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VMware has the strategy and culture to thrive after CEO Pat Gelsinger's exit to Intel
Virtzilla’s next boss has container-centric challenges tho nothing as hard as the task of making Intel great again
Analysis A VMware employee of my acquaintance once told me a story about a customer meeting he attended alongside departing CEO Pat Gelsinger, who has just been revealed as the new CEO of Intel.
My contact is a very significant computer scientist in his own right and was in the meeting to demonstrate his, and therefore VMware’s, very deep expertise and ability to deliver for the customer.
Gelsinger, as chief exec, drove the meeting. The customer was rapt by his presentation and became comfortable enough to ask a tangential question about an emerging technology. My acquaintance assumed that as the person who was in the room to provide technical insight, he’d be the one to answer it, so began to stretch his mental muscles.
Gelsinger answered the client's question without missing a beat and nailed it. My acquaintance was impressed by the CEO’s knowledge, erudition, and that despite having plenty on his plate as leader of a $10bn company, he’d found the time to learn and articulate the details of a very complex emerging tech.
What a day. After an incredible, life-changing 8 years at @VMware, I have made the decision to step in as @intel's CEO next month. To the VMware team I say “thank you” with the greatest appreciation and humility.— Pat Gelsinger (@PGelsinger) January 14, 2021
The big cheese later acknowledged that he’d pinched my acquaintance’s moment in the sun, an act that had the effect of making the VMware staffer feel like he needed to up his game to keep pace with his CEO.
But Gelsinger could also be sharp. Your correspondent once stretched the bounds by attending a VMware user group event to which I was invited and at which Gelsinger intended to speak in what I hoped would be a less-guarded mode than he reserves for the press. I had disclosed my status as a journalist prior to attending.
Showing up at the user meeting in the middle of the maelstrom that is a VMworld conference showed how Gelsinger would find time to let fans know he appreciated their ardor. When he spotted your humble vulture during his address to the group, he made it plain, with humor not rancor or anger, that he’d been robbed of the chance to be more candid by the appearance of that pesky journalist over there.
Intel will soon have that combination of knowledge, graciousness, amenability, and gentle ruthlessness at its disposal.
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Chipzilla will also acquire the services of a fine strategist. When Gelsinger became VMware CEO in August 2012, the virtualization giant had just acquired software-defined network pioneer Nicira and released vSphere 5.1. At the time VMware was all in on “private cloud,” the then-novel notion that a fleet of virtualized servers could evolve beyond presenting as a single logical resource but also deliver an experience resembling the elasticity of a public cloud.
vSphere 5.1 also included VMware’s first tilt at virtual storage – the vSphere Storage Appliance.
On Gelsinger’s watch, the appliance became VSAN, Nicira eventually became NSX, and VMware went from being a champion of highly-evolved server consolidation to delivering a complete software-defined data-center stack spanning compute, storage, networking, and end-user computing. That stack now runs on all major clouds, and over 4,000 clouds run by smaller service providers.
VMware has a clear strategy to allow any workload to run and be managed, anywhere. That strategy, and the customers who adhere to it, are sufficiently impressive that Amazon Web Services’ first significant hybrid cloud alliance was made with VMware.
Gelsinger also defined internal values at VMware, and employees there seem to me more sincerely bought-in than folks I know at other technology giants. Microsofties admire Satya Nadella yet still grumble about internal culture. HPE people just get the job done without much enthusiasm. IBMers retain a certain weary optimism that better days are around the corner because Big Blue is, well, Big Blue. VMware folks refer to Gelsinger with real admiration. Sometimes affection.
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Gelsinger’s departure may make that culture harder to maintain though it won’t change VMware’s product or technology strategy.
So while annual revenue at the Dell-owned corporation grew from $4.6bn to a predicted $11.7bn on his watch, which suggests his input was beyond important, the company can well and truly survive his departure.
But Gelsinger himself, in a Tuesday interview at a Goldman Sachs Virtual Technology and Internet Conference 2021, acknowledged that his successor will not have an easy ride because containers are clearly the coming technology, and it’s too early to say “who really becomes the container run time environment of choice.”
VMware thinks its management tools and the benefits of abstraction are more useful to containers and hybrid clouds than to conventional data centers.
The company has lots of competition in the Kubernetes and hybrid cloud industries, but saw off Microsoft in compute virtualization and became a layer customers happily added to Windows Server.
Securing the same status in the cloud is the job for VMware’s next chief exec.
And what of Intel?
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Without abandoning our whole ethos of biting the hand that feeds us, I have to say I’ve spent about half a day in Gelsinger’s company and listened to many hours of his presentations and Q&A sessions. He’s clearly enormously intelligent and goes out of his way to explain his thinking. He likes to tell his personal story of being raised on a farm, waking before the sun rose to work, and how that upbringing means that getting up at 4AM to exercise feels both natural and easy, while working in tech feels like a privilege.
Family and faith are enormously important to him – he happily tweets quotes from the Bible – and the latter seems to inform his leadership style and genuine concern that technology should be used for good.
Whether those qualities help Intel remains to be seen. Chipzilla’s humiliating defeat in the smartphone market, the 10nm fiasco, and the loss in ground to the likes of TSMC, AMD, and the Arm world are extraordinary failures for a mega-corp that used to pride itself on paranoia-fueled efforts to stay out in front and maintain a sizable lead in the industry. Intel’s execution has faltered. And its strategy lacks a riposte to the rise and rise of the Arm architecture.
Intel is also vastly different to VMware. Gelsinger rode a wave of enthusiasm for making hardware less prominent and celebrating the primacy of software. Intel, while dominated by software engineers and products, remains utterly wedded to hardware and all the meatspace mess that making said silicon requires.
Gelsinger seems as likely as anyone to help Intel address those challenges. But I fancy the next CEO of VMware will have a far easier job.
And Gelsinger clearly thinks he has what it takes and is up for the challenge, as this late 2020 tweet from his recommended reading list illustrates... ®
Hit Refresh, Satya Nadella— Pat Gelsinger (@PGelsinger) December 29, 2020
As a friend and colleague, it is truly impressive to see what @satyanadella has done at Microsoft. I deeply believe technologists have an inherent advantage running technology companies. Rebuilding a company is never a small task.
Want more analysis? Our sister site The Next Platform has shared its thoughts on the CEO changes, here.