A Miracle Every Day: VMware’s Culture of Innovation

At a special fireside chat-style session with press and analysts at VMworld 2017, VMware took the opportunity to share how it embeds a culture of innovation into every aspect of its business. The conversation was moderated by VMware CTO Ray O’Farrell and featured three of VMware’s top technology leaders who joined O’Farrell for the event.

Do You Have a Better Idea?

O’Farrell set the stage by saying that VMware is always looking for ways to promote and encourage innovation for the benefit of VMware customers and partners. He introduced David Tennenhouse, VMware’s chief research officer, to explain how research helps inspire a culture of innovation.

Tennenhouse said that “having a lot of fun” is a tenet of VMware research, both inside the company and in its relationships with researchers in academia. VMware promotes a model of “hybridized research” that approaches internal and external research as one. The development of P-4, a new language for networking, is a direct result of this hybridized research approach. Tennenhouse said that a key factor in VMware’s research approach is that it promotes an attitude designed to encourage new thinking and ideas. “At VMware, we don’t ask how the idea works,” he said. “We ask: ‘Do you have a better idea?’”

Creating an Innovative Engine

Mornay Van Der Walt, vice president for VMware’s Xplorer Group, described specific programs designed “to create an innovation engine” that provides opportunities for innovation on a daily, ongoing basis. One of the most prominent of these programs is Research & Development Innovation Offsite (RADIO), an annual internal innovation event sponsored by VMware. Van Der Walt said that 1,000 ideas were submitted for this year’s conference. “From that number,” he said, “we harvested 200 ideas.”

Another program, VMware Flings, allows developers to take elements that don’t make the initial release of a VMware product and “fling” it out for public consumption and review. And xLabs is a new-idea incubator that gave birth to one of this year’s VMworld 2017 announcements, Functions as a Service (FaaS). Finally, VMware sponsors hackathon contests, open to all, to reinforce its commitment to drive innovation at every level of the company.

Process as Structure and Ensuring Accountability

Chris Wolf, vice president and CTO for VMware Global Field and Industries, said that the Global Field organization, “brings VMware to the field” with 150 of VMware’s “best of the best.”

“Nearly 80 percent of this force is customer-facing to ensure our innovations can scale in the field,” Wolf explained. Just as significantly, this robust field team captures and delivers to VMware innovative ideas from its engaged customers. Wolf pointed out that FaaS began as field project input before it was taken up by xLabs.

Wolf announced a new Global Field program to further customer involvement in VMware innovation, a “closed-loop feedback” designed to drive accountability for ideas that are brought from the field on a quarterly basis. VMware engineers would be required to respond in a timely manner to these submissions.

Taken together, “VMware’s programs are designed specifically to support innovation,” O’Farrell said. “It is process as structure.” Van Der Walt added that it is how “innovations become our DNA.” But perhaps Tennenhouse summed up VMware’s innovation strategy best, saying, “It is the reason there is a miracle every day at VMware.”

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