In this interview, industry analyst Charles King speaks with Dell co-Chief Operating Officer Chuck Whitten in a wide-ranging conversation about the relationship between business and technology, Dell’s company culture, and the company’s current focus.
Chuck Whitten joined Dell Technologies in 2021 where he became co-Chief Operating Officer in partnership with Jeff Clarke. Together, Whitten and Clarke own company-wide strategy and execution. Whitten oversees the day-to-day financial and operating plans and performance, as well as long-term planning for emerging technology areas like Cloud, Edge, Telecom and as-a-Service.
Prior to joining Dell, Whitten worked at Bain and Company for over two decades where he served as the managing partner of Bain Southwest and was a two-time elected member of Bain’s Board of Directors.
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Technology and Business
Pund-IT (Charles King): A couple of decades ago, vendors spent a lot of their time explaining and proselytizing the importance of technology to businesses. Today, that’s a common understanding or belief. So, you might say that Dell’s approach has benefited from that evolution and maturation of the links between technology and business.
Whitten: For sure. Technology has never been more essential to our customers and to society. That is also why there’s been this blurring of technology and business budgets, because it’s one and the same. You’re either born a technology company or you evolve a technology-led strategy very quickly, or you go away. There’s also the realization and the profound impact of digital transformation sweeping across industries. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a board or a C suite anymore that doesn’t talk about the criticality of technology to their business and their future. Dell is in the business of helping them solve whatever those problems are.
Dell’s Management Profile
Pund-IT: Since you and Jeff Clarke share the co-COO title, can you talk about that relationship and how your individual responsibilities work?
Whitten: When I joined Dell in August 2021, it was for two reasons. The first and most important was to share responsibilities for better coverage and speed decision making to accelerate our growth potential and deliver outcomes for customers.
The second was to capitalize on these big opportunities in front of us. We are facing a pivotal time in our company’s history, and expanded leadership capacity helps us to do that. The COO scope at Dell is really broad, so my first job was to jump on the moving train, listen and learn. Then, over time, we began to create executive capacity to divide and conquer responsibilities where it makes sense for our customers.
Pund-IT: How does that work practically?
Whitten: So today, Michael, Jeff and I share responsibility for the strategic direction of the company, as well as the talent agenda. Jeff tilts his time more toward technical strategies and the architectures that are going to define our next era. That is logical given his unmatched experience as an engineer. He also drives the critical ecosystem relationships that he’s built over decades at the company. My responsibilities are the day-to-day execution of Dell’s business like delivering for the quarter and the year, taking solutions to market, making sure we’re supporting customers in the here-and-now, and driving shareholder value.
Pund-IT: That sounds like a sensible division of labor.
Whitten: Look, Jeff and I are quite complementary. It works, I think, because we have years of deep trust, and we stay in constant communication. We’re also agile when and where we need to be. Jeff likes to say there are some problems where we need, “Four eyes, four arms and two brains.” We dig in together. It’s a model that works very well in Dell’s culture, but it takes a lot of communication and having a shared DNA. All Jeff and I want to do is win for our company and our customers, and we tend to sort out things as needed with that as the foundation.
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The Dell Company Culture
Pund-IT: You mentioned being attracted to the fact that Dell is a founder-led company. Does that make it a different kind of organization or entity than other vendors?
Whitten: I think founder-led businesses are differentiated in that company culture is ultimately traced back to the founders. So, the principal behaviors and practices that are instituted in the early days of a company carry forward to the present. I credit our innovative, customer-centric culture to Michael and the consistent way he’s led over the years. We have a common and real sense of purpose because of Michael—to create the technologies that drive human progress. It’s aspirational and it’s also very clear.
Pund-IT: Michael is also, to my mind, one of the most fully engaged leaders in the tech industry.
Whitten: Michael is definitely not hands-off. He is an entrepreneur to the core with incredible instincts. Look, we all admire his leadership. He has correctly predicted where technology is headed at pivotal moments in history and made some very different bets on shaping the company. That’s a real gift. I think what I’m most grateful for, and what I think differentiates founder-led companies from other enterprises, is just the long-term orientation.
Pund-IT: In what sense?
Whitten: Michael is focused on building an enduring business. We never feel pressure to drive short-term profits. We’re encouraged to wade into all these unsolved, hard problems of technology, like multicloud, security, artificial intelligence, the edge. That is a founder’s mentality at work. That’s asking, “Hey, what are the big opportunities and big problems that we can support our customers on?”
Pund-IT: We’ve talked quite a bit about culture. However, it’s a term that has become something of a bromide among some vendors. But I agree with you about the importance of culture and the value of leveraging what a company innately is to drive strategy and execution.
Whitten: Absolutely. I believe it is one of our top differentiators. We have a culture code that traces back to Michael which we all adopted when we joined Dell. It defines who we are, what we believe, how we work and how we lead our teams. It’s somewhat simple: We believe that customers and innovation are the foundation of success in the technology industry. If you never lose sight of that, you will win as long as you act with integrity and commitment. That’s what we ask our team members to embrace.
Pund-IT: What do employees receive in return?
Whitten: In return, we commit to our team members. We believe people should have fulfilling and full careers, as well as fulfilling lives. That’s culturally where we strive to build achievement inside of Dell, but also balance life at home, connections, diversity and inclusion. None of that happens without having a CEO at the top, like Michael, who says, “This matters.” We want to build a people-centric company that delivers technology and innovation for our customers as well as our team members. That’s easy to say and very hard to do.
Pund-IT: In your years working both as a Bain advisor and a Dell executive, what has impressed you or surprised you the most about the company?
Whitten: I think the biggest thing is our agility. Look, $100 billion companies are not supposed to be able to move quickly. But we do. IBM’s Lou Gerstner famously said elephants aren’t supposed to be able to dance. We dance and sing and do backflips like a smaller-scale company.
Pund-IT: What are some examples of that?
Whitten: You saw it in our performance during the last few years as we navigated the pandemic boom in PCs and supporting work-from-home (WFH), followed by the boom in infrastructure. All that time, we were supporting our own WFH employees and navigating global supply chain shortages and doing so better than the rest of the industry. We also saw the current economic caution in businesses faster than anyone else in a position to be relevant to customers. I also think you see that agility in our innovation. The rate of progress we’re making in places like telecom and AI and multicloud is astonishing. Last year in our Infrastructure Solutions Group business, we had a period of 30 major launches in 13 weeks. The ability to move that fast is a really formidable thing.
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Dell Technology and the Future
Pund-IT: Is there anything about Dell that you wish people outside the company knew or understood more clearly?
Whitten: I think it’s appreciated but it bears repeating. At Dell, we’ve built something that looks really different than the rest of the technology industry. We’re number one in all our core markets, and we have what we call “durable competitive advantages” that help us continue to win and reinvent ourselves. Our end-to-end portfolio puts us in the center of customers’ agendas, has the largest go-to-market and channel ecosystem in the industry, offers leading services, scale and capabilities, and benefits from the industry’s best supply chain with unmatched scale. And then, as we’ve discussed, we have a culture that I think is unmatched in the industry. Because of that and what we’ve built, we sit at the center of these great challenges our customers are facing.
Pund-IT: Such as?
Whitten: What’s the future of work and how does the PC unlock collaboration? How can companies make multicloud architectures work seamlessly? How can security be more intrinsic to infrastructure and not something that you add on after the fact? How can we accelerate AI? And how can we do it smartly and securely and ethically? How do we unlock innovation at the edge? Technology has never been more essential to customers, and never been more essential to addressing the broad problems of society. We’re in the center of all of that. I think we have the capabilities and the culture to make a difference. Building on that, we can plan and pursue our future-focused goals.
Pund-IT: Speaking of that, where do you see Dell in four or five years?
Whitten: We’ve reinvented ourselves over multiple decades, and we’re just going to continue to reinvent ourselves. There are short-term economic headwinds, but we’ve seen those before. What feels different in this cycle is that technology has never been more essential to our customers and we, as a company, have never been better positioned and prepared to help them solve those problems. Five years from now, I believe we will continue to be at the center of customers’ technology agendas, whatever those agendas are. On the way there, we’re going to help them solve the most pressing challenges that we’re seeing today so we will be at the center of whatever customers are doing. I think that’s the enduring institution that Michael built and that we’re all building together now.
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