WHEN Pat Gelsinger became CEO of VMware in September 2012 at the age of 51, he had been a CEO-in-training for more than 20 years.

No, he didn't attend courses or talks, and neither was he anointed as a future CEO nor mentored by some guru. His was sort of self-training for the job where he visualised how he would handle situations if he were the CEO.

How and why so? When Mr Gelsinger was 31 years old and a rising star at Intel, he was at the cusp of what has been described as a Cinderella career. At this point he decided that he wanted to be the CEO of the company.

He didn't eventually become the top man at Intel, but he's CEO of what is probably the most prominent infrastructure software company in the business - one that's growing very fast. He's involved in reinventing VMware and pushing it into new growth areas. VMware is owned by EMC but operates as an independent company.

But more on that later.

First, the Cinderella career of a farmboy who grew up outside Philadelphia in an area populated by the Amish, the Mennonites and the Pennsylvania Dutch, a community to which he belongs.

Mr Gelsinger liked life on the farm. It was hard work but he enjoyed it, and as a young man, his goal in life was to become a farmer when he grew up. "However, when I was 16, I realised that I was never going to be a farmer because what's a farmer without a farm? My dad was the eighth of nine siblings and he did not have his own farm and I was working with all my uncles and cousins on our common farm.

"If my dad had his own farm, I'd be a farmer in Pennsylvania today. I liked working with my dad, I liked the farm."

And at 16, Mr Gelsinger, who was a bright student, was bored with high school. To fight his boredom, he took a scholarship exam to go to a technology school for a two-year degree course. He aced the exam and got his associate's degree in two years but he still hadn't passed high school.

To overcome this rather curious problem, he took classes to finish his high school requirements. And so in 1979, at 18 years of age, he graduated first from high school in June and then from the tech school in August. At this point, Intel came recruiting as there was an industry-wide shortage of technicians in the US.

Mr Gelsinger, who had never been inside an aeroplane then, got a plane ticket to fly to California for an interview at the Intel head office. "I told my mom that I was going to take the trip but there's no way I was going to live in California; it's going to fall into the ocean after an earthquake and there are crazy people there. I'm a Pennsylvania boy."

He got interviewed by a long-time Intel official called Ron Smith. This is what Mr Smith wrote in his assessment: "Smart, aggressive and arrogant, he'll fit right in."

Says Mr Gelsinger : "I took the job because they allowed me to go to school while working and had a very generous tuition grant which was a boon for me because I had no money. I wanted to finish my bachelor's, master's and go for a PhD."

He enrolled at Santa Clara University for a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. He put the course fee charge on his credit card and waited anxiously for the tuition reimbursement. "One reason I studied so hard was because if I didn't get a passing grade, I was not going to be able to repay my credit card. So I needed to get a B or better." He did fine and graduated second in his class (and is still arguing with one of the professors who gave him a B in one of his subjects).

For the next few years, Mr Gelsinger worked fulltime while attending school. At the age of 24, he decided to quit Intel and move to Stanford University to do his PhD. The then CEO of Intel, the legendary Andy Grove, one of the pioneers of the semiconductor industry, came up to Mr Gelsinger and told him: "You can go there (Stanford) and fly the simulator, or you can stay here and fly the real thing."

At the ripe old age of 25, the farmboy from Pennsylvania was made design head of what was then the world's most cutting-edge chip, the 80486 (also called the eighty-four-eighty-six). "Twenty-five years old and in charge of the most important chip project in the entire industry (then). I was the youngest guy and had 100-plus people working for me.

"It was just one of those incredible events. Andy (Grove) became a mentor. And if you have mentors like that, then it's a great experience. That's why people say I have had a Cinderella career. I was very fortunate, very blessed and obviously the hard work ethic that I learnt from being a farmboy and some raw intelligence helped

. . . It's been an incredible ride."

Youngest vice-president

Mr Gelsinger reminisces: "There I was a design manager and the youngest vice-president in the history of Intel. I wanted to be an inventor so I got my first patent. I co-authored my first book, Programming the 80386. (It's a thriller, you'll find out if you can go up to the last page!)

"And then I asked myself: 'Now what, at 31, I surely can't be done?'"

Despite being at an age when many people just start to warm up in their careers, Mr Gelsinger had, proverbially, hit his mid-life crisis. So he decided that he needed to write out his personal mission statement on what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

"My objective was to live my life in a very intentional way by deciding what to say 'Yes' to and what to say 'No' to. The single most important resource we have is time. How do we use our time? We make plans for everything we do in life but do we plan on how we use our time?"

In that statement, Mr Gelsinger wrote several objectives and one of them was to become CEO of Intel. "And that became, whether I got there or not, something I would strive for. I became an armchair CEO for 20 years. I'd be sitting there and I would watch what Andy would do or later Gordon Moore, or Craig Barrett (former CEOs of Intel), and now more recently what Joe Tucci, the CEO of EMC, would do in any given situation.

"And then I would ask myself, would I have said that? Would I have handled the situation in that way? Do I have the competence and knowledge to handle any given situation better?

"I've now been a CEO for almost two years and I think I have been in training for the last 20-plus years, getting ready, and I constantly ask myself: 'Am I handling it like I would have after watching how others have handled similar situations over the past 20 years?' "

But can the CEO's job be learnt or do some aspects of leadership come from deep inside? "I think it's a combination of both. There are aspects of leadership skills that come from deep inside you. But I think there are other aspects that can be learnt.

"I learnt a lot in Intel, and I learnt a lot at EMC (Mr Gelsinger was president and chief operating officer of EMC before taking up his current role). But there are aspects of leadership that are connected to individual characteristics, for example someone can have a foul demeanour and people may not like working with them.

"There are also certain aspects of strategic thinking that involve looking around the corner, so to speak; being able to envision things before they materialise, and I don't think these are learnable skills - they are attributes that come from deep inside."

Mr Gelsinger believes technology companies should be led by technologists and he continues to aspire to be a "great technologist".

"I get engineers in my office to explain to me how things work. I want to know the details. I want to keep that deep sense of how the technology works.

"You know Bill Gates was a technologist; Steve Ballmer wasn't. Microsoft under Bill and then under Steve . . . you look at Apple under John Sculley who was not a technologist and under Steve Jobs who was a technologist."

Over the past decade, information technology (IT) has gained centre stage and IT companies such as VMware, Apple, Google, Facebook, to name just a few, have captured the popular imagination. That's because over the past 10 years IT is the only industry sector that has been offering more power and capability at lower costs.

This is possible due to a confluence of a host of disruptive technologies. Mr Gelsinger has a one-word definition to describe what's happening: SoMoCloBad.

The word is a mnemonic to describe the confluence of social media, mobility, cloud, and Big Data analytics. This confluence is hitting both consumers as well as enterprises. It's the biggest disruption to ever hit the IT industry.

"Every CEO in the world is looking at the trends and saying to themselves: 'Okay, how do I reposition myself?' They may have no freaking idea what the cloud is about, but they know that it enables them to be far more agile. They may have no idea what a distributed Hadoop environment is about, but they know people are able to get analytical insight that fundamentally transforms their business.

"They may have no idea what the implication is of an IoT (Internet of Things) set up for mobile connectivity but, hey, they know it's changing energy systems, routing systems, you know - driverless cars and all of those types of things that are enabling major trends that are affecting everything."

And VMware, as an IT company, is not immune to these trends. "As I talk to our teams I ask: 'Are we going to be one of the last great companies of the client-server era or are we going to be one of the really great companies of the emerging mobile-cloud era? Can we position ourselves to take advantage of these very powerful technology trends?' "

Under Mr Gelsinger's leadership, VMware has laid out three main businesses. They are what is called the software-defined data centre (SDDC), hybrid cloud (a combination of public and private clouds) and end-user computing. "We compete with Microsoft in the SDDC space, we compete with the likes of Microsoft, Google and IBM in hybrid cloud and we compete with Cisco in virtual networking and with Citrix and Red Hat, among others, in end-user computing.

"When you look at these companies you think, 'These are big companies that have big capitalisation. . . Hmm. Wow!'"

Mr Gelsinger thinks that VMware not only has the chops to compete but to set the industry standards as well. "We are an enterprise company and have no aspirations to be a consumer company. When you look at companies like Hewlett Packard and Microsoft, they are trying to be both. We are definitive, in that we are going to be an enterprise software infrastructure provider. We want to enable secure and managed infrastructure for both on and off-premise requirements and take care of all device infrastructure requirements of our customers," he says.

"So when a CIO (chief information officer) sits down and decides which are the people he needs across the table when he's going to build, operate and invest for the future, we want to occupy the most important chair. We want to be his trusted partner delivering the layer of infrastructure software that takes care of everything from his data centre, cloud infrastructure and device infrastructure requirements. We want to grow and become this maniacal company whose software and services just work so that customers can rely on us and say if one of the chairs is occupied by VMware, then their infrastructure just works."

Man of faith

Mr Gelsinger is a technologist with several patents to his name and, at the same time, he's a man of faith.

"I became a Christian when I was 18. That's deeply important to me, and I hold deep and strong views on the Bible and that God created. . . I believe God created. Do I know how He created? No, I don't. And in creation, you are always going to have a theological perspective as well as a technological perspective.

"The idea that if you are a technologist, you can't be religious is an artificial construct. Some of the greatest scientists of all time were devout Christians and I'm proud of that."

Mr Gelsinger adds: "What was the source of almost all hospitals and all education? It was the Church. These legacies are important to me because much of medical and educational innovation emerged from the Church over many centuries . . . Why did Guttenberg invent the printing press? It was to copy the Bible."

He firmly believes his faith helps him to cope with the pressures of his job. "I work hard every day and at the end of the day, having done my absolute best I sleep well at night, and the next day I go out again, work hard and do my absolute best so that I can again sleep well at night.

"My wife Linda and I made a commitment many years ago, that we would give an increasing percentage of our gross income to charities every year. We started that 30-plus years ago, and we said that every year we are going to increase it by one per cent. Today we give over 40 per cent of our gross income to charities every year. And we are delighted to do that, that's part of who we are."

Mr Gelsinger, the farmboy who used to get up at 4.30am to milk the cows, has come a long way. And, by the looks of it - his Cinderella career is still going strong.