Down To Business: Oh, CA: Don't Let Change Dull Your Edge
I bumped into computer Associates Communications VP Bob Gordon at the Interop show in Las Vegas. It was 1998, during my first tour with InformationWeek. COO Sanjay Kumar was at the show, and Gordon invited me to interview him later that afternoon.
When I arrived at CA's reception suite, Gordon and CA's marketing chief at the time, Paul Lancey, escorted me to my audience with Kumar. "You [bleepin'] people," was Kumar's less-than-cordial greeting, as he extended his index finger precariously close to my chest.
The short of it was that Kumar held InformationWeek accountable for CA's poor showing in a comparative product review that had run in our sister publication Network Computing. "Guilt by association" was Kumar's retort after I explained that InformationWeek wasn't a party to the offending review. With Lancey playing good cop and Gordon looking on in disbelief, Kumar and I agreed to disagree on this matter and moved on to a more productive conversation. But the message from the top was clear: Don't mess with CA.
I may not have appreciated Kumar's tactics back then, but I do miss the old CA. Blunt. In your face. Viewed the world in black and white. While today's big software companies are country-club polished, the old CA rumbled about with its shirttail hanging out.
If you're a longtime CA customer, you probably have your own war stories to relate (please do!), and you're probably not as enamored of the old CA as I am. For me, its epic personality was a source of fascination, not to mention juicy news. For too many customers, its overbearing nature was a source of frustration.
But let's also remember that Charles Wang and Russ Artzt built a software company started on credit cards into one valued at $45 billion at its peak in 2000. You don't get that big over 25 years by just bludgeoning customers, even if the company did play fast with the sales numbers toward the end of its meteoric rise.
Wang retired in 2002 under a cloud of legal and regulatory investigations, but Artzt remains as executive VP of CA's products group, which includes the mainframe software line that put the company on the map. Give Artzt credit for just surviving: 23 of his senior executive peers either left CA or were shown the door by new management over the past three years.
Artzt, while acknowledging the old CA's dysfunctional sales and financial management and incoherent long-term planning, insists the new CA must embrace the best of its past. The old CA not only watched every dime, but it also could turn on a dime. "We were always ready to take risks," he says. "We don't want to lose that. We always had a sense of urgency."
During his 25 years at CA, Wang, the pugnacious Chinese immigrant, set the no-nonsense tone. In our April 5, 1993, cover story, "No More Mr. Bad Guy," InformationWeek revealed a kinder, gentler Wang, but he never did shake his reputation as a ruthless negotiator and cost-cutter.
Wang, who still faces shareholder lawsuits, has distanced himself from CA over the past several years. But he's not done tilting at windmills elsewhere. As part owner of the NHL's New York Islanders, he once pushed the coaching staff to consider playing a Sumo wrestler in goal. As a maverick real estate developer, Long Island's most famous billionaire has snapped up much of the commercial district of tony Oyster Bay, much to the angst of the locals. The 60-story tower he proposed to erect in nearby Uniondale would have stood five times as high as any other building in the county. Say what you want about the man, he still thinks big and unconventionally.
John Swainson, the former IBMer who took the reins of CA 16 months ago, isn't the same larger-than-life character. But as Swainson remakes the company Wang built into a more respectable and productive citizen (see our cover story, About Face), let's hope he doesn't blunt all of its old-school edge.
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