These days, when one thinks of corporate culture in the tech industry, what comes to mind are probably:
- Internet juggernauts — Google, Facebook and their younger siblings.
- The cheapskates at Amazon.
Most of that is at the internet companies, although there are exceptions — any kind of companies can have ping-pong tables, beanbag chairs, and a bunch of dogs* running around the office.
*I mean literal pooches, not bad products. WibiData used to even post headshots of the dogs on their employee page.
But there was a time, before the internet era, when similar things could be said of enterprise IT companies. The biggest fuss about culture was perhaps made among the more buttoned-down crowd, including IBM (most famously), MSA (the example that made me think of this subject), and EDS (who commissioned a Ken Follett book about themselves). They are all I have space for in this post. But there were also the beginnings of recognizable Silicon Valley start-up culture, and I hope to discuss that in the future.
The dignity crowd
I still chuckle when I see an IBMer in a company-issued polo shirt, because there was a time when IBM had a strict dress code of conservative suits and ties. Along with that went never drinking alcohol in a customer setting, in an era when boozy business meals were the norm. The point of all these rules, I think, was twofold. First, IBM wanted to be seen as a trusted, dignified adviser to customer organizations. Second, IBM generally wanted some kind of rules so that the behemoth corporation would be a team.
And IBM was more than a collection of people; it was an organization. Employees with 20+ year service might average one city-to-city move per year. (Hence the joke that IBM stood for I’ve Been Moved.) But whoever was involved with your account — if your systems stopped working, IBM would do whatever it took to get you back running fast. And a large fraction of IBM’s sales effort was spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) as to whether rival vendors would care for customers equally well.
EDS (Electronic Data Systems, founded by Ross Perot) fancied itself as a cross between IBM and the US military. Even computer operators had to be clean-shaven and wear jacket and tie. A large fraction of hires were military veterans,* and an extreme “Do it now! No excuses for failure will be accepted!” ethos flowed through the company. Read more
John Imlay passed away last week. Let me start by saying:
- John was a jolly huckster. Of the entrepreneurs I’ve known with manic amounts of sales energy, he’s the one I can least imagine saying or doing an unkind thing. Indeed, the breathless bit about John’s “kindheartedness” toward the end of this 2010 article doesn’t ring too false.*
- John wasn’t technically the founder of MSA, but he might as well have been. (Analogy: Steve Case at AOL.) When he got there, it was Management Science Atlanta, a failing hodgepodge of tiny businesses. He turned into Management Science America, a leading software company of its day, and the one that “should” have become what SAP is today.
- My 2006 post on MSA Memories has 90 comments, the vast majority of which are from former MSA employees who loved working there.
*Not as persuasive is the story about the missed chance to buy Microsoft in 1981. I knew a LOT of folks at MSA in the 1980s, and nobody ever mentioned that. Also, the story has an obviously wrong Microsoft fat (what city it was in).
John Imlay was a showman, best known for giving speeches with live animals or other dramatic visual aids, as per this short 1994 New York Times interview. But he was also a tireless, lead-from-the-front seller. An MSA salesman who booked John into an exhausting schedule of sales calls could expect a return visit from his CEO soon, because he was using Imlay’s time optimally. Indeed, I didn’t really know John all that well, probably for a couple of reasons:
- He was rarely around when I visited; he was much more likely to be out on the road selling.
- This was back in my stock analyst days, and I generally spent more time with detail-oriented folks, numbers- and product-oriented ones alike.
Larry Ellison had an official job change, and will be CTO and Executive Chairman of Oracle — with the major product groups reporting to him — instead of CEO. I first met Larry 31 years ago, and hung out with him quite a bit at times. So this feels like time for a retrospective.
For starters, let me say:
- I met Larry Ellison the same year I learned of him, which was 1983. We were in fairly active touch until the late 1990s. Then we drifted apart. That period corresponds roughly to the eras I characterized in my Oracle history overview as Hypergrowth, Plateau, and Professionalism.
- With Larry as with other “larger than life” industry figures I’ve met, what you get in private and what you see in public are pretty similar. I’ve had high-intensity dinner conversations with Larry (numerous times), Bill Gates (a few times) and Ross Perot (once) that are quite in line with their public demeanors.
- With Larry, facts can be mutable things. The first time I met him, I came away with the impression he had a PhD. The second time, it was only a masters degree. Ten years later, he’d almost graduated from the University of Chicago, but had failed or not take a French exam. And I gather his educational resume has retreated a little further since.
- Larry is hilarious, in a scathing way, and an excellent story-teller. Unfortunately, his humor rarely translates well to out-of-context print.
Some anecdotes: Read more
As part of my series on the keys to and likelihood of success, I’d like to consider some historical examples in various categories of data management.
A number of independent mainframe-based pre-relational DBMS vendors “crossed the chasm”, but none achieved anything resembling market dominance; that was reserved for IBM. Success when they competed against each other seemed to depend mainly on product merits and the skills of individual sales people or regional sales managers.
IBM killed that business by introducing DB2, a good product with very good strategic marketing from a still-dominant vendor. By “very good strategic marketing” I mean that IBM both truly invented and successfully market-defined the relational DBMS concept, including such conceptual compromises as:
- Ted Codd’s 12 rules, not that anybody — even IBM — actually followed them all.
- SQL as the standard, rather than the probably superior QUEL.
In the minicomputer world, however, hardware vendors lacked such power, and independent DBMS vendors thrived. Indeed, Oracle and Ingres rode to success on the back of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and other minicomputer vendors, including the payments they got to port their products to various platforms.* The big competitive battle was Oracle vs. Ingres, about which I can say for starters: Read more
The commercial computing, software and services industries have existed for half a century or so each. It might be interesting to review how their pricing and delivery models have evolved over time.
1960s and 1970s
Modern IT is commonly dated from the introduction of the IBM 360 mainframe in 1964-5. But even before then, there was a growing industry in what we’d now call outsourced services, specifically in payroll processing; major players included Automatic Data Processing (ADP), the company that gave us Senator Frank Lautenberg, and a variety of banks. This was (and to this day remains) a comprehensive service, priced by unit of work (e.g., number of payroll checks cut).
IBM mainframes, which quickly came to dominate the market, were in the 1960s and 70s commonly rented. IBM software that ran on them was hence typically priced on a rental/subscription basis as well. The independent packaged software companies, however, often preferred to get paid up front,* and hence sold perpetual licenses to their software. Annual maintenance fees for the licensed software started in the range of 10% of the perpetual license or even less, but migrated up to today’s 20-22% range.
|Categories: Analytics, Application software, ASK Computer Systems, Computer Associates, Computer services, Cullinet, EDS, IBM, MSA, Oracle||6 Comments|
Recently I expressed doubts about Actian’s DBMS-conglomerate growth strategy. For context, perhaps I should review other DBMS vendors’ acquisition strategies in the past. Some — quite a few — worked out well; others — including many too minor to list — did not.
In the pre-relational days, it was common practice to buy products that hadn’t succeeded yet, and grow with them. Often these were programs written at enterprises, rather than third-party packages. Most of Cullinet’s product line, including its flagship DBMS IDMS, was came into the company that way. ADR, if memory serves, acquired the tiny vendor who created DATACOM/DB.
Then things slowed down. A Canadian insurance company oddly bought Computer Corporation of America, to utter non-success. (At least I got an investment banking finder’s fee on the deal.) Computer Associates, which did brilliantly in acquiring computer operations software, had a much rockier time with DBMS. It acquired Cullinet, Applied Data Research, and ASK/Ingres — among others — and didn’t have much growth or other joy with any of them.
Indeed, Ingres has been acquired three times, and hasn’t accomplished much for any of the acquirers (ASK, Computer Associates, Actian).
I used to think that Oracle’s acquisition of RDB provided key pieces of what became Oracle’s own extensibility technology. Andy Mendelsohn, however, disputed this vehemently — at least by his standards of vehemence — and his sources are better than mine. Rather, I now believe as I wrote in 2011:
… while Oracle’s track record with standalone DBMS acquisitions is admirable (DEC RDB, MySQL, etc.), Oracle’s track record of integrating DBMS acquisitions into the Oracle product itself is not so good. (Express? Essbase? The text product line? None of that has gone particularly well.)
Experiences were similar for some other relational DBMS pioneers. Read more
|Categories: Applied Data Research, ASK Computer Systems, Computer Associates, Cullinet, Database management systems, IBM, Informix, Ingres, Microsoft, Oracle, Sybase, Teradata||1 Comment|
The single company whose history people most often ask me about is Oracle. That makes sense — Oracle is a hugely important company, which I’ve known for almost all of its 30-year commercial life. And of course, this being the week of Oracle OpenWorld, Oracle is top-of-mind.
Let’s start with a breezy overview, setting the stage for more detailed posts to follow. As I see it, there have been four eras at Oracle, which between them reflect just about every tech company management theory I can think of.
Startup: This period comprised initial development, custom contract with the US military (CIA, I think, even though the demo database was always naval), and initial product release. This is the one phase of Oracle’s history I didn’t witness personally. But it seems to have been pretty much a story of “build a minimum viable product for a great vision, and hustle until somebody buys it.”
Hypergrowth: Roughly speaking, Oracle grew 100% per year on its way from $5 million in revenue to $1 billion. This period formed much of the basis for Geoffrey Moore’s famous “Crossing the Chasm” series of books. In line with Moore’s later observations, Oracle’s priorities in this period were: Read more
I recently wrote a long post on the premise that enterprise analytic applications are not like the other (operational) kind. That begs the question(s): What are operational enterprise applications like?
Historically, the essence of enterprise applications has been data management — they capture business information, then show it to you. User interfaces are typically straightforward in the UI technology of the era — forms, reports, menus, and the like. The hard part of building enterprise applications is getting the data structures right. That was all true in the 1970s; it’s all still true today.
Indeed, for many years, the essence of an application software acquisition was the database design. Maintenance streams were often unimportant; code would get thrown out and rewritten. But the application’s specific database structure would be adapted into an extension to the acquirer’s own.
Examples that come to mind from the pre-relational era include: Read more
|Categories: Application software, Cullinet, McCormack & Dodge, MSA, Pre-relational era, SAP||1 Comment|
This post is part of a short series on the history of analytics, covering:
- Historical notes on analytics — the pre-computer era
- Historical notes on analytic terminology (this post)
- Historical notes on analytics — departmental adoption
Discussions of the history of analytic technology are complicated by the broad variety of product category names that have been used over the decades. So let me collect here in one place some notes on how (and when) various terms have been used, specifically:
- Management information systems
- Decision support (systems)
- Report writer
- Fourth-generation language
- Executive information system
- Business intelligence
- OLAP (OnLine Analytic Processing)
I blogged a little last year about the rewards and challenges of combining professional services and software in a mature company’s business model. My main example was Oracle. But other examples from Oracle’s history might have been equally instructive. For example:
- Oracle started out doing what amounted to custom development for government (military/intelligence) clients.
- Even when Oracle said it had productized its software, the stuff didn’t work very well without services to get it running.
- Oracle and Ingres both got a huge fraction of their early revenue* from deals to port their software to various brands of hardware. That’s a lot like professional services.
- Oracle’s huge Tools Group grew out of professional services, if I have the story straight. Indeed, its first product was written by later long-time group chief Sohaib Abbasi when he was a consultant.