Bridging the Gap between R&D and the Client with James Watters

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James Watters is currently the CTO of Modern Application Platforms BU at VMware, but he has truly done it all. Whether it was working with large corporate companies or helping startups establish themselves in the private sector, James has been there. On this episode of IT Visionaries, James sits down to discuss some of the things he’s learned along the way, including why he believes it’s imperative for research and development teams to work side-by-side with clients, what forced some of the changes we see in enterprise applications today and how these unprecedented times will shape technology moving forward.

Best Advice: It’s really about team dynamics. Make sure the team is supporting each other and that you set a culture of technical and emotional understanding.” 

Key Takeaways

  • The Connection between research and development and working with clients is imperative, especially when it comes to shaping the end-user experience
  • The evolution of the cloud forced enterprises to alter their applications to a more simplified and streamlined approach.
  • One of the most important things moving forward will be figuring out how to give a 100% digital customer experience

Life as a CTO

James attributes a lot of the success of VMware to the all-star team he has around him. His role as the CTO is to primarily guide the product and technology strategy as well as interfacing with clients to make sure they are solving their day-to-day needs. His day job consists of building the company and assisting with the research and development team, but working with customers is more of a passion. The main reason he wants to work with the clients personally is so he can see how the technology works and is impacting their business on a daily basis.

“There really is no technical win. You really need to find the thing that makes it work for the business. I try to be one of those folks that closes the loop with our customers and makes sure that what we’re doing really matters to them and is giving them leverage.” 

“If you’re not participating in that discussion, you don’t really see the end-to-end impact of the technology. It’s passion-driven for me. I love the technology, I love building it. But I also really, really enjoy the partnership we have with some of the largest organizations in the world.” 

A Pivotal Journey 

James initially started working for VMware in 2009 on a project that spun into Pivotal. The initial idea of Pivotal was for it to be a modern application platform that also had a set of consulting services around it to enable the transformation of organizations to be around continuous delivery architectures. After a few years of being a separate entity, Pivotal was reabsorbed into VMware. Pivotal partnered with the largest enterprises in the world who were doing ITel projects, moving them into new swimlanes to help go from idea to production. Pivotal had part of the solution, but VMware had the rest of it, so joining together helped bring the full solution into the fold. 

VMware has nearly half a million clients, where at Pivotal they were more focused on the Fortune 1000 companies and how they can make them more successful. But then the focus started to transition to how can they make the technology more commonplace for everyone. From a mid-sized company to any group of five or six developers, clients around the world could have two to 10 times the efficiency in terms of how they get code to production and operate it. 

“The movement that we started was too important to just be a point product that had to be part of this broader product suite.”

Adopting a Developer First Mindset 

There was a dark era in the enterprise market, especially enterprise application products. The space had been in a war of adding features that might not always be necessary or were too academic. They had become distinguished by the amount of checkboxes they possessed and people had trouble using them with high-velocity. Start-ups eventually moved to more cloud-based technology, marking a big shift in the industry because it became more about velocity and resiliency than checkboxes. Eventually, because of this method, start-ups began to outpace enterprise over the next decade, forcing a need for change.

Developer-first organizations made changes where every asset they had in the company was something a smart developer could sit down and leverage and get to production quickly. The ability to enable that kind of creativity and leverage it was a big change in the industry.

“The change was really to what I would call a developer-first mindset for infrastructure…but essentially [you] unleash human potential when you give smart people API contracts that they can get going.”

Working from an R&D Perspective 

There are two perspectives James looks at. The first is customer-centricity. Customer-centricity is when you understand the shape of the market through the customer’s eyes to be more efficient in terms of how you do R and D. This is working across the culture of the customer and the engineer to be a big part of the day-to-day product. And the second lens is portfolio theory. This theory is understanding that everything might not work, which allows you to have multiple ideas going at the same time. The manager’s role in any organization is to observe what’s working and then throw resources into it. One of the great things about technology — and working on the R and D and customer-facing side — is James has learned that customers are never satisfied with how things are evolving. They always want to push the limits. 

One of the big things that has surprised him during his travels and working with customers first-hand is how similar most companies’ experiences have been in their transformations through the years.

“The other thing I’ve learned though is they’re never satisfied. So, that same CIO comes back six months later and says, okay, what’s next? I want more, I want more, I want more. And I think that’s the awesome thing about the technology market is that people are never satisfied. They always want to see what’s that next big hit you’re going to bring me.” 

“You start having deja vu…because [the companies] they’re hitting the same friction points or they’re seeing the same opportunities. And I think that’s what really gives me passion about our role in helping these companies, which is that not only do we give them the products, but we also give them the advice and understanding of how to make that transition to this new place.”

“There really are these essential patterns to these technology markets and enterprises that all these companies are going through at once. And it’s pretty inspiring to be on the vendor side because you actually can see across all of that opportunity in a way that almost no one else can, because they’re involved in their individual routines.”

Navigating Through A Crisis

At VMware, the first response to their clients is to make sure not only are they healthy and safe, but also asking the question, how do we help you respond? The commitment from clients to enable and empower their employees with the ability to work from home has been energizing. Many clients were able to give thousands of employees the ability to work from home within days. One of the more critical things now is figuring out how to deliver a customer experience that is 100% digital and it’s creating a demand for a lot of technologies.

“It’s no longer a slow evolution to that digital first world. It is an immediate snap to the digital first companies that are going to come out stronger than anyone.”

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James Watters, CTO at VMware, discusses how research and development teams should work in conjunction with clients, customers and others to achieve business objectives.

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