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Staying on the Edge

Something I have always appreciated about working at VMware is the constant stream of innovation.  I will always remember my job interview here seven years ago and how amazed I was at the number of opportunities there seemed to be to innovate, both in and around the products.  And those products were simple back then.  ESX 3.0 and Workstation 6.0 were the big products of the day and Fusion was just emerging.  During my interviews, each time I asked if something could be added or improved with the product, there was a glow about the interviewer.  It was obvious that the ideas were already brewing and that there seemed to be an unlimited path to follow.  This excitement led me to join the company for what has become an amazing ride!

 

Looking back, I realize that I didn’t appreciate the enormity of the groundswell of innovation that was rising beneath us.  There were so many product ideas in constant motion and it seemed that every time someone had a crazy idea, it would just happen!   Two examples of this are our vMotion technology, which allows live virtual machines to move from one physical machine to another without downtime, and our Fault Tolerance/High Availability capabilities that ensure constant uptime and data protection on virtualized infrastructure.  Both of these innovations changed the way our customers used virtualization and moved our products from basic server consolidation tools to strategic components of our customers’ IT strategy.  We have worked hard get there, but it has been worth it.  The level of passion and pride in what we were (and still are!) able to deliver to our customers and partners has been inspiring, to say the least.

 

So, here we are now in 2012 and VMware is not the <1000 employees it was when I first joined.  We now have over 11,000 employees worldwide and we have a LOT of wheels in motion.  Our R&D organization is globally distributed and working on multiple projects across multiple time zones.  Yet, amidst all this growth and activity, we STILL manage to innovate every day. But what does that really mean?

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There are two ways we innovate – just as the Oxford Dictionary suggests.  First, VMware puts tremendous emphasis on pushing our current products forward to meet our customers’ growing needs.  Because our customers rely on our products as the platform for their production systems, we are careful to move forward while ensuring confidence that we will not compromise their businesses.  As in most technology companies, there are constant negotiations and tradeoffs made internally to ensure the right set of features are included in each new release.  In addition, we always keep our quality reputation in the forefront. Our engineers are incredibly passionate about getting new innovation into our customer’s hands – so much so that when we feel something might not be ready for a shipping release but it’s ready to try and cool to experiment with, we release a Fling. Flings are a great way to see what’s coming from our engineers in future releases, and sometimes they are just a cool new tool that anyone can get (for free!) that complements our already rich set of products.

 

The second way we innovate gets to the heart of what I think about every day.  How do we introduce new stuff?  I’ve been lucky that VMware has had a culture of “new stuff” from the beginning.  Since the early days of VMware, when only a handful of engineers were on board, there have always been brainstorming forums to try to uncover the next big thing.  These forums have become part of the VMware culture and now include several interesting innovation components.  We have an annual Innovation event that brings together hundreds of engineers from all over the world to discuss their ideas for the next big thing.  We also have a web site where early stage ideas can be shared and discussed because, as Steven Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” states, good ideas often come from the discussion around one idea. We enable our organization to have those discussions in multiple forums to ultimately get to those good ideas that take us forward.  There are over 850 ideas currently brewing in this system!

 

Finally, something new this year and something I plan to blog in detail about more, is an internal investment program for disruptive technology. As a company, we have maintained our innovation culture and our willingness to take risks.  As a result, it became clear recently that we are ready to try a creative approach to broadening idea generation.  Thus, we have started a venture capital-like program inside of VMware.  Our goal is to enable anyone at VMware to bring an idea forward in an exciting, low-risk, high-reward program.  There is so much to share about this program and we are only just getting started!

 

How does your company foster innovation? I’d love to hear more about successful programs other companies have in place to keep the innovative spirit and drive alive!

 

Julia Austin is the Vice President of Innovation Programs.  You can reach her at julia@vmware.com.

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