On May 2, 2018, NetApp opened its new Data Visionary Center at the company’s headquarters in Sunnyvale. The Data Visionary Center, or DVC, is meant to be a physical manifestation of the evolution and transformation the company has undertaken over the past three years. Designed to not only showcase the NetApp story but to also lead customers and prospects on an experiential, hands-on journey, the DVC takes participants on an interactive and collaborative trek through the art of the possible and how NetApp can help customers achieve their goals.

A tailored briefing experience

Executive briefings are, of course, nothing new at NetApp. The company has had Executive Briefing Centers (EBCs) at its Sunnyvale, Research Triangle Park and Amsterdam offices for many years, and a new Data Visionary Engineering Center opened in Bangalore in May, as well as a Customer Meeting Center in Boulder in June.


NetApp has always taken a very customer-centric approach to these meetings. The briefings team works closely with the field and product teams, as well as with customers themselves, to tailor each briefing experience to the customer’s specific needs and the results they are trying to achieve with their data and digital transformations.


To further ensure that content is as personalized as possible, NetApp involves speakers from throughout the company to “speak the visitors’ language.” From techies in the IT department to product owners to C-level executives, speakers go as deep or as high-level as needed to accelerate customers’ business outcomes through technology.


“Although NetApp has won awards for how it conducts customer experiences in the past, the new DVC significantly up-levels the experience by making it even more collaborative, interactive and engaging,” says Suzanne Pallottelli, director, Customer Engagement.


“It’s now even more about the customer, deeply focused on their challenges and less focused on NetApp. Rather, we take the time to understand what keeps the customer up at night, the opportunities they want to attain and how we can be their trusted advisor as they move forward in today’s digital world,” she says.


This is not “death by Power Point”

To showcase the transformative capabilities of NetApp’s solutions and move away from a more traditional briefing experience where everyone sits in a conference room and hears presenters all day, the new DVC has been designed specifically so that the entire experience is, well, more experiential, including more visual and hands-on experiences, demonstrations and even a touch of virtual reality.


“We built a premier experience for customers to meet with all our data visionaries so they can discover, collaborate and come up with new ideas,” says Chad Lew, Executive Briefing Center solutions architect. “Visitors can actually get hands-on experience with some of our technology. They can explore what our customers are doing with data. We’ve already witnessed that this technology-rich setting sparks a lot of ideas on how customers can be more data driven to enable new touchpoints and create new business opportunities.”


The Human Communication Framework

The new DVC was designed around the Human Communication Framework model to create brand experiences that encourage relationship-building with customers.


The framework consists of five principles, or chapters as they’re called in the DVC. And if you’ve ever been to one of the Disney theme parks across the globe, chances are you’ve already experienced these principles because each relates directly to the steps that are taken as you go travel throughout a theme park.


Leading me—and our customers—through the DVC experience when I got a tour were Lew and Christy Jacobs, senior briefing program manager and facilitator for the DVC. They explained that the Human Communication Framework is based on the psychology of how people give and receive information. As they took me through each chapter, I got a taste of the full experience that our customers have when they visit the DVC.



Chapter 1: Attract

When you enter the new DVC, you are immediately drawn into the experience. Eighteen 12′ tall, curved LED screens create a massive, conical-shaped “Cloud Theater.” Videos immerse customers with how NetApp is empowering various industries to change the world with data.


According to Jacobs, it used to be that when customers came in, they were escorted to their conference room to start the day. “No more,” she says. Instead, a spread of small bites (usually breakfast) is laid out in the breakfast bar area to the left of the Cloud Theater. Above the breakfast bar is a fully customizable set of mosaic-tiled video screens that welcome the customer to the DVC. All the panels on the wall can be programmed. “We can customize the blocks with customers’ pictures or logos,” Jacobs says. For instance, when a major sporting apparel company visited the DVC, the team programmed the welcome screen with the company’s logo and put “footprints” on the floor throughout the center.


Sitting on the breakfast bar is a fully outfitted Internet of Things-enabled coffee machine. Across the room, on the right side of the lobby, is an interactive touchscreen coffee-table which displays the graphs and reports from the IoT coffee machine. The dashboard tracks how many drinks are being made from the machine, at what time of day, and where in the world the coffee is being ordered because it’s also connected to number of other IoT coffee machines at NetApp locations in Germany and the Amsterdam EBC. The dashboard allows tracking of everything that happens with each of the machines worldwide.


The coffee machines, which were connected on the backend by NetApp engineers to make them IoT ready, are meant to be a conversation starter, says Jacobs. “We can talk to customers about the details—ask them if they’re doing anything with IoT and how they’re collecting data, transporting, storing and analyzing it. And we can say, ‘Here are some real-time analytics and dashboards.’ It’s just a business intelligence dashboard where you can drill down into a bit of the analytics.”


Chapter Two: Trust

After receiving a warm greeting and with appetites sated, customers move into Chapter Two of the framework—building trust. During this phase, customers are invited into the Cloud Theater—a 360-degree theater that features floor to ceiling, video in the round. (Again, if you’ve ever seen one of the 360-degree movies at a Disney park, you know what this is like.)


The Cloud Theater features customer videos, outlining what they’ve been able to achieve with their data thanks to NetApp. Says Jacobs, “The building trust chapter is like a handshake. We don’t start with our voice and say ‘NetApp is great because of x, y and z.’ We let our customers tell their stories of how they’re solving problems with NetApp.”


As part of the Human Communication Framework, the first two chapters get visitors ready to dive into their business challenges. It gives customers a chance to see how NetApp is thinking about and approaching data and illustrates how we’re different, but by doing so in a very customer-centric way.


Chapter Three: Inform

According to Jacobs, the Inform Chapter is where “customers explore the art of the possible for themselves.” Inform is essentially the official “meeting” or discussion portion of the briefing, where customers, executives and presenters talk about the data problems the customer is looking to solve.


What’s new about this portion of the briefing experience is how the meeting rooms are designed. First, each meeting room has been named after an industry that is doing interesting things with data, such as aerospace, biometrics, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. The Aerospace room, for example, is the most collaborative space. It features modular furniture that can be moved around, put into pods or placed in a U-shape. It also has a retractable wall in the middle of the room that can be used to facilitate breakout sessions for large groups.


All of the rooms feature dual screens on the wall, one of which is a smart, touch screen where participants can swipe to change screens (think the movie Minority Report). Participants are given a website and PIN number to and participate in writing on the boards during the session, add “stickies” to information and save the content to take home with them. The screens can also be used as digital white boards.


“It’s fully collaborative,” says Jacobs. “Our customers have the ability to log in and actually contribute to the conversation at the same time as the presenters.”


Chapter Four: Internalize

For the last two chapters of the DVC experience, Jacobs turns things over to Chad Lew, who is in charge of the interactive portions of the experience. Lew compares the Internalize chapter to experiencing the attraction at the theme park—it’s where you get explore and experience all the things that have been talked about during the entire day.


Physically, the Internalize chapter features a number of interactive areas where customers can explore NetApp technology or receive demos. A partner kiosk area features video stories of how customers are using NetApp’s technology and how 12 of our most prominent partners (Google, Amazon, Microsoft Azure amongst others) are helping to create data visionaries. Hands-on labs let participants experience our cloud data services. For anyone who’s really technical, Lew says the labs allow them to “get on the command line and play around with stuff.” One demo illustrates how Cloud Volumes lets customers take their storage from 0 to 100 terabytes in the cloud on AWS in just 8 seconds.


A mini theater in the corner of the room includes a space where either more demos can be explored or more informal discussions can take place. iPads can be used to make mini theater sessions even more interactive, allowing for informal brainstorming. One demo illustrates AI and machine learning technologies using theVincent AI sketch application to create doodle art in real time. And an integration with Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, can be used to demonstrate and call up NetApp’s ActiveIQ dashboards, allowing customers to see how we’re using AI to monitor and manage data dashboards and do predictive analytics.


Probably the most fun part of the interactive experience is the customized NetApp virtual reality game, which demonstrates each of the Big 3 technologies in an entertaining and engaging way. “Game-playing gets pretty wild, and we see some high-energy competitiveness in this area,” says Christy Jacobs. Picking up virtual blocks and throwing them into a data center allows players to build a FlexPod in one game. In another, players blast a series of slow trucks, turning them into rocket ships using Flash. You can shovel all your data into the cloud in the cloud game. And you can build HCI cubes using a 3D Tetris-like game.


“It’s a really interesting and fun way to reinforce all the solutions and things they’ve been hearing about all day,” Chad Lew says.


Chapter Five: Act

Chapter Five of the experience is what Lew compares to the “exit through gift store” experience at a theme park. Although there is no literal gift shop at the DVC (at least not yet!), this part of the experience is meant to bring a culmination to the day by allowing participants to begin talking about next steps in an informal manner. That’s why Chapter Five is The Bistro—a place where participants can enjoy a meal or have happy hour, relax and enjoy themselves.


“To wrap up just sitting around a table is boring—this is a way to discuss the next steps informally and comfortably, and that’s the whole point,” Jacobs says.


The Bistro features a dining area, complete with a buffet area that features a special, small bites menu that was designed specifically for the DVC. According to Suzanne Pallottelli, the menu is focused on local, farm-to-table preparations.


The Bistro features a private dining area, as well as an outdoor patio—complete with a fountain and fire pit—where customers can also relax. The final point of customization in the center is an electronic flipboard-like screen on the wall in The Bistro that can also be changed to feature customer logos—and when you walk by it, the screen reacts, showing the outline of your body and reacting to your movements. “People play with this for a long time,” Lew says.


Two final features of the new DVC include a special waiting room where presenters can hang out and relax before going into their briefings, and display cases featuring special artifacts from NetApp history, such as the famous Hobee’s napkin that NetApp founders Dave Hitz and James Lau drew the original NetApp product prototype on, as well as signed bezels from product hardware and two of NetApp’s patents.



Customer reaction

According to the team, reaction to the new DVC and its customer experience journey has been overwhelmingly positive. Every visitor leaves the DVC with a customized action plan designed to help them thrive with data in a way that best achieves their business goals.


Customers have called the experience “amazing,” “the best briefing in my 30 years of doing IT,” “relevant,” and “incredible.”


Suzanne Pallottelli says that when the project to build the new DVC began three years ago, CEO George Kurian said he wanted the center to be a platform that launches a new era for NetApp. “I truly believe we succeeded in accomplishing that,” she says.


“We’re very proud of our house,” says Jacobs. “And most importantly, our customers feel at-home, and report that their visits were invaluable and well worth their time.”



Lisa Melsted

Lisa Melsted develops culture strategies and content for NetApp’s Employee Engagement team. A tech industry veteran with more than 15 years’ experience in various communications and marketing roles, she holds Master’s degrees in Creative Non-Fiction from Emerson College and English from the University of Iowa. She has also written articles about technology for publications such as Forbes BrandVoice and TechPageOne.