Forging New Technology Categories

After joining Nutanix’s Board of Directors, Sohaib Abbasi reflects on how he helped Oracle pioneer relational databases.

By Tom Mangan

By Tom Mangan July 17, 2020

The appeal of a new technology category isn’t always obvious. Who knew the value of the steam engine or the telegraph before anybody had ever used one?

That was the test for Sohaib Abbasi when he joined the sales staff of Oracle in 1982. His Silicon Valley employer would commercialize a new technology category — the relational database — over the next two decades and establish itself as a global powerhouse under the hard-charging CEO, Larry Ellison.

Abbasi helped pioneer a new technology category, not something many people get to do in their lifetime. His work in sales, programming and product development demonstrated the value of relational databases to Oracle’s early customers. By the time he left Oracle in 2003, he had worked his way onto the company’s executive committee and was senior vice president of its Tools and Education divisions. From 2004 to 2015, he was president and CEO at Informatica, which specializes in enterprise cloud data management.

The lessons Abbasi learned in a career spanning four decades underscore the issues confronting most founders and CEOs, who invariably must ride out waves of change, disruption and uncertainty. He talked about those lessons in a recent interview with Dheeraj Pandey, CEO of Nutanix, a pioneer in a new technology category called hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI).

Abbasi joined the board of directors of Nutanix in March 2020.

From Pakistan to Oracle

Born in Pakistan, Abbasi studied computer science at the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor's and master’s degrees. His thesis on relational databases helped him land a job with Oracle’s Midwest sales team in 1982.

In the interview with Pandey, he described what he was up against in those days. Oracle had almost no customers — he helped run sales out of his Chicago apartment for the first few months. The company had about 30 employees and lived under the shadow of that era’s tech titans.


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Abbasi was certain that fortune had smiled upon him when he scored a meeting with a Big Three automaker.

“We were very excited that we had a senior executive attend,” Abbasi recalled. 

But reality lowered the boom. “We only buy from IBM,” the executive declared before walking out of the meeting.

Few people in the executive ranks of corporate America understood the value of relational databases in the early 1980s. Even if they did, they could pose perfectly reasonable questions: Why not go with IBM, which developed some of the earliest relational database technology? Why go with an upstart like Oracle?

It turned out that it didn’t matter so much what those top executives thought. They understood that they needed new technology, but they were utterly dependent upon the knowledge and experience of their IT people.

Abbasi explained that most big companies did all their programming in-house. 

“Every company was building its own custom ERP applications,” he said. ERP stands for Enterprise Resource Planning applications that were later offered by companies such as SAP and Peoplesoft.

These programmers had immense influence because they could solve technical issues beyond the comprehension of the executive class. Oracle found its niche by serving the interests of programmers.

“They were struggling to do simple things like writing reports, things that we take for granted,” he said. “So, we would show them how they could actually become more productive.”

Helping those programmers gave Oracle a crucial toehold.

A Sales Job Reveals the Value of Market Fit

Trained as an engineer, Abbasi discovered a cornerstone of capitalism in those early sales meetings. 

“One of the very important lessons that I learned was how to find the product-market fit,” he said. “At that time, no one knew what a relational database was and there was no budget item for a database as such.”

In sales conversations, Abbasi showed how Oracle gave programmers tools and automation to get more work done in less time. Matching the technology with a critical need gave Oracle a competitive advantage.

“How do you commercialize the product?” he asked. “It's not the elegance of the technology — it's the market fit. What's the business value and how important is it?”

So, what’s a strong indicator of market fit? Abbasi said it often boils down to asking whether the technology is a nice-to-have or necessary for business survival.

“The companies that best navigate for the long term can show how they enable some business imperatives that will continue to go on indefinitely,” he said in an interview with Nutanix CEO Pandey.   

Rebounding from Setbacks

Abbasi recalled how Oracle operated in those early years. The focus on growing and earning a profit at the same time placed intense pressure on salespeople,who sometimes cut corners to make their goals — creating self-inflicted pain for Oracle. Once, he said, it looked like they might not make payroll.

“I learned you always have to balance your short-term growth aspirations with long-term sustainability,” Abbasi said. Ellison, he recalled, learned to place more trust in an experienced executive team.

For all his success in his rise through Oracle’s ranks, Abbasi had to learn to recover from external threats that were impossible to anticipate. Interviewed amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic, Abbasi looked back on how Ellison responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“Nine-eleven was a jolt, a terror attack that none of us had ever imagined,” he said. 

He recalled Ellison’s email to Oracle staff in which he gave people the option to take time off if they needed it. Even so, Abbasi recalled Ellison saying that the business of the company had to continue. 

“And he reminded people at Oracle that the technology was being used by intelligence agencies, by defense agencies, by the armed forces,” said Abbasi.

After retiring from Oracle in 2003, Abbasi became CEO at Informatica, a Silicon Valley provider of enterprise data management software. His mission to put the company back on the path to growth got off to a strong start — and then it collided with the financial crisis and recession that followed.

“We had to deal with the demise of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, iconic banks that simply ceased to exist,” he said. “It was an era of financial uncertainty, the likes of which we'd never seen, at least not in our lifetimes. And the key lesson that I took away from it is when you're faced with an uncertainty like that, the planning cycles become very short and even the execution periods become very short.”

Abbasi’s leadership team made sales targets weekly — not monthly or quarterly. 

“It wasn't so much micromanagement,” he said. “It was, how do you actually adapt to fast-changing circumstances?”

Overcoming Inertia and Complacency

Success has downsides, Abbasi cautioned. A product or service that thrived for years might be nearing its expiration date. Why fix something that isn’t broken? 

“The hardest thing when you succeed with a strategy is to question and change the strategy,” he said.

Abbasi praised Oracle for having flexible leaders. 

“In the early days, the leadership, particularly Larry Ellison, was prepared to say ‘now we need a different strategy,’ and he was able to rally the troops around that.”  

Over the years, Abbasi figured out how to avoid complacency and keep his strategic vision fresh. It starts with learning from everyone: peers, supervisors, direct reports, clients — anybody whose insight has an impact.

More importantly, it’s about critically assessing business outcomes. Though he engineered a powerful rebound at Informatica, growing revenues and expanding profit margins year after year, he still noted the missed opportunities. “Even when Informatica was doing well, there was always something that I learned that could have been even better,” Abbasi said. 

In a Category of Their Own

The eternal Silicon Valley drive to do something better gave Nutanix’s Pandey something in common with Abbasi: Both helped pioneer new technology categories — Oracle with relational databases and Nutanix with hyperconverged infrastructure, which lets IT teams manage computing, storage and networking from a single platform on commodity hardware.

“It is rare for a company to create a category,” Abbasi said. “It's also very rare for a company to exceed $1 billion in revenue.” 

He saluted the people who helped Nutanix simplify IT infrastructure, which in turn moved the company into the billion-plus-revenue elite.

For Abbasi, success transcends ever-expanding profit and market share. It’s about bringing new innovations to the world and discovering amazing things along the way.

“As I keep reminding people, including myself, the journey is the reward.” 

Tom Mangan is a contributing writer. He is a veteran B2B technology writer and editor, specializing in cloud computing and digital transformation. Contact him on his website or LinkedIn.

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