The Power of Data Podcast
Episode 45: The Power Of Partnerships
Guest: John W. Thompson, Board Chair, Microsoft and Venture Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners
Interviewer: Stephen C. Daffron, President, Dun & Bradstreet
Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. This is Stephen Daffron, the president of Dun & Bradstreet. This is the Power of Data podcast. As we do periodically, we have people come on board to talk about the power of data. Today, I have the privilege of inviting my friend, John W. Thompson, to join me for the conversation. John is the board Chair at Microsoft, one of the strategic partners of Dun and Bradstreet and frankly one of the people, in my mind, who's been around for more than a few years and qualifies as a wise man. So having a conversation with someone who is demonstrably wise in our business is something we wanted to share with you. He's also a venture partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners. He's also my partner at Motive Partners. He's had an incredible career. In this technology and data industry that spans, I don't embarrass him but I'll say it, spans over four decades. He has leadership positions at some of the world's largest technology companies, including IBM and Symantec. He's an avid investor. He's a clear thinker about what's going on in Silicon Valley, in the technology world and data worlds in general. He is, as you can tell from my introduction, someone who I think adds a great deal of value to the world. So we are pleased and privileged to invite him to join us. Welcome, John, great to speak to you again.
Thank you so much. It's great to be here. Great to be with you.
We've known each other for quite a while, but for those in the audience who don't know you, could you tell us about your role at Microsoft and Lightspeed. And if you don't mind, just give a little context for the highlights of your career journey?
Well, it's interesting that you would ask that because on June 12 of this year, I just crossed my 49th year in the industry. I joined IBM right after undergraduate school in 1971. And have had an incredible ride over the course of that period. My time at IBM was 27 years, nine months and 13 days. And I enjoyed every minute of it because I had some wonderful advisors and mentors, including people who were Vice Chairman of the board or people who had very, very large responsibilities across the company. But I woke up one day, not unlike you Stephen, realized, you know, I'm never going to get to run this place. And so if I want to run something, I really ought to think about leaving. And that was a real hard choice for me. And it took me probably five or six years to get to the point of saying yes to a job. And ironically enough, the job that came forward was from partner at Heidrick & Struggles, John T. Thompson, who sent me an email note after he and I had engaged on four or five deals that I said no to. And the deal that he sent was a software company that was mid-size, that it kind of needed a strategic redirection and they were looking for a CEO. And that was the perfect profile that I had given him some four or five months earlier. And so when the opportunity came along, that's when I said okay, I better go. If I don't do it now, I may not get a chance to be a CEO in the tech sector. And hence, I joined Symantec in April of 1999. Had a wonderful run there with a great team of people who bought into the vision that we created and help to create something It went from being valued at roughly a billion dollars when I got here, to about $25 billion when I stepped down as the CEO. But my plan post-Symantec was to invest in early stage companies and be an advisor or mentor or whatever, to those CEOs and founders. And one of my first companies was a little company called Virtual Instruments that had been carved out of a tech company here in the Valley. And my friends, Michael Marks and Jim Davidson, had done the carve out and I invested in that process. And about a year in the company hit a bump in the road, we stepped in to see what was wrong and discovered that there was a lot of chaos and that we needed to make a leadership change. So I turned to one of my board members and said, tag you're it, it's time for you to become the CEO here. And he couldn't because of some family issues that he had going at the time. So I thought I would step in, run it for four to five months, and that ended up being six years. So in my journey, I had 28 years at IBM, 10 years at Symantec and since, six years at Virtual Instruments. Along the way at Virtual Instruments along comes Lightspeed. They were the first big investor in the team or the company, Arif Janmohamed was a very, very good and helpful guy to me. And so as he pursued me to join Lightspeed, post Virtual Instruments, I thought, well, why not? My view was that I wanted to be in the venture world. I didn't necessarily want to be an active venture capitalist, but I did want to invest in early stage companies. And so this has given me a chance to enter what I refer to now as chapter four of my career, which allows me to not look for and identify great new opportunities. But more importantly in my role at Lightspeed, work with the teams that we have invested in, to make sure that they can build companies of scale, that return the expectations that all of us want, given the investments that have been made along the way. So 49 years plus has been quite the journey and I met some wonderful people along the way, including you, Steve. So it's great to be here with you.
Well, thank you, John. I appreciate that. And I would say, having known you for a while now and appreciating the journey you've been over, that one of the things that's made you successful, at IBM, at Symantec, at Lightspeed, at Virtual Instruments has been the way you brought teams together. Not only the people who work for you, the people you work with, from the clients, vendors and the other investors. One of the reasons that we sought you out to be our partner at Motive Partners is because you were an insightful and thoughtful partner. And the theme of today's podcast is about partnership. We've been working with Microsoft for over two decades, both in terms of the way we work with a business and also the fact that we provide solutions to our joint clients. And we're starting this up in a bigger way with a new program we call D&B Accelerate. And in this, we're actually trying to take a page out of your book, and we'd like to understand more about how you develop partnerships bolted with Microsoft strategy, and in your tenure in your other companies. Tell us a bit about the partner network and the benefits you've seen from the partnership approach you've had for these 49 years.
Yeah, so at one point in time, I actually ran the partner program in IBM. And so I got some familiarity, if you will, early on in my career. Well mid-year through my career at IBM, where I understood the importance of partners. However, if you were to page forward now, some almost 30 years later, the relative importance of a partner ecosystem to someone in the tech sector or related sector, is even more significant today than it was 20 or 25 years ago. Because today, it's as much about the app and the data, the combination of those two, and how the partnership relationship allows you to share both aspects of that. And sharing the data becomes far more challenging, quite frankly, these days than it might have been 25 years ago, but therein lies where the real value of technology lies and that is in the insights that you can glean from the data that you've collected. And candidly, what D&B does is just phenomenal. And our relationship with Microsoft where you can use the compute platform that they have is also equally phenomenal.
I take your point, it is even more important now than it was 30, 20, 10 years ago. And now we've gotten another set of variables with COVID-19. And I'd say you and Microsoft have done with your COVID response page and their partnership with the GoFundMe. You guys have made a big step in the right direction towards making partnerships work in this particularly difficult COVID-19 environment. How have you done that?
Well, I think it starts with our leader. Satya Nadella is an incredible, incredible leader. And as he stepped into the role of CEO, he made it very, very clear that the company needed to shift its mindset to a growth mindset. It wasn't about sustaining the business that they had created. It was more about figuring out what the growth path was going to be. In that regard, you can't create growth in a company of that size and scale without having the right ecosystem around you, without having the right partners to help you extend your footprint more broadly in the marketplace. And I think the relationships that Microsoft has been able to create not just with D&B, but others who are platform providers or are content owners, that's a phenomenal, phenomenal opportunity for both companies, as they look to leverage the collective resources that they have built with their mutual customers around the world.
And I see and I know this from you, as a partner, a friend, you’re also doing this in a way that's aiming at not just doing well for Microsoft, but it's actually doing good. I mean, your GoFundMe page isn't making you any money, it's actually doing good for people who need help. We've been working on that, too. We look for ways that our data and our analytics can help with recovery. We support government agencies like FEMA, and we give away some data free of charge to businesses to help them navigate the environment. We've actually put out 31 different indexes to help small medium businesses negotiate the difficulties of the COVID environment. On data, there's some exciting, fascinating data sources out there. We're trying to make sure we're getting people to get access to those data to navigate this different and more difficult market. We're just scratching the surface though John, on what is possible to do. The alternative data that you use at Microsoft and that you use across your Lightspeed companies is an indication of just how much more is out there. From I guess, one data geek to another, from a data perspective, how do you get to creativity to go find that data to bring it to bear at Microsoft and across the organization you're involved with?
Well, it's interesting that you would say that and I'm going to shift from Microsoft has another company that I'm involved in, which is called Illumina. It is the largest and most prominent human genome sequencing company in the world. And, ironically enough, they have had a view for many, many years that we're in the hardware business, and not unlike IBM back many, many years ago and, as a player in the hardware business, we need to do more to drive down costs so we can get broader market opportunities. And I think what they're coming to realize as the industry has evolved over the last 20 years is this will evolve not unlike with the way the compute industry evolved, which was, it's one thing to have a fast computer, it's something else to own the data, because there's more to be extracted from the data itself than the hardware itself. And that's clearly been monetized in a meaningful way by many of the 20 or younger year-old tech companies like Facebook or Google or you pick who it might be. And so data is in fact, the key thing for every business today. The question becomes, how do you use it? And equally importantly, how do you share it with your partner ecosystem in a way that they can use it that does not compromise the data or the team, if you will, that's on the other side.
Your CEO at Microsoft, Satya, is known for saying that every company is now a technology company.
We think at Dun and Bradstreet, every company is also needs to be data company. It's one of the reasons that Microsoft and D&B works so well together, is so powerful. This is one of the things we're trying to get people to see the data as part of their secret sauce. That data that allows them to do a better job at something they know they need to do, they just haven't had the chance to find the right data that helps them do it. One of the examples I point to is, we're helping the Federal Emergency Management Administration with the disposition of funds coming out of the PPP program, and the Federal Reserve Bank with their Main Street Lending Program. And one things we found was they needed to know things that they didn't have the data to understand. So we researched it and then we found foot traffic data, which we of course have access to, is exactly what they needed to be able to answer the right questions. Finding the right data and having the companies realize that that partnership between technology and data makes all the difference. We're following your steps and Microsoft's footsteps here.
Yeah, I think there's an evolving evolution here though, which is it's one thing to have the data and to be able to have access to the data, it's something else to be able to have the data and be able to share the insights, without giving up the data itself. Because today's world security, data content, securing data content has become far more important than ever before. And so one of the things that I have watched evolve is how we are thinking about securing content, but more importantly, how we're thinking about sharing content and maintaining that element of security, such that it doesn't get compromised. As you well know, Steve, I invested in a little company called Leap Year that does that, where they literally allow people in an ecosystem to gain the insights from the content without having to give up the content itself. And they're doing very, very well in financial services, life science, I mean wouldn't you imagine that, it's only natural that they do well in those segments.
You know, John, that's exactly what I wanted to go to next. You're an investor, early stage technology companies, which I am fascinated with. But tell me about the trends that, I guess I call them the combination technology and data trends that you're seeing transform the business environment. Which ones do you see, we should be looking out for the months and years to come. And John, I preface this at the top by saying to our audience that you're one of the people that I classify as a wise man. So, by all means, the FinTech, the HealthTech, the InsureTech, you've seen an exposure to all, so just tell us from your broad perspective, which of the ones you think we should be looking for?
I think the most important issue that is going to evolve over the course of the next, let's say, 5 to 10 years is how do we share data such that the underlying technology that is now running the industry, a la AI and ML, can do more than what we might have envisioned 5 or 10 years ago when this technology was developed. But the existence of data and access to that data is what makes artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities very, very important today. And candidly, I view AI-ML like relational database from the early 70s, when it first came out, many people thought oh, why do I ever want to do that? And now everyone uses a relational database. And I think the reality is AI-ML will become that core infrastructure that everyone will have. The question becomes, how will you distinguish yourself from others, where everyone is using that same technology platform. And in my mind, it comes all about the content and your access to relevant scenarios, if you will, that you can create through this AI-ML world that we're evolving to.
The one thing I was listening for there is, I guess it's because I'm on a board of nonprofits has been hacked recently with ransomware. But I'm particularly sensitive to the cybersecurity question now, are you concerned about the AI-ML effects, and the cybersecurity effects on the more extensive use of AI-ML?
I am, but I think there is so much investment going into cyber right now, it's just mind boggling. One of my roles at Lightspeed, I thought when I joined the firm was to be a deal guy. What I have learned, quite frankly, is that I'm more valuable to them helping the portfolio companies scale and drive volume, if you will. And the reality of all of that is that I now have dozens and dozens of companies that I work with, and I've had to try to focus my energy and attention. And what I've done is narrow that down, ironically enough, to data and security, or infrastructure and security. And so I probably invested along the way over the last two years in half dozen or more very interesting young security companies. And quite a few, candidly, data management companies, one of which is Rubric, which is a very, very hot company here in the valley, beyond Leap Year that I mentioned earlier. An interesting one is CyCognito. If you think about where we are today, this notion of the edge is pervasive. And so how do we know what vulnerabilities we have in this edge that's not directly connected to our network, but has access to our network. And so CyCognito has a security capability that allows them to pull your edge, or cruise your edge, for lack of a better term, to determine where there might be vulnerabilities. And I think there's more and more and more there's going to be done in that arena. Equally, is the notion of how do I make sure that those who have access, really are those who they say they are, how do I protect digital content, not just letters and words, but video and audio? Because today, guess what? Board meetings are done via video, you want to protect that in some way that makes sure that you can control what goes on in your board meeting. I think there's a lot that's going to happen around digital content security over the course of the next few years. It's very, very different than what we've dealt with over the last 10.
My historic approach to things as an engineer is that sometimes to turn things and mechanical devices, but I think this as the technology and the data is to sprockets turning each other, than I worry about the artificial intelligence machine learning make those sprockets can go faster and faster and faster. But the effect of having someone stick a spanner in that sprocket with cybersecurity still concerns me. I'm glad to hear that you think we're focusing the right amount on this. We do a lot, both from the technology side, but also the data side. And I think this is something we owe, we as Dun & Bradstreet, you as Microsoft and Lightspeed, owe our clients to have that kind of forward thinking in terms of where that technology and data interactions are going, where that cybersecurity is going. I know I've taken up a lot of time, I've only got a few minutes left, John, I want to come back to something is more personal and just for knowing you as I do. You've had a series of positions that businesses that are iconic, and you've been a leader that people like me, have watched for years. Give us a perspective on the fundamentals that you believe are needed for the strong and inspiring leadership, during this new set of challenges.
Well, I learned something a long, long time ago about leadership, Steve, that I have kept in the forefront of my mind ever since. And that is, there's a reason why you have two ears and one mouth. And you should use them proportionately. And if you're a leader and you don't, guess what, your team doesn't trust you, your customers don't trust you, your partners don't respect you. And quite frankly, you don't make a lot of progress because you talk more than you listen. And you can't shift your thinking or influence your thinking if you're not listening. And so I think that's a critical issue for every single leader today, particularly during this period of crisis where everyone has a point of view about everything, and we want to make sure we collect that in a way that is relevant, and we can take meaningful action as leaders. I remember when I joined Symantec, after having spent all that time at IBM and moving around the country many, many times, I had learned that it was all about listening for the first 90 days that you were in a new job, and clearly for the first 100 days I was at Symantec, I chose to travel the world to listen to what the team had to say, to listen to what our customers and partners had to say. And eventually, at that 100 and one day period, that was when I announced that we were shifting the strategy of the company to move toward being a security company, as opposed to a consumer packaged software product company. And that was all in my mind about listening to what our customers and partners and employees had to say and making the right strategic shift for the company at a time that was critical for both the industry and the company. And I think that's important for every leader. Listen more than you talk and then act, act upon what you've heard.
John, thank you. We've taken up a good deal of your time and I want to say how much we appreciate your sharing your wisdom and your insights, your experience with us.
My pleasure, Steve, always a pleasure to be with you.