July 11, 2023

Being acquired from a smallish start-up into VMware

Being acquired from a smallish start-up into VMware (This Blogpost is authored by Jeff Blair)

On October 14 of 2020, the team at SaltStack, Inc. was acquired by VMware. We joined the team then known as vRealize Automation, which is now known as VMware Aria Automation. SaltStack was brought in to help fill the role of infrastructure and endpoint management within VMware’s Automation product ecosystem. As I reflect on the past three years, being acquired by VMware has been a positive experience for me and my team. Our product has improved because it has now been scaled up to solve important problems for a much wider variety of customers across the world, ranging from big enterprises to small shop IT operations and everything in between.

One of the biggest improvements I've seen is in our ability to better prioritize engineering work based on customer demand. Startups tend to run with less process, because every release is a race to market that represents a desperate attempt to grow revenue before the limited funding runs out. SaltStack was no exception. We tried to operate with the discipline and accuracy that would reflect our collective years of experience., but this effort was often overwhelmed by escalations from our most important customers, or by high-dollar deals that needed help or even custom work to close the deal. These demands often made it difficult to create a plan for our engineering team and then stick to it.

However, when we joined VMware, we had to broaden our focus and begin thinking about the needs of a much larger, global customer base. We joined the VMware Aria Automation team (formerly vRealize Automation) and began the process of integrating VMware Aria Automation Config (formerly SaltStack Enterprise or SaltStack Config). Part of this integration involved integrating the software development lifecycle processes that are in use by the VMware teams: source code analysis tools, vulnerability scanning, open-source dependency management and license compliance, translation and localization, and inclusive terminology scans (among others).

These changes all came at us fast, but we found our new VMware co-workers were ready to help us at each step. One big challenge was adapting our product from an on-prem focus to a SaaS focus. Our product was originally designed as an installable package for deployment and use in the on-premises environment owned by the customer. VMware Aria Automation was really ramping up their focus on the cloud offering. They were working toward a monthly cloud push for the entire product. We needed to learn how to integrate with the single sign-on used by Aria Automation. We needed to make our product understand a multi-tenant environment running in containers. We needed to get a level of continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) that we had never attempted before. All of this has pushed our team and our product to do great things and to learn in the best way possible.

Having the VMware sales team start selling VMware Aria Config to the VMware customer base has been an eye-opener as well. We went from a sales team of maybe 20 to a sales team of at least hundreds. At SaltStack we took the existence of customer issues as proof that someone was using our product and that is still true at VMware.  Truthfully, at VMware there is a constant stream of feedback that can sometimes feel overwhelming. But we have embraced this by viewing our most vocal customers as passionate users who are giving us valuable feedback about how to make our product better. This feedback has helped to drive a focus on our user-facing documentation. These can be found at https://docs.vmware.com/en/VMware-Aria-Automation/SaaS/Getting-Started-Automation-Config-Cloud/GUID-508B1CB8-B2B3-401C-9D49-781CE02EBE98.html, and https://www.saltproject.io/documentation .

We also found a new slate of global, regional, business unit meetings where the leadership teams report to the group on how we are doing and share the vision of where we are going. I was surprised and happy to see the level of openness and energy coming from our senior leadership team. I have been very happy to see that a company of approximately 40,000 individuals can show so much care and concern for the individual. We have a global set of values called EPIC2 (Execution, Passion, Integrity, Customer, and Community). These values drive how we operate. These values give everyone language to encourage good behaviors, and to challenge things that don’t feel right. Our global HR group actively encourages protecting work-life balance and using personal time off to protect emotional, physical, and mental wellness. My own leadership team periodically asks me if I am accepting meetings outside my normal workday and encourages me to protect my personal time. I have experienced what I think is a career first: I had skip-level meetings with the boss of my boss where all he wanted to know is, “Are you happy?” and “Is your team happy?”

We are more than 2 ½ years into this now, and it has been a great experience for me and for much of the former SaltStack group. Small start-ups and large enterprise businesses both have their pros and cons. I’ve spent most of my career favoring the smaller company because I’ve had some negative experiences with larger corporations before. However, VMware has proven to me that it is possible to grow a large business that is aggressive and successful, while keeping some of the agility and personality that makes smaller start-ups so great.

Jeff Blair

Director of Engineering

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