Management

Netflix Loses Its Cloud Guru to a VC Firm


It used to be good enough for venture capitalists just to hand out money. Well, not anymore. Now they’re expected to offer up a suite of services and give their startups access to things like marketing coaches and technical advisors.

The latest example of this arrives on Tuesday, with Battery Ventures announcing the hiring of Adrian Cockcroft as the company’s first “technology fellow.” Cockcroft is a veteran of the technology industry, having worked at Sun Microsystems and EBay (EBAY) as a distinguished engineer and most recently as a cloud architect at Netflix (NFLX). His work at Netflix notably included overseeing much of the company’s move from running its own data centers to relying on Amazon.com’s (AMZN) cloud-computing infrastructure. Netflix became Amazon’s most-talked-about cloud customer, and Cockcroft in turn gained some measure of fame in technology circles as a daring engineer.

“I am thrilled to be joining Battery, one of the pioneers in investing in the cloud-computing space and a firm whose internal culture mirrors Netflix’s,” Cockcroft said in a statement. “Both firms are very open to trying new things.”

Battery has never had a technical fellow before, but the company now sees a role for such an adviser. Part of Cockcroft’s job will center on advising the firm’s startups on how to expand their computing infrastructure as they get bigger and on how best to take advantage of Amazon’s services, along with those from the likes of Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT). At Netflix, Cockcroft and his team came up with a lot of custom tools for configuring, running, and fixing tens of thousands of virtual servers. The video-streaming company has actually open-sourced much of this work, with the Obama administration, EBay, Intel (INTC), and others subsequently using the tools for their own cloud operations.

At Battery, Cockcroft would ideally give young companies an edge in figuring out how to master cloud systems quickly. “We have portfolio companies that struggle with scaling up, and there are problems that we see over and over again,” says Mike Dauber, a principal at Battery Ventures. “Adrian is one of the best people to answer those questions.”

For many years, venture capital firms worked in the background to advise their startups on hires, ideas, and strategies. Of late, though, they’ve started to formalize this work. Andreessen Horowitz has received credit for starting this trend by naming Margit Wennmachers, a public relations specialist, one of its partners and then creating a sort of talent-hunting service and building a swanky briefing center to hold meetings to help its companies hire employees.

In similar moves, venture capital firms have started to hire advisers in hot areas. Last year, Accel Partners hired Hilary Mason, a big-data guru, as its first data scientist in residence. Greylock Partners grabbed former LinkedIn (LNKD) executive DJ Patil for the same role, and he served a two-year stint. Google Ventures has people on hand to advise about Web design and product development. “Andreessen came on the scene and codified and pitched some of these practices,” says Dauber. “When they did that, it disrupted the market.”

For Netflix, the departure of Cockcroft translates into a loss of some serious geek cred. The company emerged as a cloud-computing pioneer by moving such a massive operation to the cloud at a time when most large companies were just running experiments. Over the past couple of years, Cockcroft has been a regular on the speaking circuit and has managed to attract a lot of attention to Netflix as a proper engineering shop where top talent should work.

Cockcroft says he feels that much of the ground-breaking work in his area has been done and that he’s been looking for something new. He maintains that the cloud computing shift has only just begun, with lots of companies needing advice on following the Netflix model. “As interest from individual companies grew it became clear that there was an opportunity to take what I had learned and apply it directly to a wider audience,” he says.

Vance_190
Vance is a technology writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Palo Alto, Calif. Follow him on Twitter @valleyhack.

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