Steering VMware to virtual success

Sailor Greene leads her firm to first rank of software makers

October 04, 2007|By San Jose Mercury News

Growing up on the water in Annapolis, Diane Greene loved to sail her dinghy. She mastered windsurfing when the sport was new. She studied naval architecture and, as a young woman, lived in Hawaii designing windsurfing gear.

Today, Greene, at 52, is best known for navigating VMware Inc., a company that might best be likened to a nuclear submarine.

For years VMware operated in the obscure depths of computer science, gradually developing the know-how and market for its esoteric "virtualization" software. When the company made its debut on Wall Street last month, its stock took off like a Polaris missile, with a trajectory that has pushed its market capitalization to $25.8 billion. It is America's third most highly valued software maker, after Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp.

Greene has been VMware's chief executive since its 1998 launch as a mom-and-pop startup. She brought business acumen to an idea that was hatched in the computer science lab of her husband, Mendel Rosenblum, a professor at Stanford University. Three colleagues were co-founders.

Silicon Valley insiders credit Greene for her skill in skippering VMware, staring down Microsoft's aggressive tactics and forging alliances on its unorthodox path to the valley's biggest initial public offering since Google Inc.

"I think sailboat racing taught me a lot," Greene said. Racing and running a company, she explained, require preparation, organization and "the right team." It requires a keen awareness of shifting conditions and the ability to weigh all the factors, including rivals: "What are the other boats doing?"

A profile in a trade journal in 2005 described Greene as "humble" and "unassuming." She is variously described as "an engineer's engineer," "a supermom" and "a reluctant celebrity." She is credited with fostering an open, collegial culture at VMware.

"She's certainly not the typical CEO," said Dan Warmenhoven, chief executive of Network Appliance Inc. NetApp is a rival to storage giant EMC Corp., which acquired VMware in 2004 and has profited handsomely by allowing it to spin out its own stock.

Even in the lobby of VMware's handsome new campus in Palo Alto, Calif., Greene makes a disarming impression. At 5 feet 2 inches, she'd make the short list of short CEOs. There is no power suit. Her smile is warm, her manner personable.

"I always go out and greet my guests," she said later, "and I can't tell you how many times they thought my [administrative assistant] was greeting them."

Female CEOs are rare in corporate America. Within that small sorority, Greene makes a different impression from the likes of eBay CEO Meg Whitman or former Hewlett-Packard leaders Carly Fiorina and Patricia Dunn. Stock phrases like "assertive" and "hard-charging" don't seem to fit.

Founders don't have to worry about the proverbial glass ceiling. But even in her previous jobs - at Sybase, Tandem Computer and Silicon Graphics - Greene said she never thought gender limited her opportunities. As a female engineer, "I've always been in the minority, and it's something I just didn't notice," she said.

`I'm interested'

In business dealings, she suggested, her background helps her interact with technologists and perhaps overcome latent bias related to gender. Greene said she has noticed one tangible benefit of being a woman.

"Amazingly talented women tend to gravitate toward VMware. People I know just peripherally will call me and say, `Gee, I'm interested in joining VMware,'" she said, adding that women fill more roles as engineers, executives and managers than at other Silicon Valley companies.

Greene comes across less as a valley mogul than the protective mother that she is. She is guarded about her privacy, and requested that questions about her family be off limits.

When she started to tell a story about crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay with her children, she abruptly cut herself off. Inside her compact office, she turned over framed pictures of her children, lest they be captured by a photographer's lens. She is said to have a rule against business interfering with family dinner.

Greene's persona may serve as camouflage for an intense competitor who has won sailing and windsurfing races. "I just engage myself in whatever I'm doing," she said.

A fascination with computer models used in hydrodynamics prompted her to leave Hawaii to study computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. Future husband Rosenblum was a fellow student; they've been together since 1985.

While Rosenblum pursued an academic career, Greene joined the valley work force. Before VMware, she was involved in two other startups, as CEO of Vxtreme, a video-streaming company, and as a consultant on AdForce, a Web advertising venture.

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