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Voices in Data Storage – Episode 16: A Conversation with Steve Athanas & Brad Tompkins of VMUG

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In this episode, host Enrico Signoretti interviews Steve Athanas & Brad Tompkins of the VMware User Group about the group and VMware's interaction with it's user base.


Steve Athanas has been in the IT industry longer than he’s been able to drive. Through a 25-year up-through-the-ranks career in IT, Steve has experienced multiple technology revolutions. Currently serving as the Associate Chief Information Officer at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Steve is responsible for the overall architecture, design, and operations of infrastructure for the university's 25,000 stakeholders. Steve's biggest passion is helping technologists grow in their careers, which fuels his energy behind the VMware User Group (VMUG). Steve currently serves as President of the global VMUG organization, which strives to maximize members’ use of VMware and partner solutions through knowledge sharing, training, collaboration, and events. Steve resides in the Boston, Massachusetts area.

Brad Tompkins is the Executive Director of VMUG and currently serves as VMware EMPOWER Ambassador. He has diverse leadership experience in corporate technology operations and is a vExpert enthusiastic about virtualization technologies. Brad previously worked as General Manager at Immedion and as Director of Technology Services at Seibels.


Enrico: Hi everybody, this is Enrico. I wanted to let you know that this episode was recorded at a live event and so there is some background noise but I think it's a great interview. And I wanted to make sure you all got a chance to listen to it. And as always the transcript is available at GigaOm.com.

Welcome everybody to a new episode of Voices in Data Storage brought to you by GigaOm. I am Enrico Signoretti, your host, and today I am with Steve Athanas, VMUG [VMware User Group] President and Brad Tompkins, Executive Director. Hi guys, how are you today?

Steve: I'm great, thanks. Thanks for having us here.

So VMUG leader and their community leader right? So what does it mean in practice?

Steve: You mean the difference between VMUG and Dell communities?

Oh yes.

Steve: Yes. So I mean VMUG is a global user community of over 125,000 VMware users around the world. You know I like to say we're on every continent except Antarctica. But we're still looking for someone in Antarctica. So [if] somebody is listening down there, we'd love to have you sign up. And you know our focus is on helping people maximize their knowledge and value added with VMware solutions, right?

Dell technologies obviously is a larger organization. And so there's different user communities for different areas in Dell technology: so there's a converged user group for instance; there's a data protection user group; there's a Boomi user group; and all those discrete groups sort of formed together in a federated Dell technologies user community. [Is] that sort of how you describe it Brad?

Brad: Yeah absolutely and like Steve said, we're about our members getting the most out of VMware and partner solutions. And obviously some of those partners are within the Dell Technology community and some of them aren't and we just want our members to be able to get the most out of their investments.

That's great. So what is the first thing that people do when they are interested in joining this kind of community? I mean there is a process to come in? There is a forum that they can join? How does it work?

Steve: Yeah. Well fortunately we don't require a blood test or any sort of S.A.T. to get in. It's really simple. You just go to www.vmug.com, and you can sign up there and with over 230 local groups around the world, you're sure to have one almost in your backyard that you can hook up with and go to one of their meetups. We also offer virtual sessions and programs online that you can access from wherever you are.. So it's really easy to get involved with VMUG.

Brad: And membership is free, so encourage everybody to give it give it a try... www.vmug.com/join will get you get you to the right place, and then once you join, get involved either online or in a local community or both. And then you will really start to see the value of VMUG and what the V community brings.

Yeah. You talk about the value... so how much is this kind of community independent from VMware? I mean these are independent guys at the end, they are end users. So maybe they want to interact differently than interacting with the vendor, right?

Brad: So our membership is for partners, is for VMware employees and it's for end users. So it's not just end users, but we are a completely independent organization. So we're independent from VMware. Obviously we're tightly aligned, but we're an independent organization. That allows us to give candid feedback to VMware on their products, on their services, those kind of things; and it allows us to... there's strength in numbers, so when you take a voice of 125,000+ members back to VMware, they do a great job of listening. They use us as one of the conduits to get information back to them, again on their products and services [and] how they can do better.

So do you mean that this community has a say in the development process of the product somehow?

Steve: So I think as Brad mentioned, we have a very tight alignment with VMware and so an example of that is: we recently just had just about 140 of our local leaders from around the world converge on Palo Alto and VMware's campus, and so we were able to have face time with Pat Gelsinger, VMware's CEO and Ray O'Farrell, VMware's CTO. Having those conversations, you know, was it structured in a way to say here's some feedback on upcoming products? Not in that instance it wasn't, but those sort of organic conversations absolutely feed into the direction, and you know we're talking about what's coming down the pipeline all the time.

So at the end of the day, you mean that there is this feedback from their community and VMware is listening and trying to understand the needs of its users? Right?

Steve: Yeah, and I think that's one of the things that's really exciting about being involved with VMware, is they are very focused on customer feedback. They're very open to it, they're listening actively and I think you heard echoes of that same mantra throughout Dell technology yesterday at the keynote here at Dell Technologies World. I mean Michael Dell was talking about the power of the customer and how they listen actively to that. And I think VMware has been doing that right along. Dell likely has too, but I'm from the VMware side. That's been my experience my entire time involved with VMware, is that they're very interested in all their customer feedback. And of course you know being a group comprised primarily of customers and end users, has been very exciting for me.

Does the Dell user group work the same way?

Brad: So the Dell technology user community is just a collaboration of multiple user groups. It's not necessarily a group that you can go join, but amongst that you have, like Steve mentioned, the converged user group, the Boomi user group and yes, they do give feedback to their people about the products. But one thing I want to expand on [is] Steve mentioned that having people like Pat and Ray and Raghu and the executives at the leader summit in this case, it just shows a tremendous amount of support from the top, we get from VMware. ]

We also have programs, we're working with the office of the CTO and we have direct feedback channels. So that would be like a form you go online and say “Hey here's the issue I'm having.” It's not troubleshooting or support, but it is:“This is an issue I'd like to see resolved or this is a new feature.” So we kind of do it both ways. It's that organic conversation and I think the executives like to hear as a collective group what are you hearing, but we also have direct feedback. We can get to the office of the CTO about a very specific suggestion if there's one there.

And also you're talking about the fact that there are a lot of local user groups but actually that community is global, so do you have a forum? How do these guys interact with each other?

Steve: So I'd say there's two ways that you get that sort of international interaction. The first one is: we have a very robust online community and we have specific interest groups set up in that community. So if you're really interested in NSX, you can connect with people all over the world that are also using NSX. Same with vSAN, and you know like EUC solutions like Horizon. So there's specific groups there that you can connect with. The other way is... one of the priorities that VMUG has in 2019 is doubling down on our commitment to having community conferences. And so we actually have the ability to have people... internationally at different events. So as a for instance, I and a couple other folks from the States went over to Australia in March, and were able to share some of our war stories from the trenches, working in and around and VMware solutions with folks... (for me from Massachusetts) almost as far away as you can get on the planet without starting to come back around the other way. So you know we breed this international community in multiple ways, and of course when you have a large event like this you've got people from all over the world, and it's a great place to connect.

Brad: And our mission is for people to get the most out of their technology. But we also help our members in professional development. And Steve mentioned we have the ability to send end users to go speak at these conferences. So that builds up their public speaking, that builds up soft skills that our members now are asking for. Early on it was “Give me vSphere, vSphere, because that was the main thing that VMware had.

Now it's expanding out of not only technical depth that I need more information on Kubernetes on EUC, on storage, on ‘fill in the blank’ whatever thing that VMware is going but also professional development: I want to be able to do public speaking better, those kind of things. And it's very interesting to see the group kind of evolve because they realize that that vSphere admin job that I've had for the past decade is not going to serve me the same in the future, and I need to evolve as the industry is evolving. And it's evolving so quickly as is evident with some of the announcements that we heard yesterday.

Well that's great. So the community doesn't have only on VMware per se, but also on a personal development somehow. And what kind of tools do you have for them, because you talk about helping these guys to make them better speakers at events, but also I suppose some training, some virtual classes?

Steve: Yes. You know so we have a couple different tools there. Obviously some of them are unstructured insofar as if you connect with your local community and then have the opportunity to present something, I mean that's an informal tool that we have is we have speaking slots available. Some more formal tools are: we do have a certain number of Toastmaster memberships that we're able to provide to our members so that they can build their public speaking skills in a more structured way. We do professional development webinars. In fact I think we have another one coming up in the next two weeks.

We have another professional development seminar that's coming online and that's gonna be broadcast all over the world and it is recorded. So if you're not able see it live, you can watch it on a replay and that content is intentionally non-technical. We're talking about how to have difficult conversations or strategy conversation because what we really see in the industry, and I think we saw this yesterday, is this shift has been moving for a while now, and if the pace is going to accelerate away from the ‘rack and stack’ being the thing that businesses are interested in, and are willing to pay IT talent for solving business problems to solutioning; as we move into that solution set we want IT staff. (I say we, I'm speaking as an IT manager myself). We want our IT teams to have a strong understanding of the business fundamentals about what's driving our business operations, right? And so I think that's a piece of sort of the IT skill set that hasn't been strongly developed in a lot of ways yet. And so VMUG has I think, stepped in there really well and said, ”Here are some tools that we think will be really valuable for your career.”

So we're talking about a lot of tools, a lot of the resources that you put at the disposal of these end users. How does that community finance it then?

Steve: So we have a couple different ways that it's financed, it's a good question. So as Brad said, we are an independent organization. We are a nonprofit organization and we derive the majority of our funding through sponsorships of our events. And that's at a couple different levels, so our local events are sponsored in that local area by different partners in the VMware ecosystem that want to put that on with our local leaders.

In our larger user kind of events, we have a team that gathers sponsorships for those and Brad said this earlier on, our partners and sponsors are a huge part of our community not just because they help fund it, but because having that information there, having that content there is a key piece of almost everybody's success. I don't know anybody that is running a solution that's running simply VMware, right? It's like okay, VMware will help you run an app. What is that app? What is the business problem you're trying to solve? And so that sort of reinforcing the virtuous cycle of our sponsors, helping us and then helping our community I think is really valuable.

Well I think it's really fair. I mean you have to find the money somewhere and having a sponsor is better than asking a fee or even worse being backed by the vendor itself... you lose a little bit of this independence. So I know that VMware is one of the sponsors, but actually if it acts like the others that's OK...

Brad: There's another revenue stream that we have that people are very excited about, it's called VMUG Advantage. So our membership is free. But we do have an elevated membership called VMUG Advantage and people use this. In fact we've got a special: you can use ADB19 and get 10% off, that brings it down to $180 a year. So this is subscription based, so many benefits on that, but [of] the two that are used the most: one is 20% off VMware training. So think about a training course as $4-$5K. You can get $800-$1000 off by using just that one benefit. And keep in mind it's only $180 a year. We can pay that over the next five years with 35% of training certifications as well.

So anybody who's doing any kind of training or planning to do training, go get VMUG Advantage first, it will save you a bundle. Secondly is a 365 day license key for nearly all the VMware software. So this is for home lab only, obviously not for production, but it gives our members the tools to be able to test say vSAN or test some EUC products or NSX in a home lab, in a protected environment. Or maybe it's a proof of concept or maybe they are wanting to do that upgrade to vSphere 6.7 on their home lab first before they do it in production. So for end users this is the only way you can get a 365 day license key that can be renewed year over year.

So this program is a very successful force on a couple of fronts. It does bring in revenue for the organization that we can give back to the community, but also it helps our members with professional development as they wanted to expand out their skillset in the VMware portfolio, this is a great way to do it. Some of our members are in companies [where] they might not be adopting the latest and greatest software yet, but still as an individual they can go learn those skills and be ready for either when their company does or maybe there's another job out there that they're looking for and they want to get prepared for that. And we have got hundreds (and I'm not exaggerating stories) of people that have taken advantage of the VMUG community and their career has really started to skyrocket.

Steve has a whole session on this that he does at user cons talking about how VMUG has helped his career. We have got a lot of people that end up with partners, or with VMware themselves and a lot of them attribute that to the fact that they started at VMUG. In fact one of my favorite stories is: Alan Renoff was walking off stage at VMware last year and he was doing the presentation with Pat Gelsinger with the virtual headset. He was moving vms around virtually and his quote, and I'm paraphrasing on Twitter is, “You know if you ever think about doing a VMUG, do it, just think: this is how I got started, that was my first presentation and I just walked on the stage at vmware with Pat Gelsinger.” I got chills even thinking about that. So it works magic. You have to jump in, you have to take advantage of it and that's what we want. We love those success stories and we've got those stories a mile long.

Steve: And let me double click on the advantage thing for a second. You know one of the key differentiators that I find with IT folks is the curiosity and the passion rand of course anybody listening to a podcast about IT probably checks those boxes. But if you have those licenses, you can go and you can play with things that you don't have the opportunity to play with in your day job.

So if you are really interested in networking and security, but you find: hey I don't really have an opportunity to do that, Advantage will give you that opportunity and give you the tools to do that. And that was some of my story. That's how I started playing with VDI and EUC solutions and that was transformative in my career and moved me into another level of the organization. And so that was really exciting.

This is really cool. So let me recap a little bit. With this small subscription, you can have discounts on training and certifications as well as licensing of all the VMware product that you can run in your own lab and do whatever you want for a year, which is great, it's a huge value.

Brad: And we've got the latest vSphere. We've got NSX, we've got vSAN and we even have workstation infusion if you don't have a home lab and you want to do some of this on your laptop or something. So it's got Horizon products, it's got nearly all the vmware software, and you can check out more about that at www.vmug.com/advantage.

I will do that.

Brad: And again ADB19, that code is good all year. So we will encourage people to sign up and take advantage of that, pun intended.

Great. Fantastic. So let's wrap up this episode with a few links and your Twitter handles, for people who want to continue the conversation online.

Steve: That’d be great. So my my Twitter information is I'm @SteveAthanas, and I love it if you can send me a note and follow me and let's continue the conversation.

Brad: And I'm on Twitter @BradTompkins_ and my DM is open so if you have a question and you don't want to follow, you can still hit me up that way. VMUG's handle is @MyVMUG. Our Web site is www.vmug.com and we'd appreciate everybody checking us out.

Steve: Absolutely. You know ideally I'd love to see you at VMUG events, so if you see me walking around somewhere, come over, shake my hand and ask me how you can get involved.

Great. Thank you again for your time today and again, join VMUG as soon as you can, guys.

Brad: Thanks so much for having us.

Steve: It has been a pleasure. Thank you.

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