Jeremy Burton, 43, joined the EMC Corp., a Hopkinton, Mass.-based data infrastructure firm, last March as its first chief marketing officer, reporting to CEO Joe Tucci.
Before EMC, Burton led marketing at software companies including Oracle, Veritas and later at Symantec after it acquired Veritas in 2004.
Despite his marketing credentials, he's an engineer at heart.
He earned a degree in information systems engineering at University of Surrey, Burton, then worked as a software engineer for ICL, London-based manufacturer of mainframe hardware and software that's now part of Japan's Fujitsu. He landed a low-level job at Oracle during the early nineties after meeting an employee at a party in London.
Burton caught the eye of CEO Larry Ellison after transferring to Oracle's headquarters in Redwood Shores and moved up rapidly, becoming the company's senior vice president of product & services marketing in 2000.
He was Tucci's first choice when EMC created the CMO role last year.
In his off time, Burton races his 1994 spec Mazda Miata at the Infineon raceway at Sonoma, Calif.
FINS talked to Burton about marketing corporate technology, racing and life lessons from Larry Ellison.
Sindhu Sundar: As an engineer, what drew you to marketing?
Jeremy Burton: When I moved to the US, and was working for the R&D team at Oracle, I had a lot of exposure to Larry Ellison -- and he didn't really like marketing people. He himself was an engineer at heart, and engineers don't typically like marketing people. But he would spend a lot of time listening to presentations and product road maps and I was pretty good at giving those. And he had a track record of moving people from engineering into marketing, and that's sort of how I wound up there.
SS: Did you have any training in marketing or are you mostly self-taught?
JB: I'd never been in a marketing role before and didn't really have any training. I spent a lot of time with Larry, and he was the master of making technology sound simple. It's not a bad thing to know where you're weak and learn from the folks around you. For the first six-to-nine months, I was operating on instincts, so I had to be like a sponge, learning and observing. I was fortunate to learn from the best.
SS: What do you think made you good at it despite your lack of training?
JB: Well, a lot of people are wired to be either product people or marketing people. I always felt I belonged in the former category -- I liked the satisfaction of building something, and marketing seemed like a step away from it. Plus there's always the fear tech people have that, 'If I lose my skills, I lose my worth.' So it was a big leap of faith on my part. But I was good at presenting, precisely because I understood the technology well. And I've always been able to dumb things down, and present things as simple concepts. Looking back, it was the best career move I could've made.
One of the reasons I've been successful is that I understand technology and I'm not intimidated by it. I can talk to the engineering team, I can talk to the sales guys, and do the translation between the two.
SS: Microsoft's Steve Ballmer is reportedly bringing on product executives with a deeper foundation in technology. Is this a reflection of a larger shift in the kind of marketing talent being sought at tech companies?
JB: I've always believed good marketing people in tech companies have to have a tech background. I've seldom seen a marketing executive here that doesn't understand technology. There are, of course, people who come in from the classical marketing world but they just flounder, because technology moves so fast. In tech, we don't have those classical innovation cycles where marketing does research and feeds the product development process. The engineering team is empowered to build the next big thing -- and that doesn't come out of a focus group.
SS: EMC's CMO position was newly created last year -- why?
JB: Well, EMC, like a lot of big enterprise tech companies, did well building a good product and they had a great salesforce, so they didn't really need [a CMO]. But as a company grows and its product line becomes diverse, the vision of the company becomes grander. And you need to articulate that vision to clients who want to understand exactly how your technology will help them transform their business.
SS: When EMC CEO Joe Tucci approached you some years ago to take this position, you turned it down. Why was that?
JB: Well, I didn't turn them down so much as I went somewhere else. Around 2002, I felt the hardware business was commoditized and at risk. It seemed at the time that software was a better business than hardware, and I went to Veritas. It's nothing short of amazing what Tucci has done -- he's transformed the company culturally and brought revenue up to $17 billion last year [up from $9.6 billion in 2005 when he took over].
SS: Why were you eventually persuaded?
JB: Mainly by two things. One, strategy: Does the company have the right strategy? Are they in a good market? Market forces have to be blowing with you. EMC definitely had that going, with the move toward cloud computing. Second, it's the people: When you spend most of your time at work, you have to put as much thought into where you want to work as you would in a marriage. And I loved the competitive spirit at EMC.
SS: Everyone intuitively understands that storage isn't the sexiest topic, but you've managed to turn the heat up on it with some unusual campaigns. At your recent product launch event you involved contortionists and daredevil bikers. What's the philosophy behind this?
JB: We've got to be very visible. We're knocking on $20 billion this year, so we've got to act and behave like a leader. The world of technology is very noisy. There are a lot of competitors, so how do you make an impact? You have to grab people's attention to demonstrate what you're about. So I was thinking, we're getting into big data -- how do we demo data? The data volume required to render a movie like avatar, for instance, is mindblowing. So we hired Harley Davidson's stunt jumper to bike over 8 petabytes of data -- represented by 40 VMAX storage cabinets (roughly 106 feet). So people could grasp the size of that volume of data.
SS: What kind of results did that have for EMC's visibility?
JB: We had 50,000 people watch it. Ten years ago, never in your wildest dreams could you reach out to that many people in a launch event. We've had 12,000 new Facebook followers in the last three weeks.
When folks come in and watch our video streams, fan us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, we can market to them directly. We do track clickthroughs to downloadable materials. But it's still early days to gauge exact payoff in terms of dollars.
SS: Did you have any mentors? What were the most valuable things you learnt from them?
When he was at Oracle, [Salesforce.com CEO] Marc Benioff was certainly a guy I learnt more from than anyone. Marc was a risk taker. He would always go big. If you look at what he's done, even with Salesforce, he's taken on an established industry. Larry [Ellison] too, but he was Marc's mentor, and that flowed downstream. Larry had this line about Japanese gardening, 'You're not done till you've taken the last thing out.' You have to be thorough. And also, he was a big believer of, 'if you can't simplify, you'll never lead anything or anyone.'
SS: Is mentorship important in getting ahead in this field?
JB: I've always responded well to having folks I can look up to. Everyone needs a role model, something or someone you can aspire to be. At Oracle, it wasn't a touchy-feely mentorship. It was working with a bunch of guys who knew what they were doing.
SS: You've been an avid racer at the Sports car club of America. How do you relate racing to marketing?
JB: Two things. One, strategy is always made up of a collection of tactics, but speed is everything. Failing fast and learning is probably good advice. You can't be afraid to pull the trigger.
The second thing is, we see a lot of folks in big companies always trying to play it safe. We have a saying in racing: "Don't race in the mirrors." It means you can't drive while constantly looking at the guy behind [you]. You've got to look ahead. Of course, you can't take stupid risks, but you should take calculated risks.
SS: What does it take to break into EMC's marketing team?
JB: Certainly if people have got prior experience in technology or in product management or pre-sales, that would be good. People who've got that tech background tend to make good candidates. Personality, matters too. We look for someone who can be flexible and shows a can-do attitude.
SS: EMC has plans to hire this year, many in IT. Does it also have plans to bulk up its marketing team?
JB: We have openings in marketing and a big push this year in our channel marketing. We're looking for 10 to 15 to join the channel group. In field marketing, probably 20 to 25.
We also have a popular marketing development program where we take in grads and put them into different places in the organization. We always try to get the right blend of experience and fresh out of college talent. College kids think about things differently, and we've got to blend that in with more traditional skills.
Write to Sindhu Sundar
Related: EMC Plans to Continue Hiring in 2011 After Upping Headcount in 2010