With over 15 years of transformative success under his belt, Stephen Spellicy possesses an unparalleled knack for deciphering the intricate language of markets. His journey is adorned with triumphs, where he has led a 50-person global team in crafting compelling narratives that have help to catapult VMware’s service provider segment’s annual bookings and revenue to a staggering $1B. How did he achieve this remarkable feat? By directing a world-class organization to craft a combination of product messaging, solutions marketing and digital campaigns. He has masterfully navigated the complex landscape of SaaS, cybersecurity, analytics, IoT, virtualization, telecommunications, and cloud solutions.
In the fast-paced realm of technology, where innovation and market dominance collide, Stephen emerges as a luminary. Amid a bustling conference room at VMware, Inc., a global leader in multi-cloud services, executives brainstorm strategies to elevate their billion-dollar telco portfolio to unparalleled heights. In this high-stakes environment, Stephen is positioned as the Vice President of Marketing, Enablement & Business Development, a beacon of expertise and vision in the world of B2B technology.
But Stephen’s brilliance doesn’t stop there. He has had a career as the driving force behind market-leading products in information management, data security and content management, each evident to his strategic acumen. Through his guidance, these products generated multimillion-dollar revenues for decades, painting a vivid picture of his ability to turn ideas into lucrative realities.
Let’s explore the realm driven by digital innovation and enterprise control where Stephen stands as a true trailblazer illuminating the path for others to follow!
You have an impressive track record of driving innovation and boosting profits for technology leaders. Could you share a specific challenge you faced in your career and the innovative solution you implemented to overcome it?
As a leader in product marketing and product management, I’ve had the opportunity to work with innovative startups and industry-leading software and hardware providers. Whenever you introduce technology that revolutionizes the customer experience, you’re likely to disrupt the status quo. While many think this is the name of the game in high tech, with disruption comes uncertainty and defensive behaviors—not exactly the state of mind in which you want your customers.
The primary challenge is always building trust to help drive initial adoption. Challenges become easier to address when you can demonstrate to the market that you offer both robust and stable technology solutions that can deliver tangible value to their businesses. The struggle is less about technical capability, which remains important and more about establishing confidence and trust with customers.
Building trust in a business relationship is much like it is in a personal relationship. It requires honesty, honoring commitments, effective communication, and an honest interest in truly helping to effect positive change. I get my team to align with these principles before engaging with our customers on new technologies.
Fortunately, there is much at stake for early adopters who are eager to advance their own agendas and make a name for themselves. Linking arms with these early movers and technology enthusiasts, much like have done with Open RAN, automation and AI adoption which has helped my teams learn more and move fast.
Leading a global marketing and business development team is a significant responsibility. What leadership philosophy do you follow to ensure your team is not only successful but also motivated and engaged?
As the leader of a world-class marketing organization, my primary philosophy is to empower my team with what they need for success. This begins with a commitment to communication, transparency and collaboration. Regular communication with my team is the cornerstone of our operation. Teams work in project sprints with clear goals and accountability aligned with our mission, and ultimately, our business and customer base.
I make sure my team feels seen.
In any organization, a crucial element is to keep your team engaged. Effective communication greatly facilitates this—but recognition of accomplishments and transparency regarding the impact of their work is also vital. Creating visibility for the staff to do more, learn more and ultimately contribute to the strategy and execution is our goal. Every team member has a role on the field and when we work hard and stay focused, we all achieve success together.
Winning prestigious awards like the 2020 IoT Global Best Big Data, Cloud and Analytics Solution is a remarkable achievement. What do you believe sets your approach to innovation apart from others in the field?
I have had the privilege of being part of some fantastic companies with highly innovative and sometimes disruptive technology. Most recently, we were honored with the ‘Best AIOps‘ solution award for CSPs at FutureNet Asia. In this case, the focus was on our VMware RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) product and the opportunities it offers to CSPs as they explore new and innovative ways to gain better operational control of their networks and increase monetization from their network investments.
Innovation is born from customer needs and for the award and innovation itself, success is hinged on understanding customer requirements and value propositions. We aren’t simply selling a product—we are enabling powerful new use cases that transform how businesses operate. This focus helped customers grasp the potential during the consideration to purchase process, and later, in the adoption and consumption phases.
You’ve overseen the acquisition and integration processes for business units in your career. Could you share a key lesson you’ve learned from these experiences, particularly in terms of successful integration and value delivery?
Acquisitions are more of an art than a science. Certainly, acquirers have clear motivations rooted in long-term business valuation and ROI, but the process of integrating acquired companies requires significant thought and preparation. I’ve been fortunate to experience both sides of past acquisitions and have had the honor and challenge of participating in integration efforts.
Communication is essential and you can’t over-communicate, there’s no such thing. Smaller companies often find themselves part of larger organizations through technology acquisitions. The primary concern here is the impact on culture, which is a challenging aspect of any acquisition. Since companies take on the shape of the individuals in which they are comprised, in some respects, the people behind the acquisition become a beacon to help guide integration efforts. Success can be measured by the return of value to shareholders, but in some cases, success can also be gauged by future innovations, employee engagement and long-term customer retention. All these factors signify a healthy post-acquisition integration.
Managing product messaging and positioning across the customer journey requires a deep understanding of customer needs. How do you ensure that your team remains customer-centric in their approach to product development and marketing strategies?
Effective messaging must be credible and relevant. This begins with a deep understanding of the customer—their needs, pain points and desires. Strong product marketing companies possess an inherent understanding of their market requirements and the dynamics of the market itself, including buying behaviors, triggers, and patterns. Highly innovative products and solutions may sometimes appear as outliers in the market and if they are truly disruptive, customers may not even be aware they need or want them.
Creating compelling messaging and positioning starts not only with understanding customer requirements but also with a holistic understanding of how customers will use the product. This involves a detailed understanding of the ‘jobs to be done,’ which includes use cases or tasks that users currently perform and how your product can help them do it better. Understanding your Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is crucial in shaping your product’s value proposition. With this insight in hand, you can embark on effectively communicating the value you can deliver to your customers.
The best way to gather the insights necessary for crafting the message is through thorough discovery, interviews, and analysis. And much like any successful implementation, messaging is never final. Keeping your finger on the pulse of market response and remaining open to continual improvement is essential to impactful positioning exercises.
Being a leader often means guiding your team through both successes and failures. How do you approach failure and what strategies do you employ to turn setbacks into learning opportunities for your team?
Failures are inevitable—no person, team or organization is perfect. Acknowledging that failures are part of the equation is the first step. This involves setting reasonable expectations for yourself and your team. By communicating to the team that occasional failures are a possibility, you help diffuse the fear of failure and encourage experimentation.
A culture of innovation begins with experimentation and not all experiments will succeed—that’s a natural part of the process. Persistently exploring ‘good ideas’ and assessing outcomes even after a failure can lead to unexpected discoveries.
The most significant benefit of any failure is the learning at comes from it, essentially showing you what not to do in the future. I’ve witnessed many excellent technology companies stumble at some point in their lifecycle—it’s a common occurrence. However, the best ones heed the lessons learned, get back on their feet and move forward. The key is to incorporate these insights into your strategy as you proceed with your product plans.
Collaboration is key in cross-functional roles. Can you share an example of a particularly successful collaboration between different departments or teams that resulted in a significant achievement for your organization?
I can point to my collaboration with my peers on various senior leadership teams at VMware, including those who oversee product management, R&D, support, and sales. It’s essential to remember that products are not developed in isolation, instead they are rigorously vetted through market research and competitive analysis, tested by early adopters, and ultimately validated by a large community of partners and customers.
Product marketing’s role in supporting new and on-going product initiatives is not carried out in isolation. The insights gained from the customer journey are shared across the teams responsible for shaping the product experience—it’s a collaborative effort. Marketing collaborates closely with product management and support to capture the essence of the product experience in content, including product briefs, presentations, demos, and blogs. This adds credibility to the content and establishes a connection with the product’s buyers and users.
Teams that communicate more frequently and share information tend to perform better. This begins with recognizing that no single part of the team exclusively determines the path to success—it’s a collective effort that requires active collaboration.
With your experience in digital campaigns, what do you think is the future of digital marketing in the tech industry, especially in terms of engaging customers and creating meaningful interactions?
Marketing teams often concentrate on B2B (business-to-business) digital campaign tactics, which involve understanding personas that influence a purchase decision or decision makers responsible for making purchases. Additionally, they incorporate messaging aimed at the users of the product, focusing on the practitioner’s journey. These campaigns are valuable up to a certain point, but I see the future moving away from B2B and leaning more toward B2P (business-to-person, rather than just persona).
The evolving trend Involves direct marketing to users based on a deep understanding of how they utilize the product. This enables the creation of a more intimate and personalized experience for the individual user. This approach is proving to be more effective in reaching and directly engaging with customers.
You’ve led the launch of numerous market-leading products. How do you ensure a seamless product launch, from ideation to market release, and what role does customer feedback play in this process?
It all begins with clear and concise internal communication within the product team which should encompass all parties involved in the customer journey. One of the fundamental pillars of effective product development is adopting the right software development lifecycle model, and in this context, an agile and iterative approach proves to be the most advantageous.
The Agile development process plays a critical role. It revolves around frequent and incremental iterations, allowing for adaptability as the project progresses. Agile not only accelerates the development cycle but also ensures that the final product aligns closely with customer needs and market dynamics.
While stakeholders in the sprint can indirectly represent the customer’s perspective, there’s no substitute for direct customer involvement or feedback. In my experience, product teams that actively involve customers (as stakeholders) in understanding the different phases of development and distilling requirements for features and releases under development make significant strides in ensuring a successful outcome.
This approach has several benefits. It establishes expectations that are clearly understood, which, in turn, helps define well-known release criteria. Communication about release timelines, including any potential delays is characterized by its honesty and transparency. This level of openness and collaboration builds extreme trust with key design partners and customers who actively participate in the development process. This approach not only promotes increased adoption but also results in delivering products that truly meet customer needs and expectations. This can be transformative if done correctly.
Building a committed product team is crucial for success. What qualities do you look for when assembling a team and how do you nurture a culture of innovation and excellence within your teams?
As a hiring manager and a leader of product marketing and product management teams, my foremost criterion for consideration is skill and domain experience. Nevertheless, I’ve discovered that candidates with essential skills from outside the domain can bring tremendous value. For instance, individuals with non-engineering or non-STEM backgrounds, perhaps those with an arts background, approach problem-solving from a completely different perspective. In any case, I seek people with a strong desire to achieve and succeed as a key criterion. Their enthusiasm for problem-solving, creating opportunities and enhancing the customer journey is truly the most crucial element.
Once you’ve identified the right individuals, or in my case, inherited a team of skilled marketing and product professionals, the focus shifts to leading them in the right direction and nurturing a culture of innovation, collaboration, and open communication. Empowering the resources on my team to excel in their respective roles is my primary responsibility. I’ve consistently found that if you place trust in your team’s abilities and ensure a clear understanding of the mission, the team will rise to the occasion, come together and work towards success.
The technology industry is known for its rapid changes. How do you prepare your team for unexpected shifts in the market and what strategies do you employ to ensure your team remains agile and adaptable?
I am a strong advocate of training and enablement. Investing in both personal and professional development is something I value for myself. I actively encourage my managers and their teams to invest in expanding their existing skills and to continually learn. The process of learning challenges you to think differently and I strive to push myself and others to view things through the lens of new approaches. We (ourselves personally, our industry, our market and technology itself) are in a constant state of transformation.
Consider the impact of AI on marketing as a discipline. AI is reshaping how we expedite content creation, improve market analysis, optimize targeting, and making it a powerful tool to assist marketing professionals in achieving greater productivity. I often emphasize that those industries that embrace AI and automation will have more control over their destinies and outcomes while those industries that don’t may find themselves potentially controlled or reduced in importance by AI.
In your opinion, what will be the most significant challenges and opportunities in the telecom industry in the coming years and how do you plan to navigate these challenges while capitalizing on the opportunities?
In my view, the most significant transformation ahead for the Telecom industry is the integration of AI and automation. When we consider the immense task of deploying and managing a cloud-native 5G network at scale, it becomes clear that the existing workforce alone cannot achieve this without advanced technology. The goal is to achieve higher global connectivity rates, expand 5G network coverage and increase capacity to every corner of the globe. Although the objective is ambitious, it promises to revolutionize businesses everywhere and enhance the lives of subscribers worldwide.
To accomplish planet-scale deployment of 5G, we must leverage all available resources, including the use of software intelligence to enhance service delivery, network coverage and improve reliability. Automation and real-time intelligence, facilitated by technologies like AI, data science and analytics will be pivotal for CSPs to adopt. These technologies will not only advance the operational aspects of the CSP but also enable new avenues for monetization, elevate service quality and enhance customer care. This transformation is only feasible through the adoption of cloud-native technology embracing agile methodologies and committing to a digital transformation journey.
Succeeding with cloud-native approaches presents a significant challenge for the telecom industry—an industry not known to be cutting-edge. Recruiting talented resources who are trained in cloud-native architectures and well-versed in AI will be a formidable challenge. The gravitational pull in the labor market is predominantly toward disruptive start-ups and hyperscalers, which are actively recruiting top talent to drive the next generation of network and cloud services.
To counter this trend, the telecom sector needs to take proactive steps and foster a more innovative, agile and open business model. This approach will help attract the next generation of talent to their organizations while better supporting cloud-smart transformation projects. If they successfully create a more appealing environment for the industry, it will act as a catalyst that yields significant dividends for generations to come.