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Q&A with Ben Pfaff, VMware’s Principal Engineer & Open vSwitch Leader

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If you’ve ever wondered what it’s really like to work at VMware, the trailblazer of network virtualization, you don’t want to miss this. On Monday June 22nd, 1 PM PST, VMware’s Principal Engineer Ben Pfaff will be live coding the solution to the unique coding challenge he created: Mac Learning. Best of all, you can ask questions and interact with him directly on VMware’s new Company Page (kind of like an AMA!).

The real-time event will happen here.

VMware’s team is working on transformative technology in Virtual Storage or the Virtual Network, among other specialties. As the first company to launch HackerRank’s new Company Pages, VMware is redefining what it means to engage with software engineers by offering a glimpse into their innovative culture.

Who is Ben Pfaff? 

Pfaff is an accomplished and experienced visionary who has most recently been working on VMware’s NSX network virtualization product, and specifically on the Open vSwitch data plane component. Before Nicira, he received his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford in 2007 and a B.S. in electrical engineering from Michigan State University in 2001. He’s been a Debian developer since 1996 and a developer and maintainer of GNU PSPP since 1995. We had a chance to sit down and pick his brain:

1. You have quite a few achievements under your belt. What’s your biggest accomplishment thus far?

I’m proud of a lot of my work but two things stand out in my mind. The first is how we’ve managed to build up such a community around Open vSwitch. It started out as just a single-company project (as most open source projects do) but it was never our intent to keep it that way, and we’ve steadily increased collaboration over time so that it looks like in 2015 about 1/3 of the new contributions will come from outside VMware.

The second is a project from my grad student days, an educational operating system named Pintos. I built Pintos to teach undergrads about the internals of operating systems, and I put a lot of thought and care into it, and the results have been really good. Stanford is still using it, even years after I left, and several other universities have used it too.

2. What’s the most fascinating network virtualization development you’ve seen over the past 6 years?

I’m really amazed at how network virtualization has taken over the world. I’m most excited about OVN, the open source network virtualization system we’re working on.

Editor’s note: OVN is a new project from the Open vSwitch team to support virtual network abstraction. OVN will put users in control over cloud network resources, by allowing users to connect groups of VMs or containers into private L2 and L3 networks, quickly, programmatically, and without the need to provision VLANs or other physical network resources]

3. What advice would you give to developers who want to work at VMware?

VMware has such a diverse range of software products that they hire a really diverse collection of developers, from people who know the very lowest levels of desktop and server computers up to app developers. I think that there’s a place at VMware for any developer who’s really passionate about whatever their area of strength is. I tend to encourage students and other new developers to figure out what they’re most interested in and then go really deep in that area. Picking a free software or open source project to start or to contribute to is my favorite way to suggest that someone looking to deepen their knowledge in an area go about it.


4. What do you love to geek out about outside of work?

I used to be a fencer, years ago, but today I’m a cyclist. I commute by bike 45 minutes in each direction every day. I like to stick an earphone in one ear and listen to podcasts on the way. I have a wife and a daughter and I spend a lot of time with them. I’m also into learning about other cultures, and like to do that by hosting foreign exchange students.We had a student from Bosnia for about 18 months, who fit us so well that she feels like part of our family (we’re going to Sarajevo to see her and her family for a couple of weeks this August) and we’ll probably get a student from Germany for the 2015-16 school year.

5. Why do you choose to work at VMware?

I was one of the first employees at Nicira Networks back in 2007, where we came up with what became OpenFlow and Open vSwitch and NSX. In 2012, VMware acquired Nicira. I’ve been at VMware since then. It’s a pleasant place to be: good people, beautiful campus (fantastic cafeteria!), and most of all some exciting problems to solve. 

Watch & learn from Ben Pfaff’s real-time coding session on Monday June 22nd, 1 PM PST! 

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