VMware CIO: 'I've worked for a lot of evil people in my career'

Attracting and keeping talent is the top challenge today, he says, and it takes more than money

When you're the CIO of a company that sells to CIOs, you've got to figure there's a good chance you're going to be asked to do more than just keep the servers running.

"If you ask my CEO, he'll say, 'You're the voice of customers,'" said Bask Iyer, who was hired in March as CIO and senior vice president at VMware. "'You use these products,' he'll say; 'Tell us if we're building the right products for the market.'"

Only much further down on CEO Pat Gelsinger's list -- after forging customer relationships and helping to build revenue, for example -- would be operations: "And oh by the way, make sure everything works," Iyer quipped.

Iyer's own list is a bit different.

"You can't be the voice of the customer if your email doesn't work," he said. "There's basic blocking and tackling you just have to do, and the more I run operations well at a good cost, the more time I can spend on revenue generation."

Increasingly, Iyer plays a key role in proving the merit of his company's technology offerings by demonstrating to prospective customers how they're used internally. It's not a sales role, he stresses, but rather almost more of an educational one.

"I can't be a salesperson -- I have to be a practitioner first," he said. "People want to learn from us."

That's an unfamiliar expectation for many in IT, but Iyer is equipped with more than 25 years of experience. Before joining VMware, he was CIO at Juniper Networks, where his responsibilities included key services around business transformation, global business services and workplace services. Further back, he served as CIO and e-commerce leader at GlaxoSmithKline Beecham.

Now eight months into his job at VMware, Iyer's top priority is what he calls "VMware on VMware," or the practice of "drinking your own champagne" and showcasing how the company's products work internally.

Facilitating collaboration is another thing he's focusing on, as is the major transformation currently under way in VMware's back-end systems.

"We've grown at an exponential rate and are now at a stage where we need to set up for new business models to support the next generation of growth," he said. A case in point: "We sell licenses, but a lot of our customers are now asking for subscriptions," he explained. "We're getting to the guts of our processes and making sure they're improving."

There are other significant shifts taking place in VMware's market as well. The rise of container technologies such as Docker, for example, is viewed by many as a threat to virtualization, which is VMware's bread and butter.

Iyer, however, isn't worried. "I have been through so many hype cycles," he said.

Iyer has asked IT staff to try out container technology internally, and they've liked it, he said.

It's "another tool to add to your arsenal," he said, but "I believe VMware and containers are better together. To manage the containers, you need the management software VMware has delivered for years."

Another potential change on the horizon is Dell's proposed $67 billion acquisition of EMC, which owns a controlling stake in VMware.

"As a customer, I was relieved to hear that they're going to keep VMware independent," Iyer said. "It helps other CIOs manage a complex, multivendor environment, and that's what I have too."

From a business perspective, the affiliation with Dell could also help VMware get access to new potential customers.

"EMC helped us, and now we'll have bigger reach," he said. "It could open more doors and give us more scale."

Whether the deal ultimately goes through remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Iyer has his hands full. At the moment, finding the right talent is one of his biggest challenges.

"I'd rather have two of the right people than 200" of the wrong ones, he said. "But how do you get them, when everyone else seems to want them too?"

Talent has become a critical differentiator in IT, and money is only one part of what it takes to attract the right people, he believes. Rather, the best employees want to work for good people and good companies, he said, pointing to the VMware Foundation as a key piece of the company's efforts in that direction.

"I've worked for a lot of evil and bad people in my career," Iyer said, "but I was young and figured it was part of learning."

Today, millennials have different expectations.

"They want more than 'do no evil' -- they want to work for companies that do good," he said. "I talk a lot about changing the world. It isn't just about making money."

There are countless other challenges facing companies today as well, of course, but Iyer urges CIOs to remember that their domain is now at the center of it all.

"IT is the biggest enabler for all corporations," he explained. "CIOs are the custodian of that, and it's a big responsibility. You need to be creative and open, and drive the change."

It's also important to enable through collaboration rather than focusing on control, he said: "You're the person who enables everybody in the whole company, from the janitor to the CEO."

Finally, it's essential to stay fresh and open-minded, Iyer said.

In IT, each generation of innovators has a tendency to stand in the way of the next generation of products, he explained. For example, "mainframe people won't adopt midrange, PC people won't adopt mobile," he said. "You become dogmatic."

In the hopes of avoiding that tendency in himself, Iyer tries to learn from younger generations through a sort of reverse mentoring. "The best way I've found is to talk to the next generation of folks about how they use their mobile devices, what they think about Uber and Facebook," he said.

"There are days when I feel like I've seen it all before," Iyer said. "You have to find a way to unlearn a lot of the things you've learned."

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Katherine Noyes

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