Friday, November 7, 2008

Is it time we folded our (big) tent?

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!

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wondered how long it would be before you saw the error of killing off ITUG.

The total lack of a "community" feel and the level of non-NonStop "spam' Connect is sending out is really concerning me.

As a Vendor I have to continue to be a member but if I was not a vendor I would really concider canceling my membership.

Fortunately my local RUG (DUST) has retained a ITUG feel to it and except for inviting other Connect groups to come to our meetings we are staying Tandem-centric for now. I feel sorry for the users whose local RUGs are either in-effective or have bought-in to the Connect vision of a User Group.

The Good Old Days are truly over.

Steve Black

Richard Buckle said...

G'day Steve,

Well, my position had been to give it a try and to see if cooperation and then community would follow. But now I have reservations ... but I agree, there's potential for a future based around regional user groups and I have always enjoyed my relationship with these groups!

Thanks for your quick feedback.

Anonymous said...

The event in Mannheim, which was a drag in a way as the attendance wasn’t good and it was not what it was billed to be as it was more of an old-style ETUG than the overall HP thing it was billed as.

We had decent traffic but I wouldn’t come back and I guess that won’t be an issue unless the change their minds about next year not having one.

Anonymous said...

Mannheim was definitely interesting. 90% of the vendors and 75% of the attendees were for the NonStop platform, yet only 25% of the sessions were.

It was fun meeting up with old friends (more like family to me), but it was sad hearing the vendors comment that this might be their last user community event.

Ron LaPedis,

Anonymous said...

The failure of the event in Mannheim was pretty big and potentially fiscally disastrous for the "Connect" organization(with whom no one actually feels connected).

As long as that "hole" you describe allowing the current President to take over the role of VP and squeeze out any future NonStop representation, the organization as any of the former ITUG members will remember it, will cease to exist. The fact that this was recently used to double the tenure of the current Chair is disturbing.

The current leadership has already successfully deflated the european conference. I don't believe that was their intention, but their own agenda was more important than cooperation with the combined organization.

Don't fold up the tent, Richard. There are enough vendors/users that are interested in helping to patch it or build a new one. That's the way ITUG began in the first place, isn't it?

Lisa P
(who voted no, btw

Richard Buckle said...

While I cannot comment in any official capacity on behalf of GoldenGate, I have already seen email expressing some disappointment with the turn out as well as with the split between NonStop and the rest. The venue though we well liked ... and I just know the volunteers in Germany did a good job.

The history of ITUG is very deeply rooted in the regional user groups - it was at the request of the then-regional leadership that ITUG was formed and the executives at Tandem were quick to realise the potential of having a strong group of Tandem users.

Can this be repeated? Not sure it needs to exactly follow this earlier precedent but I firmly believe there is a place for strong regional groups to flourish.

And no, I am not folding the tent or giving up on this ... but I do so the big tent events becoming promary HP marketing / education opportunities and do not fault them for pursuing this quite independent of what we, as a user / vendor / consulting, community would like to stay very close to.

Thanks ...

Anonymous said...

I can certainly sympathize with your comments here Richard. Hopefully technology hardware and software vendors such a HP do not lose sight of their user group organizations. They have been and will continue to be advocates of the corporate strategy provided they are treated as an asset and not a burden.

Kees denHartigh

Richard Buckle said...

I have talked to Scott Healy, chairman of the nominations committee and former ITUG Chair. and I have come away with three interesting data points:

1) The nominations committee itself was made of three (out of six) ITUG members.

2) The gola was to increase international representation - and from the slate, this looks as though it was achieved

3) Very few members from the ITUG community volunteered - we just didn't turn up in numbers and we certainly didn't see users (vs vendors and consultants) stepping up.

So, what we are seeing develop here, with the potential for just two board members coming from the former ITUG community, is very disappointing - given all the work that went into the process.

And it doesn't really change all that much for me - Scott continues to work hard for the NonStop community but appearances continue to overpower reality. I can understand how this has all come together and I can understand the individual decisions made - but the net of it all is something I am becoming a little wary about. Will the voice of NonStop be heard and will it be strong enough to influence future decisions?

Cheers ... RB

Anonymous said...

Like Richard, I am also concerned about the results at Mannheim. Two years ago, ITUG (and Encompass) changed their events to the same site as HP's marketing event in Las Vegas. So far, the technical content seems to have remained there, and ITUG's marketing of the event seems to have kept attendance up.

However, it seems to me (admittedly on the outside) that HP Marketing is taking over most if not all of the liaison responsibilities with Connect. It was the liaison group that helped create the compelling content that brought members (and therefore vendors) to ITUG events in the past. If this goes away (and HPTF becomes just a marketing show), then the 'big tent' event might well end up with little or no value to anyone but HP.

I am also somewhat concerned about the Connect leadership actions that Lisa P mentioned. The joint memberships approved the forming of Connect (which included merging financial resources) with a sepecific set of expectations of representation of their groups; and now it seems that ITUG's representation is dwindling... note that there would have been one more ITUG-oriented member of the Board if the Leadership's actions hadn't occurred. I'm not even sure that the membership at large knows this, perhaps it's one reason that no one but Jay stood for nomination to represent the NonStop users.

This is a bad set of events to contemplate when the world's Economic situation is causing companies (including Self-Employed consultants!) to reprioritize spending. In this climate, it might be very difficult to have a grass-roots restart of ITUG as happened in 1978.

Our regional group (NonStop ONLY, at least so far) seems to be doing OK, and I see reports of others too. (How did the BITUG meeting go?). We may become just some 'RUG' groups for a while...

Bill Honaker
ITUG President way back in 1996
N2TUG President today
ITUGLIB librarian
XID, Ltd.

richgalloway said...

Richard,

I am unaware of the hole in the By-Laws and related goings-on to which you mention, but then I'm not that interested in Connect (and hate the name, BTW). Why? Because it has (as I knew it would) and will likely continue to dilute the Tandem community.

I would have considered applying for board position, but my workload does not allow for it and my company's travel restrictions don't help, either. I'm sure I'm not alone in that regard.

It saddens me to hear about the low turnout at Mannheim, but I am not surprised. I'm sure it can be attributed to the economy and encourage those considering not attending next year to bear that in mind.

To return to your original point, Richard, I still see a need for big-tent events. Our RUG is inactive (again), so the only event I get to attend is HPTF. Even if the RUG was more active, I doubt I could learn as much as I do in three days in Las Vegas.

I don't see blades changing the need for unique groups. While we may all eventually run on the same hardware, the operating systems are still very different and that, IMO, is what truly separates the membership.

It's interesting that this discussion is not on the Connect message boards. Would it not be more constructive to discuss the topic there where it might actually lead to changes (and also be seen by more members)?

Rich Galloway

Richard Buckle said...

Rich,

As for "It's interesting that this discussion is not on the Connect message boards. Would it not be more constructive to discuss the topic there where it might actually lead to changes (and also be seen by more members)?" ... this morning I posted another comment on the Connect my.community blog encouraging broader participation. I am open on this - but in the past, the readership has been sketchy at best and I am not all that sure who is actually reading it.

But good point all the same and thanks.

And as for "To return to your original point, Richard, I still see a need for big-tent events. Our RUG is inactive (again), so the only event I get to attend is HPTF" - this is a comment I often hear. Regional groups rise and fall on the strenghts of individuals committed to supporting them. But having said that, I am not against the big HP events like HPTF where the user groups are invited participants. Let's no confuse HPTF with a user event - it isn't; we, as a user community, should be very pleased that HP extneds the invitation to us each year and I hope they continue to do so.

Again, thanks ...