F5 Networks CEO Locoh-Donou On Forging Customer-Focused Culture With Partners

After promoting two channel executives who represent the culture he’s looking to instill in the company, F5 CEO Francois Locoh-Donou tells CRN he is seeking the same attributes in partners: ‘We're looking for the same customer obsession, and a desire to really understand the needs of our customers and act on those needs with a sense of urgency.’


Culture Club
F5 Networks CEO Francois Locoh-Donou is focused squarely on the application delivery firm's culture. In the top role at Seattle-based F5 for less than two years, Locoh-Donou has allowed his vision for a company culture based on engagement and customer focus to guide his efforts to reshape F5 as a cloud-agnostic, API-focused network essential.

To that end, Locoh-Donou recently promoted two channel executives he considers indicative of the culture he's building. David Helfer was appointed senior vice president of sales for Europe, Middle East and Africa and Lisa Citron was made vice president of North America channels.

The attributes Locoh-Donou says Citron and Helfer bring to the game are the same that he is looking for in F5 partners, he said. "We're looking for the same customer obsession, and a desire to really understand the needs of our customers and act on those needs with a sense of urgency," he said. "Those partners that are doing that are very successful. They're transforming themselves."

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Partners that make the most of that transformation are in a position to capitalize on F5's deepening relationships with public cloud power players like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, Locoh-Donour said. However, there are many that have to improve their software-selling game, he said, and F5 can guide them through that process.

What follows is an edited excerpt of CRN's conversation with Locoh-Donou.

You have become pretty tight with AWS over the last couple of years. How has that relationship developed?

AWS, frankly, is one of our best partners right now. We've done a lot of technical integration work with them, so we're really now embedded in the fabric of what you can consume in AWS. They're pushing us constantly to go even further. They really want their users to have seamless access to F5 capabilities from an AWS portal. We now do a lot of co-marketing. We're now one of their top three independent software vendors. We have many cloud formation templates with them, which makes it easier for their customers to use us. We're helping them with their migration acceleration program. AWS is one of the fastest-growing areas of business at F5.

How can F5 partners take advantage of that relationship? Where are the biggest opportunities?

Some of our partners are taking advantage of it today by doing architectural work and advising their large enterprise customers on how to migrate to AWS. They make business on the migration, and in some cases they have a recurring revenue model on how much is being consumed in AWS. That's a minority of partners today, but I expect that to grow over time. It'll grow as customer demand grows, as the number of workloads grows and also as the number of clouds grows because we also do that with Azure. With AWS and Azure we have the same level of maturity, and Google Cloud is not far behind in terms of integration.

What are the most important skills for your partners to pick up as that market develops?

Partners have to get better at selling packaged software solutions. Partners have to develop more skills that can help our customers with automation. The holy grail for our customers is to operate more automated environments, but integrating software into their development environment is a headache for more customers. We're working on APIs that simplify this, and our partners need to get way more skilled in understanding this whole area of automation, orchestration, APIs. Those who develop those skills in selling software and integrating software will be in very high demand.

How far down that road can F5 take a partner with its training offerings?

We have built a piece we call Super NetOps, which is training for both our customers and our partners. Those who graduate from the Super NetOps program will have significant readiness for this world. We've invested a ton of energy and intellectual property into building that program precisely because we really need our partners to step up. We have a lot of customers who are network operations professionals who want to become more literate in the DevOps world.

You've made some new executive appointments. What's your executive recruitment and appointment strategy as F5 continues to move toward a more cloud- and application-focused model?

There are a couple of principles that have been important to me. The first one has to do with our culture. Even before we talk about skills, we have been really focused on having executives who are humble, engaged, accessible, and really will nurture the values that we want to nurture. Customer obsession is a big one for us. We want executives that live and breathe the customer. We have a significant focus on creating a more diverse and inclusive F5, and we want executives that don't just represent diversity, but help us create a better F5 in that regard. I want folks who are hungry for success and hungry for building a new F5.

What are some of the skills you need to have F5 executives to have?

It's specific to each role. If you step back and look at the strategy, which is that we want to be able to support every application anywhere and be for our customers the multi-cloud application services partner that helps them deploy applications across multiple environments with enterprise-grade services, we need folks who understand the cloud. We need people who understand Software-as-a-Service business models, people who understand customer success servicing and selling motions. The folks we have brought in have this combination of cultural value attributes and significant focus on enhancing our DNA in cloud and SaaS.

Are you looking for the same cultural attributes in F5's partner base?

In many ways, yes. First and foremost, we're looking for the same customer obsession, and a desire to really understand the needs of our customers and act on those needs with a sense of urgency. Those partners that are doing that are very successful. They're transforming themselves. They're moving with a new selling motion. They're moving with a new consumption motion. They're creating new consumption frameworks in public cloud and private cloud for our customers. They're growing and they're successful. Those who are not, who don't have that curiosity, that customer obsession, that appetite to potentially reinvent themselves, it's becoming more difficult for them because things are changing so fast.

How long do those partners have before they find it difficult to continue?

It depends on the size of the partner. Some of the smaller ones, it's happening now. There's an element of consolidation in the channel right now. Some of the bigger, more aggressive partners are taking business away from the small, mom-and-pop VARs that either don't have the skills or the financial muscle to go through this transition. For the larger ones, it may take longer because they have more momentum, but unless they do something the writing is on the wall. They'll end up being swallowed up by a challenger.

So you see continued consolidation in the channel?

Yes. That's the macro situation. There are some new born-in-the-cloud partners that are emerging and some of them will become big players, but perhaps the majority will be bought by the more aggressive traditional partners.

What are some of the other reasons for the M&A activity that you're seeing?

I think the primary driver is customer acquisition. A lot of times these VARs have historical relationships with certain large customers, and the biggest driver is acquiring those relationships. The second-biggest driver is skills acquisition in a particular domain. A VAR may have strong skills in automation, or they may have strong skills in a particular platform like Kubernetes, or a new platform that's trendy, and a bigger player wants to acquire 15 or 20 engineers that are strong in this area.

What are you seeing in the broader market that's working in F5's favor?

Security, security, security. By luck, or by brilliance, we have focused on application security because we know applications very well. It turns out that the most significant breaches, and the most frequent source of attacks now are applications. The ability to protect applications, especially at Layer 7, is in very high demand. We're seeing traction with our web application firewall; we're seeing it with our anti-DDoS solution, our anti-bot protection solutions. That's really working in favor of F5, this issue of application security is top-of-mind for our customers. The second thing working in our favor is that three years ago there was a simplistic view of the world, that enterprises are going to take their applications in physical data centers and move them all to a single cloud provider. Everybody now understands the phenomenon better and understands that not all the applications will move and when they do, they're not all going to the same place. Hybrid cloud is excellent news for us.

What makes F5 so well suited to hybrid cloud?

Customers need a cloud-agnostic player and they need consistency of application services. That gives us a huge opportunity to expand beyond what we're doing today. That's a positive catalyst for us.

What are you seeing from customers as far as IT budgets are concerned?

The macro spending environment is pretty healthy. I don't see a ton of pressure on IT budgets in general. I would say, though, that physical ADCs [application deliver controllers] are not a priority. They're not creating new budget for physical ADCs. They are for software ADCs, they are for security use cases that can be served by a software ADC. We're not having problems appropriating budget because we cover so many use cases. The macro spending environment is pretty good, and that's not just an F5 statement, I think for most vendors that is the case today.