The University of Vermont

photo courtesy of courtesy of VMWare


Late last year, The Wall Street Journal published a list of "50 Women to Watch" in the world of business. The venerable newspaper wrote that this "new generation of women leaders who grew up watching pioneering women break into the executive suite has moved into the corner offices of some of the world's largest companies." UVM alumnae made their mark, earning two spots on the WSJ honor roll: Diane Greene '76, founder and CEO of the software firm VMware, and Charlene Begley '88, a senior vice president at General Electric (featured in VQ's spring issue).

Vermont Quarterly touched base with Diane Greene when she visited Burlington in April to deliver the keynote address at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies' "Invention to Venture" event. Greene shared thoughts on her collaborative leadership style and the VMware story, a remarkable ten-year rise from Silicon Valley start-up to an international business with more than five thousand employees and $1.3 billion of revenue last year.

The VM of VMware stands for virtual machine. The product creates a layer of software that "masquerades" as the hardware between the operating system and the actual hardware of a server. By separating the hardware from the software, it enables all kinds of efficiencies and optimizations in the way software is deployed and managed. Without virtualization, machines typically run with one application per server. Among other benefits, virtualization enables multiple virtual machines, each running one application, to run simultaneously on a single machine, driving the usage from 10 to 15 percent up to 80 to 85 percent of the machine's capacity. In turn, this means businesses can cut costs on energy-hungry servers. One less server humming keeps four tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking 1.5 cars off the road, Greene says. As the world's corporations trim budgets, buff their eco-ethics, and move toward virtualizing their systems, VMware–already in use by all of the Fortune 100–promises to spread. "Having a product that immediately saves people money is a big win," Greene says.

The VMware venture began in 1998 when Greene teamed with her husband, Mendel Rosenblum, who is a professor of computer science at Stanford University; two of his graduate students; and an old graduate school friend from UC-Berkeley, who had worked in two of her previous start-ups. They worked out of their homes initially, then graduated to a small office rental above "The Cheese House" in a small shopping center across the street from Stanford. Their next headquarters: a tiny house behind a car wash. "We were just extraordinarily frugal," Greene says, "it doesn't take much money to start a software company." Those early days were fun, exciting, and packed with hard work. Success came quickly when the beta version of VMware was posted on the fledgling company's website and more than 75,000 people worldwide downloaded it nearly immediately. Greene laughs when she recounts some of the laudatory e-mail that flooded in. One from Germany: "I think your brains must be bigger than Volkswagens."

Initially drawn to Burlington by friends who were at the University, Greene liked it and decided to stay. After entering UVM through Continuing Education classes, she soon enrolled full-time and transferred credits from her first year of college back home at the University of Maryland. As a mechanical engineering student, Greene was often the only female in class. Professor Arthur Tuthill was a key early influence. "He just went out of his way to be nice to me. It was real, very down-to-earth. Not an attitude of 'Oh, we need women in the college,'" but 'You're a good student; you're interested in this; you ought to get a degree.'" Professor Branimir von Turkovich was another influence, particularly because he knew of her love for sailing on Lake Champlain. "He said I should go become a naval architect then come back, buy Shelburne Shipyard, and run it. I spent all my spare time there or out on the water. I thought, 'That's the greatest idea.'" (Greene would earn her master's in naval architecture at MIT, but her sailing these days is on San Francisco Bay, not Shelburne.)

If Diane Greene were to write a management book, likely chapter headings would be Communicate, Collaborate, Hire Well, and Keep Sight of Your Strategy. From the outset, she's been vigilant about thorough communication and works hard to maintain that as VMware expands with thousands of employees spread across more than forty countries. Greene says full collaboration has always been part of how she likes to work. "When I'm making a decision, I want to get everybody smarter than me challenging, hearing all the points of view, and debating them before we come to a decision. That's how I work with my team, because you get to a much better answer when you do that. And people really enjoy working that way." Don't mistake this commitment to collaboration for softness, though. Greene takes a hard line on political maneuvers in the workplace–what she defines as an agenda that diverges from the company's agenda–and such behavior will earn a quick exit.

While Greene looks back fondly on the early days of VMware–working with a small circle of close friends to start something big, the thrill of risk–the rewards of her work today are different. "It is such a privilege to do what I'm doing now because the scale is so large. I think about the world in a much more global way now, and I have all these incredible people around me to work with. To get to this scale–it was luck, and the preparation to take advantage of it. It's a privilege and I really appreciate it." Greene acknowledges that there can be a sense of unreality when she looks around VMware's beautiful, eco-friendly corporate campus in Palo Alto and thinks back to the Cheese House digs not so far in the past. "Now I understand how these big companies get built," she says. "It's block by block by block that companies get built. I feel glad that we stuck with it and saw it all through."

^ up ^

© 2008 The University of Vermont