VMware CMO Robin Matlock has beaten the odds when it comes to her tenure at the cloud infrastructure and digital workspace technology company. She’s been at VMware for 10 years, with six years in the CMO spot. Compare that with the average CMO tenure of less than four years.
The company’s mission, she said, is to create, engineer, build, and deliver software that enables VMware’s customers to navigate the future of business. In this interview, Matlock talks about VMware’s business transformation, provides insight into the company’s B2B marketing playbook, and what she aspires to do as CMO over the next three years.
CMO.com: The company just celebrated a big birthday—20 years. How has VMware transformed over the past 20 years?
Matlock: VMware started out as a virtualization company. Twenty years ago, everything was very purpose-built. You had a server, it had a hard disk, it had an operating system, and it ran an application. And that was all boxed in a perfect little silo. That box was about 10% utilized because the application didn’t demand every resource. All the memory wasn’t used all the time.
So the first innovation was: How do you create an abstraction layer and separate the hardware from the software, and then pool all those resources, pool memory, pool disk, and then virtually run software on top of that hardware? When you need memory, you go grab memory—it’s just in a pool of memory. When you need disk, go grab disk—it’s in a pool of disk. It’s much more efficient, and it radically changed computing forever.
IT organizations were condensing 40 servers onto one because they could run multiple applications on a single server. They didn’t have these incredible silos. That was the first 10 years of the company’s history.
As we added and broadened our portfolio, it became very hard to get people to see VMware as anything other than the compute virtualization king. So that’s been my personal journey for 10 years, to open up people’s minds to the breadth and depth of what we do. We’ve had to go from compute to all of the aspects of the data center: storage, networking, management automation, and then we had to cross into the cloud. And the next step will be containers as the new way apps will be built.
CMO.com: Culturally, how have these changes affected the company, and what has marketing done to help adjust to those changes?
Matlock: At the core of VMware, we are agents of change. That is culturally in our DNA at this point. [CEO] Pat [Gelsinger] is a very visionary leader. He’s a technologist at his core and is not one to let us miss new market opportunities, and so he really pushes.
He is not afraid of change and disruption, of disrupting ourselves. And we were great engineers at our core. So, we do have that innovative creative talent, but it’s got to be directed, so it’s productive. As a marketing organization, leadership is a part of it and not being afraid to make mistakes is a big part of it. We were either going to rally as a marketing team and be part of the change in the company, or we were going to get left behind.
CMO.com: Your marketing is B2B for the most part. So what’s your playbook? What strategies work for you, and where would you say you’re still having challenges?
Matlock: We run great experiments, we do great CXO marketing, and I think our executive marketing is, for the last four or five years, completely transformed. I feel like we’re really acing that.
But the B2B selling process is incredibly complex. Now, not all B2B selling processes are the same, but we sell to IT, and there could be 20 different influencers, stakeholders, and decision makers involved in a given deal. We have marketing touching the customer, touching many personas within the customer. You’ve got account teams, system engineers, executive sponsorship, ecosystem partners helping out. It’s just a complex ecosystem, and the hardest part for marketing is: How do we measure our impact?
That’s probably the Achilles heel of B2B marketing. It’s not all doom and gloom. It’s about relationships. And so it’s fun to do relationship-based marketing. It’s not just transactional stuff. You really get to do things where you’re deeply engaging with customers, you’e storytelling with their business impact. And there’s so much richness and depth that you can bring from a marketing perspective.
Things like thought leadership, positioning, messaging, and storytelling—all that front end work is really critical in B2B marketing. If you have good chops there, that’s really important.
CMO.com: VMware was actually founded by a woman, Diane Greene. Do you have a strategy for how you approach diversity?
Matlock: We’ve been on a journey for years on this because it’s a really important corporate imperative. We started with gender diversity, and we worked hard there. We then expanded to diversity in general, and that’s ethnicity, differently abled people, sexual orientation, any kind of diversity.
And then we really added inclusiveness because you can attract all the talent in the world, but if you don’t create an environment where people feel comfortable and safe and can be really authentic with who they are, they can’t do their best work, and they’re not going to stick around. So the shift from diversity to more inclusiveness has been part of that journey.
On gender, we didn’t do quotas, but we did goal setting. The executive leadership level has a goal. And then we also mandated some activities that we think will help drive diversity. So, for example, on the gender side, you have to have a female on your interview panel. You have to have a female candidate on your short list. It doesn’t mean that you have to give the job to a female; it means you better work hard enough to at least help build a pool—and don’t give us the excuse that there’s no talent pool available. Work a little harder and find five candidates, including one that’s a female. That is helping.
With the business functions—marketing, HR, finance—it’s easier; it’s a bigger challenge for the technical teams. We don’t think the game is over. We think we still have a lot of work to do with promotion cycles, and when you have any kind of trimming going on, are you cutting disproportionately one gender?
We are really trying. This is not a lack of CEO-level endorsement. There is no resistance on this. It is just hard, and I think these things are so systemic that these are not quick fixes. If there was a quick fix, we would've nailed it by now. So we’re on a long journey here, but we’re not backing down.
CMO.com: When you think about the future, where do you see VMware?
Matlock: I think VMware will continue to be a very independent type of player relative to all of the cloud concepts. I think our customers will consume services across multiple clouds. They’re telling us that today. I think that’s only going to continue. And VMware is in this really unique position to be able to help IT navigate these multiple clouds but reduce the complexity. They’re not going to have to live in all these different swim lanes. They’re going to have common operations, security, networking, controls, and mobility management. I think all of that will be very seamless for IT. I see us still targeting IT, largely. I think we’re a long way from going to CMOs. That’s not our DNA, really.
Where it goes beyond three years: I think the nature of application development is radically changing, and we have to really think differently about blockchain. We have to think differently about serverless computing. We have to think differently about containers and how that will be utilized.
VMware has to start driving more relevance to the developer community. We really enable IT to serve that community. It’s not a direct customer of ours, but we have to be relevant; they have to perceive us as not old or obsolete or slow. So we have to work hard to make sure that community values the kind of underlying infrastructure that we can deliver to make their jobs better and easier, and I think part of the battle over the next three years is to make sure we cross that chasm effectively.
CMO.com: What do you aspire to do as a CMO within those next three years?
Matlock: First of all, I want to make sure my house is in order. It really bugs me that I’m below benchmark on anything. So I want to get the operational engine of VMware marketing to be best in class. That’s going to take me two years.
I feel really good about our ability to enter a new market and to position VMware, to really land clarity on why we’re there, why it matters, and move a market. To be honest, creating categories, positioning VMware in those new categories—I’m not worried about anything coming my way that we can’t successfully execute. The external stuff doesn’t keep me up at night.
It’s the internal stuff that drives me crazy. I think we’re doing great with customer storytelling. We can probably keep up-leveling that as we’re talking more about business impact and broadening the nature of the kind of storytelling that we’re doing. I want to make sure sales thinks we walk on water. They think we’re good, but I want them to think we’re great.r
CMO.com: I’m curious about your relationship with internal IT at VMware, since that’s obviously such a large customer segment for you. How would you assess it?
Matlock: Right now, it’s powerful, it’s amazing, and I’m really excited about it. Five years ago, if you’d asked me that question, I’d be like—IT can’t give me the time of day, you know? I’m fighting for even the smallest amount of investment and resource.
But that has changed, and digital transformation, this huge narrative that we’re all espousing—marketing is at the forefront of that. We’re the tip of that spear. We’re the ones that are talking about transforming how we engage with customers, creating new experiences, making sure, with data, that we can deliver the right experiences that are informed and automated and personal. That’s all marketing.
So maybe that’s been a bit of the tipping point that’s gotten them more interested in buying into, strategically, our value. But I would tell you now they are at my side day to day.
CMO.com: How do you handle retaining and renewing customers?
Matlock: Our strength is big enterprise, long-term relationships. So we’ve got a great bench, great DNA there. What’s changing for us is we’re not getting to go in and negotiate a seven- or eight-digit deal and a three-year renewal. Now they want to say, “I want to do this on a consumption basis.”
With B2B in the old school, customers have to use your software, and you are going to have a really rough conversation a year down the road if six, eight, nine months into this, they’re not using your stuff.
So we’ve always been very focused on utilization of software, and that is a really important part of the customer journey—so deployment teams, measuring our service attach rates, especially on emerging things. The kind of stuff that’s core in the DNA and the customers know it, that’s easy. But when you’re trying to sell new stuff, that’s really hard.
CMO.com: And do you have metrics? Do you use the Net Promoter Score (NPS) with your customers? Are you pulling them from a marketing perspective in addition to the sales teams and the deployment teams?
Matlock: We do all those things. We use NPS by product as well as overall. We also, though, just know the number of deployments. Marketers love to tout how many customers we have for something, but we, on the strategic businesses, are looking at, well, how many actual deployments do we have? And then we have targets for deployments and there are dedicated teams. And you know, these sometimes have to be really surgically focused at a very product level to get the traction, especially with emerging stuff that’s new.
Now, the challenge for us is, we actually can do that pretty well. We’re used to that model, but now we’re going to a consumption-based model. And now we’re starting with little deals. We’re used to starting with big deals. But customers—it’s really interesting. They’re saying, “Why am I taking all the risk? I go give you eight digits, you kick back and gently figure out how to get me up and running, but I just poured out all the risk. Now, I want to push the risk to you. I still want your stuff, but you’ve got to prove it to me, and we’ll pay as we go here. We’ll pay as we scale.”
So that’s new DNA for us, and we’re building it. I wouldn’t say we're experts at it yet, but on those businesses that are more cloud-based and consumption-based, it’s one we prioritize. We do have customer experience teams. We do measure consumption now.