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Honeybees and Discovering the Next Big Thing

I had an amazing experience recently helping a friend set up a beehive on her property.  Throughout the process, I was taken with the intricate details of how a hive functions and the role of each bee and their CEO, the queen.  I wondered how much of their elaborate system of egg nurturing to honey-making was simply a matter of evolution or if it was more complex than that.  So, I did a little research…

 

What I found out is that each bee serves a purpose and collaborates with one another.  They have a sophisticated communication system or “dance” and in the tens of thousands, they work as a highly efficient team.  Most interesting to me however is that they have a well developed research system that ensures they are prepared for the future.

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While the honeybee doesn’t actually invent new “things”, there’s a lot

to be learned from their research system which is primarily focused on food supply.  They carve out a portion of the community to do a series of reconnoissance missions to find possible opportunities.  Their goal is to find the über supply or the “next big thing”. They don’t tap into all the options they discover, but rather select their next major source based on specific criteria and by garnering imput from the community.  Their research and collaboration has led to an existence that scientists claim goes back at least a million years.

 

Drawing parallels to investing in technology research and the next big thing, the honeybees seamlessly do what most tech organizations struggle to do; they prioritize their resources to do the research and when times are hard, the honeybees increase their research investment.  Instead of trying to do more with less, they take more worker bees from the routine production tasks and add them to the research pool to increase the possibilities of discovering the next big thing.  The community works together and “discusses” options to determine what’s best for the hive’s survival.  Given the longevity of these creatures, their research model has a proven track record that cannot be denied.

 

All of this insight on the honeybee approach to research got me to thinking about our upcoming annual internal innovation conference.  The conference is one of many things we do here at VMware to invest in the next big things and has morphed over the years from a one day academic-research type of event to a three day conference that includes a vast array of content – from advanced research presentations and educational seminars to Birds of a Feather meet-ups.

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One of the best parts of the conference is the Expo that houses close to 100 booths filled with demos and posters showcasing the hot projects going on across our development organization. Like any industry conference, the booths get cooler every year – adding multimedia, hands-on demos and of course, swag.

 

Throughout the conference, content and presentations are rated and, much like the honeybees, the community weighs in on the importance of ideas that may lead to the next big thing.

 

In addition to the community rating of new ideas, our innovation conference is similar to research investments of the honeybees. The level of investment in time for the conference is a lot like the time investment the bees make to keep their food supply search going. Engineers at VMware are encouraged to submit proposals to get into the conference (a coveted invite as only ~20% of the organization gets to attend). If they get in, they are given the time they need to prepare high quality presentations, demos and content for their booth.

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The conference itself is also a big time investment for those who attend and we find that the level of time during the conference that is invested in sharing and exchanging ideas grows exponentially every year.

 

Most important, though, is what this event begets in terms of the next big things. Some of our greatest inventions like Storage vMotion and Horizon Mobile got their start from their initial presentations at this event.  In the case of the latter, it was just after this event that Horizon Mobile (nee MVP) began truly incubating.  It was at a time when the future of smart phones and their role in the enterprise was still a big unknown.

 

Because of this focussed research investment, we are now well poised to deliver a smart solution to address the BYOD challenge IT organizations are struggling with.  By being presented at the innovation event, not only did the project gain further investment, but it seeded other new investments in the mobility space that are now in VMware’s View and Virtual Center products.

 

At VMware, we continue to take risks and pull resources from day-to-day development work to ensure we’re investing in the next big things.  There are so many other examples of such investments here like Project AppBlast and Project Octopus and even our acquisitions of cool new technologies to explore like SocialCast (social media for the Enterprise) and Shavlik Technologies to help simplify IT for SMB.  We also back strategic new ideas like Mozy and hire top talent to explore new subject areas of interest – check out my friend Josh Simon’s blog on HPC.  The list is endless and I’m excited about some of the new stories we’ll be telling at VMworld 2012 this summer.

 

So, as we gear up for our annual event, I will be thinking more about those honeybees and how they prioritize time and resources with a focus on the next big thing.  All the hard work that goes into the conference – especially by our “worker bees” who are coming up with the next big things – pays off every year.  Will we last a million years?  Who knows.  I do know though that just as the honeybees are programmed to continue to to discover the next big thing, the VMware culture is programmed just the same.

 

For a more in-depth look at the parallels between honey bees and industry, check out “The Wisdom of Bees” by Michael O’Malley

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