun to see that. I’ll tell you, there are a lot of features that have come out of the Tech Field Day discussions, and you know, a lot of companies have said, oh, well that’s the Tech Field Day feature, or they’ll come back the next year and they’ll say last year at Networking Field Day, we talked about this, and now we’ve implemented it. And that’s always a lot of fun. I love to see that. Another thing that viewers might not see, again, another kind of insider thing here, is that in a lot of cases after the camera is turned off, the marketing people will turn questions to the delegates, you know, kind of informally and say, what do you think of this product? Or, what do you think of this positioning? What should we do next with this product? Sometimes, they’ll even say, what should we call this? We had that happen this week. I won’t say which company, but one of the companies said, you know, we’re not sure about this branding and this naming. What do you guys think of this? What should we call it? And it’s always fun to see that because then you see the results come afterwards and you’re able to say, you know, I was there. I got to see that happen.

Alex: I participated in that. I contributed.

Stephen: Exactly, exactly. And it’s not like the Field Day people are making the decisions. It’s just nice to see that their opinions matter to the companies.

Alex: Well, and there was a really organic moment where that happened today actually at SolarWinds. And, I think what was really interesting about the natural Q&A that was going on is people feel comfortable enough at your event to interrupt the speaker, the presenter, or the delegates, and ask a question. And it’s just, it feels so comfortable and casual even though it’s literally being live-streamed and people are watching it all over.

Stephen: Yeah, exactly. And that’s again, one of those funny things again and again, we’ll get people watching the videos who don’t really understand Tech Field Day and they’ll say, how come these people keep interrupting? But that’s kind of the thing, you know, I mean, anybody can stand up and walk through their own PowerPoint and talk about it. But, it’s actually nice to have people who know this stuff say, hey, hey, wait a second, you just said this and I’m not sure I agree with you. And it’s part of what it’s all about.

Alex: And so, I’m sure some of our listeners would be interested to know how one becomes a delegate for Tech Field Day.

Stephen: Sure. You know, that’s something that, we’re always looking for new people. And basically anyone listening to TechPod is the kind of person that we want at Tech Field Day because they’re somebody who’s interested in technology, you know, who’s going to put their time and effort and energy into it. And, you know, basically what we’re looking for is, we’re looking for people who are independent, meaning, unfortunately, nobody who works for one of the companies in the industry. And that’s not because they’re bad, it’s simply because, you know, company A does not want company B’s employees sitting in around the discussion.

Alex: Sure.

Stephen: You know, we’re also looking for people who are technical. You know, if you’re a SysAdmin, if you know VI commands, you’re probably our kind of person. And we’re looking for people who have some kind of platform, whether it’s a podcast or a blog or seminar speaking, maybe they are a guest on TechPod, those kinds of people. We’re always looking for those kinds of people. And the best way to let us know that you want to be part of it is just to let us know that you want to be part of it. You know, tweet at us, tweet @TechFieldDay, tweet @SFoskett, send me an email. We have a submission form on our website. So, we’re always looking for new people. It’s wide open.

Alex: And we should mention that you are also the host of a podcast as well.

Stephen: Yes, indeed. The On-Premise IT Roundtable Podcast, and I paused there because everybody in your audience now is saying, no, it’s on-premises, but it’s not. In this case, we’re using premise to mean a central thought or idea that organizes the podcast. So each episode, we come up with a premise and then we discuss that premise. We thought that would be hilariously funny. It turns out it’s hilariously annoying to a lot of people in tech.

Alex: And confusing maybe?

Stephen: And confusing. Yeah. What can you do?

Alex: Well, I liked that you clarified it so that we don’t accidentally start a war or something over on-prem, on-premises. So I appreciate that. And obviously we were a host for the event, for Tech Field Day. For those who might be interested in hosting you in future years, how does that happen?

Stephen: Well, basically, companies just contact us and say we would love to have Tech Field Day come and present. I’m being totally honest, it is sponsored. The companies pay money to be part of it.

Alex: Full disclosure.

Stephen: Full disclosure. And, you know, we try to keep it friendly and easy so it’s, it’s a flat price. So every company just says, hey, you know, we want to be there, how much is it? And we tell them and then they sign up and they pick an event, you know, we assign them a date and if they have a convenient appropriate location, then we’ll actually come on-site with the companies, which is another thing that I love about it. Bringing people to Austin and showing them Austin is great. Bringing them to SolarWinds office and showing them like, the crazy studio that we’re in right now is even better, because people can really get a feel for the company and they can see how SolarWinds is different from, you know, a company down the street who has a different office and a different vibe.

Alex: Well, I have to say, I feel like that’s probably why we get along so well with Gestalt IT, because we really do listen to our users. We have the THWACK community, that’s something that is really important to us and it’s very precious and very dear and just kind of like how you were talking about how you don’t really go into Tech Field Day with themes, but they just sort of bubble up on their own because of the user feedback. I think that’s just so great and useful.

Stephen: Absolutely. And, and you know, I think that that’s really how things are changing now. Companies aren’t, you know, it’s not kind of a top-down approach to marketing anymore. It’s more of a bottom-up approach. And I think that it’s wise for companies to listen to users, listen to customers. I mean, I know that sounds kind of hackney, like, Oh yes, companies should listen to customers, film at 11.

Alex: Genius!

Stephen: Yes, genius. I figured it all out! But, no, really. I mean, you know, things have changed now–the way people buy products, the way people find products, and you know, basically what people are talking about has a lot more to do with the shape of the industry than what companies are wanting them to talk about.

Alex: Touting or pushing their way.

Stephen: Yeah.

Alex: You’re going to trust a review from a peer, obviously.

Stephen: And that’s, I mean, that’s like the new thing. I mean, you know, if you’re buying a garage door opener or a sweater or a storage system, you know, one of the first things you’re going to do is you’re going to Google it, right? And a lot of the responses, I mean, obviously you’ll find the product company there and you’ll find the product page and maybe a white paper, but you’ll also find a lot of, you know, end-user feedback. You’ll find people writing in forums saying, I bought this thing and it was good or it was bad. You’ll find people who wrote a blog post about it. You know, blogs have just tremendous search engine mojo and so you’re going to find some of these blog posts, right? Ranked right up there, and you’re going to find a video, you’re going to find somebody talking about it on YouTube. I think a lot of us can relate to that because we’ve Googled something and we’ve seen this, you know, there’s the YouTube review, there’s the blog, there is the forum post, there’s the manufacturer and, and so the whole way that people learn about products is Google-oriented more than…than it used to be.

Alex: Just sort of trusting some sort of blind advertisement or something like that.

Stephen: Exactly. I mean, people basically used to look, if you wanted to learn about something, you’d look at the trade press, you’d see an article written by a professional reporter, you’d see some ads placed by the company. You know, you go to a conference or something and you’d have an analyst present. And, a lot of that has changed now. I mean, people don’t have to wait to go to a conference. They can, you know, look on the forums, they can read a blog, and I think that that’s really important for companies to get on board with as well because this is where your audience is and this is where your buyers are.

Alex: Well and I’m sure this is something that you experienced as well, in addition to hopping on to forums and participating in the communities, now, because of the internet and because of the instant availability, you can hop online and you can tweet to the organization itself. You can tag them in a post and more than likely, you’ll get a response from the organization.

Stephen: Yeah, exactly. The better, the better companies have somebody monitoring that stuff and you will reply and that happens lot. I mean it’s, it’s kind of annoying because you know, I’m angry at this airline, so I’m going to tweet at them and see if they’ll give me a, you know, some kind of compensation. But frankly, that’s the new world. Right? And you know, no matter what industry you’re in, you have to listen to the customers. Yeah, the voices. And they’ll tell you what they need to know and you know, that’s, I think all part of what we’re trying to do with the Tech Field Day event and what companies are trying to figure out. They’re trying to figure out how do I work in this environment?

Alex: Looking forward into Tech Field Day, are there any nuggets that you can give us? Anything that we should be on the lookout for? Any, maybe, new cities, new, exciting delegates coming down the pipeline? Any, any little secret behind the scenes info you can share?

Stephen: Sure. I mean, one of the big things for me is, I’ve been doing this now for 10 years and in that time it’s amazing. I’ve gotten 10 years older and what happens is that you start seeing younger people and new people coming into the industry and they’ve got a different perspective. They’ve got different ideas. So, I mean, I came in with open systems and Unix systems and you know, I watched as Windows and even the internet became a thing, right? I know I’m not that old, but I, I do remember when computers weren’t connected to the internet. And you know, the new breed of, of tech people are, they don’t remember when computers weren’t connected to the internet, you know, they’re basically children of the internet and now we’re seeing that as well with cloud. And so in my opinion, the companies and the products need to change as well. So, one of the things we’ve done is we’ve got Cloud Field Day, run by a different person. It’s basically Tech Field Day, the next generation. And so, we’ve got new people there. We went to AWS RE:invent to learn about companies and meet new people and invite them in to become delegates. What you’re going to see at Cloud Field Day is very much like what you’d see at Tech Field Day this week, except it’s a different generation, and they come with a different perspective. And I think that that’s really critically important for us to do as well as for the companies to do, to adapt.

Alex: What’s the saying? Don’t get into the IT industry if you don’t like change.

Stephen: Yes, indeed. We heard that today actually, at one of the presentations. Things are always changing and you have to get on board. And that’s what we’re trying to do, and I think that’s what a lot of companies are trying to do as well.

Alex: Well, and I think that’s the exciting part. And I would imagine someone such as yourself, like you were saying, you’ve been doing this for 10 years, keeps you coming back for more.

Stephen: Absolutely. And you know, that’s the most interesting thing to me. I mean, I love this stuff. I love, you know, technology. I’m a nerd so I love to learn about new stuff and it’s been so much fun. It’s been such a pleasure to be able to meet new people and to talk to the companies and to learn about their products. It’s really an honor to be, to be able to say that I was there when this company launched and this other company I saw, you know, saw them grow and change. I love it.

Alex: Well it was great having you. Thanks so much for visiting, Stephen Foskett.

Stephen: Great. Thanks for having me. And if you’d love to, like to see the presentations that we’re referring to, you can go to the Tech Field Day, website and we post everything on YouTube as well. So, you can just go to YouTube/Tech Field Day.

Alex: And everyone can remember to continue listening or tell your friends to subscribe to both Stephen’s podcast and ours.

Stephen: Absolutely. So, On-premise IT Roundtable and of course the TechPod.

Alex: Fantastic. We’ll catch you all next time on the next episode of SolarWinds, Tech Pod, Tech Talks.