Strategic Advisor Work Culture

Take a Bite! It’s Organic (Innovation)

Chris Wolf speaking on stage at The Next Web Valencia

Last week at The Next Web Valencia conference, I had the opportunity to discuss and share our best practices with a large community of technologists who are extremely passionate about innovation. While many large companies have opted out of funding disruptive organic innovation in favor of an acquisition model, at VMware, we see both organic innovation and inorganic growth as key to our long-term success. In my twenty-minute conference talk, I shared some of our best practices, which begin with first identifying clear swim lanes for innovation.

Graph showing innovation swim lanes, With Research, Incubation and Advanced Development on a timeline from 4+ years out, to less than 2 years out. Open Source Program Office spans those three different swim lanes.
Figure 1: VMware Research & Innovation swim lanes

This all starts with our VMware Research Group, a forward-looking team inventing new technologies with an expected time-to-market (TTM) of four or more years. We want our researchers looking at and building disruptive technologies aligned to anticipated future VMware business needs, doing so in partnership with the academic community and industry partners. A great example of work transferred by the research team in the past year having a significant impact on product is the vSAN 8 Express Storage Architecture, resulting in industry-leading performance.

Incubation, which focuses on a 2-4 year TTM outlook, is an essential function often overlooked. A common challenge with new inventions and innovation is timing market readiness, with projects often losing funding because they attempted to enter a market too soon. Our incubation team consists of small teams that build, prototype, and curate intellectual property (IP) in a way that allows us to “flip the switch” and rapidly bring a new product to market when the timing is right. A good example of recent work in this team would be in confidential computing, which can isolate data in a secure enclave during processing and is something that many of our financial services customers expect to be a regulatory mandate in the coming years. Our technology can provide interoperability between different hardware implementations, ensuring that application developers can take advantage of confidential computing capabilities without having to worry about modifying applications if there are changes to the underlying hardware. Best of all, we realize the value of a community-driven approach for confidential computing interoperability and have open-sourced our work.

Our advanced development function looks at bringing new technologies to market in under two years, with much of that work driven by our xLabs team. This team targets near-term business opportunities and co-develops new technologies in partnership with VMware R&D business units. This approach has led to an 80% success rate, resulting in transformational technologies coming to market in areas such as cryptographic agility and edge computing.

We also see strength in our organizational structure by having our Open Source Program Office reside within the Research and Innovation organization. Nearly all of our innovation projects include open source components, and we include the open source strategy in each project’s documentation. In addition, we are deeply involved in upstream work, with our team holding leadership roles in 17 important projects today.

Beyond our team structure, we have found success by maturing several best practices, which include:

  • VMware-First: Projects are prioritized and funded based on what is most opportunistic for VMware annual recurring revenue (ARR), with prioritization not given to individual BUs.
  • Adjacencies: We are biased toward building new technologies adjacent to existing VMware lines of business, which is a less costly, less risky, and more efficient means to grow ARR.
  • Focus: It’s not always practical for organizations to move to something completely disruptive to how they operate. Narrowing the scope of innovation projects can make it easier to enter markets and then iterate toward a grand vision over time.
  • Transparency: All projects are fully documented on our internal wikis, and include information on project team members, architecture, roadmap, graduation dates, and even links to current Jiras being worked on by our engineers. If anyone can offer ways to improve what we do, we welcome the feedback.
  • Business Unit (BU) Alignment: Given the myriad of opportunities in what to innovate, BU alignment drives decisions on where investments are made. We define BU alignment as support for a project from the R&D BU GM, VP of Product Management, and senior-level contributions to the project from a product manager and engineering architect at a minimum. If at any time alignment is lost, we stop work. Our BUs are our customers, and if they no longer see a need for something we are building, we stop the work. There are always plenty of problems that we can work to solve. Life is short and resources are finite. There’s no need to “double down” on a misaligned project in an attempt to prove others wrong.
  • Customer alignment: All projects seek to engage in design partnerships with customers to explore product-market fit, with a goal of a design partnership with 5-10 customers. Our Field CTOs, Field Principals, and CTO Ambassadors help to drive this alignment, ensuring that at early stages of R&D, the technology we build is aligned to their needs.
  • Partner alignment: We seek out design partnerships and feedback from a variety of industry partners (e.g., system integrators, hardware, and software vendors) on market readiness, product integration needs, and also work to ensure that there are clear demarcation points between where VMware can add value to a customer solution and where our partners can add value.
  • Focused on delivering outcomes: The organization is biased to deliver outcomes in the form of tech transfers. We define a tech transfer as technology that is in a product or service and being consumed by customers (internal or external). All other invention and innovation efforts represent a step on the journey and are important; however, the end goal for all technology projects is the tech transfer.
  • No pride of ownership: We seek to discover any redundancies with current projects and will shut down or merge projects where redundancies exist. As soon as a BU can absorb and fund a project, we will eagerly transfer it to the BU. Again, there are plenty of exciting technology problems to solve.
  • Embrace diversity as a key pillar to our success: We consider diversity (including diversity of thought) among our team members as a key pillar to success. Diverse perspectives are encouraged and have led to greater tech transfer success and have been instrumental in creating an open and highly productive culture.
  • Celebrate successes and learn from failures: Both teams and individuals are recognized for their accomplishments in quarterly town hall meetings. In addition, significant lessons learned and pivots/failures are highlighted because they are equally important to the innovation journey.

We have been able to usher 30 innovation projects into product over the past two years, with our culture of partnership, transparency, and pragmatism being essential to that success. Quite a bit goes into realizing successful organic innovation in any company, regardless of size, and we have been happy to play our role. I joined VMware over nine years ago because I was always impressed by its engineering culture of running to – and not from – hard problems. As we have grown as a company, we have become even more focused and collaborative in how we innovate, and we are excited to show more results stemming from our work in the coming months.

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