Home Leader's Edge Chasing the Clouds: A Conversation With Chris Wolf

Chasing the Clouds: A Conversation With Chris Wolf

by The 100 Companies

As vice president of VMware’s Advanced Technology Group, Chris Wolf has his sights set on the future of software. “If you think the pace of innovation is getting faster, just wait,” Wolf tells E100. “Machine learning and artificial intelligence will dramatically increase the velocity by which new technological breakthroughs are brought to market.”

Companies and financial services like T-Mobile, ADP and the United States Federal Credit Union rely on VMware for cloud computing services that keep them up and running and secure, allowing their own engineering teams to make magic for customers. For more, keep reading this month’s Leader’s Edge.

– Tia Over, The Engineering 100

(Photo courtesy of VMware)

You’ve been at VMware for six years in various roles. How do you explain VMware, and what do you do as VP of the company’s Advanced Technology Group?
Throughout VMware’s 20-year history, we’ve always been a company that’s been about allowing applications and data to more seamlessly work together. We started by virtualizing computers, which essentially allows servers and desktops to exist as nothing more than software. That pioneering spirit significantly influenced today’s cloud computing and mobility trends. Today, our technologies are the glue that allows organizations to securely connect people to any application, on any cloud, from any device. It’s quite powerful in terms of empowering a flexible work-life balance and propelling greater business agility. I run the Advanced Technology Group in VMware’s Corporate Office of the CTO. We focus on influencing and incubating new technologies that are on a sub three-year horizon. Our focus cuts across a variety of areas, from cloud services, to security, machine learning, networking, virtual and augmented reality, and more.

Chris Wolf keynoted the vForum Mumbai conference in November 2019 along with five colleagues who presented technical demonstrations throughout. (Photo credit: Chris Wolf)

Prior to VMware you were an enterprise IT research analyst at Gartner. When people hear “analyst” they often first go to financial or business, not IT. First, how would you describe that role and second, how did your technical training and background equip you to be an analyst?
When I was first approached to be an industry analyst, I repeatedly tried to explain why I wasn’t the right fit. After failing at explaining why I wasn’t qualified, I worked as an analyst for about seven years. IT analysts provide unbiased opinions that help IT and business leaders make the right technology decisions for their business needs. The IT analyst profession is a demanding role, and I have a high degree of respect for the folks that have been doing that important work for a very long time. To do the job well, you need to be a fast learner, great oral and written communicator, and maintain a sense of objectivity by which you are constantly challenging your own assumptions. Just because something was a bad idea five years ago, that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea today. A key to working with industry analysts is engaging with trusted brands and ensuring that the firm is truly independent.

Chris Wolf keynotes Day 2 of VMworld US 2017. (Photo credit: VMware)

Thank you for your service in the USMC! As a Marine, you did avionics work and engineered test equipment. What did you like most about this work, and do you ever refer back to your military training in your career today?
Thank you! Serving in the Marines in the early part of my career was the best thing that ever happened to me, outside of my wife and children. What I liked most is that I learned early on that the primary objective of Marine Corps leadership is mission accomplishment. I learned to always stay until the job is done and always put my best work forward. We also learned that Marines are all the same color, just different shades of green. While diversity and inclusion are getting a lot of attention now, the Marine Corps was a true leader when it came to promoting diversity when I served 25 years ago. Those lessons have carried with me throughout my IT career and have been fundamental to me continually looking to champion D&I causes.

Bill Gates puts the potential of AI and gene therapy at the top of his list of technologies that have the most potential to change lives in the next few decades. What technologies do you see having the potential to make the most impact in business?
I agree with Mr. Gates that machine learning and AI will highly influence how we do business, improving safety, automation, efficiencies, and driving significant progression in healthcare as well. Edge computing will also have a massive impact. We will reach a time where applications and intelligence will be intrinsic everywhere we do business. Decisions will be automated and made in real-time based on a variety of sensors and data feeds. When you think of smarter homes, vehicles and businesses, we are just on the cusp of a number of breakthroughs, with technologies such as augmented reality becoming commonplace in how we live, work, and travel. While some of that seems crazy, thirty years ago we couldn’t have imagined that our phones would be our music libraries, maps, photo albums, and so much more.

Throughout your career you’ve made a point to do public speaking and maintain an active presence on social media and LinkedIn. Why is it important for people in technical roles to maintain a relevant public persona?
I like to approach my job with an outright sense of paranoia, continually thinking about what I’m not thinking about. Social media and public speaking provide a great opportunity to interact with the community, test new ideas and continually learn from engaging with and listening to others. That public persona certainly can create career opportunities, but I believe the strength of a social network is how it allows you to engage with others around the world in ways that would not be possible without social media.

As a technical pro and as a dad, what advice do you have for young people considering a career in engineering or high tech? What classes or extracurriculars should they take in order to “test STEM” and see if it’s for them?
Most important for me has been always trying to give my children a platform to explore and try new things. I’ve always wanted them to find their passion. My oldest son, for example, dabbled in programming early and even took classes outside of school because he was interested. Over time, he realized that programming really wasn’t his calling, and today he’s extremely passionate about statistics. I like to remind him that statistics is the class we all take for a semester because we have to, not because we want to. But he is really passionate about it and I’m certainly supportive, especially with the opportunities around data science that a foundation in statistics can provide. There is so much out there in terms of school clubs, Maker Faire, and science competitions. My advice is to join clubs, embrace online sources such as Kahn Academy, and always encourage a spirit of trying new things. It’s always been important for me for my children to know that they can dip their toe in the water without feeling they have to fully commit. There is so much in science and technology, and if we can keep the experience positive for our children, many of them will gravitate to an area of STEM that they find truly appealing.

What else? Any new projects you’re working on that you’d like us to know about?
There is really so much happening. We are building technologies that will fundamentally reshape how your applications are data are secured. We will dramatically improve how you experience applications and media over 4G and 5G networks, and so much more. To quote Dave Matthews, “I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves dreaming of things that we might have been.” At VMware, we’re not just dreaming. We’re doing. And we’re super excited about our future.

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