NewsWire Q&A: Harry Sterling

General Manager, Commercial Systems Division

A New GM for the New Year

Harry Sterling has a new job to go with the new year. Only a few months ago Sterling spoke with us in another Q&A, waxing eloquent about the new contact he'd helped establish between customers and his R&D lab engineers. With his promotion to Commercial Systems Division general manager spot on Dec. 22, he gets to promote that Customer First concept, expanding it to improve the value of the HP 3000 in areas outside of his technical experience.

That experience is substantial. Sterling headed up the R&D section of the division for almost a decade, and had worked on MPE/XL migration projects before that. He came to HP with 12 years of experience as an operator, programmer and manager of an IBM data center. Sterling was gracious in acknowledging his technical acumen, pointing out that former GM Rich Sevcik was also a technically-inclined predecessor. Sevcik held a R&D manager post at HP's Network Products Division before coming on as CSY GM, and Sterling noted that division was selling HP 3000 products at the time. But Sterling may be the GM with the most in-depth knowledge of MPE since it became a 32-bit operating system.

While Olivier Helleboid's departure took some in the division by surprise, Sterling's move into management follows his growth at HP during this decade. When we asked for an interview with then-GM Helleboid last summer, Sterling was also present for the Q&A session. His answers were delivered with the deliberate expression of an engineer - analyzing and polishing replies with a direct delivery. Sterling's demeanor on that afternoon suggested leadership beyond the lab. Now he assumes the helm of a division facing a challenging year, with increasing competition for enterprise server sales resulting from HP's growing interest in Windows NT. Unix also remains a better marketed challenger.

Sterling doesn't see either of those alternatives to the HP 3000 as a threat to his division's products. Much like Helleboid, he's glad to sell the HP 3000 as a complement to HP's more-marketed Unix and NT solutions. Sterling is also unabashed about honoring HP 3000 customers' choice of new system - even if that HP computer isn't a 3000.

Well-regarded by the MPE development community, Sterling is known for his listening skills. He can use his information gathering to change his mind dramatically, by some accounts. One creator of MPE products recalled that "Harry has changed his mind before, sometimes dramatically." The developer worked with some of the HP team in the customer focused R&D program and helped set up some visits to customer sites. "I saw Harry change from his questioning stance into the leading proponent of the program," he said. " He does demand hard facts before committing to anything."

While Sterling's "Customer Focus" thinking may have begun with team play, he seems to approach it from his own engineering experience, knowing that no system is the right choice for every business need. How he will make the HP 3000 a better choice during his term, and silence the doubts about its longevity, were the focus of our talk. We didn't observe a lot of change in HP 3000 strategy to accompany the change in the GM's office. We looked for signs that his technical savvy and ease with customers would get the HP 3000 ready for the next century.

How do you think your experiences as CSY's R&D manager will best serve you in your new post?
What I've learned with the customer focus, and how important it is to work closely with customers, will help me most in my new role. I had contact with customers before, but it was in a very different style. What we learned in CSY in the past two years was to be in listening mode rather than tell mode. In the past we had a solution in search of a problem. That's the major change we've made over the last three years, going into listening mode much sooner in the process.

How do you balance that listening mode with a need to advocate a certain solution to the customer?
We're trying to understand the customer and business environments, then making our investment consistent with that. We look across HP and figure out what are the ways we can provide the best solution for the environment.

What changes do you want to make under your management?
I don't really see that we're going to make any major changes. We're going to keep the same structure that we have. We have a good strategy. We're in the midst of our planning process, and I think we'll keep tuning the process as we go.
We are no longer platform-centric. We're not necessarily focused on providing the 3000 as the only part of the solution.

Coming from a division that sells HP platforms, that seems rather unique. Can you think of any other division selling HP systems that isn't platform-centric?
The others aren't as far along in that as we are, but they're certainly trying to move in that direction.

How will you assure customers who are worried about the HP 3000's future now that they're hearing of a 3000-to-9000 HP Conversion Kit?
We've never actually converted a 3000 to a 9000 under one of these arrangements. I do know that we've converted a 9000 to a 3000. The customer chose to go back to the 3000 rather continuing with their 9000 implementation.
This is not something new. We've been doing it for over a year, but it hasn't been on the price list. In the one case I'm familiar with, they felt like if they had this guarantee, it would make the purchasing process easier for them. The issue we're facing is the up-front purchasing decision on HP 3000s. We're finding some MIS directors get hit with a lot of questions about standards when they go to consolidate. This kit is simply a way of making that process easier for them. It became an easier process for the salespeople if they have this kit available.

Do you think this kit will introduce concern in the customer community?
I hope not. We did this because the customers told us it would make it easier for them to purchase HP 3000s.

Since you're helping the GSY division sell systems into your customer's shops with a Conversion Kit, will you push for a similar conversion kit on the price list to convert HP 9000s to HP 3000s?
If the customers tell us that's what they need, then we'll do it. Right now that conversion is a factory special, and we can do that. It's a lot of internal work for us to put it on the Corporate Price List.

What's your goal for your term as CSY leader?
To further improve our ability to work closely with customers and to really execute our plans and strategies. Two years from now when I look back, I'd like to know that we've done the right thing for the customers, and that the customers are still saying that CSY is the best division to work with.

Why do you think they'll be saying that two years from now?
They'll feel the investments made in products offered by CSY were a wise investment, and they won't have any regrets in making those investments.

What do you see as the steps you can take to make that happen?
One of the key steps is for me to work very closely with GSY in terms of integration with our Unix platforms and with NSD in terms of integration with our future NetServer and NT server platforms. We have to be realistic about looking at the environments in the customers' sites and be able to have our products fit very well. That requires that we work very closely with some of our key business partners.

Describe what you'd like to see happen to CSY's development budget during your term. Customers are being told there's limits to HP's resources to work on things like 32-bit ODBC drivers for IMAGE or b-tree indexes.
I think that's true of every R&D organization, don't you? Aren't there always more good ideas than there are people to work on them?

Well, there don't seem to be enough resources to meet the demands of customers asking for those projects.
If you talked to some of GSY's customers and found out what they want in terms of new features, you'd get a similar answer: we're not able to do everything as quickly as customers would like.

The bottom line is that every division's customers are always going to want more than the division can develop?

Nevertheless, there are some fundamental features that have been available on HP-UX systems that seem to be stuck in the MPE/iX development process: compilers that can be fine-tuned for different versions of PA-RISC; DCE capability that's bundled into HP-UX but comes at an extra cost to MPE/iX customers. Would you like to see a bigger development budget to meet some of those demands?
Development budgets are set in direct relation to revenue. How much money our customers spend with us will determine how much we can afford to invest in R&D. That's the bottom line. One of our corporate objectives is profitability, and every division is held to a profit objective.

How's CSY's profitability compared to GSY's?
That's not something I can answer. We are both profitable, but I can't be more specific than that. It's a matter of degree and volume.

How will you change the role of ISO engineers in CSY projects - in what new areas do you plan to make use of this resource?
I was responsible for setting up that whole relationship when I was R&D manager, so there are no plans to change anything. The plan is that they are an extension of our R&D organization and we will use them wherever they can add value. The one thing I do want to do is to get them more involved with customers. I'd like to take advantage of the fact they're on the other side of the ocean and get them more involved with European customers.

Are you satisfied with the core competencies CSY is demonstrating in its database technology today?
There's certainly more that we could be doing. It's a question of prioritization and investment levels we're able to make. We are not a database company or a database division. We are attempting to provide a total solution for our customers. When we come across a customer need we will look at all existing products in combination with future investments. We want to balance all that to come up with the best solution for the customers.

Does the fact that 80 percent of your customer base uses IMAGE have an impact on that decision to not be a database company? Your predecessor admitted that databases were a core competency, particularly of CSY's. Do you have the same opinion?
Absolutely. IMAGE/SQL is a core competency and part of our solution. And we're going to continue making those investments.

What's your view on the value of b-tree indexing in IMAGE/SQL and TurboImage? Will you commit development resources to creating a basic-level version of this feature to include in HP's databases?
We're currently evaluating that, and I don't want to make a comment on that right now. We'll be making an announcement on that in the next few months.

Do you think HP 3000 customers are satisfied with HP's database functionality and co-existence? What are the customers telling you in listening mode?
Yes. The VARs are very pleased with the work we've done with SQL on IMAGE. I was in Atlanta talking with one of our channel partners, and they are trying to move their product to use the SQL rather than IMAGE interfaces so they can be more portable and offer their product on Unix in the future. They want us to do continued work with performance improvements. We're going to work with them to better understand how we can tune the SQL interfaces.
There are other examples where we're working with customers to understand what we need to do with IMAGE itself - where they're not using SQL. We're going to keep working with the customers, working through SIGIMAGE, very actively to understand what the future needs are and continue to make those investments.

Do you believe that MPE/iX can deliver performance equal to HP-UX without a 64-bit revision?
Yes. The real issue with a 64-bit version of MPE/iX is not so much performance as it is scalability. We're finding that our larger customers are becoming concerned about putting all of their applications on a single box. In some cases they're looking to move to more of a cluster environment, so they don't have quite the risk of failure of having all of their users off the system. We're trying to understand if it's better for us to continue to scale up in terms of the size of the box, or would we be better suited to work more on a clustering technology - like Shareplex - in making that a better solution. You could increase performance by adding a new cluster.

But on a system-to-system comparison, isn't a version of HP-UX tuned for 64 bits going to run faster than MPE/iX version that's not tuned for 64 bits?
No, because the clock cycle is still the same. What 64 bits gives you is larger addressing. As long as we can continue to gain the performance improvements of the faster chip, we'll continue to scale performance-wise. We may not be able to have as many users on the system or be able to run as many applications as you could with full 64-bit implementation. It's not clear that's the direction our customers want to go. That may not be the for the mission-critical environment.

You're hearing customers tell you they want their mission-critical environments to be more distributed and start to rely on clusters?
Exactly. We had one in particular that had done a consolidation onto a single box and now they're backing off to two boxes, because of a problem in doing backups and in doing system maintenance. Two boxes gives them more flexibility in shifting their users between them.

This is a change from the traditional MPE/iX advantage of carrying more users and more applications on a single system than Unix alternatives.
We may not want to go any higher than where our capacities are already. We may now want to move toward clustering technology. Maybe 2,000 users is enough.

Wouldn't the HP 3000 benefit from having a larger address space? There are already people who need a greater file size on the system.
That would be the only area that we would actually have an advantage today by using 64 bits. We actually do have internal 64-bit addressing already in MPE. We may begin to evolve, and as we need to change limits we may start to slowly start using 64-bit addressing. It's not going to be a massive, one-shot project for us. It will be more of an evolutionary transition. As we need some new capability that 64 bits may give us, we might do that.

If you started working on it immediately, how soon could you deliver a 64-bit version of MPE/iX?
We're not going to have a massive 64-bit conversion. We'll evolve as we need to take advantage of that. Right now I'm not sure we know where we need to use 64-bit and where we wouldn't.

Are we still looking at a major release with significant new functionality every year or so?
About every nine to 12 months. We're still looking at platform releases every 18 to 24 months. We're already planning the release after 5.5.

What's your goal for new installations of HP 3000s?
I don't have a specific goal other than to continue working with our strategic VARs and VABs, which is primarily how we sell our systems.

What do you see as the essential, can't-be-duplicated advantages of owning an HP 3000?
One clear differentiator is ease of use. It's still much easier to use a 3000 than a Unix solution.
I'd like to think it's the relationship that customers have with CSY more so than the platform. Our objective is to have the customers believe when they spend their dollar on an HP 3000 they're getting the most for that dollar. It's a matter of protection investment and lasting value. Our customers don't see that when they purchase another platform. If our GSY friends get to that level, then I think our customers win overall.

What changes do you want to make to communicate these advantages to new customers and those who are defending their 3000s to upper management?
We're always looking for ways to get the message out to customers, to have a two-way dialog. I'll continue to keep the organization focused on customer contact and communication.

What areas of business computing do you want to see the HP 3000 become stronger in during your term?
Co-existence, to have the 3000 exist in whatever evolving environment the customers have in their business climate. We haven't done a lot yet to understand from the R&D side what coexistence means from an NT perspective.

Will coexistence bring the 3000 into shops where it's not installed today?
It could, by working with some our VARs who are positioning their solutions to a new customer. If their customers know the new 3000 solution could easily link into their existing environment, it could be a real advantage.

Can you make a case for a single-user, development HP 3000 priced for small companies to use in building MPE/iX applications? This would be a system bundled with a development environment much like SoftBench, priced in the same range as an HP-UX workstation.
No. I'd rather work with those companies individually, to try to come up with a kind of deal that would let them have that kind of capability at the lowest cost possible. If we tried to use a Unix workstation as a platform, there's no NIO bus for us to have I/O with, so we'd have to write all new I/O drivers for the peripherals that would be integrated in the box. We'd have to leverage an existing box. It would be a huge investment for a very small payback. I don't think the cost of the development platform is an issue.

What steps do you want to take to increase the number of HP 3000 host applications during your term?
We're attempting to make the 3000 as flexible as possible, to meet the needs from both Unix and MPE directions. Our coexistence strategy does provide the customer with the applications they need, without having to change their current environment. The installed base is growing today, because we have very strong third party VABs selling new applications to new customers.
We're not being real successful in terms of attracting new applications, and it doesn't have anything to do with the platform itself. It has to do with the VARs ability to support multiple platforms. That's why we've moved to the coexistence strategy. We're done our work in the past couple of years in trying to attract many new applications to the 3000. The bottom line issue for a VAR is what's the largest market opportunity for them to sell their solution, and how much does it cost for them to support their product on multiple platforms.
Even though we have made the 3000 compatible in terms of portability, it's not a platform that most large application vendors are willing to support. They're even limiting the number of Unix platforms they're supporting.

What's the most damaging myth about the HP 3000 you want to dispel during your term as General Manager?
That the 3000 is going away. That's the myth that I want to go away. I want customers to believe and know that when they buy a 3000 it's a good, wise decision when it's best suited to meet their needs. We in CSY and HP are going to be here to support them well into the future, to ensure their purchase is of lasting value and that they can evolve to the future, whatever that is.

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