I dived deep into the VMware community. Here's what I found...
Our man Trevor Pott discovers who's vWho and what's vWhat
Sysadmin blog The VMware community is more complex than any other IT community I've studied. El Reg sysadmin blogger Phoummala Schmitt has given a fantastic look at the stark contrast between the VMware and Microsoft communities. I am going to delve into the details of the VMware community a little more thoroughly.
The tweets must flow
If you want to get involved in the VMware community you are going to have to learn to tolerate Twitter.
About 90 per cent of 2013 vExperts list a Twitter account with their profile in the vExpert Directory. You'll find similar acceptance of the social network among the popular vBloggers, as well as VMUG leaders, vPodcasters, vJournos and even vVendors. All of which is a whole lot of vThings, so let's explore those next.
vBloggers are what you'd imagine, based on the name. There really isn't a single major technology publication that does a complete job of covering VMware ecosystem news, and so individual bloggers have risen to prominence.
Consistently top ranked by the community amongst vBloggers are Duncan Epping (a VMware employee) and his good friend Frank Denneman (a PernixData employee.) This pair are founding members of the self-styled "Dutch vMafia," a professional clique of close friends and powerfully influential vBloggers.
The top bloggers have massive followings, enough for some to make quite decent money from advertisements on their blogs. This rarefied atmosphere of influence is where technical knowledge combines with practiced charisma and careers' worth of "right people" contacts.
These folks have the ability to generate large volumes of quality content, maintain strong and consistent social presences on social websites and at VMware and VMware community events. They have their blogs heavily linked to by others and as such they are tops in any VMware-related Google searches and ultimately within the VMware ecosystem itself.
The other guys
There are, of course, other vBloggers beyond the top 50. The drop off in influence, however, is fairly significant once you're off that list. Vendors want to influence the top-tier bloggers, and people starting out within the community have to find a way onto that selfsame list if they want that kind of attention.
When looking around for people to read, many of those who write for more formal publications are often overlooked by those new to the community, but this is a rookie mistake. Consider the other Scott Lowe. Lowe writes for Virtualizationsoftware.com (amongst others), is a vExpert in his own right, knowledgeable, charismatic, popular and a decent person to boot.
Despite this, poor Lowe will always be in a sort of "second place" to the Scott Lowe, something that has caused some confusion in the past. Other Scott Lowe is a humble sort, yet he commands the attention of many. His word is trusted and while he doesn't have the top-50 billing, he definitely influences other influencers.
Consider also David M Davis. This man is seemingly everywhere. Every conference I go to, he's there. Everyone knows him and he seems to know everybody. He's affable, well liked and entrepreneurial. He doesn't come top-of-mind for many when they talk about the VMware community, but he has his fingers in everything from Train Signal (now Pluralsight) to innumerable virtualization-related publications.
As you descend out of the top 50 and start looking at the wider community, you'll find that the almost religious focus on VMware starts to fray at the edges. People like Lowe and Davis write just as readily about Microsoft's Hyper-V, and aren't above investigating OpenStack or any other technology that tickles their fancy.
Because of this, their reach can exceed that of the top-50 VMware bloggers, even if they don't make the official list.
Bacon, soup, podcasts and you
Podcasts are quite popular among the VMware community, with the official VMTN podcast at 256 episodes at time of writing. The community at large joins in enthusiastically, often in loose affiliations that only sometimes qualify as "an organization."
The vBrownBag webinars are immensely popular, and run by a group of increasingly influential and highly knowledgable individuals from around the world. The Register will be joining in as well with an upcoming monthly podcast series.
In addition to podcasts, the wider community is fond of semi-official get-togethers called vBeers and less official shindigs like vBacon. Major events tend to also come with an overlapping plethora of parties as well.
Conferences, VMUGs and vVendors
VMUGs are their own special thing. They are officially titled "VMware User Group" meetings, but these are nothing like most user group meetings you'll encounter elsewhere. VMUGs are mini-conferences.
A LUG (Linux User Group) or Spicecorps meeting will tend to be smallish. A few dozen folks at most, typically. A presentation of some technology might occur, but equally likely is two solid hours of heated debate over the important of rendering kerning properly in text editors not used for typesetting.
Vendors are critical to the success of many of community efforts. VMUGs are designed to be "break even" events, where vendor sponsorship covers the cost of holding the event. This makes herding vendors important for organizers, but it also places a burden on vendors to develop strong ties with the community in order to see a maximum return on their investment.
What do you need to be a vVendor. We'll tell you
Some vendors are absolutely stellar at community engagement, earning the title "vVendor" from the community. This represents the deep integration with and understanding of the community that these vendors have managed, often due to charismatic "rockstars" employed by the company.
First to mind would be companies like Veeam and their front-and-center personality Rick Vanover. SimpliVity have Gabriel Chapman while Nutanix just seem to have hired half the people on Twitter (as well as an ever-increasing number of VCDXs.)
CloudPhysics* are an example of a company who have integrated the community deeply into their business model and their marketing. The community is core to their Cardbuilder feature, something that has earned them attention and ultimately awards at the second VMworld in a row.
Its product is designed so that members of the community can combine elements in novel ways to create data views and analytics that have real-world importance to virtualization practitioners. They can then share that creation with the rest of the community.
The integration of community so deeply into a product is increasingly common amongst VMware ecosphere startups. A Cloudphysics-like community integration isn't quite a social network, but isn't community-driven development, either. It's a different class of community engagement, but one that's increasingly discussed as necessary by VMware ecosystem startups.
vExperts are diverse. They range from the top-50 most influential vBloggers in the VMware community all the way to significantly less imposing individuals, such as myself. As a group we are best described by VMware's inimitable John Troyer:
Each year, we bring together in the vExpert Program the people who have made some of the most important contributions to the VMware community. These are the bloggers, book authors, VMUG leaders, speakers, tool builders, community leaders and general enthusiasts. They work as IT admins and architects for VMware customers, they act as trusted advisors and implementors for VMware partners or as independent consultants, and some work for VMware itself. All of them have the passion and enthusiasm for technology and applying technology to solve problems. They have contributed to the success of us all by sharing their knowledge and expertise over their days, nights, and weekends. They are, quite frankly, the most interesting and talented group of people I’ve ever been in a room with.
There were 581 vExperts named in 2013. While the title "vExpert" might seem like it should indicate an industry certification, it does not.
The crème de la crème of VMware technical knowledge belongs to the VCDXs. VCDXs are the elite data center architects who live in the stratosphere of technology.
vExperts are far more varied. vExperts can better be thought of as experts in VMware itself; the community as much as the technology. I would expect any vExpert to be familiar enough with the software to be able to work out how to do most tasks, but not to have it memorized cold. A vExpert may be a hard-boiled data center architect, a member of the VMware press, or an SMB sysadmin like myself.
A VCDX can design for you a data center to go toe-to-toe with Rackspace on the back of a pub napkin, and have half the configs in mind before the conversation is over. Though there is some overlap – many VCDXs are vExperts – the vExpert is far more likely to be someone helping to integrate VMware partner technologies or working with companies of all sizes to make heterogenous networks work.
There is a dark side, and there are no cookies
Diverse yet conformist, supportive yet cliquish, the VMware community disburses knowledge and entertainment with a lavish hand. Unfortunately, the price of inclusion in some aspects of the community is an unswerving loyalty and an acceptance of your position within the hierarchy.
"Why" is an increasingly dangerous question to ask. An attempt at open, honest discussion of the pros and cons of technical design decisions or the details of real-world implementations can sometimes lead to sustained vitriol and outright attacks from some individuals.
Challenge someone on technical grounds and instead of a reasoned response you may get snarky comments about your irrelevance. I've even seen a company pointlessly attacked for using the "wrong" font size in a Power Point slide.
Sadly, for some, the very concept of "community" is merely a thin veneer disguising anything from arrogance to blatant commercial interest and the naked avarice of personal greed. This, however, is no different than any other community.
Good tech, better people
There are always those who revert to the social dynamics of high school to achieve their aims. As damning a portrayal as that may seem, the diversity of the community and its supportive roots far outweigh any negatives encountered.
For all the damage that the self-interested inflict, their antics do not go unnoticed. The harder they push the more respect they lose. Offending individuals are subject to having their objectivity reevaluated and their position within the social hierarchy adjusted. Awareness takes time to spread, but spread it does.
The bad apples do not spoil the bunch, and after a lifetime of personal and professional immersion in IT I do feel that the VMware community is the most powerful professional resource any of us are likely to find.
Beyond that, however, the VMware community is full of amazing human beings. Over the past two months 65 individuals and 5 companies - Puppet Labs, Nutanix, Zerto, SimpliVity and Proximal Data – raised more than $10,000 for fighting cancer.
The community podcasts vSoup and vBrownbag rallied behind this effort and they are already planning to turn the fundraiser into a yearly event, this time with better planning. Individuals from all corners of the community have pledged their support personally and professionally, offering advertising space on their blogs, their time to participate in podcasts, webexes and anything else we can dream up.
There aren't that many technical communities where someone can send a tweet into the ether and arrange to meet with a bunch of fellow IT professionals to discuss a new data center design over beers the same night. Fewer still where a sad tweet from a friend has dozens of folks in pubs around the world collaborate to cheer him up by raising money for cancer.
If you've a yen to grow your professional contacts, I encourage you to check out your local VMUG and follow the 2013 vExperts on Twitter. The best place to get started, however, is to simply see who in your area is up for some #vBeers. Who knows, maybe we'll see you applying for vExpert in 2014. ®
* Disclosure: Cloudphysics is a client of the company I work for.