Databricks’ New Channel Marketing Lead: First Impressions, 2024 Plans for Partners, And Coffee Brewing Metaphors

First Impressions

In January, data lakehouse pioneer Databricks hired OpenText and Cisco Systems channel marketing veteran Ghassan Lababidi as the company’s new Global Partner Marketing Leader. Lababidi (pictured) oversees Databricks’ worldwide channel marketing operations, including providing partners with marketing resources and ensuring that Databricks’ own marketing efforts are aligned with those of its cloud, technology and consulting/systems integration partners.

Lababidi joined Databricks just as the fast-growing “data + AI” company was wrapping up its fiscal 2024 (ended Jan. 31) and starting its fiscal 2025. He spoke with CRN in a wide-ranging interview shortly after attending the company’s 2024 Partner Kickoff event in Las Vegas in early February and just before attending a meeting of Databricks partner marketing staff in Napa, Calif., at the end of the month.

In the interview, Lababidi spoke about his experience and background, what he’s been focused on since starting at Databricks, his early impressions of the company and its channel efforts, and his to-do list – including overseeing a significant planned increase in market development funds for partners – through 2024. The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What is your role at Databricks?

So my official title is partner marketing global leader. I have global responsibilities, and I have a team of, let’s say, eight people reporting into me. And our No. 1 remit is to really work very closely with our partners, irrespective of which RTM [route to market] they operate in. And make sure that there is joint marketing alignment that eventually will contribute to sales growth. It’s the same formula that I applied in previous roles in my life. As you know – I think you and I have been in this industry for a while – the formula doesn’t change. The tactics might be a bit different, the approach might be a bit different depending on the partners that you’re dealing with. But this, in a nutshell, is what I do.

I’m in a stage or a phase now where, of course, I’m learning and onboarding and getting to know who does what and having a holistic look at our ecosystem. And taking down those findings and making sure that we are aligned not just externally to our partners but also internally with the sales team and the channel team just to make sure there’s consistency in how we approach the ecosystem and how we engage and how we put ourselves out to support and grow our partners.

Who do you report to?

I report to [Vice President of Marketing] Joel Minnick. And Joel reports into the CMO. Partner marketing within Databricks is part of product marketing. I don’t know how this is going to evolve in the future, but I think we are at a stage where, I would say, we are flying the airplane as we build it. And it’s also my first experience with a pre-IPO company. I have a 16-year legacy with Cisco. So joining a really fresh, young and highly driven and motivated team in a company that’s growing so rapidly and fast is, I think, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. So Joel is my leader. And we’re making sure that we are fully aligned to what we’re doing product-wise [and in] sales and overall channel enablement.

What attracted you to the Databricks job?

A couple of things. From a business perspective, from a career perspective, I’m at that stage in my life where I have seen growth in multiple companies and in multiple segments and sectors. For me, what really attracted me most is the things that we can do with Databricks. I wouldn’t say I walked into a ‘greenfield’ of channel marketing, they have a really robust channel ecosystem or partner ecosystem. But bringing all [my] experiences from before and deploying them to make sure that we’re seeing the growth – and I witnessed that growth – was one of the key decision factors for me.

The second thing is, I didn’t work in data and AI as much as I wanted to. So I saw this as also a learning experience, and data and AI is the hot topic in the industry. As you know every company is probably labeling themselves or attaching themselves to that. To come to the source [of the] cutting edge technology and the leading company in that space, that’s definitely another decision factor for me.

The third thing that really attracted me was throughout the interview process, whether it was with Joel or our CMO Rick [Chief Marketing Officer Rick Schultz] or the sales leadership, there is a genuine feeling of team spirit, of support, of empathy, of ‘We want to do this together.’ We have a lot of values that we share. And they say that ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ I felt there was a connection from the first time we started the interview process and I definitely wasn’t wrong with that feeling. I have a wonderful team and a wonderful leader and a wonderful group of people that I work with. So all of those together, combined, was a big motive for me to join.

You know, when you work with very long-established companies like Cisco, you don’t want to live in that bubble forever. You really need to challenge yourself and I think Databricks gave me that opportunity. I want to challenge myself to learn the tricks of data and AI. And at the same time, like I said, to put all my learnings into action where I know I’m the decision maker when it comes to anything we want to do with our partners from a marketing point of view. We’ve got big plans to move forward as we kick off our fiscal year this month [February]. And the reason why I’m in Napa [California] next week is actually to get together with my team and you know, map out our plans and our OKRs [objectives and key results] and whatnot.

As you noted, Databricks is a relatively young, rapidly growing company. How would you say Databricks is different from OpenText, Cisco and other places where you have worked in terms of pace and culture?

I think [Databricks] really has an unbeatable culture. And they definitely talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to, you know, people’s well-being and incentives and being part of [the] decision making around what we do with the ecosystem in general. There’s a lot of transparency in the company coming all the way from our CEO Ali [Ghodsi], down to each and every individual within the company. This is really great to witness, and I honestly think we’re witnessing history with Databricks. It’s just an amazing feeling of everybody wants to thrive, everybody wants to do their best, everybody is motivated and driven.

Not that I didn’t witness this in previous roles. Not at all. I stayed 16 years at Cisco. It’s just that it has a different flavor here. It’s a completely different flavor, which I might not be able to fully articulate. Mind you, it’s been six weeks and I’m still learning and onboarding. But you get this hunch, this feeling, that this is a wonderful place and I’m really happy that I made this decision…I honestly think this is probably one of the best decisions I made career wise.

I’ve been in this industry for 22-odd years, maybe a bit more. And this is probably one of the unique times that I feel we’ve got a lot to accomplish, but I have all the tools and all the support and all the investment that I need to make it happen. I’ve been through a lot with my experience. I used to cover emerging markets when I was at Cisco, based out of Dubai. So for me the change is not just the change of companies and products and ecosystems. It’s change across the board and I’ve been living in the US now for eight years. And it’s just a wonderful approach to overall business and overall life.

How would you describe Databricks’ channel operations right now? Are they well-established? In an early stage of development? Somewhere in between?

Excellent question. First of all, I think there’s always an opportunity for improvement whether you are in a very well-established company that has a strong partner ecosystem or you are working for [a younger company like] Databricks. There’s always an opportunity to do better with the channel, right? I think our ultimate goal is to make the experience for our partners to be as seemingly easy as possible and enjoyable. And to do so you have to have certain criteria to meet that goal. I think being transparent and showing integrity to your ecosystem will play a big role in our success and the buy-in and the commitment from our partners.

Where we are now, I’m looking at several RTM or routes to market or areas where Databricks segregates the ecosystem. We’re looking at big cloud partners like Microsoft Azure and AWS and Google Cloud. But we’ve also got a very thriving RTM [with] the ISV and technology partners, the consulting and SIs [systems integrators] like Accenture and Deloitte and KPMG and whatnot. And every RTM is unique and different. Everyone requires a certain approach. I think we are at a very evolving stage in our ecosystem as we speak.

From a marketing point of view. What I’m trying to achieve is consistency in our approach across the ecosystem. So no matter where you look at us and which platform you choose to engage with us, as a partner, you see consistency in our message and our narrative and in our approach. At the same time, we want to work with the partners as closely as possible to agree on joint marketing plans that really serve both of us. It takes two to tango, right? It’s not just a plan that serves us at Databricks to grow but also says the partners achieve their growth goals and expand their landscape and footprint and whatnot.

What have been your major points of focus since you joined the company?

Getting to know the team and getting to know our sales plans, how we go after our customers and [work with] our partners, and how do we engage – this is all still a learning experience. So probably priority No. 1 is to get myself acquainted with our sales motions, our strategy, our approach, the team, the plans, what we did last year. I’m looking at FY 24 plans and outcomes and OKRs and then I’m trying to build off of those plans together with my team to make sure we have one consistency in what we do.

And at the same time we’re taking those learnings [to his planned staff meeting in Napa, Calif.] – let’s have a whiteboard [discussion] and look at what worked, what didn’t work, what do we need to continue doing, what should stop and what we should start. And I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. There’s a lot of good practices within the company that we need to continue to grow and invest in. But I also think we can benefit from a different approach and realignment with our sales and channel at the same time to ensure consistency in our overall approach. So my priority No. 1 now is not to leave a mark at a very early stage, rather learn and engage and onboard so I can leave a better mark in a few months down the line.

Are there specific plans or initiatives for, say, the next six months to a year, that you can talk about?

We want to make sure that we continue to evolve our partner portal and provide the latest and greatest when it comes to content, to engaging content that the partners can repurpose and use, to call-marketing assets that my team is building, case studies, [and] partner blogs that we support and review.

At the same time, we made an announcement at our Partner Kickoff [in early February] in Las Vegas that we’re really doubling down on our MDF [market development funding] and this is a big investment that the company is making. We’re really taking the MDF investment this year to five times what it was last year, and we want to make sure that our partners are benefiting from this program. I want to make sure that the investments [with] our partners are basically leading into creating more demand, more visibility for both of us and more utilization of our solutions and products.

One of the things that we’re also looking at this year that would help our partners even further is automating our MDF platform. We want to expand it to as many partners as possible and I’m looking at launching that automated MDF exporter in Q2. So everything would be through a single sign-on, but makes it a lot easier for our partners to engage, utilize the funds, utilize the assets, report back and claim – all in one place.

What particular skills and expertise do you think you bring to the global channel marketing job?

What I really pride myself [on] is I build strong teams around me and relationships that go further and further. There are too many wonderful partner marketing leaders out in the industry and probably many of them are by far better than me…But I think I’m one of the good ones that really tries to make a difference by building a strong foundation for a team that can grow and expand as the company expands. So that’s No. 1.

No. 2, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve got 22-plus years of experience in this particular space, and I think that brings a lot of value to the company, to be able to advise on what really works when you want to plan and implement something with your ecosystem and what wouldn’t work based on trial and errors that I’ve done in previous roles.

The third thing is – I think what Databricks probably found interesting in me – was my international experience, having lived and worked in Europe and the Middle East and covered APJ and China and APAC in general. And, of course, North America and Latin America. This was a good find for Databricks, a leader that has the channel experience and cultural and regional experience globally to be able to go and engage with partners across the globe and be able to relate and add value.

I also have a very good track record from previous roles. I built the entire partner program at OpenText in my previous role. We also automated our MDF platform, I put [together] a very strong team, we revived our MSP program back then. Looking back at all of that, my experience with Cisco in the commercial space, in the SMB space, in the enterprise [solution provider] space, in the CX [customer experience] space – all of that really gave me that, I would call it well-rounded experience, to come and offer it and put it into action and make it available to my team.

I have an open-door policy. I’m very transparent and honest with my team. I am a leader that gives feedback in private and recognition in public. And I really want to motivate and support the team as much as I can. This is what I’ve been doing throughout my career.

You mentioned the Databricks fiscal 2025 Partner Kickoff in Las Vegas you attended earlier [in early February]. What were your key takeaways from that?

I think the number one takeaway: We are certainly a market leader in our space. That’s No. 1. No. 2, we are definitely a partner-first company. Seeing the commitment from the partners – and many of those partners I’ve probably worked with before, so it was, I wouldn’t call it déjà vu, rather a ‘Oh, Nice to see you on this side of the of the industry.’ Engaging with the partners and spending those three days with the partners just gave me more affirmation that the partners are really interested in our story and our solutions and we as a company are certainly moving towards that direction of being a partner-first company on top of being a customer-centric company. So that was my second takeaway, [we are] definitely a partner-centric company and a partner-first company.

The third is the culture that we bring and the innovation. I saw Ali [Ghodsi], our CEO, for the first time presenting on stage. He really left a big mark on me because he speaks of his heart and mind and he makes you feel that you’ve known him for so long when he’s engaging and when he’s presenting and he engages with the audience in a very nice way. He would easily interrupt his presentation, ask [whether] anybody has a question. ‘Was that clear? Do you need any more input?’ It was an amazing session for me. So, all in all, I came back and I’m like, ‘Wow, this is really, really wonderful that the CEO of the company performs at this level and is really down to earth. Very sharp, knowing his story, his business, in[side] and out.’

So those were my key takeaways from the event.

In your LinkedIn profile you equate the leadership lessons you have learned with the various steps of brewing coffee, including “percolating innovation,” “blending diversity” and “The Daily Grind.” Are any of those lessons especially pertinent to what you’re finding at Databricks?

I think all of them. Databricks really invests in their people and there’s no shortage of training and enablement and there’s no shortage of coaching and mentorship. And I’m going to bring all of that learning, provide it to my teams and my peers and whomever is going to need it. Like I said, it’s a wonderful experience and all of those learnings didn’t come just from previous experiences but also from observations for the first few weeks at Databricks.

You’re going to see a lot more of that – I love to write in my free time and I love to share some of my learnings on LinkedIn. If you have any ideas, send them across and I’ll be more than happy to look into them in my future posts.

What message would you leave with Databricks’ partners?

First of all, thank you for your partnership, for sure. And thank you for continuing to support us and thank you for helping us go out there and establish ourselves as a leader in this business and thank you for your trust and thank you for your business. But at the same time, do continue to invest and do continue to work with us.

And my team is here at their disposal when it comes to partner marketing, irrespective of their tier and irrespective of their status with us. We want to make sure our partners are getting what they need from the marketing team and that we are here to help. And we will never stop learning, so do share your learnings with us and do engage with us. And do help us steer the wheel in the direction of business growth and let’s go after these opportunities together.

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