Staying Focused

There's no room for error in enterprise software today, CEO Conway says

Darrell Dunn, Contributor

January 30, 2004

4 Min Read

PeopleSoft Inc. CEO Craig Conway has some advice for students planning for the future: Learn as much as possible about business, technology, and Mandarin. "If you get a strong background in those three things, you'll be able to participate in the future," he says.

Mandarin? An ecosystem in the United States that allowed the country to dominate the technology industry is being duplicated successfully in places like China and India, Conway says. Restrictive domestic legislation, increased taxes, and mandated employee-compensation initiatives have made it increasingly difficult for technology businesses to succeed in the United States, he says.

Legislation and taxes are driving companies offshore, Conway says

"While the [United States] is subsidizing tobacco farmers, China is providing R&D subsidies for technology, has great universities and technology graduates, and a capital market that doesn't require that stock options be expensed," Conway says. "They have over time recreated the magic formula that the United States had to achieve success in technology."

Still, Conway believes that technology will always provide a competitive advantage to businesses that know how to capitalize on it, and he's optimistic that the United States can continue to play a major role in the high-tech industry. "The United States sometimes takes a while to recognize forces that are at work," he says. "And yet, once we recognize them, we have a great history of being able to recover and capitalize, and my hope is we'll be able to do that here."

As for PeopleSoft, Conway admits that "the last couple of years have been a grind." The bad economy and Oracle's hostile takeover attempt could have caused the company to become more conservative. Instead, it invested for the future.

The most significant move was its $1.8 billion acquisition last year of rival software vendor J.D. Edwards & Co. and subsequent integration effort. Pulling the trigger on major opportunities and innovative programs is what continues to make running PeopleSoft rewarding, he says.

But Conway also thinks about the deals that didn't take place. "We have way more ideas than we have resources to pursue them all," he says. "Every night, I toss and turn on how to fund creative approaches to enterprise software. When I look back at what we've accomplished each year, I regret the things not done."

Conway believes the unsolicited takeover bid made by Oracle was intended to disrupt his company's efforts to integrate J.D. Edwards. That didn't work, he says, and he calls the takeover bid a dead issue.

But consolidation will remain a fact of life in the enterprise software market. "Requirements are so demanding today that only the strongest of companies can meet those needs," he says.

PeopleSoft will be one of those companies, he says, because it has a global capability with worldwide customer support, is able to operate with multiple currencies and multiple languages, and can meet legislative requirements around the world, whether it's Sarbanes-Oxley in the United States or other rules in Europe.

"If you look back 10 years ago, it was a much more forgiving world. Requirements were lower, and the risks and rewards weren't as dramatic," Conway says. "Today, there's no room for error. But the basic premise is the same: showing customers how technology can allow their business to create a competitive advantage."

PeopleSoft will continue to do that by listening to customers and innovating. "I'm always reminded of the famous quote from 1929 that 'Everything that can be invented has been invented,'" Conway says. "When someone proclaims that the age of innovation is over, it's a sign of age."

While work is rewarding, Conway tries to spend as much time as he can with his wife of 23 years and their two children, ages 13 and 11, at their lakeside vacation home or their house on the beach. "Working is a different kind of exhilaration than sitting in the back of a ski boat with my kids, but I wouldn't trade either one. Frankly, if you don't enjoy your work, you should find something you do enjoy."

One of the other things Conway loves to do is visit customer sites and see how PeopleSoft technology is helping improve their business. "It's energizing to see how a FedEx or UPS package couldn't get from point A to point B without PeopleSoft," he says. "Or how banks couldn't complete their transactions."

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