The Spring 2016 Issue of Savoy features an exclusive interview with Microsoft Chairman and CEO of Virtual Instruments, John W. Thompson by Edward Cates.
If you were a successful executive with a 27-year career with IBM, with a little more than two years from retirement, would you coast to the end or look to start the next phase of your career and create unprecedented results?
When John W. Thompson faced this retirement scenario; he embraced it as an opportunity to leverage a career of experience and relationships to run a major United States company. Instead of retiring, he accepted an offer to become the CEO of the leading internet security company, Symantec, an early leader in the PC software segment. As the CEO and Chairman, Thompson’s leadership contributed to the growth of Symantec’s revenue from $600 million to over $6 billion in 10 years. During his tenure there, Thompson was the only African-American leading a major U.S. technology company. Currently he is the Chief Executive Officer of San Jose, CA based Virtual Instruments and Chairman of Microsoft’s Board of Directors.
L.P. Green, II, Publisher of Savoy, and I were invited to John & Sandi Thompson’s home in Northern California to conduct our cover photo shoot and interview. Thompson greeted us warmly at the front door along with his English springer spaniel hunting companions. As fellow outdoorsmen, we connected on the hunting season, his hunting dogs and passion for bird hunting. Thompson is a business titan who is multifaceted. He’s a family man, wine and car enthusiast, an outdoorsman, a nature conservationist, a proud graduate of a Historically Black College & University (HBCU) and much more. He welcomed our team with a warm and folksy familiarity that made our interview an insightful discussion on his career, technology and the state of diversity in the technology industry.
Born in Fort Dix, NJ and raised in West Palm Beach, FL, his father was a postal worker and his mother was a school teacher and administrator. Thompson received his undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University. The origin of his career at IBM had an auspicious start. In the early 70’s, as a senior in college, he sold stereo equipment and didn’t see himself fitting into the corporate profile. “I had a fraternity brother…I’m a Kappa…who ran the outplacement program at Florida A&M, and the last two years I was in college, I sold stereo equipment,” said Thompson. “I was in the outplacement building one day, and he says, IBM is coming on campus looking for sales people, you should apply for a job while they are here. I asked him to look at me. I don’t own a pair of single color shoes. I wear bell bottoms and flowered shirts and have a huge Afro. I’m a hippy man. I couldn’t possibly work for IBM. He encouraged me to at least interview with them. Coincidentally, the sales manager from IBM who interviewed me was looking to buy a stereo system. I spent the entire hour of our interview convincing him why he should buy a stereo from me at my local stereo shop, and he offered me a job.”
This began a 27-year, nine month and 13 day career with IBM for Thompson. Recognized as a leader and rising star in the company, he worked in a variety of roles across the company. These roles included serving as the General Manager for Development and Marketing of OS/2 and Intel based server products, and area of early competition between IBM and Microsoft. While at IBM, he took an educational leave of absence and earned a Master’s degree in Management Science from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thompson was promoted consistently within IBM and was consistently recognized as a leader because of his ability to win. In his most senior role at IBM, Thompson led a $37 billion business unit with 35,000 employees as General Manager for IBM Americas.
“I have always been an intensely competitive guy. I’ve always played to win, and in a company as big as IBM, or as small as Virtual Instruments where I am today, it’s about playing to win,” noted Thompson. “Fortunately for me, early in my career, there were people who noticed that was the way I played the game, were willing to get behind me and support me. I was fortunate enough to have a few early wins, and every early win led to another opportunity, which led to another win, which led to another opportunity. The competitive aspect of me is what has allowed my career to become what it is.”
Cycling opportunities into wins at IBM, created a reputation for Thompson, as a decisive, well connected tech leader. In 1999, Symantec Board Member R.S. (Steve) Miller, former CEO of Bethlehem Steel reached out to offer Thompson the role as the next CEO of Symantec to succeed founder, Gordon Eubanks. This was a critical time for the tech sector in general and particularly the internet security segment, due to increase of computers online in homes and the workplace and to an onslaught of destructive computer viruses. The demand for anti-virus software was on the rise. Symantec’s Norton Antivirus dominated the internet security space for both consumer and corporate information technology solutions. As CEO, he led the transformation of Symantec from a consumer software publisher to a global leader in information security solutions for consumers and enterprises. Under Thompson’s leadership, Symantec’s revenue grew exponentially in ten years to become a $6 billion dollar internet security juggernaut. Thompson retired from Symantec in April of 2009.
After a transformative run at Symantec, Thompson once again turned his retirement scenario into opportunity. In April of 2010, Thompson was named CEO of Virtual Instruments, a high growth Silicon Valley technology company and leading analytics platform for physical, virtual and cloud computing infrastructure performance management. Prior to being named CEO, Thompson was an investor and member of the Board of Directors.
With a wealth of experience and wisdom, Thompson is well sought after as a board director by major corporations. He previously served on the boards of Northern Indiana Public Service Company, Fortune Brands, Seagate Technologies, and UPS.
Leveraging a career of experience and board leadership, Thompson was selected to join the Microsoft board of directors in 2012. Thompson’s contributions as a board member have come during significant directional changes for Microsoft, not only in hardware, software and cloud services but also the retirement of its long time CEO, Steve Ballmer. Thompson became the lead independent director in the fall of 2012 and led the search that ultimately appointed Satya Nadella as the next CEO of Microsoft. In February of 2014, Thompson was appointed Chairman of Board, an impactful role that had only been held by Bill Gates since the company was founded in 1975.
“The process we went through to select Satya as our next CEO would have to be one of the more exciting and interesting opportunities I’ve ever had not just as a member of the Microsoft board, but in my 43-year career in tech,” added Thompson enthusiastically. “The fact that Satya has done so well, and has been embraced by our employees and embraced by our investors, is a statement of encouragement for all of us who were intimately involved in getting that done. We also know that this is a journey that is hundreds of miles long. The principal job now, is to provide the support and encouragement that Satya needs so he can maintain or accelerate the momentum that has been created since he took the job.”
In recent years, the issues of diversity and inclusion in Silicon Valley and the tech industry have moved to the forefront due to increased attention and initiatives of advocacy agencies and organizations including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Rainbow Push. As major tech companies and Silicon Valley endeavor to improve diversity within the industry, Microsoft has been cooperative and committed to increasing diversity. Microsoft has five Black executives at the corporate vice president level with the significant responsibilities and impact within the company. And, they are working to increase the number of senior black and Hispanic executives.
Thompson’s support for the need for increased diversity and inclusion in technology is greatly influenced by his view of the consumer’ impact on the technology sector today. “Diversity is an issue not just for tech. Diversity is an issue for all companies. The reason tech has become the focus, is that we are further behind. If we don’t do a good job of solving that problem, or addressing that issue, candidly, our ability to relate to consumers will wane. If you don’t have a diverse workforce, you don’t build products or create services that meet the needs of the marketplace. There is a real driving need around what consumers, individuals and companies want, and diversity helps companies do a better job of understanding and addressing those needs.”
“I think Microsoft does a really good job of diversity around their supplier eco-system. Microsoft is one of the top purchasers of products and services from Minority and Women owned businesses.” An example of Microsoft’s commitment to supplier diversity has been demonstrated by their work with a number of successful diverse and African-American owned businesses in the United States. For example, World Wide Technology, Inc., a $6+ billion provider of technology, hardware and equipment co-founded by David L. Steward is an active supplier to Microsoft.
“On the engineering and technology side, we’ve got more work to do. I know the team has embraced the idea that we really have to address this. If you look at what we’ve done on the board, the new slate is more diverse. If you look at what we’ve done on the senior leadership team since Satya has been there, we’ve added two powerful Women Executive Vice Presidents to the team. We need to do more around African-Americans and Hispanics, that’s for sure.”
Self aware, Thompson understands that others may have fixated on him being a senior Black executive in the tech industry but he never lets it break his stride. “It’s not lost on me that I’ve been African-American my whole life. I don’t think about it. The fact that other people do, I don’t get that. What you ought to focus on is, bringing the skills and experiences to the table that are needed for the job to be done. That’s what I focus my time and energy on. If I do that, then by default people say, “Hey, he’s not only doing a good job, but he also happens to be Black.”
Thompson believes diverse professionals should have access to professional opportunities that allow them to contribute their skills and experience. “It may be that some of the early opportunities that I got were about IBM trying to build a pipeline of African-American candidates. Ultimately, success is about results. If you produce results, and people are open-minded about your ability to continue to produce results, you should advance. That’s what my career would suggest.”
Thompson has been recognized by a number of industry and business associations for his leadership and public service. In 2012, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group recognized him with the “Spirit of Silicon Valley Lifetime Achievement Award”, the Silicon Valley Education Foundation named him “Pioneer Business Leader” in 2010 and in 2008 Junior Achievement recognized him as a Business Hall of Fame Laureate. Thompson was also awarded the “David Packard Medal of Achievement” from TechAmerica Foundation for his contributions to the high-tech industry. He also received the “BET Technology and Business Award” at the BET Honors in 2015.
With a career in technology that is legendary, Thompson is respected for his performance above all else. With a focus more on results than creating a legacy; Thompson lives and leads with an inexhaustible commitment to the pursuit of excellence.
“I don’t think about a legacy. I don’t wake up at all thinking about that. I think about the task to be done, and can I do as good or better job at it than anyone else. In the end, the world will decide what my legacy will be, not me. I’m not looking to do anything to shape it. Focus on doing things that are memorable, as opposed to how you want people to remember you. Perhaps, people will remember me because we took Symantec from $600 million to $6 billion. That’s about results. That’s not about me trying to create a legacy. If Satya Nadella is a huge success as the new CEO of Microsoft, perhaps people will remember that I had some small role in helping him be identified as the right candidate for that job. That’s about results. I think that’s the way we have to think about our lives and our careers, not envisioning what people write about us.”
Edward Cates is a senior contributor to Savoy as a writer, marketer and entrepreneur based in Atlanta, GA. Follow Edward Cates on Twitter and Instagram @edwardcates.