In surfing, in life, and in business, the next wave is always chasing you. While it’s critical to learn from your past successes, believing that the same approach will always serve you is dangerous and ill-advised. If you’re not consciously anticipating the approaching wave, it may crash right over your head, leaving you wondering what hit you.
So where’s the balance? How can you take what you’ve learned as you’ve progressed through massive disruption and major transformation but still anticipate the waves that are chasing you? After some deep self-reflection, here’s what I’ve learned.
Lesson 1: Disruption can start earlier than you think.
My journey at VMware started in the Summer of 2002, when I was an intern from Brown University. About four years later, after accepting a full-time job here, AWS launched its first set of cloud services — S3 and EC2. At that time, VMware was growing at a stunning rate, and we were just trying to keep the wheels on. This was the dawning of the cloud age. Disruption had just begun. We wanted to look to the cloud, but it was too much. We had to keep our focus on virtualization — the opportunity right in front of us. We couldn’t take our eyes off the road to focus on an extremely speculative trend (cloud) that had just started to evolve but was still far off in the distance. This is the classic innovator’s dilemma. We stayed the course.
Lesson 2: Disruption may take longer than you think.
Then the growth of the cloud industry picked up speed. As it accelerated, we were all still focused on what had catapulted us to success — virtualization. And we didn’t react fast enough. We could tell that cloud was coming, but weren’t quite sure how we were going to deal with it from both a technology and business perspective. We felt “behind” right out of the gate.
So we tried our hand at building our own cloud: vCloud Air. But it was a false start and we realized we were on the wrong path. We shifted course and decided to partner with the companies who had already gotten a foothold in the cloud industry (VMware Cloud on AWS). This turned out to be a great choice.
At this point in my career at VMware, I was in a position to help guide our strategy. My new focus was containers. I got wind of Docker in late 2013, just as it was starting to ramp up. Various industry players, such as RedHat, started to embrace this approach. Understanding the threat, I moved quickly to address it. I convinced senior executives to align on the problem, and we started a business unit focused on cloud-native apps in 2015.
I wish I could say it was perfect timing. Nope.
My mistake was that I was looking too far into the future, anticipating that the pace would be similar to the advent of cloud. I moved too quickly, without allowing time for our new offerings to build an organic user base. Today, I see that I should have balanced my haste with a disciplined focus on solid engineering and product-led growth. Whoops. That said, while we were a bit early for containers and we were a bit late for cloud, we eventually got to the right place with both.
Lesson 3: Technology keeps pace with culture.
Here is one of the most important things I’ve learned: disruption does not belong solely to technology. It is always accompanied by process and mindset shifts. People are much harder to change than tech.
As technologists, we often become mesmerized by the next cool thing — the evolution or revolution of our products and services. Sometimes we forget that the magic only happens when people and culture change along with the tech.
At VMware, we shifted from software delivery to closed-loop service delivery. However, this didn’t work when applied to private cloud, which was still software delivery. It was time to shift course. We adjusted once again — from optimizing for IT to optimizing for developers.
Sounds straightforward when I write it down now. But now that I’m in my 40s (when people often start needing reading glasses), I see the paradox: the closer you are to something, the fuzzier things appear. From far away, it was clear what VMware needed to do. Inside the company, it was much less clear.
The lesson was this: the key to transformation isn’t always the technology. The most important thing may be to focus on hiring and targeting the right people. In this case, it was the developers. Once you’ve got the people in place, the technological transformation will follow.
Lesson 4: Keep your eyes on the road, but don’t take the first offramp.
As I look in the rearview mirror, I can clearly see the cycles that we’ve been through. Neither life nor technology is a straight line. Not to sound cliché, but what goes around comes around: the disruptor becomes the disrupted becomes the disruptor. We have to always be playing offense and defense, driving disruption while preparing to be disrupted.
This story is far from over. Cloud is now becoming multi-cloud. This time, I feel as though VMware is positioned very well. Our strategy of staying agnostic — partnering with all of the major hyperscalers — has put us in a strong position to address our customers’ needs with multi-cloud.
We will have to continue to embrace new mindsets and new processes. Our success will depend on closed-loop service delivery, product-led growth, and on serving developers. But there is a massive opportunity in front of us.
So, I leave you with this — identify the wave early on. Be patient. Understand and adopt changing mindsets. Then surf into the sunrise of reinvention.
Let me know your thoughts on this process in the comments.