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April 2003

The best play: swinging away at the future

NewsWire Editorial

Springtime is a season of hope renewed, and no place breeds hope better than baseball’s spring training. So we went south, my younger brother and I, to find the warmth that flows from our sibling rivalry. More than 30 years ago Bob and I celebrated baseball as boys, teenagers who knew everything, including who was rooting for the better team. Our competition for bragging rights between Bob’s Oakland A’s and my Cincinnati Reds in 1972 was a heady outlet for the jostling you could expect between two boys born only 15 months apart.

More than a quarter-century of seasons later I invited Bob to share the sport’s redoubtable exercise in hope, spring training in the persistent sunshine of Florida. Those diamonds sparkled with the same caliber of potential that I watched unfold a few weeks later, in a less-sunny Valley Forge at the e3000 Solutions Symposium.

Around both parks — those on the Florida peninsula, and just outside the National Historical Park at the hotel where the Valley Forge 3000 conference was held — possibilities hung as thick as those fluffy clouds that swarm through Florida’s springtime skies. In baseball this month, and in the 3000 market this year, it’s evident that it’s still very early in the season. Almost anything seems possible, with a very few exceptions.

You can eliminate a few outcomes. Tampa Bay’s Devil Rays, who arrive at this season with a payroll less than a tenth as big as the Yankees, probably won’t finish any higher than last. HP, which has bulked up its commodity business while constantly paring down its headcount, won’t be changing its mind about leaving the HP 3000 business.

For a few days last month, however, a wild rumor floated through part of the community: HP might see an error in its 3000 ways. I heard this from people who qualify as skeptics, as well as those who see HP’s presence in the 3000 world as an association of declining benefit. I considered the rumor just as unlikely as seeing that Devil Rays club hit their way past my Reds in a B-squad game, one that was the high point of my spring training tour. Sure, it seems possible, but only until you watch what’s out there on the diamond, taking its hacks at the plate.

I stood close enough to reach out and touch those Reds at that game, awed by the power and speed and grace of professional athletes. Baseball is a tough game to master. While Bob and I were in Florida, USA Today proclaimed that hitting a major league fastball was the hardest thing to do in all of sports. Watching with only a 30-inch fence and a narrow stripe of gravel between me and those players, I gained a new respect for the magic of connecting the ball with the bat. We stood really close to the action. That ball travels faster than even I imagined. Yet the Reds pounded the Tampa Bay pitching that afternoon, and I smiled brighter than the sun pouring onto the palm trees in center field.

A B-squad in baseball is made up of the players who don’t start, but often fill in during the season. Spring training is all about evaluating these kinds of prospects. Some might say that an HP 3000 emulator, or a virtual MPE lab outside of HP, are the same kind of hopeful concepts. Both are waiting to prove themselves, and I sat close enough to those prospects in Valley Forge to imagine a year when HP would be finished with MPE, but customers would still be playing in that seasoned field.

In Florida Bob and I watched those backup players for both teams, pretending to be like the managers and coaches evaluating talent. Who’s ready to move up, get a better shot at a starting position? And who’s worn out, bringing faded skills to the field after more sunny seasons? Such are the questions managers and coaches must answer while they watch B-squad contests.

My partner Abby and I observed the same kind of watchful assessments during our days in Valley Forge, as IT managers pondered the possibilities of using database transformation tools to migrate, or eyed the potential of emulators to keep using the HP 3000 indefinitely. Hope, the kind that floats unreasonable rumors like HP’s reversal, is building around the idea that the customers can swing their MPE bats into more games than HP is willing to play. I saw the same kind of hope in the eyes of fellow Reds fans in Florida, as we all trained nearly as much scrutiny on Ken Griffey, Jr. We watched to see if the famous superstar would have a better year than his last two.

I liked what I saw on baseball diamonds in places like Sarasota and Winter Haven, where Griffey, a player who’s been injured a lot, looked healthy, and more important, happy. Assessing a player’s humor, ill or otherwise, was easier in spring training than in a visit to a regular season game. Everybody’s closer, the players are more relaxed, less guarded.

Abby and I found the same environment in Valley Forge at a modestly-attended Symposium: fewer managers meant each encounter could be more authentic, less hurried. People had time to talk, instead of rushing off across a vast conference hall to another session, or threading the maze of a crowded exhibit space.

Some people who attend spring training want to believe that what they see on Florida diamonds will dictate the state of the teams. Until I got to that little fence, I didn’t understand that the crucial word in spring training is training. Baseball is hard, so its skills must be rebuilt carefully each year. Physical abilities erode or emerge in all athletes, a lot like the development and project management skills that are surfacing in a 3000 community that is now spreading its wings.

A lot of talent has been cut loose by HP and its business partners in the 3000 space over the last year. A project like a migration — challenging and with a 35 percent failure rate — demands a fluency with the 3000 as well as experience with changing platforms. Companies who are moving away from their 3000s are lucky so many experts have become available in a stalled economy.

Baseball is not as lucky at the moment. In spring training you see athletes who will never master major league skills, trying to prove themselves. Managers are hungry for big league talent, though, so they arrive each spring with hope. Some unknowns are the all-stars of the future, but a lot more show up and strike out, or watch their best pitch sail into those palms. There’s a lot of baseball teams, and not nearly enough pitching talent.

Homesteaders are much luckier than major league managers. The skills to keep a 3000 running are a better-known commodity with a higher success rate than migration. Not even the Platinum partners can deny that. What they are pointing out is that there’s risk in remaining in a market where the vendor is removing its talent and resources. The observation is compelling, and some companies are already set on eliminating their HP 3000s.

A surprising number of those at Valley Forge were still making up their minds, or reluctant to pronounce themselves migrators. A homesteading talk on the first day out-drew three migration sessions. Some might blame a stale economy, now hampered by war jitters, forcing a longer-term timetable for migration than your vendor first imagined. I’ll leave it to political wags to search for any similarities with regime-busting efforts. Nobody was debating the war in Valley Forge. There were battles a-plenty to be analyzed in IT shops, where resources can be as hard-earned as any scratch single off a blazing fastball. Just because something is hard doesn’t always mean its not worth an honest effort — whether it’s staying on a platform about to be liberated from its vendor, or finding the freedom in open systems based on Unix.

Winning at baseball seems simpler by comparison, but it totes its risks. Everything has risks, balanced by rewards. It’s too early to tell yet which transition path holds greater risk, but the answer might not matter. I believe swinging away today is more important than choosing which side of the plate you will bat from. Getting into the game and taking a risk — for migration or homesteading — looks like the best play for today. Join OpenMPE now, while it’s free. Get a migration assessment, while they’re free. Both will cost more later. Make some contact with somebody’s pitch. One favorite baseball saying of mine is “You can’t steal second base with your foot planted on first.” Take that first step toward the future, even if it’s a small one.

— Ron Seybold 

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