It is with a lot of sadness that I write this blog. As I sit back with a coffee here in Simi Valley, I can’t keep my thoughts from wandering to Mannheim, Germany where, in a few days time, the HP NonStop community will be gathering for the first ever Community Connect Europe (CCE) user event. This will be only the second European user event that I have missed since the early ‘90s and even though our company, GoldenGate. will be well represented, I have elected to skip this one. So here I am in Simi Valley and the photo you see is of me enjoying coffee at my local Starbucks!
My first opportunity to attend the European ITUG event came in 1991 when it was held in Munich, Germany. I was working for Tandem Computers in Cupertino, as the program manager for NonStop NET/MASTER, and had stopped by Amsterdam on the way over. But I didn’t make it to Munich that year as I had to return to Cupertino for personal reasons, and it wasn’t until the following year, when the event was held in Nice, before I finally made it to my first European ITUG user event.
I was reminded of this yesterday in a conversation I had with Bill Honaker, a former ITUG Chairman. For the Tandem party, on our last night in Nice, Bill lent me his “official” ITUG Board Member badge, and I wore it for the remainder of the evening with no inkling that years later I would be elected to the ITUG Board.
Throughout the ‘90s and into this decade the community enjoyed enormous support from Tandem and, with the acquisitions, from Compaq and HP. As Chairman of ITUG, I would always find time to walk through the exhibition floor before the opening sessions and I would always stop by the support desks manned by Tandem – Jack, Jimmy C, Todd, John – they were always first to show up and slaved for days to make sure the demos could be supported and the vendors had access to the latest NonStop servers.
Last night I received an email from Nigel Baker, relaxing on Sydney harbor, and observing “thought you might like to know that I have spent the late afternoon (after having spent the early afternoon on HMAS Vampire) in hot sunshine, drinking a few beers, at Cockle Bay – a delightful, 80 degrees!” Nigel has been associated with ITUG events for as long as I can recall and I caught up with him, by chance, at “the Duke” in Cupertino only a week ago. His passion for all things NonStop continues to remain strong, and we reminisced about the work that went into setting up the exhibition hall and how the excitement built with the every stand that went up, and how you could just feel the buzz growing in the final hours before the first sessions started.
I have talked often and enthusiastically about ITUG events, including the many regional events. A few days ago I was in an email exchange with Steve Bailey, formerly of Tandem Australia. Steve had moved to Cupertino about the same time I did, in late ’89. Steve put together the Tandem Australia operation in Sydney, in the late ‘80s, to support Tandem customers in Australia’s northern states. And it was Steve who encouraged me to actively pursue the creation of an ITUG regional group in Australia – igniting the enthusiasm that remains with me to this day. Over many lunches, and numerous bottles of wine, we somehow came up with the name OzTUG, which was quickly accepted by the community.
Steve has returned to Sydney and is back in the software solution business and his email update brought so many memories flooding back. And I can just see his passion and enthusiasm still burning deep and am looking forward to catching up with him again shortly. Steve, as does Nigel and Bill, highly values the user community and he is a constant reminder to me that grass-roots organizations, as we saw flourish with OzTUG, often develop the strongest “networking” ties and foster the most open and supportive dialogues.
But I will skip this year’s CCE as I am concerned about where the new Connect organization is headed. I am starting to question the value of user run events of this magnitude being held, as they often are in competition to HP’s own “big tent” marketing events. Regular readers of this blog know that for the past year, I have been predicting changes for the user groups and have been party to the formation of the new, unified community. With the arrival of the BladeSystem, with it’s NonStop Backplane and the opportunity to mix and match different physical blades (as we saw with the prototype Fred Laccabue and Randy Meyer unveiled on the HP stand at HPTF&E) a single hardware “package” can now support any mix of NonStop, HP-UX, Linux, and Windows. But are we now running the risk of diluting the intensity and perhaps reducing everyone’s enthusiasm, by holding too many events?
HP is evolving the products very quickly today and it has become obvious to many of us that the technology that used to separate the different groups is fast becoming a commodity, made up of almost identical components. There really is little difference these days between the server families and it is almost ridiculous to continue to think strictly in unique hardware terms when talking about the NonStop, Unix, or Windows product families. But there was a lot more going on within the user communities that fueled the interest in getting together, apart from this understanding of where the products were headed. It had become apparent with the new millennium, that the business model adopted by user groups was broken and unsustainable.
Sources for education could be found elsewhere. Major users would simply come to Cupertino and engage in direct dialogue with NonStop management – there were few surprises in the product roadmaps for the majority of users. End-users were finding it increasingly difficult to talk about their own usage of NonStop – a “hole” in the program that simply widened with time. Today, just “googling” phrases can unearth material on a scale that user events could never hope to cover. And events began to compete for shrinking HP marketing dollars at a time when HP marketing really wanted more direct control over the content, messages, and format.
With an unsustainable business model and competing HP events, pursuing a joint undertaking, seemed to make a lot of sense to me. But I no longer feel at ease with the direction it appears to be taking. Increasingly, Connect is emerging as just another event, and not a community of the type we were looking for. While there are the Chapter Leaders calls, and the Connection magazine - encouraging signs, for sure - there is very little evidence that customers are thinking about themselves as Connect users rather than users of the individual platforms they remain extremely loyal to. Yes, a little Unix and Windows trickles into NonStop sites and yes, Linux is making inroads into the world of OpenVMS – but it is these mainstay operating systems that still determine the “tribal” allegiances.
The demands on volunteer’s time is overwhelming many of them – and the pool for qualified “talent” is drying up. As I look back at the time I was ITUG Chairman, for 2004 – 2005, with the support of my employer, I was giving up two days a week in support of the business of ITUG. Throw in all the days traveling and the weekends devoted to meetings, it really does add up – but today, very few companies put any value on this level of participation and seriously question the return on the investment in time that it involves. Increasingly, the volunteer base has shifted to where it’s become liberally populated with vendors as they can justify the time and the travel given that their businesses encourages close ties with the community. While at the regional levels such vendor support is good to see – at the big events, it can lessen HP’s enthusiasm!
The Connect by-laws apparently support the “perpetual leadership” model, and I have to believe that it is a hole in the bylaws, and not in any way an intentional provision allowing the president to step into vice presidency over and over again? Regurgitating the same old group of volunteers is simply not an answer – and can only lead to the formation of a “club” model where we all end up in deeply padded, comfortable, wingback chairs reminiscing about the good old days over a warm brandy! Eventually, HP will move on and invest more deeply in its own events as they watch the community turn-out drop off. But I am not writing to tell you that I am giving up – that I am throwing in the towel.
I will continue to watch and track these events – and the performance of the volunteer board. For now, I will remain independent – user groups remain incredibly valuable and I have seen solid growth in those communities that are very tightly focused. And I will participate, as best as I can, in regional groups and look at what develops, closer to the grass-roots level I feel at ease with. The recent meteoric rise in user participation at GoldenGate’s events, for instance, is just one pointer to how well-run user events can still attract a sizeable participation.
As for Mannheim, I will miss the networking with good friends and the early morning walks through the exhibition halls. I will miss the final night’s party as I will miss all the sidebar chats over coffee. And I will miss the opportunity for impromptu “brainstorming” with HP developers and product management that I enjoy so much.
Is the future of a user-run organization going to return to the hands of regional communities? I am beginning to believe that it may … and I don’t find such an outcome all that difficult to accommodate. After all, finding the time to meet locally and to enjoy regular meetings develops a much stronger affinity for the platform and solutions – and isn’t that what’s really all about?
And I continue to wonder – have we done the right thing? Should the big tent events be left to HP and is it OK to let them go down that path. After all, I liked listening to Matchbox Twenty this year!