Who should run VMware? Sizing up the likely candidates

Notable great picks would be Jim Whitehurst of IBM, or Simon Segars of ARM, but a less obvious pick such as Okta’s Alvina Antar could set the company on a new path.

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Lots of talent is out there that VMware could benefit from, including, from left, Okta CIO Alvina Antar, IBM President and former Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, and venture capitalist and newly installed board member Ken Denman.

Chip maker Intel announced this month that it will make Pat Gelsinger, a longtime Intel veteran, its new CEO next month. But Gelsinger has been running software vendor VMware for eight years, and so his departure will leave a major gap at that company. 

VMware said it has begun a search for Gelsinger's replacement, with the company's chief financial officer, Zane Rowe, taking over temporarily. 

Taking over a twenty-two-year-old company with over 30,000 employees and $12 billion in annual revenue would be a challenge any day of the week. But the search has an added twist to it. 

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As chairman of VMware, Dell fonder and CEO Michael Dell has to decide what kind of leader he wants to run the company, which is majority owned by Dell, and which may be spun out later this year as independent company.

(Image: Dell Technologies)

VMware is 81% owned by Dell Technologies, and Michael Dell is chairman of the board of VMware. That means Dell has a big say in who comes on board next. And it also means that the corporate future of VMware may be in flux. 

Wall Street is pondering the prospect that Dell will sell off that majority stake, spinning VMware as a private company. (VMware, founded in 1998, was bought by EMC in 2004, EMC was bought by Dell in 2016.)

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Andy Jassy has been at Amazon 23 years. At some point, maybe he wants his next big challenge.

Stock analyst Robert Muller of RBC Capital Markets on January 25th wrote that he considers a public spin of VMware "the most likely scenario" for the company. Muller sees a spin achieving two important things: "reduce corporate complexity" for VMware, which would "drive a valuation re-rating for both entities," and, two, "right-size Dell's balance sheet while keeping VMware's leverage at a reasonable level."

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Does Diane Greene want to come back to the company she co-founded? Seems hard to imagine she would want to. 

Hence, anyone appointed by Dell to run VMware this year might be presiding over a stock-market event, which adds a little complexity and challenge to the job.

Fortunately, there's lots of terrific talent in and around Silicon Valley. ZDNet has reviewed several potential VMware chiefs. While not an exhaustive list by any means, the twenty-three individuals listed in the table below show there are lots of great potential options that come quickly to mind. 

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ARM Holdings CEO Simon Segars might be looking for a new challenge as ARM gets folded into Nvidia. He has the technical bonafides to run an infrastructure company, and has proven his ability to navigate the complexities of a big ecosystem.

The most obvious logical candidate is Jim Whitehurst, who presided over the sale of Red Hat to IBM in 2019. Whitehurst currently serves as president of IBM, running the Cloud and Cognitive Software organization and also helping to direct corporate strategy. 

Red Hat is an excellent parallel to VMware in terms of running a software company, and by all accounts, Whitehurst did an excellent job in his dozen years at the company. Big company experience as COO of Delta Airlines before that is also an excellent part of his portfolio to bring to an established company such as VMware.

But Whitehurst might prefer to stay for the chance to run IBM itself some day. And so, looking over the other potential candidates, a lot comes down to what Michael Dell might seek in a Gelsinger replacement.

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Dell could choose an outsider who has a technical grounding and leadership experience in cloud such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise's GreenLake director Keith White.

The search for candidates internally would obviously find great talent, including VMware's COO, Sanjay Poonen, who demonstrates a real passion for all the details of VMware's business. VMware CTO Greg Lavender certainly has the technical acumen and the corporate experience to run the ship, but he's relatively new to VMware, having only arrived a little over two years ago.

Outside VMware, there are executives who would bring a diverse set of skills to the company. Some are already known to Michael Dell. They include Jeremy Burton, currently running the startup Observe, Inc., who worked at EMC and Dell collectively for eight years. Another Dell vet is Alvina Antar, currently chief information officer of security software vendor Okta, who worked at Dell for almost seventeen years. Her experience as CIO might afford an interesting take on the importance of VMware's software.

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Former Zuora CIO and current Okta CIO Antar, a longtime Dell veteran, could bring a unique perspective to running a software vendor.

Of course, Dell could look to bring in a very heavy-hitting cloud executive, such as Amazon's AWS leader, Andy Jassy, or Google Cloud's CEO, Thomas Kurian, or Microsoft's Cloud EVP, Scott Guthrie. The fact that VMware co-founder Diane Greene held the same job at Google Cloud, after leaving VMware, shows the parallels between the two roles. 

It's an interesting question if running an infrastructure software vendor would be enticing enough to lure Jassy or Kurian or Guthrie away from such vaunted positions of importance. 

Of course, Greene herself could, perhaps, be lured back, or another former CEO of VMware, Paul Maritz. Probably, they're more interested in taking on new and different challenges. 

There are certainly enough other seasoned tech executives, generally speaking, including ARM Holdings CEO Simon Segars, ServiceNow's CEO Bill McDermott, Microsoft's president, Brad Smith, or Ken Denman, who is a venture capitalist with substantial CEO experience at startup companies, and who just happens to have been appointed to VMware's board of directors last week.

Have some suggestions for your favorite nominees? Leave a comment below. 

Executive 

Current gig 

Why they would make a fine fit 

Reasons against 

Alvina Antar

CIO, Okta

Meaningful software leadership experience as CIO at Zuora for six years, substantial background with Dell as a nearly seventeen-year veteran, novel perspective on infrastructure as CIO.

Leaving after only five months at Okta could seem like job hopping.

Craig Barratt

Chairman, Intuitive Surgical 

Meaningful CEO experience running Atheros, Barefoot Networks, deep understanding of infrastructure software. 

Less experience with software company leadership than some others. 

Jeremy Burton

CEO, Observe Inc.

Long-standing relationship with Michael Dell from eight years working at EMC and then Dell, substantial big software company experience working for Larry Ellison. 

Too much fun running startup and serving on Snowflake board.  

Ken Denman

VC, Sway Ventures

Substantial CEO experience running startups Emotient, Openwave, iPass, turn-around experience with iPass, already a board member. 

Less tech nerd cred than some others.

Charlie Giancarlo

CEO, Pure Storage

Substantial experience selling infrastructure, substantial large company experience including nine years at Avaya, fifteen years at Cisco.

Committed to developing Pure's vast market in cloud.

Diane Greene

Chair, MIT

Deep company knowledge as VMware co-founder, substantial cloud leadership experience as former Google Cloud CEO.

Been there, done that. 

Scott Guthrie

EVP, Microsoft Cloud and AI

Knows the present and future of cloud.

Why would you leave the second-biggest cloud job in the world?

Renee James 

CEO, Ampere

Software leadership experience running Intel software operations, infrastructure executive experience running chip startup.

Less large company CEO experience than some others. 

Andy Jassy

CEO, Amazon AWS

Substantial leadership experience, knows the future of cloud.

Why would you leave a gig running the world's biggest cloud outfit?

Scott Johnston

CEO, Docker

Knows the market for virtual machine, container technology, software leadership experience. 

Lack of large software company experience.  

Thomas Kurian

CEO, Google Cloud

Knows the future of cloud, substantial large software company experience working for Larry Ellison for twelve years. 

Why would you leave top spot at the third-biggest cloud operator?

Greg Lavender

CTO, VMware

Deep background in the complexities of infrastructure software.

Only two-plus years experience at VMware. 

Rodrigo Liang

CEO SambaNova Systems 

Substantial infrastructure experience running product teams at Oracle and Sun for almost twenty years. 

Having too much fun running an AI startup.

Paul Maritz

Chairman, Mifos

Deep company knowledge as CEO preceding Gelsinger. 

Been there, done that. 

Bill McDermott

CEO, ServiceNow

Substantial big software company leadership experience including nine years as CEO of SAP.

Leaving after only two years at ServiceNow would seem like job hopping. 

Doug Merritt 

CEO, Splunk

Meaningful software leadership   experience running Splunk for five years. 

Less experience than some others  with infrastructure software. 

Sanjay Poonen

COO, VMware

Substantial corporate leadership experience with seven years at VMware, previously at SAP, Symantec, Microsoft. 

No good reason unless the board wants an outsider. 

Chuck Robbins

CEO, Cisco Systems

Substantial large company leadership experience running Cisco for five years. 

Less experience with software businesses than some others. 

Simon Segars

CEO, ARM Holdings

Serious technical bonafides developing ARM processors, and proven ability to manage a complex ecosystem. 

Need to remain through the acquisition process of ARM by Nvidia.

Navin Shenoy

EVP and General Manager, Data Platforms Group at Intel

Substantial data center infrastructure experience running product teams for server chips.

No CEO experience. 

Brad Smith 

President, Microsoft

Valuable experience with software firm in a mature phase, chance to do something new after twenty-seven years at the same employer.

Tech nerd credentials less than some other tech execs. 

Keith White

SVP and general manager of Greenlake at Hewlett Packard Enterprise 

Substantial big company experience serving at Microsoft for seventeen years, substantial cloud experience running Intelligent Cloud.

No CEO experience unlike some others. 

Jim Whitehurst

President, IBM

Outstanding software CEO experience running Red Hat, chance to try something new after IBM.

Chance to run IBM too tantalizing.