When Clenergy, the Australian-based renewable energy company, wanted to build the first commercial solar car, it sponsored, TeamArrow, a leading solar car racing team, to collect over 400 data points per second from the track. Powering this massive endeavor is Splunk, an $8 billion big-data analytics platform founded in 2003.
Splunk has given TeamArrow a free license to use their technology so they can monitor a range of variables like battery storage, driver safety, heat, and other control system operations, which turned out to be crucial in building the fastest solar car that won the Abu Dhabi Solar Challenge.
Splunk’s CEO Doug Merritt uses this story as an example of how he is transitioning a company driven by a technical purpose into one that makes big data for social purpose. He has seen the impact of his platform on their 13,000 customers, such as Domino’s Pizza and Adobe, and now he wants to enable big data to support academic research and generate social impact.
Last September, Merritt announced his commitment, framed as the Splunk Pledge, to publicly contribute $100 million in platform licenses, training, and support over the next 10 years to nonprofits and educational institutions. He sees wide application for Splunk’s software from healthcare research to helping the nonprofit Team Rubicon use data to mobilize veterans to volunteer when an environmental or humanitarian disaster strikes.
His investors were skeptical at first. “”Oh my god, I can’t believe you did that.” It’s like, we’re giving away software,” he says they told him. He was quick to reassure them. “There’s a small opportunity cost there, but you have to believe that you’re infecting people with the power of Splunk and that will have some greater good for the economics of the business.”
And, the benefit to Splunk’s employees is clear, he adds, “you feel like showing up to work every day if you get a chance to change the world.”
Before he was even in high school, Merritt had moved 11 times, “Virtually every year we moved for kind of crazy, emotional, crazy family reasons.” When he was three and his sister was 11 they moved to Mexico City. “I was the gringo that got the crap kicked out of him every day out in the schoolyard until I figured out how to be fluent in Spanish and fit in.”
As soon as he had, it was time to move again. This time to Arizona where his newly developed accent made him a target again. “So I got beat up for like another year.” Eventually, the constant process of moving and adjusting made him realize, as he says, “life has got all kinds of tumultuous elements that you can’t control, and all you can do is try and be open and face it and live it.”
It created a philosophy of personal responsibility that defines his leadership and approach to his career to this day, “I still believe you’re given that set of tools, and now it’s still 100% in your hands as to what are you going to do. How are you going to use that? Everything that looks like a potential limitation can be your strength. Everything that someone looks as a strength can be your weakness and your Achilles heel. It comes down to: What are you going to do with what you’re given?”
Merritt uses a laissez-faire approach as CEO. “The only way you can be effective in any job is to own your world. You’re going to know your world so much better than I do. If I know your world better than you do, we’re in really, really deep trouble. Because you spend 24/7 in that world, and I don’t.”
For Merritt, constructive conflict and addressing challenges head on creates a great culture and team, “I need people who are self-motivated, disruptive, and free thinkers, and open about communicating what they’re thinking. They also need to feel comfortable challenging me and challenging other people.”
He believes that people make their greatest impact when they connect with their intrinsic motivations and achieve the goals that matter to them. “I’ve run experiments where I put down what I think the goal should be and then ask someone to write their own goals. And nine times out of 10, they’re going to come back with more aggressive and possible and appropriate goals than I have.”
Merritt concedes his style is easier for extroverted members of the team. “It’s always amazed me that I can work with someone and, if you’re not conscious of doing it, for four or five or six years and never have talked. How can someone be vocal and take risks in a culture where you don’t really even know your co-workers?”
So he works consciously to help build connections with his team to create the psychological safety. He tries to take them a step further than the commonplace team building activities to build real empathy. He makes a point of frequently inviting the significant others of his leadership team to events. “I think it really helps everyone to really feel like we know each other’s families.”
And once a year he has the team map and share “the most influential and impactful things that happened to you over your life.” He also carves out time every year to connect around interests that he shares with them from car racing and motorcycle racing to skiing and surfing.
“I really want people to feel comfortable and safe to be able to express whatever opinion they have. I think the more you know each other and know that it’s not just a transaction but it’s a relationship, the more open you can be about your viewpoints.”
While it’s true that the acceleration of data creation has enabled the free flow of information, big data also has its critics who argue that predictions based on large-scale data collection by corporations or governments can invade our privacy. And, when the underlying data is biased, based on stereotypes about our gender or race, it can reinforce society’s biases instead of correcting for them.
Merritt hopes that the free flow of information is a good in itself. As a student of history, he reflects that “the dark periods are tightly correlated with restriction of knowledge, including physically taking away books and opportunities for learning. And our enlightened periods tend to be highly associated with the free flow of information.”
Ultimately, he sees Splunk as a platform that helps organizations manage that tsunami of data and turn it into actionable intelligence. For Dunkin Donuts, that means insights on which coupons to send or which donuts to stock in a given store. For nonprofits and educational institutions, Merritt hopes it will be vital to curing diseases, advancing sustainable energy, and meeting our growing list of global challenges.
Correction: We’ve updated this article with the correct number of Splunk customers.