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A Windy Path to the Summit…and the View Is Worth the Climb

VMware’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) is an organization of roughly 2,700 people, headed by VMware CTO, Kit Colbert. We have product CTOs in their respective business units and Field CTOs for specific geographical areas. Recently, I was promoted to the company’s VP and CTO for the Americas.

The CTOs under Kit act as an extension of OCTO and are a resource for the folks who work in technical sales and professional services. These teams interact directly with our customers and partners. It’s our job to keep them up to date on VMware’s newest innovations and the value they bring to the company and the industry. We also speak directly with customers several times a week about our vision and strategy, as well as how we can help solve their business problems. We bring that information back to VMware to influence our product roadmaps and future work.

I’ve worked at VMware for 12 years. I’d wanted to work for the company for a long time — ever since I implemented ESX 2.x as a server and storage administrator and performed my first P2Vs (converting physical machines to virtual machines). The people I’d interacted with at the company were great. And I loved the technology. I was a beta tester for vSphere 4.0 and the sales engineer called me and said “Hey, I’m taking another position in VMware, would you like my job?” I went through the interview process and snagged a role as a Senior Systems Engineer. At that time, the company had about 4,000 employees. Things have changed quite a bit!

Being a woman in a largely male field like engineering hasn’t always been easy. It often feels like walking a tightrope, although I fall much less often these days. I have had to establish my technical credibility with the men around me. That has become easier as I have risen in the ranks, achieving significant milestones, such as becoming the company’s first woman Principal Systems Engineer and our first woman Chief Technologist (before my recent promotion to CTO). But there have been nuances that have been trickier to navigate.

One of those nuances has been around communication. It’s no secret that women typically communicate in different ways than men do. For example, women often soften our tone, even sounding subtly (or overtly) apologetic when we offer criticism or a different perspective than our coworkers or reports. In contrast, men are known to unapologetically jockey for status with each other. Knowing how to present our expertise and sound authoritative while still being well-received is no small feat. However, it is not in my personality to speak with a soft or apologetic tone: I prefer straightforward and clear communication. Therefore, I’ve been in many situations throughout my career where I have “ruffled the feathers” of others — some even requiring months of relationship mending! The most important lesson I have learned is to communicate with people in the style they are most comfortable with, as opposed to the way they speak to others.

In a recent interview for our “Joy of Innovation” series on LinkedIn Live, interviewer Hanna Phan Friend asked me what advice I’d give to young women who are eager to succeed in technology careers. Of course, there are no easy answers. Do you need a mentor? Sure — but you need the right mentor. Do you need an executive sponsor? Yes, it definitely helps. I’ve been lucky enough to work for leaders who have really helped along the way. For example, Chris Wolf, our Chief Research and Innovation Officer, has been one of my greatest executive sponsors. He has always treated me with respect and given me many opportunities and lots of helpful guidance throughout the years. But it still hasn’t been a straight line to becoming VMware’s CTO for the Americas. I’ve been passed over for promotions that I thought I would (or should!) have been a shoo-in for.

A turning point for me was when VMware hired an executive coach to help me evolve professionally. I interviewed a few and then selected a woman named Stephanie Barbour. She understood that I needed to better demonstrate my impact within VMware, for OCTO, and with our customers and partners. I liked that she integrated neuroscience into her coaching, as well as some unusual methods that some might call very “California.” She helped me do a lot of introspection. She worked with multiple leaders and other people inside the company to gain specific and actionable feedback. She helped me do an accounting of my strengths, as well as my areas of opportunity. While hearing positive feedback is always nice, hearing what you need to improve is tough (but necessary)! Stephanie went through an extensive report with me and we produced a plan. The exercise was invaluable.

All these experiences, all the arduous work, and all these years later, I am now VMware’s first woman CTO. I feel like it is not just a victory for me, but also a victory for all for everyone who is shooting for the stars — especially for those that are underrepresented, like women in tech. It has been a long road with lots of twists and turns, successes, and disappointments. But I’ve finally reached this particular peak. And while there will always be more mountains to climb, I know that each destination will be well worth the effort.  

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