May 2, 2011
In my column Wednesday, I likened HP's new CEO, Leo Apotheker, to former CEO Carly Fiorina. In retrospect, I should have noted that I wasn't just making a flip comparison; my column was a visceral reaction to a presentation and executive performance I have seen all too often at HP, having spent 17 years at the company, most of it as an IT engineer and architect.
During my HP days, I witnessed firsthand Fiorina's lofty pronouncements touting HP's greatness, innovative past, and unique position in the tech industry. All HP employees wanted to believe that here was, finally, an agressive new CEO who would unleash those assets, lead HP in bold new directions, and yes, to paraphrase Apotheker, beat the you-know-what out of the competition. As we sadly found out, it was all just hot air then -- and this latest strategic buildup and subsequent letdown were dj vu all over again. HP shouldn't be surprised that Apotheker's every word and PowerPoint slide are being held under a microscope. For months, the company has been deflecting strategy questions at quarterly meetings and analyst briefings, saying "It's coming, it's coming." But when the moment of truth arrived, in the form of Apotheker's much-hyped strategy summit address on March 14, we got little more than pabulum. Hence my Fiorina comparison. Now, of course these events always involve a certain amount of bloviation, and during its strategy summit, HP wheeled out a number of other executives who went into far more product detail. And all CEOs paint visions of how their companies are at exactly the right place to be at the center of the universe right now. When Fiorina came on board, I remember eagerly watching her many teleconference announcements, beamed onto big screens in the company cafeteria, and even seeing her a few times in person as she visited the Boise site. Invariably, my colleagues and I thought, wow, what a breath of fresh air. It wasn't until a couple of years later, amid telltale signs of megalomania (like replacing Bill's and Dave's portraits in the lobbies with her own and upgrading the company aircraft fleet with a couple of top-of-the-line Gulfstreams) that we realized it was all about building the Fiorina, not the HP, brand. We saw initiatives like e-Speak, Cooltown, and e-utilica heralded as revolutionary technologies destined to position HP as the leader in the Internet age, only to have them wither and die. When I see Apotheker spout the same sort of vague bromides, I can't help but think HP's got itself a new naked emperor. As to my relationship with HP, it's true I'm an alum, but I hold no negative predisposition -- or stock. I've even bought some HP hardware on my own dime since leaving the company. I really hope HP can succeed, but it can't seem to get focused. It's trying to be all things to all people, playing in every market from phones and laptops to mainframes (Superdome) and IT services, and the end result has been a lot of me-too, good-enough-but-hardly-take-your-breath-away products. I see nothing (yet) that leads me to believe that's going to change under Apotheker. In fact, I can visualize him making things worse, chasing golden software and cloud rainbows while letting his hardware cash cows starve. As the sad history of HP's last few CEOs demonstrates, it still has a problem with "that vision thing."
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