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VMware's Former CTO Herrod On IT's Future

Steve Herrod explains how his technologist's vision and experience help him pick investments for venture capitalist firm General Catalyst Partners.

Steve Herrod, former CTO of VMware, said the success VMware has enjoyed in converting parts of IT operations into the software-defined data center can be followed up by young companies that fill in specific areas and enlarge its success.

That's a good point of view for a man who left VMware's CTO role in early 2013 and is now managing partner of venture capital firm General Catalyst Partners. In an interview, he said he still finds it exciting to think about the possibilities as he is exposed to the gains virtualization has made in the data center.  

But he also doesn't hesitate to pull in lessons from other previous experiences, including the one in which he participated in "a spectacular failure." That would be the time shortly after he graduated from Stanford when he led a software team at Transmeta. The firm was attempting to build a low-energy-consuming software processor that could replace Intel x86 chips. Linux developer Linus Torvalds worked there for part of the same period and the two shared an office. As Transmeta fiddled with iterations of its software CPU, Intel drove down the power consumption of its chips.

One lesson: "I guess it doesn't pay to compete with Intel in x86 processors," he chuckled.

[Want to learn more about Herrod's departure from VMware? See Herrod To Leave VMware, Join Venture Capital Firm.]

The era in which virtualization got its start was primarily a period of Web ascendance, when people learned to interact with websites. Now "mobile is the first and foremost way that companies' customers are going to interact with them. That affects how you train people, what tools you use for applications, how you test, and how you release software," he noted.

"Mobile will be dominant. I don't think people grasp that yet," he said. Google acknowledged this with its June acquisition of Appurify for testing mobile apps, he said.

In addition to tools and applications, companies need to worry about having in place "very formal API structures" to manage the creation of mobile app APIs that may be used by thousands or hundreds of thousands of customers.

One of the companies that he's advised General Catalyst to back is Runscope, which specializes in automated testing of mobile app APIs. "Runscope is a company that is trying to help companies build APIs and make sure they're robust," he said, and such companies are going to be "the picks and shovels of the new economy."

Other startups that General Catalyst is backing at his suggestion are Illumio, still in stealth mode, and and Datto, a Connecticut-based business continuity solution vendor.

That was as much as he cared to disclose about some of his early picks, and they probably don't represent the full list.

In general, he said, he's trying to bring a technologist's point of a view, of one who's already seen several fundamental changes in the industry, to an investment firm that's prepared to take chances on small companies that can bring additional changes and capitalize on them.

There will have to be developments in mobile application and API security and the movement of secure data, he believes.

While he's still a believer in strong virtualization management systems, he acknowledged Linux containers "will also have a role to play. There are reasons to run them inside a virtual machine. There are reasons to run them natively" on a bare-metal server, depending on what IT is trying to accomplish. "It's kind of wild how much attention they've gotten over the last few months," he added.

Whichever way it goes, he said, "I'm loving life as a technologist first, venture capitalist after. We're in a very exciting time in IT infrastructure." The successful company of the future won't necessarily be just a Windows company or a Linux company, an on-premises software company, or a cloud software company.

Instead, there will be different forms of computing meeting enterprise needs and the challenge will be "how to manage these different islands of computing. I like companies that solve heterogeneous problems," he said.

IT must support employees on the go as well as build mobile apps for customers. Both initiatives still have a long way to go. Get the new Frictionless IT: Mobility issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today (free registration required).