Judges on Fire: Stephen Foskett, Organizer in Chief, Tech Field Day

Today we have the pleasure of launching a new series of podcasts, Judges on Fire. After the success of the Founders on Fire series, we’ve decided that a podcast is an intimate and enlightening way for you to get to know our judges a little bit and get those hints and tips for your entries into the Tech Trailblazers Awards.

We feel very fortunate that for our inaugural podcast that we have Stephen Foskett, possibly best known as being the organiser of Tech Field Day which is a series of invite-only technical meetings between influencers and sponsoring enterprise IT companies. Their events focus on enterprise IT topics from the datacenter to the cloud, mobility and networking to security and storage.

Without further ado, please enjoy our first Judges on Fire podcast.


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Interview transcript

RR: Today for our Judges on Fire podcast, which is our inaugural one, we have Stephen Foskett from Tech Field Day. Welcome Stephen, thank you for joining us.

SF: I’m glad to be here. I’ve been talking to you about doing Tech Trailblazer judging for a very long time, and it was great catching up with you, and learning more about the programme, and I’m very much looking forward to working with you on this.

RR: Well, we’re looking forward to working with you too. I suppose we have to say just a little something about the last time we saw each other, which was at RSA in San Francisco back in February. Obviously, things were just starting to get challenging for everybody. So, really today we want to just explore a little bit more, get everybody familiar in the Tech Trailblazers world, who aren’t already familiar with you, and I would imagine that’s the majority of people, but I’m sure there will be some insights, some sides to Stephen, some surprises at least for some people about you. 

So, firstly if you could give a brief introduction to yourself, a potted history of your journey through technology, from your career perspective, that would be brilliant.

SF: Well thank you. So, as some people know who’ve met me, I’m moderately technical, probably more nerdy than technical, more nerdy than skilled, but I’ll take it. I don’t want to get into the whole life story, but essentially I went to a technical university, got a Bachelor of Science degree in The Society and Technology Studies, which studies the interaction on technology on sociology, in the history of technology. So, my degree is actually somewhat related to what I do, which is remarkable in this field. I couldn’t get a job doing whatever that is, so luckily we had geeked out with Unix systems back then, and I went and got a systems administrator job. 

So, I basically spent the first 10 years of my career as a Unix systems administrator. I worked on email systems and storage systems, and so on. I know that one of the things that you like to highlight is the inspirations that people have, and I think it’s important to call out right away, probably one of the most important turning points in my career was one day when I was working as a systems administrator, and I was helping one of the executives set up her machine. She basically stopped and said, ‘You know, do you want to be doing this for your whole life? Because you really could do a lot more than basically doing the day-to-day systems administration work. I see something in you, and I see that you probably could do more if you reached further’. And really that was a turning point for me because I realised that I wasn’t really reaching, I was really just doing, and I was doing basically what I could do, and that’s just how it was. 

So, really almost immediately I went and found a new job, first in consulting, then in consulting management, and then I started doing more reaching. I set up a situation where I was writing for the new storage magazine from TechTarget. I was invited then to speak at conferences like Storage World Conference, Storage Networking World, and the Storage Decisions Conference, and so on. I did my own seminars, and pretty soon I built myself as a guy who knows and talks about storage. Really it was kind of haphazard, but due to luck and also just due to constant effort to try to get myself out there. I realised that would really help me later-on, but I wasn’t sure yet how it would help me. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh I’m going to make my money writing for magazines’. I was like somehow this is going to be good, and that was really the catalyst for where I am now.

RR: Moving into that, tell us a little bit about what you have been doing recently, and what brought you to RSA when we had the opportunity to sit and have a quick beer.

SF: Yes, so basically after years of doing this sort of punditry, I realised that companies really didn’t have a good way to connect with people like me, who weren’t part of a major publication, or major analyst firm, but yet I saw and I was probably late to see this, but I did see it, the rise of the importance of the internet in terms of marketing, and sales, and basically helping companies and people, individuals, to learn and discover products, and that was an opportunity. So, back in the 2008 timeframe, I realised that it would be good for us to get together, so I created Gestalt IT. The concept was a co-op of bloggers. So I reached out to folks that are familiar to your audience, like Chris Evans, and Martin Glassborow. Along with folks outside the storage space, Greg Ferro, Carlo Costanzo in virtualisation, Jason Boche. These were all early folks who are similar to me, who basically what we would now call independent technical influencers. They were talking about this stuff, but not as part of a gig, but more as part of an interest.

So, we started Gestalt IT. The first idea was that we would get together and write joint articles Then we recorded some videos and audio stuff, but this was early, so we didn’t quite know what to do with that. But luckily some companies saw the prospects of this. HPE was one of the early companies that saw the value of reaching out to bloggers, as they called us in the day, even though that’s not really all we did, along with EMC and VMware. So, at an HP event we all got together, and at the end of the event we said this would be awesome but it’s too bad that only massive companies with massive resources like HP and EMC and Microsoft can do things like this, where they have outreach to independents.

So, I basically spontaneously said, ‘I bet I could put something together where anybody could participate’, and literally it went from that idea to Tech Field Day in five weeks. When I got home I spent a couple of days ruminating on it, and talking to folks, you know, PR, and marketing people, along with others in the community, and said, ‘If I put it together this way, would this work?’ and got some ideas. I called up a friend of mine who ran Storage World Conference, the logistics of that, and said, ‘Okay, so here’s what I want to do’, and happily she said, ‘Okay, I think we can pull that off’. So, Claire Chaplais and I have been working together on Tech Field Day literally from that day. We started the first Tech Field Day November 2009. During the first presentation I got a call from EMC saying, ‘When’s Tech Field Day number 2?’ Well there was no Tech Field Day number 2, but I said April! And so, boom! Suddenly it was a thing.

We were able to do a number of different events, and now in the 10+ years since then we’ve grown to a company – I just realised that we have 11 employees. We have solid annual revenue stream, we do dozens of events. We also do content creation protects as Gestalt IT, but it really all comes down to that initial idea which is, figuring out how companies can work with independent technical influencers. So we build this community of folks that we can work with, we focus on them in making sure that what we do is fair to them, and beneficial to them, and keeps their interests in mind. Then we work with companies to come up with ways that we can all work together to produce content, basically marketing content.

RR: And that’s how Tech Field Day was born.

SF: And that’s how Tech Field Day was born. And so I was actually at RSA Conference because we recently started a Security Field Day event, and we were meeting with security companies and security influencers at the show.

RR: So the concept of this has always been to get people together in a room, where the companies that have subscribed to the Field Day in question, get an opportunity to share what’s coming down the pipe, what they do, whether it’s an overview or a particular focus on a product range, or a concept. But obviously that’s all changed now, so what have you seen from that over the last couple of months, and how has that impacted how Tech Field Day is now?

SF: That’s an important thing because frankly I wasn’t too keen on doing a virtual event, I was very reluctant. The secret of Tech Field Day is the end person aspect of it. The fact that you bring people on-site from around the world, maybe they’ve never been to Silicon Valley before, you bring them to a startup incubator, or a VC firm to your presentation of a really small company. You bring them to HP’s amazing executive briefing centre, or something like that for a large company. You have companies come in, you get to know them, nothing beats meeting in person. When this pandemic hit it became obvious very quickly that we wouldn’t be able to meet in person, and so frankly my first reaction was, ‘Well we’re not going to do Tech Field Day then’, because I didn’t think that we could do it. 

It was actually up to the staff and our video team, and the delegates even, to convince me that we could pull it off. And they did, and basically we stepped back, like many people are doing in this time, we stepped back and we looked at what is really essential here? How can we produce a quality deliverable? Because basically the deliverable of Tech Field Day is the videos that go on YouTube. We now have over 30,000 subscribers, we get thousands of views, millions of views a year, and it’s important that those videos be compelling and interesting, just like they always are. So, I had to make sure that we could really do that. The video team figured out a way to do it. 

Then we had to figure out how to make it valuable to the companies, how do we make sure that we’re giving the companies not just the videos, but also the interaction, the publicity, and everything else that they’re looking for. But most importantly for me, it was figuring out how we can basically give the delegates the community that they need, and that’s where they showed me the way, because essentially they have come together in this time. We have a Slack channel and we have people doing impromptu video calls, and checking up on each other. I realised that the community was much stronger than in-person meetings, and we could all still be there together, we could all still build our relationships together, and so we’ve been trying to build more and more of that community, ice-breaking, group-building things into the virtual environment.

Now, of course things are going to change. Soon enough aspects of the industry are going to be slowly reopening, companies are going to open their campus so maybe we can have cameras in the room with the presenters, even if the delegates can’t be there. We have some other ideas to try to bring people together somewhat in a controlled and safe manner. But overall we’ve actually been able to pull off virtual Field Day events even during this pandemic, and I’m pretty proud of that.

RR: Well that was actually one of my next questions, what over the course of the Tech Field Day adventure is one of your proudest moments or proudest achievements?

SF: Honestly, the thing that really gets to me every time is seeing things come out of Tech Field Day. One of the things that happens is, once a marketing person or a PR person has been part of Field Day, generally they like it. So, I’ll have them call me up out of the blue and say, ‘Hey, I’m working at this new company, and we really want to use Field Day as our announcement’, or, ‘We really want to come to the Field Day in June’, or whatever. That’s always fun because it shows me that basically they like this thing, they like me, they like us, they like what we’re doing. And at the same time, I really love it when I hear that the delegates are connecting in a way outside of Field Day. So, Packet Pushers they had formed before Field Day, but they definitely come together as a community at Field Day. The same is true of the ActualTech folks, people like Keith Townsend who are doing just awesome stuff.

I love the fact that we can leverage this community to build up new businesses, and new areas, and build people up, not just record some videos.

RR: So, obviously this is going to be your inaugural opportunity to get more directly involved with our startups, who are putting themselves forward as Tech Trailblazers. What’s going to inspire you and catch your attention? Because obviously you get to see an awful lot of new companies, and hopefully will see some of the Field Day startups join in with the whole event as well. But what are you going to be looking for, for example in the storage world, that is going to kind of go, ‘Hmm, okay, I like that’?

SF: Well, it’s funny, so over the years we’ve had over 150 companies present at Tech Field Day, and people do ask me this, they say, with the first presentations of companies like Zerto, 3PAR, and Barefoot Networks, ‘Could you tell that this was going to be a big deal?’ And the answer is, absolutely yes. I’m not always right. There are many times where I’ve had a false positive, I’ve thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the next big thing’, and for one reason or another it just didn’t work out, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a false negative. In other words you see that passion, and you see that spark, and you see the fact that they know what they’re doing, and you say, this is somebody who is building something important, who really believes in that, they have a vision for it, and they have the drive to make it happen.

RR: That’s going to be interesting to see what you uncover during your time over the next couple of months. What would your advice be, bearing in mind you have seen lots of presentations, this is not quite the same because this is all done in a written entry, although we might shake a few things up when we get to the shortlist, but I wouldn’t like to do the spoiler on that just yet! What would you say is important for people to bear in mind when they’re doing that initial presentation to yourself, and obviously you know how other influencers work, and many of them are involved in the awards as well.

SF: I think that the most important thing is to understand, in the history of technology the best technology doesn’t always win. It’s not really about the technology. I mean, you have to have good technology, but the most important thing is that you have to know what it is that you’ve created, and you have to understand how it’s relevant and useful to customers, and it has to be something that has a potential market. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen cool technology by visionary founders that frankly there’s no-one that wants that thing, or at least nobody that’s going to pay for it. And so for me, I want evidence that the company has technology, and understands their own technology, but more importantly that they understand where it’s going to be used, how it’s going to be used, and how it’s going to be valuable to the customers. Because, basically for any business, if you’re doing something that doesn’t produce more value than it costs, well you’re not going to be doing it for long.

RR: No, absolutely. Obviously you’re an entrepreneur as well and you know lots of startup founders, I’m absolutely convinced of that. What would be your advice, apart from obviously for entering awards like the Tech Trailblazers, which is going to be great for anybody who wants to rise above the crowd, and obviously get involved with Tech Field Day, clearly, what would you say is going to be solid advice? Who do you think, what are the people who are going to survive through these difficult times, the challenging stuff around raising investment, about securing your pipeline for sales, what’s going to be important do you think?

SF: Well, in these challenging times we’ve discovered that these challenging times aren’t going anywhere. I’m hearing from company after company that they’re not planning on having business as usual any time soon. In fact, many companies have banned in-person meetings for the rest of 2020, and into 2021. Many companies don’t plan to have any corporate travel into 2021.

I think that the most important thing in these challenging times is that people are able to adapt, and some of that is going to be difficult, because it’s going to mean that they’re going to have to maybe cut some of the programmes, and maybe even some of the positions that they had planned, that relied on in-person interaction. But some of it’s going to be positive because they’re going to have to learn how do you basically live in this, because you can’t just hold on and hope for the best, you have to live in this. We’re all living in it, and we’re going to be living in it for a very long time. So, how are they able to adapt to this new market, how are they able to basically turn the corner with their product, with their marketing, with their sales, with their delivery, and make it work? Despite the fact that things aren’t going back to normal.

If a company can do that, I think that will be very convincing to me. It’s the companies that basically have just stomped on the brakes and said, ‘Look, we don’t know what’s going on, we’re just not going to do anything right now’, those are the companies I really worry about.

RR: Yes, well as they say, you can be on the right track but if you just sit there somebody will run you over.

SF: (laughs)

RR: You talked about somebody who had an influence on your career, which was the lady that you helped set up her system, and she kind of challenged you to ‘is this it?’ Who was important for you in the early days of your career, and what advice did they give you, apart from perhaps the one you’ve already shared.

SF: That was important just because it basically got me off my butt and got me moving! But actually it was earlier in the 2000s when I was attending these conferences and I started meeting people, just really remarkable people; I’ll just call out people like Steve Duplessie, and Geoff Barrall who founded Drobo, Craig Nunes, all these people showed me that it really wasn’t about being someone important, it was about doing, it was about accomplishment, basically get the thing done.

A great friend of mine Ned Bellavance recently recorded a podcast, he does a great daily videocast where he talked about a conversation that he and I had, that the ultimate challenge for anyone in any job, is to understand that you’re not really there just to do the thing you’re told, you’re there to contribute, you’re there to do the thing, whatever the thing of the business is. What I realised from these people, it wasn’t about being the loudest, or being the most vivacious, or the most buzz-worthy or whatever, it was about just getting it done. You show up, you try to push the ball forward, and not only that but getting it done for the whole company, and I’ve realised you look at some of these people, Brad O’Neil basically saw an opportunity and went for it. Those are the people that have inspired me the most, the people that basically saw an opportunity, and didn’t just make noise, but they actually did the hard work to make the thing happen. For me, I’d say that’s the most inspiring thing.

RR: Yes, I think getting a job done is key. I’ve noticed on Twitter, obviously this has been a very turbulent time as well as challenging, and diversity is one of the areas where we are very keen to acknowledge, we have a male and a female Tech Trailblazer, and I know that’s something that you’re very passionate about. What do you think can make a difference? Is diversity the solution to helping address the skills gap? Is it what is really going to unlock innovation for us? What would you say about that?

SF: I would absolutely say so, and again this is one of the things you can see at Tech Field Day, when we go on site. Basically if a company is homogenous, it’s usually also bogged down and not as productive as it could be. For me, I have a rule that when we’re hiring, I’m not interested in hiring anyone’s friends, I don’t want referrals from staff, I want people that people don’t know. So, that’s the first thing I would say to companies, stop with the internal referrals, stop recruiting from your college because that’s not going to help you. Not only will it not help you to be diverse, but it won’t help you to have diversity of thought, creativity, and dynamism that you need in order to succeed.

The other thing is, that essentially by limiting your recruiting pool to only one type of person, you are effectively eliminating the thoughts and ideas of literally the majority of other people, whether it’s simply just men, or just white men, or just people that went to college, the top colleges in California or whatever, you’re really limiting your prospects by doing that. 

So, what I’ve found is that the best way to address the problem of diversity, is just to explode that whole ‘friends and family’ nature of recruiting. When it comes to Field Day, many of our recommendations for delegates come from other delegates, but they all understand that we’re looking outside the box, I don’t want to just bring in the same people every time. We have a goal of bringing in three or four new people for every event. We don’t always meet that, but we have a goal to do that.

Similarly you have to explicitly look first outside the box, in other words it’s not that there’s a quota, ‘Oh, well we need a woman delegate’. It’s that you have to start by looking for women delegates, or African-American delegates, or delegates from countries that are not often represented. I’m always shocked how many people from South America or Africa, or other places that we don’t look for, are doing cool and interesting things, and thinking cool and interesting thoughts. Well, maybe if we just look for them it would help. So, that’s the first thing, blow up the box.

The second thing is intentionally start outside the box before you go into the box. OK, so we didn’t find any women, we didn’t find any people with colour, okay well then let’s look at the other applicants. It’s not about accepting someone who’s not qualified, it’s about making sure that you’re looking for the people who are qualified, and don’t happen to be top of mind.

RR: Yes, definitely. So, to look at the future, some slightly different questions, we’ve covered an awful lot of quite… well I wouldn’t say difficult but I would say very big topics. So a bit more light-hearted because I think it’s always good to lift things up as we close off Judges on Fire. If you were a superhero, who would you be? Or not necessarily a superhero, it doesn’t have to be necessarily Marvel, it could be inspired by George Lucas perhaps.

SF: Oh I would definitely be Buckaroo Banzai, and before you say, ‘Well he’s not a superhero’, he totally is. He is a rock star, he’s a brain surgeon, he’s the world’s fastest man, he drove a car through a mountain, that’s who I’d be.

RR: Fantastic, I’m not going to argue with you on that one Stephen, definitely not, quickly Googling who he is! Who is he? He must be someone from an American comic that I don’t know.

SF: I’m going to leave that as an exercise to the reader, but let me tell you, Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension is one of the most underappreciated movies in the history of film.

RR: I will be trying to find that on YouTube straight after we speak. And I guess looking futuristically, what do you think is going to be a big innovation? So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the traditional world that we operate in, in Enterprise, B2B technology, and data centres in the cloud, what do you think is going to be, not necessarily the next big thing, but a next big thing?

SF: Well, I don’t want to sound too clichéd, and I know everybody’s talking about it, but I don’t know if they get the big picture. I’m going to say 5G, and the reason is not because it makes our cell phones faster. The reason is because it fundamentally transforms the way communication works. By having a massive distributed network of compute infrastructure, and communications infrastructure, all over the world, and by having a massive growth in the number of endpoint connected devices I feel like that is going to transform things the way that very few things have.

I read a blog post back in 2002 or ’03 or something, saying that mobility was the mega trend of the future, and I still say that. At the time there was no such thing as basically mobile networking, mobile communications. Well now, nobody can live without mobile communications. I think 5G is really going to really take that to the next level. And like I’ve said, it’s not because it’s faster, I get so tired of hearing that, it’s just more ubiquitous, and not only that its more decentralised and distributed, and I think that’s really the thing that’s going to happen. So, if you think we’re all addicted to our phones now, just wait until we are addicted to the Internet of Everything connected with 5G.

RR: Fantastic. Well, we welcome you to the Tech Trailblazer’s family Stephen, it’s an absolute pleasure. We’ve know each other for a long time, so it’s great to be working a bit more closely together. Thank you for your time today, and I’m sure that everybody has got some insights even if they think that they know you well. So, thank you for your time.

SF: Thank you so much.