Alumnus Profile: Greg Lavender
Mentoring has made the difference in Greg Lavender’s 35-year career
There is a running theme in Virginia Tech alumnus Greg Lavender’s life, which is the inestimable value of having mentors who enable your interests and talents.
At an early age, Lavender knew that he wanted to become a scientist. His parents gifted him with scientific experiment kits for holidays. Fascinated with how things worked, he would also take things apart. Lavender would use a basic tool set to disassemble the blender, toaster, and the TV set in the house while his parents were away.
Rather than become angry, Lavender’s father had him reassemble everything and make it work again. “That was a very important lesson for me at an early age,” he recalled. “Taking things apart is one thing, remembering how to put it all back together and make it work is another. I guess I was destined to become an engineer.”
As a young teenager, Lavender’s father, a computer systems analyst, taught him how to program in a language called Fortran IV, and allowed him to run simple programs on the computer at his office on the weekends. While a teenager, Lavender’s father also bought him a computer electronics kit, called a HeathKit, that allowed him to assemble his first personal microcomputer and he taught himself how to program in several other programming languages.
Motivated by his childhood desire to one day be a scientist, Lavender started college as a physics major. In 1981 while at the University of Georgia, under the guidance of his favorite math professor B. J. Ball, Lavender decided to switch to the emerging field of computer science which had just been approved as a major. Computer science courses were mostly taught by faculty from the mathematics and statistics department, with a just a few new young computer science professors on the faculty. He graduated in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, magna cum laude, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.
Lavender also credits Jeffrey Smith, his favorite computer science professor, as a role model. “I credit Dr. Ball and Dr. Smith as two inspiring teachers who first made me think that someday, I too might become a professor and teach at a university,” said Lavender.
After graduation, Lavender moved to the greater Washington, D.C., area and went to work first at TRW, an aerospace defense contractor. While working 60-hour weeks at TRW writing networking software implementing early Internet protocols, he also enrolled in evening classes through the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Graduate Center. The seed was planted that he would eventually like to get a Ph.D. in computer science.
In late 1985, Lavender began looking into Ph.D. programs in computer science. He decided on Virginia Tech after attending graduate school recruiting fair and a subsequent visit to the Blacksburg campus where he met some of the faculty and other graduate students.
Once again, Lavender would come to know strong mentors, including Richard Nance who served as his master’s thesis advisor in the area of software engineering, and Dennis Kafura, a faculty member who had just begun to do research in the new emerging area of object-oriented programming combined with networking and distributed computing.
Lavender cites both Nance and Kafura as the primary influences on both his academic and professional careers. “Their mentorship as advisors is why my Ph.D. dissertation is a combination of software engineering, object-oriented programming, networking, and distributed computing.”
Since earning his master’s '88 and Ph.D. '93 degrees from Virginia Tech , Lavender has been putting these areas of focus into practice consistently and successfully over a 35-year career working in the technology industry. In parallel, he has a 14-year record of teaching and research at the University of Texas at Austin, including a three-year period as associate chairman in the computer science department.
In 2014, Lavender was inducted into Virgnia Tech College of Engineering’s Academy of Engineering Excellence, an elite group of engineering alumni who have achieved multiple honors throughout their careers. With his achievements in the corporate and academic realm, Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science department also named him its distinguished alumnus in 2010. He aslo served on the department's advisory board from Fall 2017 through Spring 2019.
Lavender is currently VMware’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in Palo Alto, California. In this role, he is responsible for ensuring VMware’s long-term technology leadership through research and innovation programs, with the primary goal of positively impacting and shaping the future of the company and the technology industry. He was promoted to this role in August 2019 as the fourth CTO in the company’s 21-year history.
“I tell people who ask me for career advice to pick really hard problems to work on and don’t give up.”
For example, prior to VMware, Lavender led the architecture and engineering of one of the world’s largest global private clouds while CTO for architecture and engineering at the multi-national financial services firm Citigroup, commuting between Palo Alto and Manhattan for a period of six years. He also co-founded two successful internet startup ventures in the 1990s and worked at a premier non-profit advanced technology research lab based in Austin known at the time as the Microelectronics & Computer Technology Consortium.
Lavender says that VMware is “his last gig” before he retires, but one would expect that he is not the kind of person to ever retire from working to solve difficult problems.