Most of the successful leaders have stumbled at least once in their lives. That turning point holds life lessons that cannot be ignored and are constant reminders that things will be better. Walter So, country manager of VMware Philippines, is a testament to that, having to take his high school studies in five instead of four years.
So now leads one of the most familiar names in the IT enterprise industry. VMware is a cloud computing and virtualization technology company that helped many organizations in their digital acceleration or transformation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So is the youngest of eight siblings. Coming from a traditional Chinese family, he was trained early in life how to run their F&B business.
“During my summers, I worked as a cashier, waiter, baker, and even a janitor, which made me appreciate the value of work and the value of a person,” So said.
It is not surprising that he took interest in finance which led him to take up a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Management Engineering, with a minor in Finance from Ateneo de Manila University.
“The course combined liberal arts and business management with a special focus on technology, decision science, and analytics, systems thinking and scientific problem solving,” So explained. “My first few jobs were all related to finance — forecasting, cost accounting, cash flows, hedging, international trade, and even tax were part of the things I was doing at the start of my career.”
However, the lure of gadgets and electronics, “especially the technology which powered them,”
So applied and was hired at IBM Philippines. His career there earned him numerous awards and recognitions, including the Global Recognition for the top 500 outstanding IBM individuals.
He credits his mentors include — James Velasquez (President PT&T), Leo Capinpin (Country Manager Systems IBM), Chestnut Andaya (President ATI), Victor Silvino (Director Salcedo Auctions), Mariels Winhoffer (VP and Global Managing Director IBM US) , Karrie Illagan (GM Cisco Philippines), Ireen Catane (President NTT), Aileen Rodriguez (Country Manager SAS), Aileen Judan Jiao (GM IBM PH), and Rodney Regalado (ASEAN Systems) — for what he has achieved in his career, so far.
“My parents were my biggest role models,” So said. “They always encouraged me to pursue my passions and join the corporate world even with our family business. It also helps that I have seven other siblings who give me advice and lead by example. My wife has always been my number one supporter. She has always been very understanding about the rigorous and dynamic nature of the IT industry.”
An avid basketball fan, So went viral, well his Facebook post did, during the pandemic, of an elderly woman using a display laptop at a shop. An anonymous donor bought a laptop for the mother who can now connect with her family anytime and at the comfort of her home.
- What important lessons have you learned in working in the industry? How are these lessons guiding you in the ever-changing and fast-paced world of IT?
One, the industry is small. What has worked for me has always been genuine care for the success of individuals (whether they’re clients or people working with me and my team) and the success of the companies and the partners we are working with. Technologies change, but the people you work within this industry remain the same. Technologies become obsolete but relationships only grow. When we look back on our experiences, we will remember the companies and individuals we have helped, and more importantly, treasure and cherish the relationships we have built.
Two, understand and listen. Always lean in to listen to what your team and customers have to say to help them problem-solve more effectively.
Three, life-long learning is key. Whether that’s from experience, from other people, or others, learning is always important to be able to effectively help our clients and partners along the way.
Four, leveraging partnerships and other people’s expertise is also key in being able to drive success. Recognize that we are not the best in everything and that we can also depend on great partnerships to achieve success for our clients or partners or own business.
Five, It’s always the TEAM. Success in anything we do is a result of great teamwork.
- How do you describe yourself as a leader?
I never really knew how to describe my leadership style, until I joined VMware and found out that my style of leadership is “Servant Leadership,” where you lead to serve. Looking back, I am almost certain that I had developed this style of leadership based on the way I saw my own mentors lead.
As a leader, I provide guidance, direction, mentoring, coaching, and help to my team. I don’t look at my teammates as subordinates but rather, as colleagues and leaders in their own respective roles. Part of my job is to remove obstacles along the way to help my team be in the best position to be successful. I empower the team to make tough decisions while sharing my own views. I preach that it is okay to make mistakes and that what is important is to learn and be better equipped the next time similar challenges come our way. This has helped me develop my team into independent leaders.
When it’s necessary, I do step in and take the initiative to drive things for my team. As much as possible, my philosophy is to help my team develop through empowerment and coaching, unless I see a need to step in and “correct” that course.
Some people think it’s counterintuitive to make oneself disposable rather than indispensable. However, as a leader I believe that being disposable is what we should aim for as it shows that you have developed your team or your business to function independently.
- What best practices have you initiated to create a culture of excellence in your current venture and what are the results?
I’ve always advocated for and established a culture of collaboration and openness within my teams, by recognizing achievements simply as a team, and not through the efforts of one person.
I’ve also always highlighted that mistakes are part of how we gain experience. Mistakes are opportunities to grow and learn from.
Creating a vision and aligning the team on “why” is a key practice for me. Defining why we do certain things not just for ourselves but for the company and community helps the team to stay united and go all-in on what needs to be done.
Recognizing individual leadership and ownership is also important to me. The people on the ground are our quarterbacks. They are the leaders in their respective accounts or projects they are delivering. The management team’s goal is to provide that layer of support and guidance needed for the team.
The result of these practices has been fantastic thus far. The company has been growing significantly the past two years, exceeding targets and even doubling revenue for the business. We have been able to help more companies adapt to the demand of the new digital age while also accelerating their transformation.
- What projects have you initiated that allowed the company to reach its business objectives?
One project I initiated was VMware 2.0, a reintroduction of VMware to the market. We have been known to be a strong brand in the virtualization of computing and storage in the Philippines, but our other emerging technologies in cloud, applications, network, security, and edge are less well known.
I started off with redefining the culture and ensuring that the whole team was able to have the right support mechanisms to be successful. Together as a team, we created the concept of “VMware 2.0”, laid down the blueprints of success and what was needed to get there.
We then shifted our gears and made conscious efforts to enhance our capabilities to master emerging technologies from sales to technical then delivery teams. We also collaborated with our partners and convinced them of the next frontier of VMware 2.0. We worked with our marketing and communication team to help make these new solutions more visible in the marketplace.
At the heart, we engaged our clients on a business and strategic level, rather than purely on technology. We took the lead in sharing about VMware 2.0, the merits of this new journey, and provided advice every step of the way to help our clients and partners achieve success.
- How do you feel about being part of the industry that proved to be the most resilient one during the pandemic?
I am energized to make a difference. Being in this industry allows us to take the driver’s seat on change. The pandemic has accelerated the need for digital transformation, and it has been exciting to be at the forefront of helping companies on their journeys, such as enabling them to be more agile, helping them reduce their operating cost, and simplifying their management to drive new revenue streams for them.
- Describe actions that you, as a leader, have taken to ensure business continuity at the onset of the pandemic? What are the results?
The most important aspect is the people. Even before the start of the pandemic, we have always enabled flexibility and allowed our teams to work from home. This, of course, became imperative during the pandemic as we sought ways to minimize unnecessary exposure for our team and for our clients.
As a company that has invested in the idea of the anywhere workforce, we were prepared for the abrupt shift of work online with our digital workspace solutions.
We also provided the team with the necessary alcohol and mask supply, especially during the onset of the pandemic when these items are in short supply here in the Philippines.
Understanding burnout as a real concern, we consciously engaged our employees virtually to ensure that proper support was provided to help them cope with the stress of balancing home, work, physical and mental health. VMware also provided a well-being allowance for all employees towards this initiative.
On the client-facing front, we established clear support structures to ensure that our team was ready to respond and provide proper expertise, where needed. We worked closely with our partner ecosystem to engage our clients virtually and provided them with the resources to continue their operations, including providing technical assistance and nurturing their tech talent.
- How do you intend to steer your ventures in the new business landscape? Do you have a personal mission for the company and for the country, as well?
VMware continues its journey to becoming a multi-cloud and modern application leader. We are at the forefront of this digital change and we will continue to elevate our client engagements to provide an agnostic advisory as our clients transform. I am committed to ensuring client success, a disciplined focus in our execution, ensuring integrity in our work and giving back to our community.
On a more personal level, I hope to continue supporting the growth of VMware employees and partners and help our clients follow through on their digital transformation journeys. I look forward to providing more opportunities for new talent to join us in our mission to help customers navigate the multi-cloud era.
- On a personal note, what else do you want to achieve as a person?
I would like to provide more opportunities for individuals. There are two stories that really showed me the value of work and education.
While I was at IBM, I remember a time when an employee approached me and thanked me for securing his job as he had a baby on his way. It made me realize that the value of a job, apart from fulfilling your own wants, stems from helping others.
On a separate occasion, when I used to tutor public school students, I had one of my top students share that she was unable to go to class for two weeks because she didn’t have 5 pesos to get to school and she had to help her parents sell “sampaguita.” I was shocked when I heard that as she was very bright and kind. That’s when I realized that education should be a right for all.
- Do you have personal advocacy and what are you doing to ensure you achieve your objectives?
The first is the digital change for the Philippines — continuing to learn and collaborate with clients, partners, government, and other principal leaders to help our companies transform and open the global market for them.
The second is education as a right. My wife and I plan to continue our support for deserving scholars and even accelerate the initiative in the years to come, through our current fish and bread foundation.
- What do you do for your continuing self-improvement?
I always strive to continue learning and trying new things. I also exercise when I can. Finally, cooking has been a nice activity that helps me destress.
Even before the pandemic, VMware Philippines has been enabling organizations with its cloud-based solutions. The efforts have become even more pronounced at the onset of the global health crisis. VMware designed solutions that help not only large enterprises but small and medium enterprises as well. This allowed them to ensure business continuity that helped the economy.