(homepage logo from vmware.com)

Neal Mueller, climber extraordinaire and Wharton MBA graduate, is about to start a new job at VMWare in Palo Alto, CA. In this interview, we talk about the importance of tangible goals, creating an identity and vision for yourself, and key insights on being successful in the working world today.

Neal is a Senior Alliance Manager for VMware, a data center company that utilizes cloud computing and virtualization to re-envision the infrastructure behind IT and data management. Prior to working at VMware, Neal worked for Cisco and at a local San Francisco startup, CrowdFlower.

Tell me about what you do, and how you got to where you are today:

I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, called Chaska. After I went to college (at Penn), I worked for a management consulting firm, a venture capital firm, and I was a professional mountain climber.  The experiences of working in management and venture capital put me on the track towards an MBA.

While in graduate school,  I started hearing about this thing called ‘virtualization,’ the process by which you can run multiple applications on a single server by ‘virtualizing’ the hardware. It’s a very ‘green’ technology, being able to run multiple processes on one system. I joined a group at Cisco and VMware and met some of the smartest, coolest people I’d ever met.

Why do you do what you do?

I like tangible goals. I like knowing when I’m done. In tennis and golf – you don’t know when you’re done; you can always do more, play another match, golf around round. With climbing, you know when you’re finished. When you row, you can set a specific goal.  A certain distance, or a place to get to. In business, I like the work that I do because I have a very tangible, specific goals that  I like to accomplish.

When did you come up with the concept “tangible goals”?

I came up with this concept about two years ago, to describe what it is that drives me.  I wanted a better answer to the question, “Why do I climb?” and I needed to put into words what motivates me.

If you can figure out — and put into words — what motivates you as a person, then you can pick better goals, and figure out what things are in line with your goals.

Neal Mueller, Mt Rainer

When thinking about the transition from the academic world to the professional/work life, what took the most getting used to? What strategies did you use to adjust to the differences?

The hierarchy of the working world was new.  In school, you only have one professor, and that’s the person you go to when you have questions or want feedback.

In work, you have a bunch of people above you, so you have to figure out who you’re supposed to talk to when, when you should manage up, and how to figure things out across teams.  The dynamic of overlapping managers and organization systems can be much more difficult to navigate.

Also, as you progress through your career, you begin managing teams and other people. In school, you’re not managing anyone – you don’t have to learn management skill sets. That takes time to learn.

So, what are your tips on management?  How do you match the right tasks to the right people?

I like to find what makes people happy.  For me, if you give me a tangible goal and let me run after it, I’m happy.  Some people really like to be left alone; some people really like to work in teams, and other people really like direction.  Find out what people like to do, and then you can find work for them to do. Finding work for them to do in a way that makes them happy is really important.

This also goes back to the previous point about individual motivation: finding out what you, as a person makes you happy is very important and one of the most important things you can do as an employee. If you don’t know what you like to do, or what motivates you, how can your manager best work with you and for you?

What are the most important things for building good teams? And being a great leader?

Get good people. There is no substitute for really great people.

Lead by example. If you want your employees to come in early,  come in early; if you want them to work hard, work hard, and so on. The best thing you can do for people, if you want them to produce high quality work, then produce high quality work yourself.  And show it to them.

Also, have the highest hopes but no expectations. Be hopeful and encouraging, and don’t be disappointed in people when they dont’ fulfill your every desire. As an employee, it’s much better to work for someone who is always encouraging and hopeful about your potential, rather than someone who is constantly disappointed in what you do.

What skills and tools that you learned in school have been the most helpful in your current career trajectory? What do you wish you had learned in school but didn’t?

In high school,  I learned there’s a lot out there that I don’t know.  In college, I learned how to read quickly and write well. In business school, I gained a depth of understanding across all functions of business. Previously, I didn’t know about all of the different areas of business, such as accounting and finance, and the fact that I know about them now means that I can be a well-rounded manager.

Also, I met with people from entirely different backgrounds than me, but who wanted to go in the same direction as me – to build companies and be leaders. Ex Navy Seals, a guy who fired 100 people in his final year at DHL, and me – a mountain climber, we all wanted to go to the same place. I realized that there are multiple ways of getting to your goal – and that it’s okay, there isn’t one path to get you there.

(homepage image from vmware.com)

Any tips on finding a job in this job market?

This economy is kicking ass – it’s becoming a great time to look for a job. Lots of things are starting up.

What have been the most important assets in your job search?

Building a great reputation at the places I worked previously. Working with great people, and building good relationships.  If you put pennies in the bank, you’ll always have a job.

Literally or metaphorically speaking?

Both, I suppose. Metaphorically, if you build a great reputation and do good work, you’ll always have work. Also, for the year that I was between jobs and working with start-ups, having savings to live off of takes the financial pressure off of needing to work, and lets you search for great places to work.

If you had to do anything differently, what would it be?

If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same, except that I’m too far away from my family and I love my family. My sister’s in Denver, my other sister is in Louisiana, and my mom is in Minnesota.

Neal Mueller, Mt Kilimanjaro

What are some words of advice you would give to new people and young employees?

Be consistent – if people know what they can expect from you, you’ll be much easier to work with.

It’s okay to set parameters or have requirements (but not too many requirements). For example, if you don’t work on the weekends, don’t work on the weekends, and make sure to tell everyone this.  Same goes for if you don’t like working late in the evening, or if you like to be left alone in the morning. Be clear about what works for you and doesn’t work for you, and make sure to tell your co-workers about your preferences.

Also, nothing replaces long hours. Sometimes you just have to work and get the work done; sometimes you have to pull all nighters. No one is as well prepared as the person who didn’t sleep the night before. Sometimes I produced the best stuff from 2 to 4 in the morning.

And lastly, be a fun person to work with. If I had to choose between the smart person who’s miserable to work with, or the somewhat-smart person who’s very fun to work with, I’d pick the fun person five days a week.  People who are easy and fun to work with, excel.

Do you have any great mottos that you live by?

“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”

Neal Mueller, Mt Elbrus


“Career Focus” is a series of interviews with young professionals exploring different professions and their journey from academia into the working world. Previous interviews have covered Project Management at BACRSports Medicine, and Web Development and Technology Consulting.

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