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October 2000

Founders free their offspring to fly further

NewsWire Editorial

Founders enjoy great rewards, but time carries some pain for them, too. This month I bade my young son Nick farewell as he started his adult journey, leaving Austin’s sultry coziness for the crisp bite of Buffalo. Nick is serving as a volunteer in the AmeriCorps program during his time just after high school, a period the British call the Gap Year. And it seems like HP has been having a gap year as well, after graduating from Bill and Dave’s company to whatever it will be next.

It’s not clear where Nick’s path lies, just as it’s not certain what kind of company Hewlett-Packard will become in the next few years. At one point while he was in school, I believed there was a chance he’d be in journalism. Now he’s experimenting with law enforcement, working as an AmeriCorps Street Ranger at Buffalo Place, extra security for a downtown commerce area. He hopes to discover if police work is his passion, after developing a yen for being a detective.

Watching my great young man leave the town where he was born was not easy for me. At the moment of our parting, I was overcome with sadness, wrapping his broad shoulders in my arms and weeping those tears that are part of departure. I cheered his choice, though, because he now enters the part of his life where adventure is essential. And he is becoming someone I admire, making happiness his central tent pole in the circus of life.

Making changes grows anybody up, so long as they do not lose their foundations on the upward path. I remember clearly the days when I was the greatest figure in Nick’s life, wallowing in the heroism of Dadhood. Now I am just the Founder in his life, the man who delivered the first push on his swing though boyhood. Like HP 3000 customers, I am watching as others become more prominent in his life: his new roommates Mike, Kevin and Nick.

I think of them, sometimes, as the HP-UX, NT and Linux of my life. These three relative newcomers play a much bigger role in HP’s life as a corporation than the HP 3000. And those three college boys in the Buffalo house on Hughes Avenue are more of a force in Nick’s life. The other three environments don’t change MPE’s status as the founding environment for HP’s computer business. Mike, Kevin and Nick don’t alter my role as founder of Nick’s life. But hearing about them all the time takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?

The rewards of being a founder are obvious. You know that if not for the risk and sacrifice and effort, something marvelous — like a young man starting as a volunteer, headed for public service — wouldn’t be the same, or even exist. HP 3000 customers know that if MPE and the IMAGE database hadn’t succeeded, the company’s tilt into RISC and subsequent expansion would never have happened.

But relying on historic achievements is a risky way toward validation. Just as I can’t insist on attention from Nick because I am his founding father, it seems risky for the 3000 community to linger on its founding accomplishments and insist on equal billing. Companies, like families, have to grow. In time Nick will find a woman he loves enough to marry, and I hope he has my good fortune: to have a best friend as a mate.

As founders of the NewsWire, Abby and I celebrate our accomplishment again this month, the start of our sixth year. While it’s a happy time, it’s more significant for us and our close business partners than for the rest of the 3000 community. The act of founding is as much a promise as an accomplishment — people find it easier to relate to what you’re doing, instead of what you’ve already done.

I believe that’s the same approach HP’s top echelon is taking toward the HP 3000 these days. The company’s capos — its CEO, sales president and computing technology president — are all aware of how the 3000 founded HP’s computing success. But their relationship with the company’s most loyal customers is based on today’s successes and limitations, I learned. In speaking with two presidents while at HP World, I learned they see the 3000 business not as it was, or as it might be, but as it is today.

Their attention is drawn more easily to what others are talking about, asking for, inquiring about. When Superdome was announced in the week of HP World, the 3000 advocates held their breath, waiting for a mention of MPE/iX during the rollout. The CEO, speaking before the business press in New York rather than the technical press in Philadelphia, took a more literal approach. She had no direct knowledge this big HP iron would work with MPE, and didn’t mention it alongside NT, Linux and HP-UX.

Nick’s life is much more dominated by the plans and wishes of Kevin, Mike and Nick this month. That’s some of the pain of founding: realizing that if you succeed, something you create can add things to its life, and your influence can be subtracted. The essence of inception is always there, though. Creating a son meant sending him on his journey with a tear-stained hug, and wishing him luck in his new alliances.

Creating a computing business for HP by making the 3000 an enduring success might mean something similar. This legendary community might have to accept its role: as a founding environment that HP will never abandon. It remains to be seen if Hewlett-Packard will ever strive to grow its 3000 business like it did before it met NT, Linux and HP-UX.

Those lazy afternoons of basketball, shooting pool and playing board games might be long behind me in my time with Nick. I am happy in knowing I gave him the best I had in foundation, while I feel the pain of his departure. HP 3000 customers have an easier path, because while their relationship may have changed with HP, but they are no more distant than they ever were. The 3000 has never been on the lips of HP’s top corporate officers, not in the 16 years I have covered the company.

Perhaps watching the newer players take attention is driving the 3000 community’s desire to be noticed. Growth of business is essential, but it reminds me of great trees, the greatest in the forest. No tree grows tall as fast as it does in its beginning. In time it becomes mature, leafs out and extends its roots to others, part of a bigger community. Few 3000s operate now in exclusive environments. Their ability to exchange makes them essential in a way that standalone technical superiority cannot.

Watching the HP 3000 division tend to the platform is the most encouraging measure of its potential. Inside a company that has products with lifespans of days, a small band of faithful experts is growing your next generation of this platform. This is the fourth decade in which the 3000 is helping companies make a contribution to our society. I can’t foresee the final one, given the platform’s ability to adapt and embrace.

When I miss the close contact with my boy, I think of how much he will contribute to the world in the years to come. Maybe just close friendships to bring joy to someone’s life who I don’t know. Perhaps something with more reach, like public service. I believe we must give the things which we found a way to grow beyond us, to reach out and do more than we imagine. That’s the kind of future I see the 3000 as founding for HP.

Be proud of deploying this founding platform. Abby and I are proud and grateful for our place in its community. The 3000’s place is assured at HP’s table, and that place will not be determined by executives’ imaginations. Customers determine such things, a fact firmly at the foundation of HP’s understanding.

— Ron Seybold 


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