Let’s celebrate awesomeness during National Engineers Week (February 17-23) where engineers, engineering students and technicians are recognized for all of the innovative things they do to make the world work better.
At VMware, we are taking this opportunity to share the special stories of our very own people. Today we hear from Kit on his passion for solving complex technical problems, collaborative innovation, continuous learning and having fun doing what he loves!
Name: Kit Colbert
Job title: Principal Engineer
Years at VMware: 9.5
Office Location: Palo Alto, California
Favorite Tech Gadget: iPad. Love it.
What made you decide to become an engineer?
Growing up I always liked tinkering with computers. I eventually started programming and discovered I could create all these cool programs. I was like, “wow, I can do anything here, this is awesome.” I knew I wanted to continue learning, so I took computer classes in grade and high school and then continued studying computer science in college. I got into kernel programming and systems work, which eventually lead me to VMware.
What innovation has inspired you and/or shaped what you do in your career?
The original iPhone has inspired me to change how I think about product development. While the original iPhone was definitely a great device loved by its users, it was missing a ton of features. It didn’t have cut and paste, 3G, GPS, and many other features we’d now be shocked if a phone were missing. In fact, even then, there were issues, but the iPhone got the web so right that it didn’t matter.
I learned two lessons. First, while we engineers always aspire to create a “perfect” product, the reality is that we don’t need to. We need to find that “one thing” (the web in the case of the original iPhone) that’s most important and make that awesome. Everything else can be less-than-perfect and it’ll be ok – you can eventually get to those other things. We always wring our hands about features we can’t get in or functionality that’s not there, and I can only imagine how excruciating it must have been for the iPhone developers to not include, say, cut and paste in that first release, but they were able to maintain a big picture view and knew that a great web experience was enough. I now try to maintain that big picture view as well so that I can better judge tradeoffs and decide which features should go in.
The second lesson was that great products are not due solely to technology. The web experience on the iPhone was great not just because of the giant screen and real web browser, but also because AT&T created a simple unlimited data plan for a flat rate. Previously data plans were confusing and could be very expensive if you went over your limit. Thus people were less inclined to surf on their phone for fear of overage charges. By removing that concern, Apple ensured that people would embrace web surfing on the iPhone. The takeaway for me was that I needed to think holistically about product development. We engineers are responsible for getting the bits right, but there are a thousand other pieces that need to fall in place for the product to be a success (e.g. documentation, pricing and packaging, training of the field staff, enabling partners, etc.). I now work closely with people from all of those groups to ensure that my products are successful in the marketplace.
What is your favorite VMware product launch you’ve been a part of? Why?
Definitely the VMware vSphere 4 launch. It’s my favorite for a couple of reasons. First, it was a huge release and the launch was a big event attended by many big names in the field. (I remember Michael Dell walking around escorted by his bodyguards. Crazy!) It was this release that really seemed to distinguish VMware as a major player in the enterprise software market. It was an exciting time at the company.
Second, it was also memorable for me because I got to participate in it! They had this idea to use the shot from Chariots of Fire where the guys run along the beach to the classic theme music from the movie. In our version, we were a group of developers running with the “golden bits” for vSphere 4 to deliver them at the launch. I was chosen at the guy who got to carry those golden bits, which was represented by a “golden CD” atop a torch. So I got to run up on stage during the launch event carrying the golden CD, symbolically delivering vSphere 4 to our customers. It was a lot of fun!
In three adjectives, how would you describe your experience at VMware so far?
- Exciting: It’s been quite the ride. When I interned at VMware, we were around 150 people in size. Now we’re pushing 13,000+. During my internship, we released VMware ESX Server 1.5 and vSphere (which includes ESX Server), which is now at version 5.1. The company has grown dramatically during the last decade, we’ve gone through a number of shifts in strategy, and seen a lot of changes. It’s been an exciting ride and I can’t wait to see where we go next!
- Continuous learning: I originally joined VMware to work on hard problems. I was narrowly focused on these core problems and over time I’ve learned more and more and broadened my scope. Whether it’s gaining a deeper understanding of engineering issues, like coding languages, performance analysis techniques, or networking and storage innards; or an appreciation for business concepts, like how to create a comprehensive platform or increase attach rates; or software development problems, like how to organize 4,000+ engineers to productively produce a product; or marketing issues, such as the subtleties of positioning or thinking through the go-to-market strategy; I have a much broader understanding of how we produce and sell software. The funny part is that even though many of these things may seem completely unrelated to engineering, the reality is that having a good understanding of them actually makes me a better engineer. For instance, knowing the business allows me to make more informed architectural decisions; working with product marketing allows us to send a more technically correct message to our (very technical) customers. I am constantly surprised by how much I’ve learned here and I am excited about continuing to learn.
- Fun: While we work hard, we also have a lot of fun. In fact, when my team was evaluating itself as to what, as a team, we did well and what we could do better, “partying” came as one of the top items we did well! (There were also a couple of work-related things like “execution” and “product quality”, but that’s not important here…) Whether it’s release parties, go-karting at Angel Island, a mid-day game of ultimate Frisbee, or bashes on Friday afternoons, we always find time to relax and have fun. Fun is an important part of our culture and something I really cherish about working here!
How do you or your team continue to innovate and challenge the status quo?
For our team, innovation is driven by the need to solve hard problems. I think most people believe that innovation is all about some lone genius somewhere coming up with great ideas. But that’s rarely the case. Innovation is best as a collaborative process, where mistakes are made frequently and lessons learned quickly. Indeed, learning is a cornerstone of innovation. You’re presented with a hard problem and there’s a thousand different ways of going about it. Which one do you choose? How do you know you’ve chosen the best one? Usually it’s impossible to reason your way to the optimal solution – while you can weed out some obvious wrong paths, many options remain open. The only way to know the right path is to try a bunch of different options. You can do so with minimal prototypes that test the concept to see what’s feasible and what problems you haven’t thought of yet. The best measurement of progress in innovation is not whether you’ve found a solution, but if you’re continuing to learn more and are “honing in” on a solution. So long as you’re testing, trying out ideas, you’re moving closer to the right solution and you’ll eventually get there. We’ve organized our team around these concepts. Small sub-teams go after hard problems and measure their progress by how much they’ve learned. It’s challenging work, but also a lot of fun!
What attracted you to VMware? Is it the same thing that motivates you today?
I joined VMware for two reasons: tackling hard systems problems and the people. First, the hard problems. I was really into the low-level kernel stuff and VMware was the only company doing truly unique work in that area. The technology we produced fundamentally changed IT and how it operates. However, we only solved part of the problem. There are still very big challenges IT faces and VMware is well positioned to solve them. So the challenge that motivates me today is how to realize the larger vision we now have to truly revolutionize IT.
Second, the people. I joined VMware because I was amazed at how many ridiculously smart people worked here. My hope was that a little bit of that intelligence would rub off on me! It’s really quite humbling to think back and realize how much I have learned from the people here. But not only are they smart – they’re also fun to be around. The people here motivate me to push myself…
What is the product release you are most excited about in the coming years that you can discuss?
I’m really excited for the first release of Horizon Workspace. It’s a push into a new area for VMware – enterprise-grade support for the new multi-device world. Today our “workspace” is essentially the desktop of our PC, with its different installed software and data that resides on disk. As we move to a multi-device world, that paradigm no longer holds. Applications need to run on all our devices, regardless of form factor. Our data should be accessible on any of these devices and synchronized automatically across them. While some solutions exist for these issues today (e.g. Dropbox for data sync), it’s completely invisible to a company’s IT department and so critical business data is randomly dispersed on laptop hard drives, Dropbox, Amazon S3, etc. Horizon Workspace is all about realizing a new type of workspace for the multi-device world while allowing IT to maintain some level of control and data protection. It’s an important area and I’m excited to see where it goes!
What are you most looking forward to in the years ahead as you continue your work at VMware?
The great thing about working at VMware is that after almost ten years here I’m still learning new things. We have a ton of smart people and a broad range of products and there’s never a shortage of new challenges. I’ve found that every four years or so I like to move to a new group to learn about a new problem domain and challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone. And I’m actually in the process of doing that right now. I’m moving to the Horizon Team, which is building a suite of applications to manage users and their applications and data. It’s a bit different for me since I’ve historically focused on core infrastructure – classic enterprise software – and now in this new role I’ll be diving into a combination of enterprise and consumer software. So I’m very excited to learn the space and tackle the challenges here!
*Photography by Michael Dunn
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