A Culture of Innovation at VMware

By Greg Lavender SVP & Chief Technology Officer
May 13, 2021 9:30 AM ET
Campaign: VMware Culture

VMware was founded on a vision of making the seemingly impossible practically possible. Since 1998, our culture has always been centered around how can we challenge ourselves to deliver new innovations to our customers:

  • Our enterprise server virtualization technology turned data center computing into a more economical proposition for running mission-critical business applications and IT services with higher degrees of availability and resiliency on commodity x86 hardware.
  • Our Software-Defined Data Center (SDDC) platform virtualized storage and networking and brought SDDC automation and monitoring for workload provisioning to deliver a private cloud service.
  • We enabled scalable virtualized desktop infrastructure (VDI) that transformed end-user computing. The past year of adjusting to remote working during COVID-19 was made possible for tens of thousands of our customers with secure end-user computing technology using VDI, Workspace One, and our SD-WAN capabilities.  

Fast forward to 2021. Evolving from a lean startup to a company of 34,000+ people with nearly $12B in annual revenue, VMware is faced with a new challenge: how can we maintain our culture of innovation and keep that startup spirit alive as a large global company?

I know that perpetual innovation is the lifeblood of a technology company. The Office of the CTO is a global team dedicated to exploring and creating a future of disruptive technologies. We focus on near-term and long-term innovation initiatives that are aligned with our business objectives, customer needs but ahead of product roadmaps. We are also trusted technology advisors to our customers and partners, guiding them through their internal transformations. We sponsor academic research in universities globally, and sponsor both Masters and Ph.D. research internships, post-doctoral researchers, and affiliated faculty who focus on our long-term research agenda. We also collaborate across the VMware ecosystem, co-innovating with customers and partners to deliver more value to their business.

Where does innovation come from?

Over the course of my career, I have worked in commercial and academic research labs, startups, major tech companies, and even a global financial. Through that experience, I have learned that innovation happens everywhere. 

When I worked at Sun Microsystems, CEO Scott McNealy would remind us to not be fooled into thinking that our own innovations were so unique that we did not have to pay attention to our competitors. Andy Grove of Intel was famous for saying that “only the paranoid survive.” Both groundbreaking tech-company leaders understood that you should never be self-satisfied with the status quo.  

The innovator’s dilemma teaches us that any successful innovation over time may limit your options for future innovation as you become over-constrained by your prior success. At VMware, we practice both organic and inorganic innovation. We focus on strong internal innovation, inorganic innovation through acquisitions and business-model innovation in how we go to market and enable our customers to consume our technology in new ways — such as VMware Cloud (VMC) on AWS, Azure VMware Solution (AVS), Google Cloud VMware Engine, IBM Cloud, Oracle Cloud, and other cloud service providers globally. We also contribute to and utilize open-source technology when beneficial, and collaborate with academia, customers, and industry partners on co-innovation.

How do we encourage and enable innovation?

When we think about fostering a culture of innovation on a large scale, we focus on how we create the space for our people to try new things, no matter what group they are in or where they are on their exploration journey. We do this through diverse and equitable opportunities that support our VMware people with time, resources, and an abundance of inspiration and self-motivation. We conduct global hackathons, Pitch-a-thons (live pitch sessions where innovators can share their ideas and get feedback), “Shark Tank”-like idea competitions, and data-science competitions. 

We have experimental yet strategic projects in our xLabs program – our internal incubation engine — just like a startup accelerator. We also have longer-term incubation projects in our Research Group where we work on higher risk, higher reward ideas to advance to the next level. Some of these incubation efforts graduate into the VMware product portfolio and into the hands of our customers. In addition to all of this internal experimentation, we have an external co-innovation program known as Flings, a site for free downloadable software that allows our engineers to directly validate their prototypes with our customers, as well as our Accelerated Co-innovation Engineering (ACE) Program that fosters co-innovation directly with our customers.

One way we exercise and amplify our organic innovation culture at VMware is at our annual internal innovation offsite we call RADIO (which stands for R&D Annual Innovation Offsite). This coveted event is truly one-of-a-kind in the industry. At RADIO, VMware technologists from all over the world connect, learn, and share their best (and sometimes radical) ideas that often lead to new product features, patents, and external publications. RADIO is the perfect antidote to the classic innovator’s dilemma, because you never know where a great idea is incubating unless you explicitly enable the idea to come forth and flourish.

Innovation starts with a philosophy

The following seven principles serve as our guide for enabling a culture of perpetual innovation at VMware. Interestingly, they do not make our job smooth sailing. To the contrary, we have learned that innovation involves a Hegeliandialectic — an inherent tension between opposite points of view. When nurtured in a respectful way, this dialectic usually breeds superior solutions. This creative tension is part and parcel of our process and is something that I believe makes our culture unique.  

1. Innovation begets innovation.

Real-life innovation is a verb, not a noun. It’s a process that requires movement, power, and momentum. We practice it every day as part of “business as usual.” As we do, we find that it picks up speed and becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. This is how we generate solutions, stimulate progress, and become a force for good.

2. Sometimes you have to push back on pushback.

Taking “no” for an answer can sometimes stall the development of innovative solutions before they actually get off the ground. More often than not, the innovator’s journey is an uphill battle. The pushback forces the innovator to hone and refine their ideas. It also gives the innovator ammunition/justification to challenge our company’s conventions and demand more from us and others.

3. There is intelligence in failure.

As we challenge each other, we find that identifying what won’t work can be like a sieve: whatever makes it through the holes is the stuff we want to keep. This helps us build a knowledge base we can apply to future ideas. This is often called “failing forward” and we believe it makes us smarter. 

4. Innovation requires collaboration.

In my experience, compartmentalized approaches, fiefdoms, and brain trusts are obstacles to innovation. While true collaboration can sometimes feel like a slower, more difficult path, it usually produces more refined, sophisticated solutions. This is why some of the most remarkable innovations are the product of a team effort. 

5. Listening has a distinct “look” to it.

We strive to embody what listening to customers looks like. True listening helps us arrive at a deeper understanding of their needs and helps us identify opportunities to address them in optimal ways.

6. Thought is good. Action is better.

VMware has always been, and will always be, a thought leader. However, thought alone is only the first stop on the road to innovation. We must become action leaders — developing and launching innovation programs, far-reaching initiatives, and strong communication vehicles. This is how we help set the disruptive technology agenda for ourselves, and how we influence the entire industry.

7. Diversity is a competitive advantage.

We actively seek out and include people who bring diverse skills, backgrounds, perspectives, approaches, and ideas to the table. This is how great advances are made, how contributions are valued, and how innovation thrives.

Are you an open-minded innovator who is comfortable with creative tension, believes strongly in collaboration, and infuses your work with creativity? If so, we invite you to innovate with us. 

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