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.
came to the position with no direct experience in managing an
association, but Interex pursued him relentlessly in 1989. With a
mechanical engineers 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 groups roots and its
volunteer strength lay in the 3000 community, but HPs 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 vendors. The
groups user show and publication were both renamed as HP World,
and the conference was recently ranked as one of the best in a
Pierceys 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 platforms 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
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 dont 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. Theyre into
issues like interoperability, Webifying, the whole Internet
experience. They dont 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. Its also making possible chat rooms,
that kind of activity. The Internet has reduced the need for the old
CSL tape per se. Thats because the [computer systems] now have
higher functionality and are more reliable; you dont have the
same need for the customer to write routines to help everyone
spite of all the Web stuff out there, were 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 Thats fine. Do that and
lower the cost. But thats not everybody yet. The Internet
is an addition. It enables you to do things you couldnt do
before, but it doesnt mean other things go away completely.
People still like to carry a magazine into the bathroom. Its
pretty hard to carry a Web page into the bathroom!
The other thing its 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
dont 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 theres an element of
face-to-face discussion you cant get by e-mail, or on 3000-L.
It certainly has lessened HPs interest in putting out a whole
lot of money to meet customers.
Is HPs reluctance to spend evident in a
conference like HP World, or just the more technical meetings?
Im 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 dont 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 HPs time to sit
through three days of meetings to pick up what they needed to know.
Because of the Internet, they felt like they didnt 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 years [IPROF], and it didnt cost us any more
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
wont be needed in the 3000 community because of the
No, although I wont 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 theres 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 youre
Youve 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 HPs
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 couldnt come because
they couldnt travel.
didnt 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 wed have a better sort
of business relationship on that conference if we moved it to the
spring time frame. Well see if that works or not. We were
trying to get more in sync with HPs marketing and financial
Moving the show up for 2001 means a fair challenge for
your organization, since youll have to do two shows in seven
Were already beginning to sweat it. Its going
to be an enormous challenge, and were understaffed to pull it
off. Were going to have to bring in more manpower during the
critical period. Well have to be planning the next show while
were 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 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. Im 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 havent 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. Theyve started in a very timid
way with Editor, Query and the TurboIMAGE class libraries. Were
working with Jeff Vance, Randy Roten and Mike Yawn. Theres a
way to check stuff out and check it back in. So far theres more
check outs than check ins. Were 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
dont have to be an Interex member, right?
No, you dont. But Id say for those that still
use the CSL, we supply it on a CD now. Many companies still
wont 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
Its difficult enough for people who have come
through the volunteer community together to coalesce. How are you
going to get four people who dont know each other and
havent come though the volunteer system to coalesce? The most
appointments were in this first year, with two. After that its
less per year. In theory the appointed people could control the
board, but only if youre paranoid. If youre bringing in
new people from outside the system, its very unlikely
theyre going to control something. With Linda Roatch, Barry
Breig, Denys Beauchemin and Janet Sharp on the board, in spite of
everything weve done, the board is more 3000-centric than you
Your marketing materials point out Interex runs the
second most popular user group meeting, HP World. What makes it more
viable than others?
Its 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. Were running a business, but the business is
controlled by the number one objective of serving members.
Thats true for the for-profit [conference organizers]. The
reason were 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 dont have to depend on the volunteer to do
a specific thing at a specific time. Were learned that better
than our counterparts at IBM or DEC groups.
can tell you we are sailing a small dinghy, not a loaded oil tanker.
We literally feel that if we dont reinvent ourselves every six
months, in terms of what the content should be, then wed 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
feel it was successful based on HPs 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. Were
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 cant 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 couldnt get 10
percent [to vote]. It reflects the fact that in the Unix community,
weve never replicated the passion and involvement of the 3000
community. It will be even harder in the NT community. I dont
think its anything were doing badly; its just a
changed world. Weve already tried to vote by e-mail and the
Web, and at the moment its 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?
Theres 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. Its the
kind of thing I wished we would have sponsored.
But theres room for the newsgroup, 3kworld, the
NewsWire, and what we do. We made the transition to survive by
broadening beyond the 3000. We didnt 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 arent
How can Interex help HP compare the value of owning a
3000 to owning other HP computing environments?
Weve talked about this, and weve reluctantly
concluded that is not our role. Maybe a subset of our members want to
band together to do that, but its not the role. The staff
doesnt have the expertise to do that, and we cant afford
the expertise to it. Is it our role to organize volunteers to advise
HP on how to market their stuff? We feel like its not.
Were trying to represent all HP computer customers.
Why do you think the current Interex membership
isnt 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 weve got to embrace
take the total range of offerings and package them to speak to the
persons interest. We marketed HP World as MPE World last year
to the 3000 member. If we dont do that, we dont
Were in a constant race to stay on HPs 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 Earles 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 hes certainly not
interested in talking to our typical 3000 member.
Your chairman last year said Interexs
relationship with HP is changing as the company shifts away from
hardware-only sales. How has the relationship changed?
would much prefer to be associated with HP than any other company out
there. Its a marvellous company. Having said that, I will say
that its tough to maintain a legally and financially
independent partnership with HP as a user group. Thats 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. Its 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,
its yet more change and chaos, and more opportunity for us to
fall off HPs radar screen.
Its not because HP is difficult, or dont want
us to do the very best. Its difficult because of the resource
mismatch. If you start to try to carry on a relationship with every
piece of HP thats important to our members, its an