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Is VMware’s brain drain a sign of its influence, or of its demise?

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The big news out of VMware (s vmw) is that it’s likely spinning out a cloud computing business, but the company also has had a fair share of significant personnel departures over the past year. A talent exodus as VMware ware tries to compete with Microsoft, Google and Amazon to be the big name in cloud computing may indicate that all is not well in Palo Alto.

But this news isn’t all bad. The number of principal engineers and other technical leaders leaving the company and trying to have big impacts elsewhere suggests VMware might achieve mafia status a la Sun Microsystems, Facebook (s fb) Google (s goog) or PayPal (s ebay). Its employees appear to have the vision, skills and reputations that transcend their work at VMware.

Some of the higher-profile departures came over the past few months in the form of SpringSource Founder Rod Johnson; former CFO and Co-president of Business Operations Mark Peek (to Workday (s wkdy)), former Chief Development Officer, Co-president of Products and Strategic Advisor to the CEO Richard McAniff; former VP of Engineering Peter Cooper-Ellis (to Cloudera) and former cloud computing CTO Derek Collison (he founded Apcera). But that’s just the start.

Digging under the covers, you find a lot of other technological leaders with years of experience at VMware heading for the door with the past year. Among them:

  • Former Principal Engineer Satyam Vaghani (he co-founded ProximData)
  • Former Principal Engineer Ganesh Venkitachalam
  • Former VP of Product Strategy Shaun Connolly (to Hortonworks)
  • Former VP of Business Operations, Cloud Application Platform Mark Brewer (to Typesafe)
  • Former R&D Director Howie Xu (to Big Switch Networks)
  • Former Senior Member of the Technical Staff Suresh Madhu ( he founded Onecloud Labs)

Although it’s somewhat ancient history by now, VMware also lost some veteran technologists (including its first-ever hire) in 2009 and 2010. One went Google, one went to Facebook and the other is working on his own startup. Only one of the company’s original five co-founders remains.

Do these departures spell trouble?

None of this is necessarily indicative of bad things afoot at VMware, of course. That anyone who came on board as part of the SpringSource acquisition left after their stock-option lockout period expired probably should have been expected considering how commonplace that type of transition is. And 10 years (give or take a few) is a long time to stay with one employer, especially in the fast-moving technology business. Sometimes, people just want to do new things.

But seeing the brains behind important business lines such as SpringSource and VMware’s cloud unit departing doesn’t bode well for their continued innovation. In Silicon Valley, the chance to innovate is what attracts talent, and the would-be VMware mafia’s various startup projects are sure to lure some quality engineers (as will Google, Facebook, Amazon Web Services, Twitter and any number of hot web startups).

I’ve also heard that EMC’s continued pressure on VMware to act in accordance with EMC’s wishes has driven away some talent. It’s too early to tell whether that’s for better or for worse — EMC has proven itself a smart company over the years — but working for one now-large enterprise (VMware) seemingly under the thumb of an ever bigger one (EMC) might not be a lure to top talent. While VMware certainly should strive to become as mighty as companies such as HP (s hpq), Microsoft (s msft) and Cisco were in their heydays (and still are), it’s still young enough that it probably isn’t quite ready to go through the trials and tribulations those companies have as they struggled to remain relevant over the past few years.

The big difference, however, is that VMware has all the technological pieces it needs to stay relevant — even to lead the way — for a long time to come. But it still has to capitalize on them and create a cohesive vision for how they interact with one another and then continue to ensure they remain on the cutting edge. That’s gonna take the right people.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock user Gail Johnson.

3 Responses to “Is VMware’s brain drain a sign of its influence, or of its demise?”

  1. Good. Get rid of the sales people. Remember what Steve Jobs said about when sales starts running the organization? I called VMware a few months ago to mention my concerns about VMware Fusion seemingly not being able to handle a low-level network routing problem on the Mac (IPSec) with a patched kernel. The people I was routed to at VMware headquarters said, and I’m paraphrasing, “well, we really can’t spend much time on a product like Fusion because its a consumer level product, it really isn’t our priority if you’re a small fry using Fusion on the Mac”. Meanwhile its been reported that former NeXT / Apple guru Bertrand Serlet has joined the board of Parallels. Ha! VMware right back to you, screw you for not giving a s**t about smaller developers and bowing to your now former CEO’s Microsoft-like big enterprise attitude. VMware deserves what it gets. All power to Parallels! Go Bertrand go!

  2. Cloud_Zone

    Whether the brain drain from VMware is a good sign or a bad one for them rather depends on whether they are managing to replace the talent they lose. Derrick doesn’t mention whether this is happening but does imply that it may not be achieving it with the mention of the possible pressure being felt from EMC. I would be inclined to believe that this is the case as none of the leavers mentioned went to other big name companies but to smaller more innovative ones or started up on their own. This implies that the innovation space these employees felt at VMware is no longer available to them so they find it somewhere else. One thing which is certain is that you need the right people in place to innovate and grow (as here and this in conjunction with the speed with which things move in the technology space means that the VMware/EMC C-suite should definitely be taking steps to ensure they are not travelling down a cul-de-sac.