CRN Exclusive: Aruba Founder Melkote On President's Departure, Keeping Aruba's DNA Intact And Picking A Fight With Cisco

New Era For Aruba

Aruba Networks founder Keerti Melkote, the technology visionary who will lead the sales charge for the wireless networking vendor effective Feb. 1, talks to CRN about president Dominic Orr's retirement after a decade of running the company.

Melkote, who sees Orr as a "big brother" of sorts that has always been there for him and Aruba, said he was ready to carry the Aruba sales torch forward- stepping into a more prominent customer and partner facing role.

"I will be more outbound now that I am one in a box," he said. "I'll be meeting more with customers and partners. And Dom is not going away. I am going to continue to leverage my relationship with him." Melkote said he also plans to become more vocal with regard to rallying partners to grab share from Cisco.

Why is Dominic Orr leaving Aruba now after more than a decade? What happened?

Nothing happened … It's been a 15-year journey for me and him together at Aruba.

Through that journey of 15 years, there has been a time when he's said, 'Hey man, I'm 60 years plus and I have other priorities in my life I want to handle besides work, like tending to my charity, my family.' He's 66 years old. For one reason or another, both of us have decided that now is a good time for it. There's never a good time, to be honest with you, to lose someone as legendary and as visionary as Dom, but we feel that we are well positioned. He's positioned the organization very well to succeed.

Will the culture of Aruba stay intact or are you looking to change?

The culture and value that he's driven inside the organization is something that we hold dear and will carry forward -- one of keeping our customers and partners first priority. We call that 'customer first, customer last' as a cultural statement that is in the DNA of the company. Every employee knows what that means and every partner knows what that means. That's not going to change.

The DNA of innovation and delivering the best new technologies in this enterprise networking market with the mobile first [strategy] is very strong in the organization and we'll continue that as well. Over 15 years, when you run and grow an organization and you have 4,000 people, it doesn't feel like a company. It feels like a big family. That is what's going to hold this organization in a good state moving forward.

Will Aruba continue to operate as an independent company within HPE?

There's an absolute commitment to keeping HPE-Aruba whole as an organization within HPE.

That organization structure is something that [CEO] Meg Whitman and [executive vice president and general manager of HPE's Enterprise Group] Antonio Neri have committed to and we’ll continue with that organization structure moving forward. Instead of two in a box -- with me and Dom leading the organization -- it will be one in a box. I'll definitely feel a bit lonely without him. He's trained me and the rest of my leadership team well to continue to take care of our customers and partners and employees.

So HPE has already decided to keep Aruba running as an independent subsidiary after Dom leaves on January 31?

Yesterday I was in a senior leadership meeting that Meg and Antonio hosted, and it was very gratifying to see that this commitment [to keep Aruba independent] extends beyond Meg and Antonio to people like Peter Ryan, who is head of worldwide sales for HPE. Peter made a statement that HPE got more than a wireless company with Aruba. They got a software-defined culture of innovation, which HP needed. His point was that we got more than what we paid for. I am very thankful for that. We are continuing to drive hard in the market and that will not change. This week, we are in the process of moving into our own new facilities in Santa Clara. We're not moving into an HPE facility. That's a testament to keeping the brand and culture alive.

Will you take on a more out-front sales role now that Dom is retiring?

I will be more outbound now that I am one in a box. I'll be meeting more customers and partners. Dom is not going away. I am still going to continue to leverage my relationship him. To me, the growth that we have seen is the testament of the combined execution of the joint organization – HPE and Aruba.

We are pulling together new channel programs that we introduced at HPE Discover in November that brings both the wired and the wireless channel programs together in a single program. We're going to continue to unveil programs at our [Aruba Atmosphere] partner conference next month and have more details available.

Will you now be the one that rallies Aruba and its partners to take share away from Cisco?

That is part of the [Aruba] DNA: we are going to beat Cisco. We'll pick the fight to go beat Cisco. That's the rallying cry for the organization. It always has been and it always will be.

How will you beat Cisco?

We are going to take the fight to Cisco. It's very clear there's an opportunity. We feel very differentiated in our technology that we are bringing to the marketplace. We're going to continue to invest in everything: the product, the technology, the tools, the people that make it effective. Being out there talking to customers face-to-face, talking to partners face-to-face is going to be an integral part of it.

Was there one factor that played into Dom's retirement?

No. Over the last 15 years, he's articulated the need to retire and not work. We should respect that. He's certainly earned his stripes over the past 35 years. He was committed to making sure that we have a combined [Aruba and HPE] organization that came together culturally. And I think that job is accomplished. It's been roughly 23 months since we announced the acquisition [by HPE] in 2015. We have brought together the wired and the wireless portfolio and, more importantly, we have kept the vast majority of the people in the organization. In fact, we've grown the organization in terms of leadership as well as employees.

That I would say is the factor that led him to say, 'Okay, I think I've done my job and now is probably as good a time as any to retire.' He felt that that the leadership underneath him is in place to move forward.

What's the message to your team in terms of the sales and channel charge?

One commitment we had made to our customers, partners and employees, when Dom and I stood up one stage when HPE and Aruba come together two years ago, was that the culture 'customer first and customer last,' the culture of innovation, the culture of intellectual honesty, and the culture of treating this whole Airheads community as an extended family is not going to change. I'm going to reiterate that commitment.

That part of who we are, what defines who we are, is not going to change. There's a commitment from the top down and frankly, it's now so ingrained in our DNA we cannot change. We are who we are.

How do you feel about the future?

We are excited as ever. The market has been expanding and growing. Aruba's market share has gone from roughly 15 percent to 20 percent since the acquisition. So it's a five-point increase, which is fantastic! I feel with the combined strength with HPE and Aruba there's a lot more share gains ahead of us.

The wireless market is exploding with the mobile first workplace, intelligent edge, IoT, SD-WAN. There are a ton of new opportunities that are coming our way. We'll continue to gain share and we'll all have fun, make money, and have an impact in the market.

How did you start working with Dom at Aruba?

Fifteen years ago I was ready to start Aruba and I had worked for Dom in my prior jobs at Nortel, so I went to him to help me raise funding for Aruba and he was very instrumental in getting Aruba funded by tier-one venture capitalists [Sequoia Capital and Matrix Partners].

He became executive chairman of the board. He helped us scale the operations. In 2006, he became CEO of Aruba with the view of making this a public company, really with the view of building an organization with scale and substance.

How much has Aruba grown since you founded the company?

When we started, it was February 2002. We got incorporated in April 2002 and we got funded. At the time we probably had seven employees. It was a very small team.

If you look at HPE and Aruba together, we now have over 4,200 employees and over $2.25 billion in annual sales and we keep growing. I feel like there's a lot of blue skies ahead.

Will you continue to rely on Dom in his new advisor role?

Absolutely for business advice. It's a partnership that has grown. When I started Aruba, I was a product management guy who knew how to build great products, but not an organization man who knew how to run a large organization. Dom had that experience, which is why the partnership came together nicely. He took me under his wing. He gave me a ton of opportunity to grow and correct me where I was wrong. That's really where the big brother and mentoring aspect comes in.

How much do you think Dom will be missed inside Aruba?

Over the last 15 years, he's become such a close family member and that's only not felt by me, but by everybody in the organization. People see him as someone who is genuine; he has that human touch. I think that is what differentiates Aruba. When we talk to our employees, our customers or our partners, we have that human touch. We don’t take things for granted. It's not just business. It's actually personal.