Brian Sparks and Scot Schultz on the Secrets of Technical Marketing

The HPC marketplace can be very challenging for companies trying to make their mark. Time and again, Mellanox raises the bar in this area with global events and a keen eye on building community. We caught up with Scot Schultz and Brian Sparks from Mellanox for an insider’s view of what it takes to succeed.

insideHPC: How has marketing in HPC changed over the years you’ve been serving the community?

Scott Schultz

Scott Schultz

Scot Schultz: Marketing for HPC today, at least from the perspective of Mellanox, has evolved into more of an educational experience. It’s not just about touting products and solutions on product specification sheets. We participate heavily in the community to drive an interactive level of education on why our products and solutions matter. We also participate with industry organizations such as the HPC Advisory Council to understand HPC use cases in-detail. Mellanox has even recently announced the Mellanox Academy, a new innovative learning experience – complete with access to Mellanox experts and flash-based interactive self-paced units.

Brian Sparks: To add to what Scot said, our participation with the HPC Advisory Council is probably one of the most rewarding parts about my job. It really is a great feeling to help provide opportunities for students from around the world to participate in HPC competitions that showcase their skills and reward their endeavors in front of the HPC community and its leaders. In fact, some of these students have quickly been noticed for their skills and have received job offers on the show floor. It doesn’t take a genius to see that new, young blood is critical to our industry. Much is to be done for us to get to exascale and beyond, and our biggest problem isn’t so much the hardware and software…it’s people. Say all you want about the rest, but attracting top talent to this industry and make it an attractive career for them is probably this industry’s toughest challenge.

insideHPC: Do you think marketing in this space is easier or more difficult than in mainstream, commercial computing markets?

Scot Schultz: Because HPC crosses so many technical disciplines, it’s more important that the end-users realize why a technology is an ideal fit for their particular environment, so it’s much more exciting — as well as challenging. HPC users have a very tailored set of requirements – from specific versions of their software stack, compilers and math-libraries to applied acceleration technologies, and even storage. Typically, HPC and technical computing users can’t afford to rip and replace, so it’s about marketing the technology benefits and how the technology is relevant to their needs today and tomorrow. Take for instance, a cluster that is built in phase I, that will be upgraded to included GPU’s for acceleration in phase II, the following year – so understanding the benefits of GPUDirect RDMA, which is a no-cost software update, will further increase performance and decrease the latency of GPU-GPU communications in their environment; this is an example of marketing the value of an HPC solution, not just a product.

Brian Sparks

Brian Sparks

Brian Sparks: To me, HPC is much easier in the fact that you know who your target audience is on a personal level. In fact, it’s very hard not know everyone involved in any shape or form of HPC…whether it be an OEM, ISV, or End-User. That’s what I love about the HPC market, it’s very easy to get to know everyone and understand what they want, as opposed to the millions of data center / commercial end-users.

insideHPC: What mistakes do you see companies make when launching marketing programs for HPC products?

Scot Schultz: Some companies just assume or expect the end-users will know how their product will be used, or more importantly that it could be applied to their environment. But it rarely is about the product, it’s really about how your product fits into a solution! When a particular marketing program is launched, it needs to be inclusive of all the methods you might expect, such as a press release, web seminars, print and web-banner presence, etc…, but also be inclusive with customer studies on how it’s technically being used, non-biased white-papers and of course training. Mellanox even offers its solutions for evaluation, at no cost to the customer, giving them the ability to evaluate our technology to ensure it meets their needs.

Brian Sparks: I wouldn’t go as far as saying people are making mistakes…it really comes down to budget and resources. Most of the companies in the HPC market are very small with limited staff and budget, especially on the marketing side. HPC is very R&D centric, and when it comes to marketing, I think most of these companies do what they can with what they have.

insideHPC: Do you think technology companies tend to underestimate the importance of marketing their wares?

Scot Schultz: Technology companies are usually driven by engineering, especially in their early stages of formation; so marketing isn’t always the primary concern. However, a well-balanced organization will certainly value the power of clear messaging on all aspects their products bring to the market. Just because a product addresses a void or some need in the market, doesn’t make it a value – you need to be very clear and demonstrate exactly why one should care about what you have to offer. A well planned marketing campaign will make a tremendous impact on interest and demand generation – technology companies generally realize this, but the ones that don’t get it aren’t around for too long — no matter how clever their technology might have been.

Brian Sparks: Not to repeat what I said above, but the majority of HPC-centric companies are very small and are in a start-up mentality. It basically means the engineers of the company must also be marketing-savvy and pull double duty, otherwise traction in the market, as Scot said, will not be performed as quickly as they would wish. You may have a great product, but will anyone hear about it? Not unless you have strong end-user advocates who are willing to help market it for you through word-of-mouth or social media.

insideHPC: How much does marketing really help if an HPC vendor’s target prospects are the government labs?

Scot Schultz: One thing is for certain, the government labs employ some extremely savvy technical experts. Another thing you can be sure of, those experts are still human beings, and desire their technical skills to be kept razor sharp. Learning is a constant endeavor – Technology changes, and how one technology might be applied to adjacent innovations is constantly evolving as well. Cloud-based computing for HPC workloads is a good example of this, which is being explored by the labs today – new innovations in this area are happening and Mellanox’s SR-IOV solutions will play a key role in achieving real bare-metal performance in these environments… so for Mellanox the marketing/education for those who work in the government labs is really not that different.

Brian Sparks: Marketing to government certainly adds a little complexity. What you did on the commercial side may not be ok on the Government side. For example, giveaways at shows are pretty much a no-no, so you really need to change the way you get government labs to remember you. To me, it’s talking with them at their level. Remove all of the marketing BS and stick with the technical facts and get across your points on why you believe your solution is a match to their initiative/project.

insideHPC: How important is it to maintain a balanced international approach to HPC marketing programs?

Scot Schultz: HPC and technical computing has no boundaries, even more-so today it is not only used by nearly every country, information and data is exchanged on a global scale. Humanity is naturally driven to resolve understanding of key issues; like global warming, earthquake and severe weather prediction, and finding cures for illness to name a few. Awareness for new technology and HPC advancements is just as important to even the smallest nations of the world.

Brian Sparks: Scot is absolutely right. Going back to our work with the HPC Advisory Council, the Student Cluster Competitions are very much a global competition. Apart from the usual suspects, we have had teams from South Africa (who was the winner at the HPCAC-ISC’13 Student Cluster Competition), Costa Rica, and for 2014 we expect a team from Brazil to enter, marking the first time a South American team has entered the competition. I think you will always see a weighted approach in terms of marketing programs targeting North America, Europe and Asia, but more and more companies should be looking in the southern hemisphere if they aren’t already.

This story appears in The Print ‘n Fly Guide to SC13 in Denver. We designed this 24-page Guide to be an in-flight magazine custom tailored for your journey to the Mile-High city at SC13. Contents