Judges on Fire: Joe Baguley, VP & CTO EMEA, VMware

In our Judges on Fire series of podcasts, we aim to let you get to know our judges a little better. They also get the chance to share their wisdom and tips about entering the Tech Trailblazers Awards. For our tenth outing we are catching up with Joe Baguley, VP and CTO EMEA for VMware. Joe has been a judge since the beginning of the Tech Trailblazers Awards and was even involved in the conversations before the initial launch.

In an enlightening conversation, Joe shares his life story including his wide-reaching role at VMware. He elucidates what cloud will really be like and the opportunities it could bring for startups. He also describes the difference between invention and innovation, how he sees plenty enough ‘frying pans’, and how that’s key for entrants and successful startups.

Listen to Joe’s cautionary tale of how diversity, equity, and inclusion are very different things, and that they need to be dealt with differently. So, over to Rose Ross, Founder of the Tech Trailblazers Awards, as she interviews Joe Baguley in our tenth Judges on Fire podcast.


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Interview transcript

RR: Hello everybody and welcome to the Tech Trailblazers Judges on Fire podcast. I’m delighted that today I’m joined with Joe Baguley who is the EMEA CTO for VMware and is a long-standing supporter and judge at the Tech Trailblazers. Hello Joe.

JB: Hi Rose, it’s lovely to be talking to you again.

RR: Yes, it’s been a little while. The last time I think we spoke, and it was recorded, was for the diversity panel that you did with Jackie and Neha last year (https://techtrailblazers.com/tech-trailblazers-panel-discussion-on-diversity-and-inclusion-in-tech/), so that was at the beginning of all this crazy challenging times that we’ve been experiencing. So, obviously people may be aware of you already Joe, but I thought it would be great if we did a bit of a recap of who is Joe and how did he get here, from a tech career perspective.

JB: My name’s Joe Baguley, I’m never arrogant enough to assume everyone knows who I am. As you said earlier on, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer here at VMware covering Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. I’ve been at VMware now for 10 years this year. Prior to that I was at a company called Quest Software for 10 years, which we took from not so big, to rather big, and then sold it to Dell. Then for the 10 years prior to that I cut my teeth in enterprise IT, everything from starting at HP on a helpdesk, playing with all things like Unix, and Linux, and Windows and Novell networks, and doing other stuff. I’ve worked for various consultancies and other bits and pieces, going out deploying things in large enterprises, traveling all over the place.

So, I spent the first 10 years of my life cutting my teeth literally under the desks of enterprise IT, and in the data centres of enterprise IT, and then the last 20 years I’ve been building software and talking to people actually doing enterprise IT. Best way to put it.

RR: Brilliant, thank you for that. Obviously within the awards we have a variety of categories, and you have a very wide, broad, and deep knowledge of IT, but you do tend to specialise in a number of categories for us. Do you want to just give us an overview of those, and also perhaps have a chat about what you’re seeing as hot or innovative in that space at the moment?

JB: Wow, yeah, big question! I tend to cover the cloud area as it was traditionally called, and now the areas associated with that, so things like networking, innovative IT, all those kind of things. More IoT Edge stuff now too if I’m honest with you, and then moving up the stack certainly looking more around the applications space as well, so I’m looking at things not just infrastructurey and cloudy, but much higher up in terms of applications and delivery. Also, end-user computing, my role at VMware covers everything from the real guts of a data centre where I’m working on sustainability standards with the European Union, all the way through applications, the network, SD-WAN all the way down to the actual end-users of devices, so it covers the full remit. So really across the board is the short answer of areas that I’m looking at.

In terms of exciting, hot areas in that space, I think really the biggest one for me now is a realisation in our industry that everything’s not going to end up in one cloud. More importantly everything’s not going to end up in the cloud. What we’re now looking at is applications that are distributed, complex and distributed in scale. So,  a lot of people thought that cloud was about taking what I did before and just doing it somewhere else in the cloud, so to speak; maybe doing it slightly differently, maybe in a cloud native, and doing it in a cloud but ultimately that’s it. Whereas what we’re now seeing is people are building application which have bits in one or more clouds, as well as bits in some edge devices, as well as applications in people’s hands. So what’s going on there is, people as an industry now looks once again at distributed stuff, so there’s a lot of things going on in distributed analytics, distributed databases, distributed machine learning.

Federated is another word that’s coming up, federated machine learning, federated analytics, you’re seeing a lot in the space around service mesh and all those kind of things. So to be fair it’s much more in that sort of how people are now building, scaling, running, managing, operating massive applications that are highly distributed and highly complex. There’s lots of moving parts in it, so it’s quite exciting, it’s never going to settle down and there’s never one winner either.

When you’ve got something that big, and that expansive I suppose as a landscape, there’s always so many small chinks for someone to come in and make a difference I think as well, which is where it’s exciting for me because something like Tech Trailblazers, I can’t claim to know that whole landscape perfectly, so something Tech Trailblazers gives me a chance to spot what’s popping up in the gaps, and what the cool stuff is. So yes, I suppose that’s really how I look at it!

RR: Well, you’ve been with us right from the beginning, in fact we spoke about everything even before the Tech Trailblazers existed, way back when.

JB: I remember that conversation Rose, I remember where it was – it was at the Excel Centre, I remember it was a conference, I don’t know what the conference was. You and I stood outside having a cigarette, which dates it because I’ve not smoked for many, many years as well, and we discussed the concept of something like this; and here we are, what, 10 years later now is it?

RR: Yeah, we’re in our 10th edition, so some of your pearls of wisdom will hopefully get into our celebratory eBook, Tech Trailblazers at 10. I know, very exciting stuff.

So, from that perspective, what do you tend to… I think part of what you’ve just said kind of answers the next question, ‘Why do you do it?’ which is that obviously you specialise although you have a very big view with your role, it seems to give you insights into areas that perhaps you wouldn’t get a chance to look at with your day job so to speak. What are the reasons you get involved in things like this?

JB: Well, the reason as I say is, it broadens my outlook, it’s another way for me to keep in touch with what’s going on. Even more so nowadays, because I used to go and hang around at meetups like CloudCamp etc., as you well know, we bump into each other a lot at these. With that not happening so much because of the way we’re living it’s even more important that I’m getting visibility to those things here.

I think the other thing to understand is, when you say what am I looking for in an entry so to speak, there’s two real things, and I’ve thought about this a lot recently, discussed it with some of my colleagues here at VMware, because we’re famous at VMware for innovation, and we’ve been trying to look internally and externally, asking questions, and Kit and others have been asking this; what is innovation? And it’s really interesting because there’s a difference between invention and innovation. Invention is having a really cool idea; innovation is bringing that idea to market and to mass adoption I suppose really, or having the vision of how that would happen. As you know, I’m very interested in sustainability and electric cars and stuff; I’m bored of reading the news story about the next big battery killer that’s going to be the next big battery for electric cars. Someone somewhere has had an idea and managed to get something to work in a very obscure corner of a lab, then they go, ‘Well, we believe this could scale-up,’ well that’s invention, that’s not innovation. So,  innovation is someone who’s gone, ‘Okay, I’ve taken some concept, some thought about what we could do, but I’ve actually put it into practice. But more importantly, I’ve thought about more than just the technical side of things, it’s how do I scale this? How do I deploy this? How do I get people to accept it?’

So, really what am I looking for in an entry is not just pure invention, because I see thousands of those every day. What I’m looking for more is, I want invention with that innovation piece, I want it where you say, ‘Okay, I’ve got this invention, but here’s exactly how we can make this into a real thing,’ and that’s really important to me. And the more evidence you can come to us with – I’m not saying come to us with a fully-fledged huge customer base, because that’s not what this is about, but at least a vision that you’ve thought that through, I think is the point!

RR: Yes, very much not just the pure aspect of it, but the applied aspect of it.

JB: Definitely. I remember I said in a previous example, I think in an interview with you guys about frying pans. I’ve seen hundreds of frying pans, so if you’re going to come to me with a new invented frying pan I’m probably not going to get it. But if you show me some new amazing food that I’m going to eat, that I could never cook without this frying pan, I might be a little bit more interested. So, it’s almost like it’s the application of it, it’s how does it actually affect and change. To be fair, that sort of sits a lot into what the role of a CTO or someone like myself is when talking to customers, is the customer can look at products all day, it’s only when you walk in and go, ‘Okay, well let me apply these products to your environment, let me show you how we can change your world using these products’. That’s when people make that leap, and they get that.

So, make it easy for us judges! Do it like we do for when we’re selling to customers. We make it easy for them to understand how it applies to them, make it easy for us too.

RR: Yes, so give you the ‘why’ not just the ‘what’.

JB: Definitely.

RR: Brilliant. So, why would you encourage innovative new companies? Because it’s a lot of effort, we don’t just ask them for a couple of things, we do ask for… it’s not reams of stuff, but we do ask them for some fairly thought through answers to condense down into what they can prove around innovation, and other aspects of their business and their technology; why should they bother?

JB: I’ve always said on this one, why not? It’s such a minimal amount of effort to put your entry in for something like this, it’s not a lot of effort really. There are other award schemes that require you to pay money, jump through hoops backwards, and other kinds of stuff that you would baulk at. I think for Tech Trailblazers why wouldn’t you? It’s not an awful lot of time and effort, and more importantly there’s a huge deal that you can get back, just exposure to the judges seeing your entry is a good start, people that move in the right circles. More importantly, I think it’s the networks, the people that you’ll meet and the exposure you’ll get is one of those things as well.

So, look at it as it’s not just marketing, it’s not just I can get a badge to put on my website that we won Tech Trailblazers, it’s about being part of that process, the exposure that you get as part of that process to the people that are involved in that process. Some of the other judges are really quite impressive, so even just that alone is good in itself. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ is the way that you could look at this really! And it’s not bad.

RR: The worst that can happen is you win, and you have to talk to me! Because I’ll go and interview your CEO.

JB: That’s pretty bad, yeah I can…from experience…

RR: You don’t want to be doing stuff like that! Well, just to clarify, there is a small entry fee, but yes compared with some of the others, and for Firestarters and for Female and Male CxO there aren’t. I think what you were saying is give it a shot, there’s potentially great benefits even if you don’t win, and even if you’re not shortlisted.

JB: Well yeah and I think that the point that we discussed at the very start of Tech Trailblazers was that we didn’t want this to be something to sell tickets to a dinner, which is what 99 percent of other award schemes are about, selling tickets to a dinner. This is the opposite of that, we wanted to create the antithesis of that, an actual award scheme where it’s not about selling tickets to a dinner, it’s about actually making a difference, really important.

RR: And this year we’ve been ahead of the curve somewhat, because there have no awards dinner. So that business model did kind of fall on its head somewhat for a number of people which, yes I do like to think of myself as innovative, but I wasn’t anticipating that a pandemic would be the reason for being such an innovative awards organiser!

Im going to take us onto a topic which I know we discussed, and we discussed in the panel that we last spoke on when we talked about diversity. I’m wondering whether now you see post everything that’s been going on over the last year, the renewed… well, not renewed because it’s never stopped, the conversation around diversity, and I know that you’ve

JB: There’s a couple of things in that space, and as you know diversity has always been something very important to me, we’ve discussed this quite a lot at length. And not just because I’m the father of two daughters, but it’s something that’s always stood out to me since the start for various other reasons, why I consider myself diverse. But there’s a couple of increased focusses; the first is as a broader focus, I’ve written a couple of articles recently on this on ESG which is environmental, social, and governance. This is from corporates moving beyond the, I suppose, the lip-service to corporate good and realising that having a strategy around environmental, social, and governance is fundamentally important to getting investors even. So that’s important.

That then trickles down, because part of that ESG piece is around diversity, equity, and trust, I suppose. So people are looking for ethical, good, in ESG managed companies, but to do that they’re realising that a key part of that is a company that does take what we now call DEI, which is diversity, equity, and inclusion, to its core. That’s really important and I think what I’ve seen over the last 10 years is a maturity in our market, particularly in tech – more so than I think any other industry, in understanding the challenges around diversity, but more importantly the opportunities around diversity. It’s important to understand that diversity, equity, and inclusion are very different things, and they need to be dealt with differently, but understood by all. Diversity is obviously having a diverse talent pool, and diverse people doing the job. Equity is about making sure that everyone has the chance to show their best or has an equal chance to take part, I suppose. Inclusion is making sure that everyone feels included and wants to take part, I suppose.

So, diversity is inviting everyone to the party, that’s great. Inclusion is everyone feeling like they can go on the dance floor and have a dance, that’s the difference I’ve always put diversity and inclusion in. And equity is another one that I don’t think people understand; equity is not about giving everyone the same, it’s about giving some people more than others so they can all achieve the same. A great way to put this is there’s a picture which I love, of three different people standing to watch a football game, they’ve got three boxes. They give one box to everyone and of course everyone’s just one box higher, but still even then not everyone can see over the bar and see into the football game. Whereas obviously the tallest person doesn’t get a box and the shortest person gets two boxes: that’s equity, your leveling playing fields.

So, for me that’s what DEI means, it’s about making sure that everyone can come, everyone feels like they can take part, and everyone can take part on a level playing field, and that’s been at the core of what we do at VMware. It’s been shown that when you do that, and it’s been proven myriad times that diversity improves performance of teams, it improves the performance of companies. So, people are now actively looking at DEI as a way to improve the performance of their company. Also, at the same time it ends up being a better and a nicer place to work, it ends up being a better way to attract talent, and there’s no real downside to it. It’s just difficult trying to persuade people that this is the way forward, and everyone seems to think it’s some politically correct thing or everything else. It’s not, it’s just the right thing to do and it’s how things should be.

RR: It’s an important part of that, and there’s lots of challenges still within that, as I’m sure you will see both in your personal life, and in your professional life, because there’s still a way to go.

Now there’s another element of this, and this is something we haven’t talked about, but I would like to talk about it because I think it will be an interesting area. There has been a lot of discussion within the startup world about failing fast, so taking things, testing them out, seeing if they are a goer or not. Have you experienced this type of stuff yourself, either in your career or in the things that you’ve been working on?

JB: It’s a bit of a cliché, fail fast – fail often, and all the other bits and pieces. I think the biggest barrier to failing fast is a cultural barrier within organisations, and especially the larger an organisation gets, the more risk-averse they become, the more bureaucratic they become. So,  if you want to take my experience from this; I’ve seen fast failure… the best way to put fast failure is not failing fast, it’s more a willingness to take risks, and willing to take multiple bets is the best way to put it. The willingness to invest in something and realise that it might not come off, but not penalise anyone for that. I think that’s the real thing. So,  in a small startup you can try several different things, and the only people that lose out is you, I suppose really, in your time and effort. I think the problem is the larger an organisation becomes, you get to a very big enterprise, people don’t want to be the person that was known as that worked for six months on project X and project X failed, because that’s not going to look good at their next review, and they’re not going to get another.

But if you’re building an environment like we do at VMware where we have a thing called Xlabs, which is specifically built around this idea, where people come in with ideas in a startup model. We repeatedly do that, so, at VMware we have this model withing the office of a CTO called Xlabs, which is where we try new things, and more importantly we expect things to fail. And so,  I think that’s the failing fast thing, it’s as much about expecting things to fail, having a culture that accepts failure as well as just failing as quickly as you can.

So, fail fast typically talks about try lots of things and realise which ones don’t work fast. But I think there’s a next step to that, there’s a sort of brutality with the ability to say, ‘No, we’re going to bet on something and know that if it fails, we’ll go, ‘Okay, we learnt something there’. And that’s really important. So, people who say, ‘Oh, I’ve learnt from my mistakes etc. etc.’ and there’s a hundred cliches like that, and the classic one, ‘I’ve got more experience than you.’ ‘No, I haven’t, I’ve just made more mistakes’, and trust me I’ve made a lot in my life, and you learn from them!

To summarise a rather rambling answer I’ve just given you, I think it’s trying to find ways in cultures where failure is not penalised, failure is not something that people are seen or looked down on for, and almost building environments where failure is something that is acceptable, maybe even celebrated.

The other thing, scientists, I’ve always considered myself to be an engineer and a scientist, and scientists are always willing to admit they’re wrong when faced with better evidence, or new evidence, or an experiment that disproves that. I think that’s where people need to learn in our IT world; we’re quite happy in most cases when someone comes in with a better tech to go, ‘Yeah actually this is wrong, we’ll dump that, we’ll move over and do this’. I see where sometimes people get almost religiously tied to something, rallying round some new future technology as being the next big thing. Quite often that’s actually more painful, is breaking people away from the cult of that particular technology, and go ‘Really, no it’s dead. We’re not doing that anymore. Everyone’s gone over here’.

So, fail fast, and you go much broader than just trying different things.

RR: Yes, the lessons that you learn are particularly important. So, we’ve looked at the past, and we like to think of ourselves because we’re looking at Tech Trailblazers, and people who are going to be making a difference in the enterprise tech space over the coming years. What would you say is going to be the future of enterprise tech, what are we going to see over the next 10 years?

JB: My answer to this is always, I’m not very good at predictions, if I was, I wouldn’t be here, I’d be on my massive super-yacht in the middle of the Med right now. But if you want to look at more general trends as to what I think is going to happen, not specifically in technology – in any particular technology so to speak, but in terms of what’s going to really make a difference. It was brought home to me yesterday, I was on a briefing with a financial institution, I won’t tell you which one, and this financial institution was just absolutely not only, I think, a bit full of people who like living in the past but were almost complaining that their customers were wanting new funky stuff, like instant payments and things like that. You know, like that’s the norm. And you could see them struggling because of what they’d built in their past, that they weren’t able to move forward to the future.

So, I think if you want to know the real challenge we have in enterprise IT always, is there is a shop of shiny stuff, all new and amazing sexy stuff that everyone sees, and all the cloud vendors, and we go to all these wonderful shows, they have this new way of doing this – we’ve got microservices that, and serverless this, whatever-whatever. There is a huge gap between the huge array of shiny stuff, and the stuff that enterprises are using on a daily basis to run their stuff. The gulf is massive in terms of skills, in terms of technology, in terms of everything. So, really if you want to know what’s going to modernise, and what’s going to make a difference in the next 10 years, is almost dragging those people into the future by making it as easy as possible for them.

That’s what I’m looking for specifically in my area, is don’t keep coming up with a new exciting way to do Knative serverless this, whatever it is blah-de-blah; what I’m looking for is, have you made that massively easy to consume by an enterprise? Have you made it easy for them not to have to go through a skills pain to be able to consume it? And, have you made it such that it’s quite easy for them to integrate it with their existing systems, or modernise their existing systems to make the most of that? Thatwhere there’s some real difference going to happen.

There will be organisations that die in the next 10 years because they can’t jump that gap. The opportunity there to come in and do something amazingly inventive in that middle space, I think is really where people sort of…they get so excited by, ‘I’ve got to come up with a new shiny thing’ there’s a huge value in taking a couple of the shiny things and productising them, to use the Simon Wardley type of thing!

RR: Im having throwbacks to his maps!

JB: Yeah exactly. But it is, it’s about that evolution from that innovative down through to something that’s productising, that productising bit in the middle. So, what will the next 10 years hold for enterprise technology? It’s going to be as enterprises start to modernise or continue to… I say start to, we’re always modernising, continue to modernise. It’s how are you going make it easy for them, that’s the real challenge. Because they all want to do it, they all see the shiny stuff and say it’s great, but if you’ve got some way of making it easy for them, you’re going to have your own super-yacht in the Med!

RR: Well in some ways we’ve had that over the last 12 months haven’t we, for example with the adoption and digital transformation, because it forced people to perhaps move a lot faster than they had originally anticipated doing so.

JB: It’s forced a cultural change; I think that’s the important thing. I think a lot of the barriers to technology adoption in enterprises are people and process, they’re not necessarily around technology, I’ve always said this. It’s like Godwin’s law is any conversation on the internet will end up being about someone accusing someone else of a Nazi. I think if I was going to come up with Baguley’s Law it would be, any conversation about technology always ends up coming about people and process, and here we are again, right.

So, what actually happened in the last 12 months was we didn’t make any great leaps in technology! There’s been no huge leaps in technology in the last 12 months, have there, right? What you’ve got is organisations that have said, no we can’t do things using technology X, have been forced to and now it’s become part of their core culture.

So, Zoom hasn’t suddenly got 10 times better in the last 12 months, it’s not fundamentally different, there’s a load of new features and stuff, but it’s not fundamentally changed, just people are now using it more. All these technologies, people have now decided that they’re acceptable to them. So,  the people and process have become accepted and forced to use these technologies. So that’s where it’s been great for me, we’ve not seen a huge 12 months of invention, what’s we’ve seen is a huge 12 months of adoption of people changing their perception. I think that’s important.

RR: Absolutely. And sort of in the same vein, and perhaps the pandemic has also had an impact on this side of things as well, is what do you think in 2030 or 2031 I guess we would be saying; what are startups going to look like? Are they going to have changed considerably? Are we going to see shifts in how they operate, how they raise funds? Enterprise tech.

JB: The big thing for me comes back to what I talked about earlier, the ESG side of things. I think you’re going to see in 2031 there’s going to be even more focus than there is now on sustainability, on social change, on a better world full stop, etc. etc. So,  the opportunity and the inspection of technology will be far greater in 10 years in terms of its social, and economic, and environmental impact I think, than it is now. So, what’s the world of startups going to look like then? It will still be there, the money will still be around for VCs to invest in it, but they’ll be looking far more to invest in something that’s got ESG props, than they would necessarily in high-tech… You see the point I’m saying here is that you’re going to have to focus more in that area.

You just have to look at all the companies laying out 2030 road-maps that are probably a lot better thought through than the 2020 ones were in 2010, a lot more mature and much more around tech for good and all those areas. So,  I think yeah, if I was looking now to say what would a VC – hopefully I’ll be retired and advising more private equity firms than I do now by then! We’ll be looking more in that ESG space, definitely.

RR: Fantastic, all good stuff. Well hopefully we’ll have some news with regards to that, I’m just thinking if there’s anything else that you’d like to share, perhaps that you’ve notice over the last 12 months since we last spoke.

JB: Yeah, there was this pandemic thing that happened.

RR: What was that about?

JB: I don’t know really; it was all just part of life. I just sat in my house!

RR: Passed you by as you Zoomed with everybody.

JB: If you want to talk about people and process, that’s me. If you’d have asked me 18 months ago I would have said, no there’s no possible way. I really hate doing video conference presentations, I much prefer doing them in person. Now I’ve been forced to do them I’ve realised the benefits of it in a huge way, and I think that’s going to be a big flip. I don’t think we’ll go back to huge in-person conferences quite as quickly as people want, it’s going to take a few more years. So,  I think to that perspective, in the context of something like Tech Trailblazers, in the context of someone who’s a founder trying to do something cool, interesting, and different, the next three years are going to be very, very different, it’s not going to change back fast.

So, whereas two or three years ago if you were starting a company, I’d go, ‘Right, go and hang out with some of the cool conferences. Go get yourself a little stand or whatever it is, meet the right people, do the networking’. That’s going to be very hard for a few years to come, so we need to start looking at more different ways like this kind of thing, and other ways too, of allowing cool innovators such as the people who are entering into Tech Trailblazers, to find those people that can made a difference for them, and you can bring them to market, whether that’s by acquisition investment or whatever it is, or just by buying their product and using it. I think we need to find new and innovative ways of doing that. So maybe there’s a Tech Trailblazers category in itself right there! What’s the cool new way you can make startups more successful in the next three years or so, because it’s going to be hard.

RR: Although interestingly enough we are looking at a couple, and it’s touched upon two of the areas that we’ve dwelled on, or explored here during our conversation, so one of the categories is Diversity Trailblazer, looking at people not just in startups because obviously we have the Male and the Female and part of that scorecard, for want of a better word, is diversity as well as leadership, innovation, and agility. The other is Investment Trailblazer, so looking at the financial element of a startup, so that could be VCs, that could be other types of private funding, that could be accelerators, that could even be people in government who are doing innovative stuff with the startup community. So, watch this space with regards to those.

JB: There’s one more area I’d like to talk about, if I could a little bit, from the diversity perspective particularly. Fundamentally and something that’s been close to my heart is mental health, so I’ve been a sponsor of mental health here at VMware, and we’ve trained over 60 mental health first aiders in EMEA that were set up long before the pandemic, so three or four years ago, that have helped us hugely. So that’s one thing I want to highlight that’s come out as important going forward in terms of personal wellbeing, particularly it’s been highlighted as part of this pandemic.

But the other thing that a lot of people don’t thing about, and I don’t want to mention it in the same breath as mental health, I just want to separate it, is neurodiversity. I’m seeing a rise in the recognition of neurodiversity as a diversity angle, I suppose, so a diversity topic within organisations. So, people obviously, if you talk about diversity at the moment, they talk about all the obvious diversity categories in terms of gender – whichever gender you’re identifying with should I say, and/or race etc. etc. We actually have a veteran’s pod for ex-military at VMware, that I’m a sponsor of as wellbeing ex-military. But neurodiversity is one that’s rising up, so we’ve been going through some neurodiversity hiring programmes in the US and recognising that neurodiversity is very much something that needs to be looked at, understood, and further investigated and supported, so to speak, as people become more aware of the diversity of abilities and performance that people can have in various different areas based on their neurodiversity. So, I think that’s really important to understand.

So, it looks like we’ve got rid of what ‘normal’ was in other categories, we’re getting rid of what normal is in the neuro space as well I think, which is really important. Because particularly in tech, you’ll find a lot of people that would be considered neurodiverse in other industries, so to speak, it particularly tends to attract people that have autistic tendencies, or ADHD or other things – myself included, and people with Asperger’s etc. that in other industries wouldn’t have done so well as they have done in tech, but I think recognising/celebrating that and understanding that is also a key part of the growth of our industry going forward as we mature. So, add that to the DEI space is adding in neurodiversity, and that’s a topic that’s become close to my heart in the last couple of years, and it’s something that we’re focusing on a bit more heavily now at VMware in a broader way.

RR: Definitely. There is something that I always used to say, ‘They’re on the spectrum’ I said we’re all on the spectrum, it’s called being a human being.

JB: Exactly! Neurodiversity, everyone’s somewhere on that spectrum, so you can all claim to be on it, that’s fine and that’s great. But it’s like the same thing is mental health, I heard someone talking about mental health being a part of the disability issue. I said mental health is not a disability, everyone’s got mental health – it’s the same as physical health. I don’t look at one of my employees who has got a broken leg and go, ‘Well just get over it will you’, it’s the same. We all have days where we feel bad physically, and we will have days where we feel great physically, and equally in the mental perspective we’ll have days where we feel bad mentally and feel great mentally. I think that on that side is worth understanding, and I think as we watch an industry start to mature and understand mental health the same way as physical health; that’s why we have physical first aiders in organisations everywhere, they’ve been trained for years, St John’s Ambulance and all that kind of stuff. But the thing is, if you go to an organisation there’s always people in that office that are first aiders, they have the special badges and the lanyards or whatever it is, and they never get used. Why do they never get used? Because we put so much effort into physical safety, and Health & Safety that people bemoan, that we very rarely need to call upon our physical first aiders in the workplace.

So, all I try to do at VMWare is say, ‘Well, can we not just swap the word physical for mental in that?’ So can I have mental health first aiders that when someone is having trouble mentally, we can signpost them to the right amount of help, and where they go to get help. But at the same time, can we also look on how we do Health & Safety at work for mental health, the same way we do Health & Safety for physical work. How do I set up environments, cultures, spaces, just everything, so that we can understand… I don’t want to get to the point where people are injuring themselves mentally before they get picked up, I want to stop that before, just as we’ve done for physical health.

So, if you ask what’s my crusade? It’s very much around that mental health space, it’s around changing the way that people work, and understanding the environments that people work in, to support good mental health, just like we support good physical health in what we do.

I apologise for going through a bit of a rant at the end.

RR: No, it’s fascinating. I was just thinking about the example of being taught to pick up a box correctly. You can pick it up badly and injure yourself, and you can pick it up in the correct way which will be safe, or you could say that load is not suitable for one person, that should be spread across two people, for example. Yeah, people have resilience in certain aspects of their character, and some will be less resilient, and how do you help them build that resilience, and how do you ensure that you also look at the tasks or missions that you give to people, and how you resource them? Because that’s where stress usually comes from, isn’t it?

JB: You know my personal hobby, I do fireworks and stuff outdoors, and for that we have to do various health and safety…

RR: You’re a pyromaniac, Ive known that for a long time.

JB: Exactly, but one of those is I have to do a ‘safe working at heights’ course, which is how to work safely at heights. No one’s done me a ‘safe working in high stress situations with customers shouting at you’ course! Those don’t exist.

RR: It would come in very useful I would imagine, for a lot of people!

JB: You don’t tend to get it as much at VMware, but I have in my past. But it’s that kind of thing, so we’re looking at putting mental health courses for managers to enable them to start to not only recognise for mental health symptoms, but more importantly how to run a team with an understanding of prevention as well. So there’s flip sides to both of this, and I think it’s really important that we as an industry, if I get the chance in this forum, thank you, to do that – to say that we need to start talking a bit more openly about how we create places… not that are less stressful, because it’s very difficult to work in a software sales company without having end of quarter stress, but I think less risky to mental health I think is the best way to put things.

RR: We all know that it’s going to be potentially dangerous to dangle off a frame when you’re fixing a firework, or whatever you might be doing. But as long as you’ve got the safety equipment and you’re well-trained then you should be fine. You can only reduce the risk, that’s the thing, you can reduce the risk to being an acceptable risk.

JB: Yes, so let’s think a bit more about how we reduce the risk of mental health problems in the workplace.

RR: Yes, and let’s face it, startups are phenomenally stressful, or they can be.

JB: Yes, and as I said, mental health isn’t just all about stress, there’s huge elements to it too.

RR: Absolutely. Well thank you so much Joe, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Delighted that you could join us today for another Judges on Fire podcast, and if you’d like to find out more about the Tech Trailblazers please do visit our website, www.techtrailblazers.com or follow us on Twitter @techtrailblaze, so no R and no S at the end. Or find us on LinkedIn.

So, thanks again Joe, and hopefully you can join us again soon for another exciting conversation.

Thank you.