Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Summers in Texas!

I will be spending this weekend in Austin, Texas, where I will be mixing a little business with some keenly anticipated downtime. Connect Executive Committee is spending the weekend in meetings there, and thinking about those volunteers - giving their free time to the User Group - brought back a lot of memories. Austin has great barbeque and I am looking forward to enjoying at least one night of dining at one of these establishments, before the Exec meetings start, so I have at least one of this weekend evenings with my dedicated-to-Connect family!

I have been visiting Texas for more than thirty years, and one of the first trips I recall taking was during the hot summer months of 1977 to participate in the Datacom User Group meeting in Dallas, Texas. I had just recommended installing the Datacom product suite to my company, and the folks at Insight Datacom Corp (IDCorp) had invited me to speak. The picture I have elected to include here is of me during one of my earliest visits to the Dallas area with a rental car typical of those times – a monstrous Pontiac Grand Prix.

Five years later, in the heat and humidity of another Texas Summer, I went to Houston for the 1982 National Computer Conference and experienced my first major computer industry trade-show. Renting a car was out of the question – Hertz had brought in trailer-loads of additional cars but they were all snapped up well before I arrived. My good friends from CIMS Labs, Larry and Ken Lynch, picked me up in a Rent-A-Wreck that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a demolition derby, and I will never forget the look on the valet parking attendant, of a very up-market Houston restaurant, when they asked to have it valet parked!

But the intimacy and closeness of the Datacom user event in Dallas was in stark contrast to the continuously-swarming crowds at the NCC event in Houston. It may have been my first taste of a small, focused user community and my first exposure to the value of open dialogue between users and developers, but it made a lasting impression on me.

I have always enjoyed the NonStop user events. The first one I ever attended was in 1992 when I had the good fortune to be able to participate in the event in Nice, France. At the time I was working for Tandem and I was able to witness the incredible networking that went on at these events. I looked on as Tandem executives provided hospitality on a scale I had never seen before, as many intense discussions developed around the bar of the hotel that had been quickly transformed into the temporary headquarters of Tandem Computers. Many drinks were consumed as the problems of the global computer world were solved, and never before had I tasted Armagnac’s of such quality!

This is the heritage and tradition of ITUG and why so many in the ITUG community keep returning to events year after year. With the focus on the ecosystem that grew up around the NonStop platform, the ITUG events developed a closeness and respect, not easily replicated at the larger industry events, while providing more diversity than product-specific events I had attended earlier in my IT career.

For the past two years I have been on the board of IBM’s SHARE user group. My term ended last week, as I did not stand for re-election. For obvious reasons, this has left me on the sidelines for the past year, watching the formation of a new user group out of the membership of ITUG and Encompass communities. But with my recent involvement in SHARE, I can’t help but make comparisons between the two organizations.

Both SHARE and Connect cater to large, Global 1000 corporations. Both user groups address the needs of users of the premier product offerings of their respective vendors, IBM and HP. And both organizations rely heavily on their volunteers. However, there’s a lot that the Connect community can learn from SHARE just as there are warning signs coming from that oldest of all user communities.

When I joined the SHARE board of directors, there were a number of times when the other directors would reflect on times when the events drew crowds of 6,000 + and how the excitement around mainframes was attracting a global audience. And these weren’t numbers from the ‘70s or ‘80s either – as recently as the late ’90s attendance had been up in this range. Inside of a decade, however, the slide has been very visible as the numbers have declined substantially.

A few years back, SHARE put together programs aimed at IBM’s Unix and System p community but it failed to attract an audience. The System i community remains fiercely independent with their own leadership and events, and cooperation with them in pursuit of growth through joint events, hasn’t proved to be attractive to either groups.

I learnt very early on at SHARE that it was very difficult to develop programs outside of core subject areas. Halting the slide in user participation while, at the same time, attracting additional audiences – even when it was within the same vendors product portfolios, as the case was with IBM, wasn’t an easy task. There were concerns of the community volunteers to be addressed as well as the need to be cautious about taking the spotlight away from what was working. And I quickly learnt that not everyone in the community was enthusiastic about change of any kind, no matter what the potential benefits entailed.

Back in October ’07, I wrote two blog postings on user groups. In the October 17 posting, “You can’t survive if you ain’t got drive …”, I made the observation that, as a user community, “we have to try! We either adapt to our environment or we fade into oblivion … (and) we have to keep pushing, or we will cease to be relevant. The lifecycle of corporations, of technology, of products is all about adapting … holding the course, maintaining the status quo, resisting change, never wins out.”

When I revisited this topic a few days later in the October 26 posting, “Changes of Attitude …”, I passed on a comment a former ITUG Chairman, Bill Highleyman, made to me when he wrote “I have to admit that I was one of the supporters of keeping the ITUG Summits ‘pure.’ … but the advantages of sharing community across the product lines (at recent HPTF&E events) clearly showed.”

I went on to say, in that later blog posting, that “… (as) I reflect back and ask myself – are the culture and our heritage, and the voices of those that have been around the user groups for a long time, now at odds with the new reality? Shouldn’t I be trying really hard to work together to build something better?” Perhaps, what I encountered at SHARE, and the difficulty that they had with developing a sense of community across product lines, could be overcome this time at Connect.

It doesn’t escape me that as a user community, we have to reinvent ourselves every few years. It also doesn’t escape me that user groups, just like technology and products, have lifecycles. My enthusiasm for creating a new group out of the communities so closely associated with platforms with significant histories, as is being done now, remains high.

But nothing is certain or comes with a guarantee, when it comes to user communities, and perhaps the warning signs I saw at SHARE weren’t all that unique to them after all.

Scott Healy, the former Chairman of ITUG and now the first immediate Past President of Connect, told the HPTF&E audience this past June “why are we pursuing this joint undertaking? Why are we getting together, as we are now doing, to create something new? I will tell you why – go down onto the exhibition floor and look at the new technology. Look at Blades. Look at a Blade Center prototype running a mix of NonStop, Unix, Windows and potentially OpenVMS! And I will tell you – that’s why!”

I have to agree with Scott – I see the inevitability that the differences between the communities will dissolve. The physical attributes will standardize the server “package” and the ease with which users can launch any mix of operating systems will be greatly simplified. And as this transitions, and becomes the normal way to run HP servers, having a single united community makes all the sense in the world.

And I think Scott has it right, and am encouraged but what I have seen transpire to date – but the work has only just started and none of us can drop our guard or loose focus. My passion for user groups is well known. My participation in communities of all types has been something I have done for decades. And I continue to look forward to participating in a far bigger community.

As the physical product differences recede, don’t we all really have the same agendas? Isn’t community participation all about doing the right thing for our companies and through networking with our peers, become beter informed? Sometimes big events loose their sense of shared purpose and, where the opportunity to network lessens, fade away with time. At the core of every community success, lays a desire and need that can only be met through sharing experiences and concerns.

I saw much that was good at SHARE, but I also saw the downside from trying to break with the past. Let’s all hope that this time, with Connect, it will be different and that we maintain our sense of community and with it, our desire to network. Perhaps it will be more than the quality of the Armagnac I will remember in future years! Yet, I have to admit, the “royal treatment” extended by Tandem Computers to their customers certainly helped building an unparallel loyalty to the platform and to the company that brought it to the market.

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