Q&A: Austin McChord, CEO Datto

A finger icon tapping on one of many question mark-shaped clouds.

From hearing you speak generally, and certainly at your keynote this week, it seems to be that you have some big ambitions of where you want to take the company and the product set. How do you deliver on those and what have your focus areas been since the acquisition by Vista Equity Partners and merger with Autotask?

Our core focus has really been around our engineering and product teams. We have an incredibly large swath of products and we want to make sure we are investing more energy in that than pretty much anyone else in the industry. That’s where we put our wind behind; it’s the thing that I worry about and every morning I think about when I get up.

That energy there is going to allow us to deliver best in class solutions across a broad array of different categories. That has been some of partners biggest questions - “Man, I love product in category X, but please don’t product from category Y slow it down.”

We have some partners that worry we focus too much on continuity, or whether it’s the continuity people asking about what we’re doing on networking, we have that across the board.

We think we’ve done a pretty good job of demonstrating that we can walk and chew gum at same time and have delivered and enormous amount.

It’s an incredible opportunity when I think about what we can do as a combined company – all of the skills and expertise and the Autotask PSA technology is incredible under the hood. I think we can redefine what great PSA and remote management should look like.

How have you managed to strike that balance of the new and the old and keeping partners happy?

Autotask had an engineering team. It’s not like we asked them to leave! Instead we did the opposite and thought about how we could help and asked them what they needed.

So we hired some more people. For example, if you look at the open mesh group on the networking side, that engineering team existed and was the same thing. So we look at how we take the success we’ve built in other areas and use those, ultimately, as dollars to invest in the other areas so we can have a broad set of solutions.

With any merger, you obviously have to try and unite two different cultures. What’s in the DNA of what makes a great Datto employee now?

We have a set of core values around doing the right thing, ask for forgiveness over permission, and come to do your life’s work. Basically, ask why, be inquisitive and get excited about what we do.

We’re all on one team. I think those components are really the things that we stand for and we’ve done a good job of articulating them.

I do my best to try to live them every day. I’m far from perfect but I believe the that action of living out your values is really important.

If you ask legacy Autotaskers if life is better now… Yes, it’s different, but at the same time our goal is to do good by the MSP market. We’re doing that and investing in all of those areas.

You’ve been quoted as saying that the way to get the best out of people isn’t necessarily through back patting…

Absolutely. I’m awful at saying ‘great job’. If anything we spend a lot of time talking about what we can do better in the future. That’s always been our perspective and our direction.

We don’t spend a lot of time congratulating – there’s no clapping or ringing the bell… We are very focused on what we can do better next. It’s not a culture for everybody, but I’m lucky that the senior team I’m surrounded by don’t need a lot of people saying ‘wow you really kicked ass’ because they know they’re kicking ass because they work here. They’re motivated as to how we can do better. For example, when we get back from this event we will sit down and say these are the things we can do differently for San Diego and these are the things that might have been good but we are going to do even better.

So it’s about continuous improvement? Is there a danger of being over critical or just how it is framed?

A lot of it is how you frame it. Honestly, if I was doing everything right, if all people did was say ‘good job’ and there was no room to get better, it would be really boring. It’s all downhill from here.

The second you get to the top, you need a new mountain. I remember when we were small, I dreamed that some day I might have 100 people working here. Now we have 1,400. Then, I thought maybe some day my business might be worth $1bn and now I want to make a $1bn each year. So you keep having goals and, yes, maybe you spend a minute looking back and that it’s cool you got here. In some ways, this event is a little bit like that.

Datto has been described as a unicorn and as a company that seemingly crept up on industry out of nowhere…

It’s an overnight success 10 years in the making. I don’t need to be patted on back for it though. If you sit down with people and say you’ve done all of these things, they stop treating you like a person. That’s not my style. I’ve very proud of what I’ve done, but I don’t need to scream it from the rooftops.

Can you tell us more about the dedicated MSP datacentre?

We have servers in it, but haven’t fully completed the migration. We have thousands of servers there. I expect by mid-summer we will have moved completely.

Datto didn’t want to employ air conditioning engineers so it was built to suit. But we are the only tenants and it’s based in the US.

You donated $50m to your Alma Mater, the Rochester Institute of Technology – why?

It started as a promise. The previous university president helped us get our office. He said it would be nice if you did something for RIT. He said that some day we’d sell the company/go public, you’ll be worth a lot of money, so why don’t you promise 10% or something? I said ‘OK’ but with one caveat – on the off chance the company is very successful, I want to be anymore than $50m. So I set that promise and he immediately wanted to go public and tell everyone about it. I said absolutely not, I’m not giving you a nickel. I’m happy to do announcement the day I give you the money, not the day I promised it to you…

That was almost five years ago. The transaction went through and the business sold for a lot combined, north of $1.5bn. With that, it was time for me to fulfil. So I did.

There were two things I wanted to help the university with. One was to create a maker space - one thing I felt I was able to get out of RIT was something that most people don’t realise, which is you can work in these labs and build things that take your skillset beyond just being a programmer etc.…

The second is the school is looking to make a name for itself in cyber security so I wanted to help with that. My only request was that they did not name any of it after me. I have the right to name them and I’m going to name them something really silly… I was debating between Magrathea, the planet from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or, as lots of people have suggested, the Derek Zoolander centre.

I want to pick something that is appropriately irreverent but something that will either in time not change or be forgotten enough that it’s not a big deal. But not something insulting or would make anyone feel bad. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but life is too short…

Autotask and Datto were both very successful in their own right and as a combined entity that success looks set to continue. If we were to meet a year from now, what would you like to be talking about?

I think we have delivered on the promises we made and a lot of the fear and trepidation that comes from bringing companies together has dissipated.

We’ve been pretty bold at this conference. We want to be open. We have invited our competitors to this conference. We’re not trying to build a walled garden, we’re going to welcome anybody who wants to integrate and we want to do what’s right for the MSP ecosystem as a whole. It’s a relatively bold move to do that, but I think it’s one that will bear fruit, as the MSP market is so unlike other markets out there.

All of the companies here compete with each other, yet they’re excited about talking to one another about how to run their business. The level of cooperation is unreal.

This market is going to get much bigger. An MSP is something that’s foreign right now to some of the people outside of our world. But, the concept of an MSP will be as well known as the concept of a VAR in 10 years. Standards will rise and almost all IT will be delivered as a service in the future.

And what’d you hope you won’t be talking about a year from now?

I don’t want to be talking about excuses for why we didn’t deliver, or still talking about the merger.

Maggie Holland

Maggie has been a journalist since 1999, starting her career as an editorial assistant on then-weekly magazine Computing, before working her way up to senior reporter level. In 2006, just weeks before ITPro was launched, Maggie joined Dennis Publishing as a reporter. Having worked her way up to editor of ITPro, she was appointed group editor of CloudPro and ITPro in April 2012. She became the editorial director and took responsibility for ChannelPro, in 2016.

Her areas of particular interest, aside from cloud, include management and C-level issues, the business value of technology, green and environmental issues and careers to name but a few.