The Technical Leadership ABIE Award recognizes women technologists who demonstrate leadership through their contributions to technology and achievements in increasing the representation of women in tech. Silicon Valley pioneer Diane Greene is this year’s Technical Leadership ABIE Award winner, and will accept her accolade as part of the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC), October 4–7 in Orlando, Florida.
As CEO of VMware from 1998 to 2008, Diane built the company from a five-person startup to a $35 billion industry giant. Under her leadership, VMware revolutionized the world of enterprise computing with its groundbreaking virtualization software. Over time, virtualization has created the economies of scale that enable modern cloud computing, an area of tech that Diane continues to influence as head of Google Cloud.
We spoke with Diane recently to talk about the award and the path that brought her here.
What led you to a career in computer science?
Originally, I was an engineer. I have a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Vermont, and a master’s of science in naval architecture and ocean engineering from MIT. I realized I didn’t want to be in the oil industry, but I was interested in computer science; I went to the Stanford bookstore and bought a lot of books about it.
At the same time, I was windsurfing every second I could. And I was watching what was going on in Hawaii; they were starting to change the shape of the boards and the sail. I was so excited by what was going on in Hawaii that I decided I would just go. I knew where all the windsurfers lived in Kailua on Oahu. So I went there and put up my tent on their porch. I lived there and read my books at night and windsurfed — it was just a wonderful time. But my parents were pretty upset with me, so I went back to San Francisco. I ran the engineering team for Windsurfing International, and I figured out how to go back to school at Berkeley, to the graduate program in computer science.
Was is hard to be a woman studying computer science in those days?
Not at all. In fact, I think we had more women in our program then than they did 20 years later. I think other people have noticed this that the number of women in computer science went up and then it went back down. Now it’s gone up and I think it’s up to stay. And yeah, I’m still friends with a lot of the women that were in that program. There were a good ten, fifteen women in the program.
Did you know from the start that VMware would become a Silicon Valley legend?
I hired an office manager when we had a staff of just 10 people. I told her “This software is someday going to run on every machine.” I was holding a baby in my lap when I told her this. We still joke about it, but it was really, really obvious to us that this was so useful, that it was like a Swiss army knife.
Virtualization just saved people so much time, and really made huge gains in efficiency. Servers were typically back then run at, at most, 15 percent utilization, and all of a sudden you could drive it up to 85 percent, easily.
What drove you to become such well-respected a leader?
When I was interviewing board members for VMware, Steve Luczo asked, “When did you know you wanted to be a CEO?” I thought about it, and realized that I never really wanted to be a CEO. I’m always looking for the next adventure and then I do it in the only way I know how. If you want to build something, and it turns out that it’s a company, you have no choice but to be the CEO if you want to make it happen. So, it was just a natural extension of what I wanted to get done. I wanted to make things happen and the most effective way to do that was to be in charge. But I mean, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a CEO; it just never was something I aspired to.
But I think I was basically an entrepreneur my whole life. When we started VMware, I had already been a CEO of a startup. I said to my co-founders, “We should bring your technology to market. I’ll help you get this going and then, once it’s up and running, we’ll bring someone else to run it.” I was pregnant with my second kid at the time, so I didn’t think I would stay.
What was it like being a new mom and a CEO at the same time?
Because it was my company, I was able to bring my baby in to the office after she was born. And then, as she started getting older, I convinced my mother to come and stay with us. I could even run home at lunch. Because we didn’t really have customers yet, there was no travel involved. So actually, an ideal time to have a baby is when you’re starting a company and you’re in charge and you can make the rules. I was kind of spoiled in that way.
As the company grew and I started traveling, I would just bring her with me and I would just have the hotel hire a nanny for when I had to be at meetings. It was wonderful for both of us. She still loves that she got to go all over the world with me when she was just a little tiny girl. I have this image of us running through Tokyo to catch a train and she’s got this little miniature rolling suitcase, and she’s running behind me, pulling it. It was fun.
Were there challenges along the way?
It was fortunate that I understood the technology and had a technical background. A lot of the executives I worked with — at IBM and Intel and so forth — were quite technical, too, and they were interested to meet me. Like, “Who is this woman?” The fact that I was technical gave me a lot of credibility; I could really engage on the technical details.
But there were always little signs that things were different for me. I can remember being accused of being unpredictable, and I’m actually quite a predictable person. I think little things like that sometimes crept in, when someone was frustrated with me.
We had a great partnership with IBM at the time. My counterpart at IBM was a woman, which was highly unusual, and we worked really well together. IBM was really the first tech company to embrace diversity. And I think they did it a good ten, fifteen years before anybody else because they figured out it was good business and they were going to have a better business if they had a more diverse workforce.
You made the news earlier this year when you said you look forward to the day when the technical audience is fifty percent women. Why is that?
I grew up in a family with three brothers. Then I studied engineering, and I was always the only girl in my classes. I never had a single female engineering professor when I went through college. And then in work I was definitely in the minority. And then more and more women appeared in the jobs, and we were having more fun. It’s even easier to have more humor when you have diversity.
I always say it’s always fun to be able to run into women in the bathroom, make a few jokes. And it’s more relaxing to have other women around. There are some things we just see in a similar way, and we have this rapport with someone of the same gender.
That same day, you said “Women are celebrated if they raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, you’re missing my value.’ At Google Cloud, we have an environment where no one needs to raise their hand. But, no matter what, it’s completely safe to do that.”
It was International Women’s Day, not long after Susan Fowler had posted about her experience at Uber. I thought it was a seminal moment for women: Everybody celebrated Susan Fowler, and that might not have been the case twenty years ago. Actually, I know it wouldn’t have been. But nobody today is surprised by a smart woman who can be a leader in her field.
What excites you about working in tech?
Computers are just the ultimate tool for creating anything, virtually. You can absolutely create a whole world with a computer, and you can make that any kind of world you want. There are people that say we’re just living in a simulation and we don’t know it.
Technology is this incredible tool to solve problems. As you put so much into the cloud, you get all the data there, and then you get all the new technologies there for doing things with the data, and all the infrastructure for communicating, and the horsepower, the storage, the compute capacity — we’ll figure it all out using computers.
The pace of technology is accelerating to the point where it’s changing our world so fast. It’s an amazing phenomenon; it’s more than an industry. We’re changing who we are as human beings because of these machines, and that’s pretty interesting. It’s a lot of fun to be right in the middle of that. Getting to contribute to it is very exciting.
What advice would you give young women entering the tech workforce?
I always tell people to focus on what they really feel they want to do. It might not work out the way you had hoped — or it might work out incredibly well. Either outcome is almost incidental, because you were doing what you wanted to do. Have goals that are actually meaningful to all of your brain, not just a piece, and immerse yourself in whatever it is you do.
Hear Diane speak during GHC when she accepts her award at the Wednesday Keynote session on October 4, 2017 from 9 a.m to 10:30 a.m., or during her panel — 2017 Technical Leadership ABIE Award Winner Diane Greene — on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, from 3 to 4 p.m. in OCCC Valencia Ballroom.
Thank you to Qualcomm, sponsor of the 2017 ABIE Award for Technical Leadership.