Interview with Diane Greene

January 13, 2011

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

VMware introduced a totally innovative idea: a virtualization layer between hardware and software that allowed different operating systems to run on the same machine. When the company went public in 2007, it was Silicon Valley's biggest IPO since Google. Says founder Diane Greene, "When you need to work on a passion and vision you are sometimes left with no option but to do it yourself. If you see something that really excites you, then set about doing it and doing it right."

Diane Greene

Diane Greene was the CEO of the virtualization company, VMware (VMW), from 1998 to 2008, taking the company from founding to public with a $2B run-rate.
Prior to VMware Diane was also the founding CEO of VXtreme which was sold to Microsoft in 1997 as the basis for their media player. Prior to that, Diane held engineering management and development positions at SGI, Tandem, and Sybase. Diane serves on the board of Intuit, the MIT Corporation, and the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST).
Diane's degrees include mechanical engineering, naval architecture and computer science from the University of Vermont, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California Berkeley, respectively.
Diane is a lifelong sailor and won the 1976 women's national championship. She is married and has two children.

Diane Greene

Transcript: 

An Interview with Diane Greene Founder, VMware

Date: January 31, 2011

Interview with Diane Greene [introduction music]

Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders the CEO of the National Center for Women in Information Technology or NCWIT. With me is Leigh Kennedy, one of our fine board members as well as a serial entrepreneur herself. Hi Leigh.

Leigh Kennedy: Hi Lucy, thanks for having me today.

Lucy: Also Larry Nelson from W3W3. Hi Larry.

Larry Nelson. I'm so happy to be here. This is a wonderful series and what we really like about it, it really helps other people.

Lucy: Absolutely, we have great interviews in this series with wonderful entrepreneurs. We are now over 50 interviews in our series and I felt very excited about that.

Leigh: Wow.

Lucy: Today we are interviewing a person who I consider to be one of the top entrepreneurs I know, co-founder and founding CEO of VMWare, Diane Greene. VMWare is one of those companies I know many of our listeners have heard about because it introduced something really, really innovative, which was a virtualization layer between hardware and software that allows different operating systems to run on the same machine. That was pretty cool and that was one of VMWare's really innovative leads into the market, truly revolutionary. When the company went public in 2007, it was Silicon Valley's biggest IPO since Google, no small accomplishment. So we can't wait to talk to Diane. She left VMWare in 2008, but she continues to invest in companies and to advise entrepreneurs and she serves on very impressive boards, such as Intuit, MIT Corporation and more. Diane, welcome.

Diane Greene: Well, thanks very much. It's always good to participate in the entrepreneurial community in any way I can.

Lucy: So let's get right to the questions, Diane. We're really interested in understanding how you first got into technology. As you look at the technologies out there today, which ones do you think are especially cool?

Diane: Well I've always had an orientation around science and engineering. In high school I built a model bridge with movable trusses and instrumented one of them with a strange gauge. That really launched me into what I found out was called engineering. I was also really active racing sailboats, which meant maintaining them and tuning them which was a lot of technology to keep the boat going fast in addition to racing it. So I would say I started doing things in technology in high school. Nothing like what the kids are doing today with their computers, but certainly technology. In terms of what is out there today that's really exciting, like everybody else, it's mobile connectivity, the social networking, the sensors, particularly around imaging. All these things contributing to our ability to have a digitally enhanced world is tremendously exciting.

Larry: Boy, I'll say. I have a feeling that if I was going to try to recruit a relationship with you that if my company started with the letter V, like in Vermont, I would get a little bit further.

Lucy: [laughs]

Leigh: I didn't understand it, either.

Lucy: I didn't understand it, either, that's OK.

Diane: It's possible, because I'm puzzled about what you're talking about.

Larry: I was just looking at VMWare, VXtreme.

Diane: Oh, V, I thought you said Z. That's right, VMWare, VXtreme, completely coincidental. VMware, we were looking for a name and at the time, during the dot com bubble, every URL was taken. So we said "Let's do a placeholder." I thought "Let's just do something really descriptive as a placeholder, virtual machine software, call it VMware." So the name stuck.

Lucy: Well, that's an interesting story.

Larry: Yeah.

Leigh: Yeah it is.

Lucy: Diane, I'm going to jump into the next question.

Diane: Our PR person didn't want to talk to us because they thought "What a boring name." [Leigh and Larry laugh]

Leigh: I think it's a good name.

Larry: Yeah, I like it.

Lucy: So Diane, I'll jump in to the next question. We're always curious how people that are really into technology and science and they make the leap to be an entrepreneur, which is not always second nature to a lot of technologists. So tell us about how that happened and what it is about entrepreneurship that you love.

Diane: Well I've always also been an organizer. I always have started new things. Very early on when I was actually still in high school back in 1971 I got into windsurfing. I was the only windsurfer on the East coast. I started an ice hockey team in college. So I've always, in addition to having an affinity for technology I also like to organize. I like to do things with other people. I think I'm not particularly good at working for other people if our visions aren't aligned. That kind of pushes me towards leading people and being in charge. I think it's a desire to do new things, organize new things and make new things happen. The technology background is just helpful and is why my entrepreneurship is around technology, I guess.

Larry: You've done so many different things. I know you're going to have a great career ahead of you, it's just the beginning. In your career path, who was either a mentor or someone who was a role model that really influenced your future?

Diane: Well I have to say my family had an enormous influence on me for better or for worse. Then I had an absolutely amazing band teacher in high school that set up a system for measuring how we were doing which made it extremely clear how to get ahead and how to become first chair and then had us all working together amazingly well as a band and as an orchestra to where our little motley crew would go on and win state championships. I had her as my band and orchestra teacher for three years, and I think she had an enormous influence on me. She could have managed a huge [laughs] corporation. She had all those fundamental principles and skills down. Then as I've gone through my career in Silicon Valley in the tech industry, I would have to say I had a mentor at Tandem Computers named Franco Putzolo, who really taught me how to take a measured approach to whatever it was I was doing and helped develop my ability to try and really take the time to always do things well.

Lucy: Well, you know when we started the interview we said we get a lot of interesting answers to these questions, and that's the first time we've heard a band teacher.

Diane: [laughter] I've only said this one other time, when I was being interviewed at VMware, and the absolutely amazing thing is I got emails from someone else that had been in her band and orchestra and said, "Yes, she was my mentor, too."

Lucy: Well, I think that's fascinating and perfectly understandable when you think about a lot of great technologists are great musicians...

Leigh: Exactly, yup.

Lucy: ...and I can see where a band and orchestra, lots of life skills there. So fascinating answer. Diane, what is the toughest thing you've ever had to do in your career?

Diane: Working for other people that I wasn't able to convince them of my vision.

Lucy: That's hard.

Diane: That really was [laughs] the most difficult thing.

Leigh: Yeah, that's always tough, and I think one of the reasons a lot of entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs is they don't like working for other people, so... [laughs] [laughter]

Leigh: ...that makes perfect sense. [laughs]

Diane: We can have the same vision, but that's not the norm. I mean normally it's the leader that sets the vision and doesn't necessarily take the vision of...it's also formative because when you are the leader you're very sensitive to the fact that you need to [laughs] incorporate everybody else's vision or they're going to feel frustrated. Also, it's good for the company because you don't always have the right vision yourself. At least I don't. But yeah. I do think it drives a lot of entrepreneurship, is this need to work on a vision that you're really passionate about. So you're left with no [laughs] choice but to do it yourself.

Leigh: Well, that brings us to our next question. We have a lot of young people and people wanting to become entrepreneurs that listen to our interviews. So if you were sitting here with a young person looking to become an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to them? Diane: If they have a vision of something, there are infinite ways to improve the world. If you really see something that really excites you, then set about doing it and do it right. Don't cut any corners. Go about it with absolute quality in every way you approach it and think it through and execute on it.

Larry: Well, I'm tying right in with that. What are your personal characteristics, do you think, that have given you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?

Diane: I don't start something unless I can really see for myself how it can be done, how it's possible. Then once I see that, I don't think of failure as an option. There's always a way to make it successful, and I'm pretty relentless about that. I think also I really love and get energized from working with other people [laughs] when they're smarter than me, and that's not always hard. So I think those two things, that relentless "There is a way," and then just enjoying finding that way with other people really has helped me have a lot of successes as an entrepreneur.

Lucy: Relentless is a word we hear a lot.

Leigh: And failure not being an option. Lucy: And failure not being an option. I think that those are great personal characteristics to have. Diane, we ask one other question around how entrepreneurs...it's not so much bringing balance into your personal and professional lives, but how do you integrate them?

Diane: Well, I see it as my life. I do what I care about and what I want to do, and so part of that is my family and raising my family, and part of that is going on outdoor adventures, which I don't do nearly as much as I would like to. Building things I think has been a large part of...it's of course been building companies in the tech industry. But there are fundamental principles about how I go about things that are utterly consistent across everything I do, so that integrates them pretty naturally.

Leigh: Diane, you've done some just really, really interesting things that were like leading edge in many areas--sports, technology. Tell us about what you're passionate about now or what's next for you?

Diane: I'm really not sure what's next. I'm working on it, and I definitely want a big project in my life. Leigh: Well, that's a great answer, too. [laughs] We don't always know, and it's good to know that you're in that spot.

Lucy: Well, when you're in that spot, you can pay attention and actually look for the next big project.

Larry: There you go.

Lucy: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Diane, thanks very much for talking to us. We really appreciate it. I wanted to remind listeners where they can hear this interview, at W3W3.com and also NCWIT.org.

Diane: Yeah, and let me just send a word of encouragement to people. I think when you want to do something, you can always do it and make a success of it. Good luck.

Larry: Well, thank you for that.

Lucy: Thank you, Diane.

Leigh: Thanks, Diane.