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16 years – A Reflection

This week, I celebrate 16 years at VMware. It’s quite a milestone for me and the longest I have been with any company throughout my 32 year career. I thought I’d take a break from the technical posts and try to write something about how my career at VMware developed over the years, what were some of the paths & decisions I took, and also highlight a few of the people and events that influenced me along the way.

In 2005, I was working at EMC in Cork (Ireland), in their technical support organization. EMC were a giant at the time, and I had joined them in 2001. EMC had bought VMware in 2004. It was then that I had my first exposures to VMware technology, in particular ESX 1.5 & VMotion.  In early 2005, I heard about a plan to start a VMware support office for VMware in Cork, so I made a decision that this would be interesting technology to work with. I started as one of the first VMware support engineers in Cork (employee #3 at the time). We worked hand-in-hand with the Slash support team based in India, who were then handling global support cases for VMware.

The early days were a blast, with VMware flying me to New York for some training, then over to Palo Alto to meet the rest of the team. I also got to attend VMworld 2005 in Las Vegas. My head was spinning, but what an incredible induction to the company.  Once all that was over and I was back in Cork, it was full on – a really steep learning curve – working to support releases such as ESX 2.5.1 and 2.5.2. Below is one of the earliest picture of the team I have from back then, although there is only myself and one other person from that photo who are still with the company now. That would be Donal, on the left of the picture. John Dolan, the guy wearing the suit in the center, was VP of Global Support Services for many years, and was instrumental in setting up VMware in Cork, He has only recently moved on to other things, but I will always be grateful for the initial support he gave me when starting out. On the right is my good pal Dominic, who joined us in Cork for a couple of years from slash support. He’s now back in Bangalore, riding his Harley and playing rock guitar. A very cool guy that I was fortunate to be able to catch up with him just a couple of years back. There was a real sense of camaraderie back in those early days, with many of the team just ‘learning the ropes’ on how to do technical support. There was a great sense of excitement too. One guy missing from the picture is John Browne, who joined VMware from EMC around the same time as me. John is also still with VMware in Cork today. Soon after this picture was taken (early 2006) we moved to the current VMware Cork premises in Barrack Square.

Around 2007, the support center was growing rapidly. I decided to make a move into course development and training, and began creating training modules to coincide with vSphere releases, as well as troubleshooting guides. I seemed to be spending more and more time mentoring new-hire support engineers anyway, so this transition made sense. The major releases during this time were for vSphere 4.0 and vSphere 4.1. There are far too many features released during this time to begin highlighting, but it was around this time that we saw vSphere Distributed Switches, vSphere Fault Tolerance and Storage vMotion for the first time, if memory serves.

August 2007 saw EMC selling a portion of VMware via an IPO. This was my first experience of being in a company that was going through an Initial Public Offering, and I remember the excitement in the Cork office as we watched $VMW start at $17 and go all the way to the heady heights of $51. Happy days!

2007 was also my first major speaking event, at TSX in Nice, France. I was giving a “storage troubleshooting storage” talk and I remember the room filling to capacity, and lots of people standing and sitting all around the edges of the room. I think I had around 400 people in the room. I distinctly remember my wobbly legs giving this talk too.

While I don’t consider myself a natural public speaker, over the years I seem to have become reasonably comfortable with it (most of the time anyway). I still get nervous, I still worry about doing an ok job, I still worry about stumbling over my lines, or freezing like a “rabbit in the headlights”. But most of the time, once you get into the swing of the talk, you don’t even think about that stuff. Funnily enough, many of the public speakers I talk to suffer from the same anxiety. The only remedy seems to be to just keep doing it. It’s a great thing to be able to do, and there are so many groups these days, such as toastmasters, that can help you find your feet. One piece of advice that stuck with me is to consider the group of people you are talking to as a group of friends, who want to listen to what you have to say and also want you to have a great talk. And while I have done many talks since, both to much larger and much smaller audiences, this is the one thought I keep in mind before every presentation.

I was traveling for training quite a bit in those days (2007-2011), with regular trips to our support centers that were starting up in Bangalore, India and Broomfield in Colorado, as well as the already thriving support center in Burlington, just outside Toronto, Canada. It was amazing to see how quickly the company was growing. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. In 2008, Diane Green – who had been co-founder, president and CEO since I joined – was replaced by Paul Maritz. Shortly after, Mendel Rosenblum (co-founder and husband of Diane) stepped down as our Chief Scientist. However things soon settled down once again, and for most of us, it was simply a case of carrying on as before.

In early 2011, a position became available within the Tech Marketing team for storage, and I applied for that role on the advice of Paul Manning, who was leaving the role. I had worked closely with Paul on building storage related collateral over the years. This is when I first got to work with Duncan Epping, who I have worked with on-and-off for the past 10 years. Soon we were joined by Frank Denneman, Alan Renouf and William Lam. I learnt a huge amount from these guys, and continue to do so to this day. I joined the team around the time of the vSphere 5.0 launch, so spent a lot of time evangelizing new storage features such as VMFS-5, VAAI enhancements and Storage DRS enhancements. This was also the time that VMware release the vSphere Storage Appliance (VSA) – anyone remember that? I presented on these topics at VMworld 2011, both in Las Vegas and Copenhagen. This was also around this time that I started to blog, first creating posts on the official vSphere blog site, and then on my own personal blog which I started in 2012, thanks to encouragement from Duncan, Frank and the guys. At the same time,  I was getting invited to a lot more speaking events, predominantly VMware User Group (VMUG) meetings. I think my first one may have been the UK National VMUG back in 2011. The next few years were involved in creating collateral such as blog posts and white papers on new features, and then going out to evangelize the new products and features as much as possible. Apart from presenting at both VMworlds in the US and in Europe, we would have also presented at the various Partner Exchange (PEX) events and lots of VMUG meetings.

The major event during this time-frame was the arrival of Pat Gelsinger from Intel in 2012 to take over as CEO from Paul Mauritz. I think Pat’s legacy speaks for itself. Pat left earlier this year to return to Intel. It will be interesting to see who takes over as our next CEO.

During the 2013-2015 time-frame, during the various vSphere 5.x release, we first introduced the concept of virtual volumes into our products. It was also the time that we announced the first version of vSAN, which would go on to form a major part of my career over the coming years. VMworld 2015 was particularly manic, with a lot of focus on vSAN. It was certainly causing quite the buzz. This was when Duncan and I decided to try to capture all of the information around vSAN and put it into a format that could be easily digestible by a growing audience, and so this led to us publishing a vSAN book via VMware Press. This was the first time I had written a book, and it was a very proud moment to see it up on the Amazon Bookstore. We eventually went on to do 3 editions of the book, self-publishing the most recent one. I also got a big kick out of seeing the book translated into other languages.

After 3 years in Technical Marketing, I wanted to try something more engineering focused, so I moved to a new role in a team called Integration Engineering and started working with my old ex-EMC pal, Paudie O’Riordan. This team was looking at ways to automated the deployment and on-going day-2 operations around the full Software Defined Datacenter (SDDC) stack. This initiatives later morphed into the VMware Validated Design / VMware Cloud Foundation. However, this didn’t stop the evangelism or the enablement, and I continued to travel extensively talking about vSAN and storage from locations ranging from South Africa to Singapore, as well as all around Europe. My blog posts were also dominated by vSAN features and How-Tos as more and more enhancements were added to the platform.

After a couple of years in Integration Engineering, a new opportunity arose in 2016 – around the same time that we were getting ready for vSphere 6.0. Since I was still so engaged in all things vSAN, a chance to join the Office of the CTO in the Storage and Availability Business Unit (SABU) became available. This was the BU who had responsibility for the vSAN product. I was now reporting to the BU’s CTO, Christos Karamonlis, the “grandfather of vSAN”. I was also back working with Duncan, and also with some of the vSAN engineering leads and some of the PMs that I had worked with regularly over the years. A lot of the work in this role could be termed customer[0], short for customer zero, where we would stand up alpha and beta versions of the product, and provide lots of feedback around functionality and user experience before the product or even a new feature, was shipped. Paudie joined me soon after,  and by 2017, vSAN was hitting the mainstream and was gaining in popularity as we went through the vSphere 6.x releases. However another technology was also beginning to make serious ripples.

This new technology was of course containers, and specifically container technology from Docker. I was fortunate that VMware runs a fantastic program called Take-3. Once you have been with VMware for a certain length of time, this program allows you to take 3 months to explore some other avenues with some other teams and groups. Thus, I decided to take 3 months out of my current role to explore what we were doing in the container space. During this time, I had the pleasure of working with Mark Peek, one of our Principle Engineers at VMware. Under Mark’s tutelage I was able to learn all about our cloud native initiatives. I spent some time ramping up on vSphere Integrated Containers from Ben Corrie who is now part of our vSphere with Tanzu initiative. I also got to attend to DockerCon 2017 in Austin, and it opened my eyes to where this technology was going. This was also around the time that we were doing a lot of work with Pivotal, in particular on the Pivotal Container Service (PKS) which was announced later that year at VMworld 2017 (more recently it has been rebranded as Tanzu Kubernetes Grid Integrated – TKGi). Because I’d previously done some work with the Project Hatchway team, and because it was enhanced as a storage driver for Kubernetes/PKS, I spent quite a bit of time exploring how K8s worked with storage technologies such as vSAN. It was great to get such a grounding in this technology during the Take-3, both inside and outside of VMware. A word to all VMware employees – take your Take-3. There are lots of opportunities there for you to build up some knowledge and expertise in a completely new area. Here’s a snap of myself and Andreas Scherr from VMworld 2017. I’ve chosen this one because of the great hand signals from Andreas 🙂

2018 was another busy year in the Office of the CTO, with plenty of customer[0] work and lots of VMUGs to talk about new vSAN features, as well as lots of training events, getting our VMware field organization up to speed on vSAN. We were also seeing some considerable  adoption of our Project Hatchway / VCP product. I found that a lot of my presentations were now discussing vSphere / vSAN hosting both virtual machine workloads and containerized workloads.  It was becoming increasing obvious that container technologies were gaining popularity, and at the time there was a bit of a battle to see which “container orchestration” product would become the de-facto standard.  It eventually became clear that the winner of that particular battle would be Kubernetes. In late 2018 VMware bought a company called Heptio which was at the forefront of all things Kubernetes, and along with Pivotal, now forms the basis of our Modern Applications Business Unit at VMware.

2019 was essentially a mirror of the previous year, looking at how products such as Velero (formerly Heptio Ark) would work with Kubernetes volumes on vSphere storage (vSAN, vVols, VMFS), as well as our own home grown open source initiatives like Project Harbor, a secure container image registry. I started to become more and more familiar with Kubernetes, learning both the internals, but also thinking about it from a day 2 perspective, and what it meant for vSphere administrators who are responsible for managing and monitoring the infrastructure where Kubernetes is deployed. VMworld 2019 then brought us Project Pacific, which would later become vSphere with Tanzu. The vision for Project Pacific is to enable the convergence of containers and VMs onto a single platform. VMware had fully embraced Kubernetes, and now offered a complete platform for both virtual machine workloads and vSphere workloads.

Internally at VMware at this time, there was a lot of reorganization. First, the Storage and Availability Business Unit merged with the Integrated Systems Business Unit to become the HCI (hyper converged infrastructure) business unit, and later another merger with the vSphere teams to create what is now the Cloud Platform Business Unit. This meant that vSAN, vSphere with Tanzu, and VMware Cloud Foundation, were all in the same organization. This led to me working quite a bit on vSphere with Tanzu on VCF and vSAN.

I’m sure we all know what happened in 2020. I don’t think any of us could have foreseen how dramatically COVID has impacted our lives.  I’m very grateful to how VMware has handled this crisis, with additional leave offered to deal with the pandemic, as well as well-being allowances.  As I write this, I haven’t been on a plane or stayed in a hotel for 14 months, which feels a bit strange. It’s not that I miss the act of traveling but I do miss the experience of visiting different places and meeting different people.  And while I count myself lucky that I work in a sector that can use technology to continue to function in a very similar way to before, I do miss the interaction with colleagues and customers. To compensate for the inability to travel and meet customers, Duncan, Frank and I started a virtual roadshow in 2020 to continue to get our message to customers. We  ran an updated version 2 of the roadshow this year, and we’re currently planning a version 3 which we will hopefully have ready for the second half of this year. It is interesting that in the new age of zoom, we were able to deliver almost 60 events and reach thousands of customers.  Here’s a mock-up with our goofy faces that we send out to the VMUG leaders so they can promote the virtual roadshow to their members.

Fast forward to today, and you might ask – what next? Well, I continue to explore new products and features, and continue to blog about them on, which is now entering its 10th year in existence. Kubernetes and storage is an area I continue to find interesting. VMware has new updates to vSphere with Tanzu, new features in the CSI driver, new functionality added to vSAN and other storage products with each release. And now we are starting to see even more interesting workloads landing on vSphere, such as AI/ML (Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning). This area is absolutely huge, which will require another significant knowledge ramp up.

I have also started looking at different ways I can share my experiences. I’m fortunate now in that I have a certain amount of freedom in my role, and this year I started mentoring some local university students. I have also been asked to act as the lead for a group of 5 university interns who are joining us at VMware Cork this year. They are a fantastic bunch, with very diverse backgrounds, and we are planning to build something very cool with Kubernetes this year for their project, so watch this space.

I’ve almost come to the end of my story. I guess if you have read this far, you’re looking for some career guidance or pointers, or some deeply insightful knowledge for me to impart. I don’t really have anything else to say other than what I placed in the text above, but to summarize, let me leave you with this.

And so I’ll leave it there for now. Take care, and stay safe.


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