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Chuck Piercey

Executive Director



The Chief of Evolution

Chuck Piercey is dancing with those who brought his user group to the floor — but the partners and steps are more complex than ever. The executive director of the worldwide HP users group celebrated his tenth anniversary as leader of the 25-year-old organization, the longest tenure of any director in its history. Piercey manages the staff and the execution of Interex, working with a series of volunteer board members voted in on three-year terms. In this continual change of Interex leadership, Piercey has been the constant for the last decade.

He came to the position with no direct experience in managing an association, but Interex pursued him relentlessly in 1989. With a mechanical engineer’s degree and an MBA from Stanford, Piercey worked at Silicon Valley firm Ultek during the first 20 years of his career, managing at a company that was purchased by semiconductor maker Perkin-Elmer. As he describes it, the middle section of his career was being the founding partner of three startups, and doing turnaround management at the bidding of venture capitalists. He was doing his own business consulting when Interex won him to its mission in March of 1990.

Piercey took over at an association facing as much of a transition as HP itself in the 1990s. The group’s roots and its volunteer strength lay in the 3000 community, but HP’s attention was being focused on the world of Unix. Platform-specific user groups were under siege in the middle of the decade, as even the thousands-strong Unix-specific Uniforum group eventually withered away. But Interex persevered, forming a tighter coupling with the changing HP and broadening its focus to match the vendor’s. The group’s user show and publication were both renamed as HP World, and the conference was recently ranked as one of the best in a Computerworld survey.

Piercey’s leadership has steered the user group representing HP though some interesting times and changes. Last year the group failed to gather enough votes to elect a new board of directors, and so changed its bylaws to enable the elected board to appoint directors. Internet opportunities have emerged in other places for the 3000 community with the strength of the 3000-L newsgroup and now 3kworld, but the user group launched its own 3000 Web pages and remains a resource for 3000 advocacy in the power of its Special Interest Groups. Last month the organization gave notice it will turn its HP World show on a dime over the next year — hosting the 2000 event in September and coming right back in May of 2001 for the next outing. Sharing of 3000 information happens in many ways unrelated to this user group today, and a good deal of its effort is to stay relevant in a world that cares less about a specific platform’s issues every day. We wanted to ask Piercey how Interex is managing the changes in the world of HP and the 3000 as he begins his second decade with the group.

How has the role of a vendor-specific user group changed in a world where HP 3000 customers use many vendors’ solutions?

Running this association today is a totally different world than when I walked in here in 1990. But when you back off in a broad sense, what the HP 3000 customers want is the same thing that started the association 25 years ago: customer-biased information and education to enable them to be professionally successful; communication with peers; and a voice to influence the vendor. Those high level things don’t change, but the content and mechanisms for delivery have to change every six months in order to survive.

The proliferation of platforms — 75 percent of our members have multiple platforms — means that they have less time to focus specifically on HP or any other vendor. They’re into issues like interoperability, Webifying, the whole Internet experience. They don’t have the luxury of focusing on the HP 3000 like they did 10 years ago. We have less mindshare, and have to be more effective with the mindshare we do have. It squeezes the value proposition: you have to deliver more value cheaper and faster. What they really want is a wise filtering of information.

Part of the squeezing of information is exacerbated by the Internet. What impact has the Internet had on Interex in disseminating HP 3000 help?

The Internet has made things possible like our new Web site, HP 3000 Online: a focused place where you put up daily news, links and information. It’s also making possible chat rooms, that kind of activity. The Internet has reduced the need for the old CSL tape per se. That’s because the [computer systems] now have higher functionality and are more reliable; you don’t have the same need for the customer to write routines to help everyone along.

In spite of all the Web stuff out there, we’re still in a stage of transition for forms of communication. People still want to get a hard-copy publication like our Enterprise Solutions. That could all be done on the Web and we could save a ton of money. Some 20 percent of the people out there might say “That’s fine. Do that and lower the cost.” But that’s not everybody yet. The Internet is an addition. It enables you to do things you couldn’t do before, but it doesn’t mean other things go away completely. People still like to carry a magazine into the bathroom. It’s pretty hard to carry a Web page into the bathroom!

The other thing it’s impacted is SIG meetings. You go to great expense to gather people for face-to-face feedback to Hewlett-Packard. HP will tell you they feel like over the Internet they can get constant feedback on a daily or weekly basis. They don’t need to have an annual or semiannual meeting with a group of gurus representing a particular SIG to get the information they need. It still goes on because there’s an element of face-to-face discussion you can’t get by e-mail, or on 3000-L. It certainly has lessened HP’s interest in putting out a whole lot of money to meet customers.

Is HP’s reluctance to spend evident in a conference like HP World, or just the more technical meetings?

I’m not talking about feedback to the marketing people. The SIG activity is not feedback to people responsible for selling stuff. I mean the dialogue with the lab and development people. The Internet means they have a constant source of information, and they don’t have the need to send a dozen of the HP people to a SIG meeting to get the word. They almost do the SIG meetings now out of politeness.

You had a lot of success in blending an intimate SIG meeting and a new show in the Solution Symposium this year. Why did you make the change to two events?

The genesis of the need to make that change came slowly, but the genesis was because of the Internet. HP felt like IPROF was one big long SIG meeting, and it took a lot of HP’s time to sit through three days of meetings to pick up what they needed to know. Because of the Internet, they felt like they didn’t need it anymore. We listened to HP and to the people coming to the conference and created two things instead of one. HP only provided about eight people for the Symposium who were there for any extended period of time. In the SIG meetings, they only had one person per meeting. We served twice as many people between the two meetings this year as we did in last year’s [IPROF], and it didn’t cost us any more money.

Can something like the SIG meeting which turns no profit continue to thrive in the Interex calendar?

Yes, yes, yes, in capital letters! Our first priority is to serve the community. Our second priority is to remain financially viable to continue to serve the community. Not everything we do has to make a profit; just enough things so as a totality we are viable. There are things we do in the advocacy area that are not viable financially. We spend a half million dollars a year there that is supported by the other stuff we do. We perceive advocacy as a prime reason for our existence. If we have to pay for it with conference profit, so be it.

Do you foresee a future where face-to-face meetings won’t be needed in the 3000 community because of the Internet?

No, although I won’t be quite as emphatic to use capital letters. I believe the Internet will change what goes on in a conference. But the need to talk to face-to-face with other professionals facing similar challenges will not be replaced by the Web. I think there’s an aspect of the relationships developed face-to-face that provide a level of trust, so you can continue to utilize the Web more effectively. E-mail and Web are much more effective if you have actually met once a year the person you’re communicating with.

You’ve moved those meetings of your annual North American conference to the spring time frame for 2001. Why?

Many of the HP World conference dates fell in August, which is a blackout period for HP product announcements because of the July holiday tradition in Europe. Major products would be announced in June, and then zippo would be announced at our conference in August. The other thing we experienced is the August-September timeframe for HP World was very close to HP’s third and fourth quarter. Invariably what happens is they get close to the end of their fiscal year and are coming up short financially, they do travel restrictions. At the last minute some person you were counting on to come to HP World from HP couldn’t come because they couldn’t travel.

HP didn’t suggest this, but in working with the marketing people and getting them to commit to the conference earlier than they normally do, we decided for the long run we’d have a better sort of business relationship on that conference if we moved it to the spring time frame. We’ll see if that works or not. We were trying to get more in sync with HP’s marketing and financial cycles.

Moving the show up for 2001 means a fair challenge for your organization, since you’ll have to do two shows in seven months.

We’re already beginning to sweat it. It’s going to be an enormous challenge, and we’re understaffed to pull it off. We’re going to have to bring in more manpower during the critical period. We’ll have to be planning the next show while we’re executing the current show.

Things like open source projects have changed shared software. What kind of extra value can HP 3000 customers find in the Interex Contributed Software Library versus free programs found on the Internet?

The CSL in the context of its original creation is dying or dead. The reliability of the hardware and functionality of the software has become so much more sophisticated. You have the same opportunities to do something quick and simple, share it with everybody else, and everybody wins. I’m just amazed at the number of people who pay us the $595 membership that includes the CSL, and you ask them how it is and they say they haven’t got around to looking at it yet.

Where we see a value-add now is in the Shared Source project, which we host for CSY. They’ve started in a very timid way with Editor, Query and the TurboIMAGE class libraries. We’re working with Jeff Vance, Randy Roten and Mike Yawn. There’s a way to check stuff out and check it back in. So far there’s more check outs than check ins. We’re moving to phase two with a list of 15 to 25 candidates, of which HP will pick a few.

To participate in Shared Source with CSY, you don’t have to be an Interex member, right?

No, you don’t. But I’d say for those that still use the CSL, we supply it on a CD now. Many companies still won’t let people download software off the Internet.

Interex changed its board makeup last year to add more appointed directors. What was the objective of this change?

The objective was to enable the board to proactively seek board members experienced in emerging and future technologies, or emerging business areas. People who got 10 signatures and ran tended to be those associated with RUGs for quite awhile. They were experienced in the roots of the association like the 3000, but not experienced in NT, Linux or other subjects coming down the pike. The board in its planning wished it had people more familiar with that, to guide us about what to be doing about the future as opposed to understanding the past.

During the change some members worried that because there will be more appointed seats than elected seats, the 3000 constituency would be under-represented on the board. Any comment?

It’s difficult enough for people who have come through the volunteer community together to coalesce. How are you going to get four people who don’t know each other and haven’t come though the volunteer system to coalesce? The most appointments were in this first year, with two. After that it’s less per year. In theory the appointed people could control the board, but only if you’re paranoid. If you’re bringing in new people from outside the system, it’s very unlikely they’re going to control something. With Linda Roatch, Barry Breig, Denys Beauchemin and Janet Sharp on the board, in spite of everything we’ve done, the board is more 3000-centric than you would think.

Your marketing materials point out Interex runs the second most popular user group meeting, HP World. What makes it more viable than others?

It’s the bias toward change, both in content and in new areas of interest. The member interest and vendor interest has led us to changes. We are basically controlled by serving our members. We’re running a business, but the business is controlled by the number one objective of serving members. That’s true for the for-profit [conference organizers]. The reason we’re doing better than the IBM or Compaq-DEC user groups is because we much earlier had a board that viewed itself at a strategic level — and we got out of board or volunteers trying to micro-manage the business side of the equation: how you run the conference. Volunteers have to provide the technical input at the right time, but you don’t have to depend on the volunteer to do a specific thing at a specific time. We’re learned that better than our counterparts at IBM or DEC groups.

I can tell you we are sailing a small dinghy, not a loaded oil tanker. We literally feel that if we don’t reinvent ourselves every six months, in terms of what the content should be, then we’d be out of business in a year. All you have to do is think about Uniforum. When I got here they had 32,000 people at their conference, and we had 5,000. But 36 months later Uniforum was gone.

Did the first meeting of the new 3000 Solutions Symposium achieve its objective? How will it continue to evolve?

We feel it was successful based on HP’s response, the number of people who participated and the feedback. We are going to do it again. When we find a button that works, we push it again. We’re going to do it early in the year in 2001, January-February timeframe. We are also investigating distance learning: trying to take some of the content out of the Solutions Symposium or the HP World conference to provide opportunities on the Web for people who can’t attend those things to learn at their own pace for a fee.

Fewer than 600 ballots were cast in your last board election. Can voting on the Internet increase participation?

Ten years ago, 22 percent of the members used to respond. Now we had to lower our [quorum] because we couldn’t get 10 percent [to vote]. It reflects the fact that in the Unix community, we’ve never replicated the passion and involvement of the 3000 community. It will be even harder in the NT community. I don’t think it’s anything we’re doing badly; it’s just a changed world. We’ve already tried to vote by e-mail and the Web, and at the moment it’s not allowed under California law for associations. Our attorney thinks that in a year or two, signature verification stuff will allow us to do it.

Some people see the HP 3000 Internet newsgroup as a user group. Can an “Internet age” user group for the 3000 be run almost entirely from the Internet with more efficiency?

There’s an element of truth in that. The newsgroup serves a need that in the early days the face-to-face meetings served. It does it more efficiently, and at less cost. It’s the kind of thing I wished we would have sponsored.

But there’s room for the newsgroup, 3kworld, the NewsWire, and what we do. We made the transition to survive by broadening beyond the 3000. We didn’t have enough 3000 expertise to fill the needs, so there were opportunities, and the newsgroup, the NewsWire and more recently 3kworld have filled those opportunities. So we figure out what else we can do that can be helpful to the community that those other people aren’t doing.

How can Interex help HP compare the value of owning a 3000 to owning other HP computing environments?

We’ve talked about this, and we’ve reluctantly concluded that is not our role. Maybe a subset of our members want to band together to do that, but it’s not the role. The staff doesn’t have the expertise to do that, and we can’t afford the expertise to it. Is it our role to organize volunteers to advise HP on how to market their stuff? We feel like it’s not. We’re trying to represent all HP computer customers.

Why do you think the current Interex membership isn’t HP 3000-centric anymore, and what impact has it had on Interex offerings and projects?

Based on where we get our money from and where we spend it, the 3000 community gets more than its fair share of the resources that we expend. In the broad sense, the 3000 is only one constituency we try to serve now. In order to maintain a relationship with HP, a relevancy and an influence with HP, we had to move beyond the 3000 community. We had to embrace Unix, NT and we’ve got to embrace e-services.

We take the total range of offerings and package them to speak to the person’s interest. We marketed HP World as MPE World last year to the 3000 member. If we don’t do that, we don’t succeed.

We’re in a constant race to stay on HP’s radar screen. The money from HP that buys [conference] booths and advertising space to support us perceives us as less and less relevant. The Nick Earle’s and the other people running things at HP do not see IT professionals as decision makers in the e-services marketplace. [He thinks professionals in] manufacturing, sales, CEOs and functional managers will be making the decisions. For the moment, Nick Earle is not interested in talking to the kinds of people they perceive we represent, and he’s certainly not interested in talking to our typical 3000 member.

Your chairman last year said Interex’s relationship with HP is changing as the company shifts away from hardware-only sales. How has the relationship changed?

I would much prefer to be associated with HP than any other company out there. It’s a marvellous company. Having said that, I will say that it’s tough to maintain a legally and financially independent partnership with HP as a user group. That’s because until [HP CEO] Carly [Fiorina] arrived, there was no HP: there were different profit centers, so you had to deal with CSY or WSY or ESY, storage, OpenView. It’s very tough for this small thing called Interex to carry on a relationship with this giant elephant. The things they are doing to simplify the organization and get it down to fewer pieces may help us in the long run. In the short term, it’s yet more change and chaos, and more opportunity for us to fall off HP’s radar screen.

It’s not because HP is difficult, or don’t want us to do the very best. It’s difficult because of the resource mismatch. If you start to try to carry on a relationship with every piece of HP that’s important to our members, it’s an enormous task.

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