Journey to Executive Leadership with Brad Tompkins of VMUG

Welcome to episode 71 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we discuss Brad’s early career journey that led to executive VMUG leadership.

Original Recording Date: 03-16-2020

Our guest this week is Brad Tompkins, the Executive Director at VMUG (VMware User Group).

Topics – Journey to Executive Leadership with Brad Tompkins

02:02 Getting to Know Brad Tompkins – Early Career

  • Brad went to the University of South Carolina and studied Information Systems.
  • After college, he took a job selling computers, networks, etc. through Computer Sales and Services.
  • He stayed there for around 4 years before moving on to Seibels Bruce (also in South Carolina).
  • Seibels was an insurance company. Brad started off in their help desk department.
    • This was around the time personal computers were gaining popularity and being rolled out in companies.
    • Back then the data and telecom worlds were separated. Brad saw the opportunity at one point to move into the telecom group and seized it. This presented an opportunity to learn a new discipline.
  • After some experience gained in telecom at Seibels, Brad moved to Telecom Manager at Time Warner Cable.
    • This was around the time AOL purchased Time Warner.
    • Brad was part of the IT Department (data and telecom teams separated). They were rolling out AOL Instant Messenger.
    • Listen to Brad’s fun prediction (from that time period) on the future of this product and instant messaging.
  • Brad had stayed in touch with former colleagues at Seibels and heard about an opportunity to go back to Seibels to serve as Telecom Director. He once again seized the opportunity.
    • Shortly after this, the IT Director moved to a different role (different department). The data and telecom worlds were merged, and Brad became the Director of Technology Services.
    • This included datacenter, help desk, voice, pc support, etc. – everything but developers.
    • After taking the job over these areas, Brad had some fears of the unknown (tackling the data side of the house). He knew voice was not going to win the voice and data convergence.
    • The learning curve was steep, but this stepping out of his comfort zone accelerated Brad’s career significantly.
    • The first stint at Seibels is what we would call Brad’s first career inflection point with the second being this Director of Technology Services role.
    • There were tons of physical servers at the time (one server housed one application). The team began testing virtualization technologies in the early days of VMware.
    • Brad started working with Directors of other business units within the company, sometimes with VPs or the company president.
      • Brad’s focus became getting the work accomplished by trusting the team to execute while at the same time making sure upper management gave his department the resources needed.
    • The implementation of virtualization gave consolidation ratios of 20 to 1 or more (virtual machines to physical machine).
      • Before this, they were running out of datacenter space.
      • With virtualization, the problem shifted to getting more power and cooling for the datacenters.

15:15 – A Change in Thinking

  • "You can’t just grab the oar and start pulling." – John White
  • The decision to be in management really came with Brad’ move from Director of Telecom to Director of Technology Services.
    • Telecom was a one man show with a director title and no direct reports.
    • Brad was responsible for hiring and firing vendors but not employees.
    • He quickly moved to managing a team of 8. This involved performance reviews, helping with career path, clearing blocker to getting the job accomplished.
  • You have to understand what motivates people to get them to perform their best. It is not always money and is rarely a single factor.
    • Brad cites work life balance as something that was attractive to his employees.
    • Being a single guy at the time, Brad didn’t give much thought to asking folks to work overnight or on a weekend.
    • Some people on Brad’s team had families and even grandchildren. He had to adjust the approach for these employees.
  • In a crisis, Brad wanted to be the person to communicate up the chain so the team could focus on the problem.
    • He knew he would not actually be the person to apply a fix. His job was to be the shield and keep upper management updated (whether good or bad news).
    • A regular cadence of communication was critical to setting upper management’s mind at ease.
    • "Sometimes getting your team access to the tools they need is just playing defense."
  • Brad said his team gave most of the coaching he needed. They were candid about what they needed and expected from a manager.
    • Many of his direct reports were more seasoned in the business world. They told him directly what he could to do help them succeed.
    • If you find the tasks you like to do at a certain level within the organization, are happy with your compensation, and enjoy the role, there is nothing wrong with not changing.
      • Some folks have the "up or out" mentality.
      • Someone happy at their current level is going to become an expert at that level. Pushing them up to something else when they have no desire can do a disservice to the company.
      • The question to ask is…where do you want to go in your career?
        • Help the person understand others may pass them as far as level advancement goes (i.e. up to manager level, for example).
        • Ask the question again yearly at review time. You never know when the situation may change.
        • This avoids the Peter Principle
  • Being as transparent as you can both up and down the chain is critical.
    • Consistency helps also (i.e. updates on a schedule in crisis situations).
    • Brad got some feedback along the way. Listen to his story about changing out a firewall / load balancer and the decision to roll back.
      • Brad’s attitude and to understand the situation before making a final decision was a defining moment.

28:54 – Landing at VMUG and General Manager Experience

  • After almost 7 years at Seibels, Brad moved to Immedion, taking the role of General Manager of the Ashville datacenter.
    • This was a 24/7/365 operation in a service provider environment, and Brad managed the teams that worked around the clock, constantly on call.
    • There were many international clients to serve, and it was interesting having customers Brad never saw.
    • The systems here were huge. Brad did not get access to the systems like in previous roles (and did not need it).
    • This role really helped with an understanding of global businesses.
  • Brad will tell you that he is a career IT guy, even after the move to VMUG in 2015.
    • VMUG is not a traditional IT job. At the end of the day it is a community.
    • They (VMUG team) are a consumer of IT.
    • Brad was a VMUG member starting in 2011.
    • The board of VMUG was looking for someone with IT experience to relate to community members, to VMware, to partners, etc.
    • VMUG is an independent, non-profit organization that is tightly aligned with VMware.
      • Members can be end users, VMware employees, or partners. How do we as VMUG serve all of these groups?
      • Determining sponsors for VMUG meetings is done carefully. Brad shares the ins and outs of these challenging decisions.
        • The partner ecosystem continues to grow.

36:43 – Assessing Community Needs and Setting Direction

  • VMUG is run by a board of directors with 11 voting members. Ten of those are end users (completely volunteer positions – could be people from companies of any size and any industry). There is one VMware employee on the board that gets to vote.
  • The board sets the strategy for content, delivery mechanisms, ratio of where resources get spent (budgets for in-person vs. virtual events), etc. That is then communicated to local VMUG leadership (i.e. VMUG chapter for Dallas / Fort Worth or some other area).
    • These are communicated as global guidelines based on member surveys and feedback. The local leaders are able to have the autonomy to tweak things as needed.
      • Right now, for example, there is a big focus on getting back to the core vSphere population and helping them take the next step (another technology, what is next in their career).
      • Nashville may decide they are a big healthcare group and want to focus on VDI instead. VMUG will support this decision in whatever way they can (i.e. by providing content if needed).
      • So much of this depends on the local area.

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

image sources

  • Ep71-Brad Tompkins: John White

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