Up close and personal: VMware's Duncan Bennet

ZDNet spoke with VMware's vice-president and managing director for Australia and New Zealand about his 37-year career in the IT industry.
Written by Spandas Lui, Contributor on

When you go down to the beach in North Avoca on Australia's Central Coast, you might just find VMware's vice-president and managing director for Australia and New Zealand, Duncan Bennet.

But the 37-year IT veteran wouldn't be sunbathing and relaxing on the sand to cope with his demanding role of looking after the software vendor's local operations; he would probably have his red-and-yellow Surf Live Saving cap on, patrolling the beach.

"I can still swim pretty well and still do rescues, but I do more of the directing," Bennet said.

Sitting across from Bennet, who was dressed in a neat suit and clean-cut white hair, it was hard to imagine him listing surf lifesaving as a hobby outside of work. It seemed rather left of field for a man who is an integral part of a multibillion-dollar company.

But if you know Bennet's laidback approach to life, it's clear he suits the beach lifestyle perfectly.

VMware's Duncan Bennet
Image: VMware

After Bennet returned to Australia from a high school exchange program in the US, he found himself alone. His parents had moved to New Zealand, and, with his high school life drawing to a close, Bennet had no clue what to do with the rest of his life.

Unbeknownst to him, his parents had enrolled him into Massey University in New Zealand. The year was 1973.

"I turned up and I don't know what to do, so I started doing a pure mathematics degree," Bennet said. "The only subject I got an A in during the first year was computer science, and it was the only thing my dad knew nothing about."

He ended up graduating with a business degree majoring in computer science. From there, he joined a graduate program with Burroughs Corporation in New Zealand, which specialised in manufacturing business equipment, under the impression that he was going to work as a computer consultant.

"I thought it was pretty cool, so I shaved my shoulder-length hair, bought myself my first suit, and joined the company," Bennet said.

Except the job description wasn't exactly correct.

"The morning was quite strange," he said. "By the afternoon, I was going door to door, trying to sell an adding machine — I thought I was going to be a computer consultant.

"I went back to my girlfriend that night and said I was quitting, but she told me to give it until the end of the week."

By the end of the week, Bennet had sold his first adding machine. And, as the old cliché goes, the rest was history.

"I've been involved in the vendor side of IT ever since."

Bennet lost count of how many counting machines he sold, but he eventually graduated to selling accounting machines before dealing with minicomputers. During his tenure at Burroughs, he honed his sales and marketing skills.

After four years with the company, he decided to return to Australia, and began working for a startup called Prime, which originated in the US. Prime was one of the first companies to make minicomputers, and at the time there were only 20 people working in its Australian office.

Working for a fresh, new company was an exhilarating experience for Bennet, and this started his love affair with startups — though he noted that startups today are quite different to what they were like back in the day.

"They are much faster now in terms of startup time," Bennet said. "Nowadays, you can build your solution, build your IP, go to market in probably a fraction of the time compared to before — the barrier to entry is much less.

"A startup now can be three guys in an office next door with two guys in the Philippines. You don't need the financial backing and the resources you used to need to have a technology startup."

Bennet stayed at Prime for four years before moving to greener pastures at another startup, Pyramid Technology. The company sold the first UNIX-based computers, and Bennet was the first salesperson there.

"To me, that's always been interesting — when you're almost the change agent working for newer technology," he said.

"The high points for me in my career would be introducing change, and that's one of the nice things about being in the IT industry — it's constantly changing, and it even gets quite hard to stay up with how much change is going on."

His nine years at Pyramid shaped his views on the future of IT, and he saw the whole industry becoming more aligned with software than hardware. He subsequently moved to Forte software, a multinational company from the US, which sold high-end client development software.

Bennet set up the local operations for Forte. At the time, it was a one-man operation, but Bennet grew it into a team of 24 people.

"When you're a startup, it's really about getting your first few customers and making sure they are successfully developed, and, for me back at Forte, that was to make sure the software did everything it was supposed to," he said. "Once we had built the first five to six customers, they were the great references to build the next customers, and so on."

The company eventually had 400 staff members before it was acquired by Sun Microsystems. Transitioning from one company to another is a challenging time for most people, and Bennet remembers having to deal with the anxiety of not only Forte's staff members, but also the vendor's client base.

But the important thing for everybody involved is to focus on what the end goal is, and what can be achieved from an acquisition, he said.

Bennet eventually became the Sun Microsystems managing director for Australia and New Zealand after nine years with the company. When Sun Microsystems was on the verge of being acquired by Oracle, Bennet saw it as a good opportunity to bow out and start something new.

It was then that he rekindled his love for startups, founding a consultancy firm specifically for that type of business. It began with many of Bennet's friends and acquaintances asking him for advice.

"There are some wonderfully clever people in this country, some fabulous startups, but a lot of these people are way smarter than I am, but lack some sales and business management knowledge in the background," he said. "So I started Advocait to help a few friends for nothing — just to help them.

"I got more involved in that startup culture, and I got more people approaching me for help on how to build their sales plan, market their software, and so on."

After a year of running Advocait as a one-man operation, VMware presented Bennet with an opportunity he just couldn't refuse.

"VMware, at that stage, was growing from being a small software startup to becoming quite a major software company," he said, when thinking back on the vendor's offer to recruit him as the local director of sales at the start of 2010. A year later, he was VMware's vice-president and managing director for Australia and New Zealand, looking after 300 workers across his designated region.

Bennet enjoys the open and fast-paced work culture of VMware, and he likes to encourage philanthropy among staff.

"We're very involved in the VMware foundation, where we're doing quite a bit of work with various charities, trying to give back to the community rather than be seen as a company that just takes from the community," he said. "We give every employees worldwide an additional week off to do charity work.

"We want to make sure we build a culture that throughout the year, we are giving back to various charities, whether it is our time or money."

Other than doing a bit of surf lifesaving in his spare time, he also likes to spend quality time with his kids, all of whom have decided not to go down the IT career path.

"My youngest son, who is 19, is a representative basketballer, so I go out of my way to watch every single game," Bennet said. "I have a daughter who is 25 and a teacher in Dubbo, and my 23-year-old works locally on the coast."

Is he disappointed that his kids aren't following in his footsteps in joining the IT industry?

"My children seem to be wired for certain careers, and I'm thrilled they are doing what they want to do," he said. "It's been hard to stand back, because I think a business background is a great foundation and IT is such a core part of business these days.

"But I'm not going to tell my children what to do."

After nearly four decades in IT, Bennet is as excited as ever about working in the industry.

"I just love it! I have as much energy as did 37 years ago," he said. "I just love it — I wouldn't do it otherwise."

Editorial standards