THE BLOG
01/05/2015 03:15 am ET Updated Mar 06, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Paula Long, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, DataGravity

Paula is the CEO and co-founder of DataGravity, a company turning data into information. She brings more than 30 years of experience to DataGravity in delivering meaningful and game changing high-tech innovation. In 2001 Paula co-founded storage provider EqualLogic, resetting the bar on how customers managed and purchased data storage. EqualLogic was acquired by Dell for $1.4 billion in 2008 and Paula remained at Dell as vice president of storage until 2010. Prior to founding EqualLogic, she served in several engineering management positions at Allaire Corporation and oversaw all aspects of the ClusterCATS product line while at Bright Tiger Technologies.

Her executive and technical leadership has been extensively recognized, including the New Hampshire High Tech Council Entrepreneur of the Year award, the Ernst & Young 2008 Northeast Regional "Entrepreneur of the Year" and a national finalist for the same award. Her technical awards span systems designs and enterprise software including the EqualLogic and ClusterCATS product lines.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I have had the opportunity to try a multitude of different things. Some I have been good at and hated, others I loved but they weren't a great match. It took a while for me to find the right match. By experiencing change and learning from those changes, I discovered lack of success is recoverable, and you need to take risks. It's OK to not always get things right as long as you continue to grow.

As I look back at the various positions I have had, the ones I loved allowed me to invent and be creative. The ones that imposed a lot of repetition, process and structure, I was less of a fit for.

For example, I worked in an accounting office early in my career. I really liked the people I worked with and seemed to be well respected in the role. However I found myself watching the clock for when the day would end. At another job, I had a mechanical team in a robot company, which was completely out of my element. It was a huge amount of fun, but I really didn't add a lot of value into the discussions about gear tooth strength or the complexity of running cables through the arm of the robot. I need to feel like I am contributing at every level to be content.

With the IT startups I have joined and started, I have had the freedom to reimagine the status quo. In a small way we improved working lives for our customers with our inventions, and this always makes me smile.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at DataGravity?
My last startup, EqualLogic, taught me more than ever to trust my instinct in the technology and product vision. I was significantly out of my domain expertise when it came to other aspects of the business, so I needed to rely on other skills to make decisions. Figuring out who knows how to do something is often more important than you knowing how to do it yourself. At EqualLogic, I learned that lots of folks are happy to tell you why you may fail and although getting this feedback may help avoid pitfalls, the real focus needs to be on customer success. A company's success must be measured by its number of successful and happy customers. We understood and believed in that mantra at EqualLogic, leading to our ultimate success.

I joined a startup in the late '90s during the dot.com boom. The company had a very innovative value proposition and in terms of Web content management, network distance and load balancing it was significantly ahead of it is time. Unfortunately, the company did not really understand its customers or how to build the product for Web scale. So, while the product demoed well and worked well in small deployments where it was less needed, it didn't work in larger deployments. I joined the company to project lead its UNIX port and ended up running the engineering team. I had the opportunity at this point to work directly with the customer service sales teams and see the pain points first hand. While I had always understood that quality and customers were crucial at concept level, I found out what happens when this isn't the focus. We scaled down the product so it provided value and sold the company. I would say I learned more in this position than in any other place I have worked.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at DataGravity?
The biggest challenge I face at DataGravity is balancing the vision I have for the company along with all the great ideas others bring forward. I have to remind myself, we can do anything; we also can't do everything. Another challenge I've come up against is only allowing myself to micro manage when I think it's critical. Here's an example:

I am a walk-around leader, and I am always asking questions. My favorite questions to ask are, "What good happened today?" and then sometimes, "What bad happened today?" to which I receive all kinds of interesting answers. Often when you ask a customer service engineer these questions, you will hear about a customer victory or challenge. As I listen to the story, my first instinct is to go back to my engineering roots to figure out why the "victory" was needed or help solve the challenge. I have learned unless the issue is critical, I should ask some leading questions to help things along, then follow-up to ensure things concluded positively.

On the product front, there was a significant push to make DataGravity a data intelligence tool that could store your unstructured data, rather than a storage system with intelligence about your data. Sounds like the same things, but they're not. The requirements and the customers you go after are very different. We needed to stop circling on this point. DataGravity is a storage company that believes that storage provides protection, security and insights about the data stores.

Learning to delegate roles where I have deep experience is an evolving process for me. I read all the Jira stories, where the development team tracks features and issues, in my spare time. I find myself still commenting on them, more on what to think about them than how to do it. I can be seen proposing moving things in and out of releases to help with schedule risk, while we ensure we meet customer expectations. I have learned to comment only versus moving things directly.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to have their own business?
Make sure you are starting a company for the right reasons. You should feel passionate about the company's mission and the mission should either solve a widespread customer problem or enhance the customer's personal or work life in a significant way. Make sure you have a business model in mind that is realistic and drives the company toward profitability. Be prepared to hear the tough feedback and criticism of people second guessing you and telling you the ways you might fail. You also have to be willing to make hard decisions, sometimes imperfect decisions with limited information. Most importantly, you have to want to lead, as important people have to want to follow you.

For example, I was acting CEO for EqualLogic for two quarters, and in the first staff meeting, there was a proposal to outsource our customer service. The proposal was compelling, the financial advantage was staggering, and the projected customer impact was negligible. It was a common practice for companies of our size to outsource customer service, but my instincts said that our internal customer service was a strategic advantage and that moving it outside was a bad idea, so we killed the idea in that meeting. EqualLogic had tremendous customer loyalty, and our customer service team was a large reason for this. In later years, I learned that the person running the customer service program did not want to outsource our services either. He was asked to do the proposal.

At my first board of directors meeting as the CEO at EqualLogic, there were discussions about moving to more of a direct-selling model because the overlay sales team was still doing a large part of the selling at that point. All I knew is we needed leverage to grow the business, and that we should stay the course even though we could have had higher margins if we took the deals direct. At this time, direct to customers was the norm for storage or through an OEM.

In both cases, I was out of my element from a domain expertise perspective. I relied on instinct and knowing how to ask questions and how to listen to come to a conclusion. There was zero way to know if the path one chose was right until it was either successful or not.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I wish I could say I have figured this out. Being a co-founder at a startup is all consuming, so I recommend inviting your family to be part of the process. Make sure they support the journey and understand what they are buying into. If you make a promise to your family to do something, make sure you keep it. Not being dependable is hard to forget, both at work and at home.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Frankly, I believe the largest issue for women in the workplace is the belief that being a woman is restricting your growth. While gender may play a factor, the cases where this is an insurmountable obstacle are becoming rarer. The truth is that growth is hard for everyone. However, if you do find yourself in a situation where you truly believe gender is a limiting factor, you may want to reevaluate where you work. Do you really want to spend time in a culture you don't respect? At least in technology, the labor pool is tight for bright, dedicated talent. If a company finds many of its female employees are leaving, and innovation and quality are suffering, it will either fix the culture or be one of the many tech companies that doesn't survive.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I don't really have mentors per se. I have a set of people I can ask questions of, but the set changes based on the topic. Although I don't have a set of mentors myself, I am a mentee to a number of female entrepreneurs. My mentoring just sort of happens. I would present somewhere, or a friend would have a friend that needed some help and I'd get an email request or a LinkedIn request asking some questions. I can't respond to all of them, but I do try to respond to as many as time allows. The requests tend to be more situation-based, things from, "My co-founder is dominating all the funding discussions, and he's not representing the company well," to "How do I be assertive without appearing to be controlling?" The ones I have the hardest time answering are those that say, "I have this great idea and I can't get any one to listen to it or get it funded." So it's a little dear Abby-ish.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
You can't be in technology and not admire Admiral Grace Hopper. Not only was she an amazingly talented technologist, she had a leadership style one has to be in awe of. My favorite quotes of hers are, "You lead people; you manage things," as well as, "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." Her just-do-it style made her someone people wanted to follow.

For more contemporary women, I would have to say Jayshree Ullal, president and CEO of Arista Networks, and Diane Greene, founder and former CEO of VMware top my list. These are people who have the rare mix of strong technology and product skills with exceptional leadership skills. Their ability to create, nurture and grow businesses from zero to millions and billions of dollars is remarkable. Their ability to do this, yet still stay grounded to their core principles and stay active in all aspects of the business is extraordinary. Both women have created huge value for their customers and for the people who worked with them.

What do you want DataGravity to accomplish in the next year?
1. I want customers who deploy the DataGravity solution to experience measurable, positive changes to their businesses because of the insights our product provides.

2. I want DataGravity to shift the norms for data storage from being a container that blindly holds information to an active asset that adds business value.

3. I want our partners to grow their revenues in new categories and have deeper conversations with the business side of their customer base to which they may not historically have bridged.