Thursday, December 3, 2020

Strategic? It’s time to let it go …

Ever since it was first rumored by IT professionals that the label strategic came with Velcro backing for ease of re-use (on a whim by sales and marketing), seeing “strategic” appended to products raises the hackles of even the most ardent supporters about any merits such product might have!

As news broke this week of HPE setting up shop in a suburb of Houston, Texas news media jumped on the story very quickly. Was this just another case of a Silicon Valley company leaving California for a more tech-friendly state? Was it a case of simply giving its employees better housing options with the benefits of a less onerous tax structure? Timed to coincide with the announcement of Q4 2020 financial results with references to sales of HPE products looking more like pre-pandemic results, perhaps the company felt encouraged to throw in a reference to changes of address for its Head Quarters.   

In this announcement was a phrase that caught my attention. HPE said that it is making the decision to move its headquarters to Houston, Texas, and that “The Bay Area will continue to be a strategic hub for HPE innovation.” If you didn’t catch it, the phrase in question just happened to be “a strategic hub for HPE innovation.” Not so much the innovation aspect, as I am as convinced as are many of you that HPE has indeed entered an era of accelerated innovation as it drives forward to become a leading edge to cloud, platform as a service company. 

Rather, it’s the presence of that catch-all word, “strategic.” But first, let me be very clear. I have followed the many programs of HPE for nearly two decades – from the time HPE and Compaq “merged” – and have nothing but admiration for their management team. In particular, I think HPE CEO Antonio Neri has been like a breath of fresh air for the company.

When I talk about strategic, I am writing about the word itself and in no way am I making any negative assertions about this move of the HQ to Houston. Moreover, I can see significant benefits with the move to Houston even as of late, Margo and I have been considering making a similar move ourselves and for similar reasons. As for usage of the word strategic it’s been my experience that there should be a band of Velcro applied to the word strategic as it is applied and reapplied, at some point, to every product an IT vendor has to offer.

The association with Velcro first arose in presentations and commentaries provided by IBM. Not that it was the IBM presenters that made this connection but rather, attendees of the presentation. Ever heard of IBM’s SAA – it’s Systems Application Architecture that was strategic for IBM when it came to tying together it’s various product lines from micros, minis and mainframes based on a common user interface, common communication services (yes, you guessed it, SNA) and a common software development environment. Strategic, perhaps; palatable to the greater IBM community, unfortunately no!

It was all too much too late and came at a time when IBM was failing to adjust to the new world of TCP/IP, open systems and a decline of interest in mainframes. This wasn’t the only time IBM threw the strategic label around. Who remembers programming in PL/1 or learning all about HIPO (Hierarchical Input, Processing and Output)  that was introduced as a systems analysis design aid? Complete with plastic templates, you were meant to be able to walk through any business requirement and come up with all you need to then turn to PL/1 program. In actuality, all HIPO delivered was a lot of pretty diagrams than many systems analysts framed in their offices.

Of course there would be no discussion on strategic products without some reference to DB2 positioning in the face of a rampant Oracle. However, for the NonStop community, we can look no further than when the battle lines were drawn separating the messages and indeed strategic value of SNAX versus ICE. Again, look no further than today when SNAX was not ported to the Intel x86 architecture (as strategic as it once had been) but rather, gave way to uLinga, a product that was developed by ex-members of that original ICE team. 

There are many similar stories that abound and HPE is not alone. The populist belief among former IBMers is that the label “strategic” was meant to signify that a product, service, technology or architecture wasn’t meeting pre-promoted sales figures. Strategic, in a sense became akin to being the flavor of the month.

The interior of Australia is mostly desert: The picture above is of a scene close to the Murray-Darling Basin which is the source of Australia’s largest river system. The presence of such large sand dunes gives you the true impression of just why water is such a scarce commodity to the west of Australia’s eastern coastline, but the story went that if seeking an oasis don’t be fooled by what you may consider a strategic sand hill observed during a previous outing. Any faith that may be attributed to the value of any strategic landmark is doomed to failure as yes, a sandy hill is but a fleeting presence on that vast vista of that terrible continent.

When it comes to the IT landscape then yes, blindly following a familiar terrain couldn’t be less rewarding if we had simply bought a less-featured product and be done with it! Buying time to see over the horizon even as we deliver something that is of interim value has been the plight of technologists for decades. When the recent NonStop Technical Boot Camp (TBC) was under way, I lost count of the number of times I heard vendors making reference to how strategic their product was for HPE and the broader NonStop community. 

Nothing could be further from the truth, even as shards of Velcro could be seen sticking out from the sides. As one HPE NonStop technologist wrote to me only this past week, when it comes to anything being promoted as strategic even as they believed is still carried some weight, “but as you know when a term becomes over-used and I fear strategic is failing into that category, it loses strength.”

Over exposure of a term or phrase is always a sign that there is a story behind the message and it’s not altogether pretty. Either there is an overpriced feature, a technology patronage that has moved on to something else (but as yet, hasn’t been made public) or much worse, a recognizable copycat approach taken that just doesn’t pass the sniff-test. But should IT vendors ever make statements about the strategic nature of a product? Is it really the correct action to be taken by any vendor; surely, it’s up to others to accept the strategic nature of a product. Just as important messaging, in and of itself, only lasts so long. When it comes to decisions that are made it is up to the actual NonStop customer to see such products delivering solutions that are providing them with the value that is strategic to the enterprise.

In an exchange on the topic of strategic product sets with Tim Dunne, NTI’s Global Director of Worldwide Sales, he made a remark that I suspect resonates with us all. “NTI will always respect the right of Customers to choose technology to meet their strategic direction and we will never portray a ‘sales strategy’ as better than a ‘customer-developed’ strategy,” said Dunne, “When it comes to what’s strategic and what’s not, NTI products adapt to what NonStop customers view as strategic for their enterprises, not the other way around.” 

Certainly, in the days when IBM was central to much that I pursued, it was ultimately the customers who set the direction. The abject failure of IBM’s SAA being among the best examples of enterprises rejecting the strategic label coming as it did at a time when enterprises were welcoming the product offerings of IBM’s competitors as the cost of ownership became the most important consideration of all.

As the sand hills adjacent to Australia’s biggest river basin keep moving, so too does IT; it just keeps evolving and it is the wary IT professional that depends too much on a product that they know is simply little more than a passing offering from one marketer or the other who wants you to believe their product is more than just a flavor of the month! Strategic for whom, exactly? On reflection then, and following the virtual TBC, perhaps “strategic” is losing its strength after all. To paraphrase popular advertising soundbites, it’s time for us as a community to buy just what we need and not have the need to just buy the message.  

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