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Former VMware Exec’s Secret for Turning Disappointments Into Success

  • Sanjay Poonen has taken his first CEO role at rising-star data unicorn Cohesity.
  • He’s known in the software world as the former COO of VMware. He left after he didn’t become CEO.
  • Poonen says that wasn’t his worst career disappointment. I have shared his secret from him to rebounding.

One of the most recognizable names in the enterprise software world, Sanjay Poonen, took a job this week as the CEO of data storage startup Cohesity, valued at $3.7 billion in 2021.

It’s Poonen’s first CEO gig at age 53 after a nearly 30-year career, and comes after he was in striking distance from becoming CEO of VMware last year. Poonen, however, lost out on that job to his longer-tenured colleague Raghu Raghuram and then left VMware.

He’s spent the past year taking stock of his future, he told Insider. Although he was financially set enough to have sailed into an early semi-retirement, sitting on boards of public companies and startups, “I knew I wasn’t done,” he said. “I still had a lot of gas in my tank and needed to find the way to use it.”

Poonen says that being passed over for the VMware role wasn’t his worst disappointment in his long career, which started at Microsoft as an engineer, then Apple, then climbing the ladder at one big software company after another like Symantec, a long stint at SAP and even longer one at VMware, rising to COO.

His lowest career point was actually about two decades ago when he was “fired” — as he put it — from Informatica where he ran marketing after the CEO decided Poonen wasn’t a good fit.

It was a crash-and-burn from his first really high-powered executive job.

“It’s a shock because you think you’re a Type A person and, you know, it does affect your confidence,” he says of being let go from a role that he thought would be a big leap up.

Unsure of what to do next, he made a choice that would impact the rest of his life and become a model whenever he faced career strife. He told himself: “This frees me up to think about what I’m gonna do,” and he swore not to rush his next move, but only take an opportunity that he really wanted.

He took about six months off after Informatica, got in shape “and I met the wonderful woman that I married,” he said

And the experience taught him another secret to both happiness and leadership success. “I don’t get my identity out of being a CEO or an executive. There’s a lot more to my life than this job. As a result of that, I’m very secure,” he said.

“Even if, you know, the world considers me a failure, it’s totally fine,” he says. “You know that your family, your friends, your faith are not going to go away from you. You get back to those basics.”

So when his time at VMware ended, and with no immediate door that he wanted to open, he browsed his options, focusing again on the things outside of work that sustain him: family, friends and faith.

His introspection during that time made him realize he wanted to find ways to help others. In his case, as many former tech executives do, he invested in and advised startups.

During the year, various offers came his way that, he said, didn’t feel right, such as roles at consumer startups or industries that he knew nothing about.

Cohesity Mohit Aron

Cohesive founder Mohit Aron

cohesion


Months interviewing

When the Cohesity CEO job came up, it looked like a perfect fit on paper. Cohesity manages data and data backups in the cloud. Its latest claim to fame is preventing damage from ransomware attacks. It’s grown from about 100 employees in 2016, to 2,100 today, Poonen says, and is backed by VCs like Sequoia, DFJ Growth, SoftBank, GV (formerly known as Google Ventures).

It was founded by Mohit Aron, an early Google employee best known as one of the cofounders of Nutanix, where he helped invent an entirely new category of enterprise tech known as “hyperconverged.” It combines storage with compute power and networking. Nutanix also happens to be a major competitor of VMware.

All of this is smack-dab in Poonen’s wheelhouse.

“The customers and partners I’m gonna call on are some of the same people I’ve been dealing with the last 20 years. I wasn’t walking into crypto or Bitcoin or something,” he jokes.

Still, both sides spent months interviewing. Aron will stay on as CTO running products while Poonen will handle all things customer and growth. “I wanted to spend the last three months getting to know him,” he said. “I felt like, listen, I could really build a partnership with this guy.”

And in his first week as CEO, he couldn’t be happier with the direction of his career.

“Anybody who says their life journey is just up into the right. They’re kidding you,” he said. “And I’ve found for my own life, I’ve learned a lot more through the valleys of my life than the peaks.”

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