John Thompson: Back in the CEO saddle

Catching up with Thompson is not what you’d expect. No fancy restaurant — just a popular burger joint in Palo Alto (he has a weakness for greasy spoons). No thoroughly parsed statements — rather, a candid assessment of all topics presented.

“After Symantec, I was not planning on running a company,” Thompson recalls. “But some of my fellow investors in Virtual Instruments came to me and said, ‘John, you gotta run it. Make our investment work. Take us public.’ 

“Well, that was an interesting challenge. So, I agreed to do it as long as they needed me.”

That was three years ago. Today, that interesting challenge is galloping toward what most close observers think is an approximately two-year path to an IPO.

Virtual Instruments is pioneering a concept called “Infrastructure Performance Management,” or IPM. With so many applications being deployed by companies, so many different pieces of hardware and so many “Bring your own device” products on the edge, the question is not whether each layer is working efficiently. Instead, the question is whether all those pieces are playing efficiently together. So, Virtual Instruments offers to manage all the systems, and all the interplay between them, in the most cost-efficient way. Estimates say it will be a $9 billion market within two years.

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And business is good.

Roughly one-third of the Fortune 100 are using the company’s services. Earlier this year, the company was listed as No. 3 on the Forbes annual ranking of America’s Most Promising Companies — a list of 100 privately held, high-growth companies with bright futures.

And somehow, while coolly balancing that in one hand, Thompson manages to juggle an increasing workload as an outside director of Microsoft. After 18 months in service, he was asked by his fellow board members to chair the search committee to find the next Microsoft CEO. 

It’s no small task, but one that Thompson keeps in perspective.

“Microsoft is an amazing company, with amazing people,” he observes. “We are going through a process to find a leader extraordinary enough to come in and continue building the Microsoft story.”

With both a fast-growing company and an iconic one on his plate, Thompson has not had as much time for another passion — public policy. But that doesn’t mean he is without opinion.

I asked him to name three things he would recommend to policymakers. He paused only slightly before rattling off his list.

“First, we have to find a way to get some of the corporate cash back to America. It is stranded overseas, and it could be put to work back home.

“Second, we’ve got to protect innovative companies from litigious patent trolls.

“Third, we’ve got to resist regulatory initiatives that would make it harder to get capital in the hands of promising young companies.”

A pretty good list in a very short time, as befits a very busy man in the middle of his lunch.

The Hon. Phillip Bond is former undersecretary of Commerce for Technology and former CEO of TechAmerica, a tech trade association. Today he is CEO of Bond & Associates, Inc. a technology-focused government relations firm with offices in Washington and Silicon Valley.