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Rene Woc

Chief Executive Officer

Adager Corporation

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Ron Seybold, Editor In Chief


August, 1999

A Legacy of Connection to the HP 3000

Rene Woc stands backstage at Adager, but his experience makes him a major HP 3000 player. The CEO at the market’s oldest database solution supplier, Woc directs the business operations and market strategy for a company that defies an easy business definition. Woc is one of the few people in the HP 3000 market still leading the company he co-founded after more than two decades, a company blissfully obsessed only with HP 3000 business. And no small amount of business, either: Adager has one of the largest 3000 customer bases outside of HP itself. At one point its product was part of the HP price list, even though Adager has been independent of HP all along.

Woc was born in Guatemala, as was his partner Alfredo Rego. The two men began working together on HP 3000 projects in that country almost as soon as the computer was available. Woc points out that the engineering firm Telectro he was leading in 1974 took delivery of the second HP 3000 ever sold into Latin America. In those days you had to prove to HP you were capable of owning an HP 3000 outside the US, promising to buy a second HP system for diagnostics and stocking spare parts. It was a level of detail Woc was comfortable with — and typical of the detail that Adager embraces while helping HP customers with database maintenance and the occasional nightmare. His quarter-million-dollar commitment for that 128K computer showed a faith in the system that hasn’t wavered in the decades since, as Adager remains an all-3000 software house.

A quarter-century of HP 3000 experience later, Woc is managing a company that serves thousands of customers in 50 countries — impressive numbers when coupled with Adager’s legendary lean staffing and few offices. Instead of sinking resources into large staff counts and many addresses, Woc and his cohorts have developed a company that was quick to the Internet and is technology-savvy and omnipresent in its market. Its operations are hosted on HP 3000s, a “do as I do” approach not common among HP 3000 suppliers.

While the company was founded 21 years ago in Guatemala, in 1988 it relocated with its development brain trust intact to Sun Valley, Idaho. Adager located in the mountains of Idaho in a time long before the Internet was a business tool, but kept in close contact with its customers through a pervasive use of worldwide toll-free technology. A comfort with technology runs all through Woc’s career, from his days programming for banking and utility applications to the testing and quality assurance he does for Adager — along with business management.

Woc remembers attending the first user group conference ever held for HP 3000s, at Ricky’s Hyatt House hotel in the Silicon Valley just down the street from HP’s corporate headquarters in 1975. An electrical engineer by education at Santa Clara and Stanford, Woc said the earliest HP meetings already showed the spirit of sharing the community would become famous for. At the advent of the 25th meeting of the HP 3000 user community in San Francisco, we asked Woc about how past opportunities have shaped Adager’s business choices, and how he rates the current prospects for the system and its future.

Among the Adager legends is its relative size compared to its customer base. Why has the company remained so lean in times of IPOs, expansions and mergers?

We enjoy the journey. We enjoy doing what we do ourselves. It’s all a matter of priorities.

Your company is well into its 22nd year of continuous service to the HP 3000 community this year. Why have you remained focused only on the HP 3000, when other long-time suppliers have branched out to other HP platforms?

It comes down to personal reasons. Alfredo and myself have considered that the personal objectives override business objectives. We’ve both been exposed to large companies as contractors or partners or suppliers.

You can either grow to be a large company as a business objective, or you can stay as a small company as a personal objective. Our philosophy is that we would rather stay small, doing a few things well by ourselves and with a lean-and-mean team of top people. We respect the choices that other people make, but we would not operate too well with hundreds of employees and large offices. We are engineers, not managers. Most business schools would probably disapprove.

Specifically, when we discovered the 3000 in 1974, we immediately identified with what it wanted to accomplish. It took us six months to persuade HP to sell us the first system. The HP 3000CX performance was a far cry from our ideal, but its functionality was really great. Since then, the 3000 has provided a great platform to work with, considering the users, suppliers and market. Our choice has allowed us to keep having hands-on experiences with things we like to do. We decided we want to do the fun stuff ourselves, and that implies staying small.

Just because we have said we don’t want to be a large company doesn’t mean we don’t provide world-class services. That’s been the challenge. How do you support more than 10,000 users throughout 50 countries with less than a handful of people? We use technology a lot, and we’re always looking for tools that will help us do a better job. The Internet was a wonderful phenomenon that we saw as an opportunity, so we have concentrated on making our Web site a source of support more than anything else.

How is the Internet changing the HP 3000 community?

The importance of physical meetings has decreased and the importance of virtual meetings has increased dramatically. There are many Web sites, electronic mailing lists and newsgroups that deal exclusively with the HP 3000 and are linked and cross-referenced to each other.

The time to reach each other is now instantaneous. It makes the truth stand out right away. Products now have to deliver on their promises. Users can ask thousands of colleagues for references. A respectful community like the 3000 one has much to gain. The values of the community are not different. The behavior has changed.

It really has opened a whole array of opportunities and challenges. [The] 3000-L mailing list is an example of how the time factor has literally disappeared. A user in Australia can post a question and someone else can reply immediately. It has become a 24-by-7 community now. When we were based in Guatemala, users would come to us with written lists of enhancements to our booth at user group conferences. A good portion of our time at the booth was dedicated to getting those lists, once a year. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Then there are those who want the 3000 to participate in these activities. That’s what I think is all the fuss about having a Web server on the 3000 and not just saying the 3000 can exist on the side. We have asked to have it made an active participant.

Over the 25 years you’ve been involved with the HP 3000, what would you say was the highwater mark for the system — and how do you rate the current state compared to that highwater mark?

I have seen the 3000 go from a rebirth after its 1973 recall, and passing through all the challenges of the early 90s. My impression is the 3000 is one of those systems whose highwater mark is always raising. The HP 3000 has never looked so good and its future has never been so bright. In its 27 years the 3000 has gone through many stages. It initially had to compete to replace the old IBM 360s, System 32s, 34s. When its success was apparent, IBM came up with the System 38, the precursor to the AS/400. Likewise with DEC VAX and Data General Eclipse offering. Then came Unix. The 3000 was always living up to those challenges, and kept on pushing the limit of acceptability. As we have seen, every step in the history of the 3000 has been a highwater mark.

If you look at the current spirit, it’s amazing. The future is looking good, and the 3000 is delivering enhancements as they are identified. Right now we’re at the point where we’re raising the mark again.

HP believes that its 3000 customers no longer are platform-centric. What does your field experience with your HP 3000 customer list tell you about HP’s platform-independent beliefs?

Customers definitely want interoperability. I’m happy to hear HP is doing things along those lines. They want to use the right tool for the right task, with as much of a common interface language as possible. Customers no longer wish to have a single tool for all tasks. They have realized that this objective had too great a cost. The 3000, with its known and proven reliability and ease of use, has a good place in the datacenter. For this reason, 3000 users are always asking for more interoperability, thinking that it’s easier to add functionality to a solid foundation that to add a solid foundation to existing applications in less-reliable platforms.

You serve on the SIGIMAGE Executive Committee (SIEC). Without giving away any secrets, is there a specific, important advance in IMAGE/SQL that customers can look forward to?

I don’t think of SIGIMAGE as being able to filter or forecast what the next enhancements will be. It’s an ongoing discussion group about how IMAGE is behaving in the real world. We are the first ones to participate when an enhancement is available, but we don’t necessarily participate in the decision about what those enhancements are.

The most important — and I believe unique — achievement of the SIEC is a continuous monitoring and analysis of IMAGE’s behavior in the real world. Because its membership has representatives from all the different parties involved — users, developers, and HP — it provides HP with a comprehensive outlook into how IMAGE is doing. With the most significant enhancements already delivered, we are all focusing on the big picture, looking ahead to the challenges that IMAGE will have to address in the next millennium, in addition to the items in the SIGIMAGE ballot. HP has a very knowledgeable team of engineers, both in North America and in India.

Do you think those enhancements over the last few years have been adequately communicated to developers and the customer base? I’m thinking about critical item update, and the b-tree indices.

The communication from HP has been there. The main challenge is to persuade developers about the advantages these developments mean to them and their applications. Most developers became complacent during the early 90s, while they were looking at the new platforms that appeared and the marketing hype surrounding those platforms.

For instance, critical item update took almost 15 years to implement, counting since the time Alfredo and Wirt Atmar made public pleas in the early 80s. Most applications already had a much less efficient workaround programmed into them. Developers took an attitude of wait and see.

HP set some defaults that make the enhancement invisible to existing users, so many users did not know the implication this enhancement had for them. Developers are now realizing how good the 3000 has been and will be to them, and are back investing resources into bringing their applications up to date with all the new resources available to them — including interoperability and database features.

B-trees are different. HP has made an effort to put them into QUERY. The defaults HP has been putting in for b-trees have been more functional, and you can add them on to whatever system you have. It’s still recent, but in our support calls, I’ve definitely gotten a lot more calls asking whether we support b-trees than whether we support critical item update.

We hear tales of customer support at Adager that are completely unrelated to supporting your product. What’s your favorite, and why do you provide such help?

A support call may well start with “I’m not a customer of yours, but my colleague at such-and-such firm told me you could help me with my particular problem.”
Whenever you are in a bind, you can get very creative on how to get support. In one case a non-Adager user at a hospital went so far as to restore his production database in a friend’s HP 3000 before calling us, not knowing that we would have gladly sent him a complimentary demo tape to correct his problem. Since his friend was an Adager customer, he felt he could legally use Adager in his system and call us for support.

The fellow sent us a nice letter later on, saying, “It is a pleasure to find a company willing to help regardless of client affiliations.”

Sometimes respect for Adager’s support (both for the Adager program itself and for the Adager team) has been hard-earned. No one likes the messenger, and Adager is usually the first one to tell of a database problem. Hardware problem detection is a typical case. We work together with HP’s Response Centers in many cases, both with software and hardware engineers to diagnose problems. The most recent case has been the problem with some 997s, but I recall doing the same when the DDX problems appeared.

Some companies seem to believe in an “abundance of information” credo — that spreading knowledge for free is good for everyone. Why is this a belief of Adager’s?

Believing in the Internet implies adopting several things. For us, this is one of those obvious things. As an example, Adager’s Web site doesn’t force anybody to “register,” doesn’t impose cookies on unsuspecting users, provides complimentary hypertext links to anybody involved with the HP 3000, and so on. Adager’s site is full of deep technical information, available to anyone for the price of downloading it. The HP 3000 may have been HP’s best-kept secret for many years, but this condition certainly has not been due to Adager’s lack of doing its best to spread the good word as widely as possible. I hope more 3000-based software suppliers do this. HP is now following this philosophy by publishing its documentation in its web site. Perhaps this philosophy is something that our friends [at the new 3kworld.com] will be able to encourage.

What does HP need to do to keep the HP 3000 community growing beyond Year 2000?

CSY needs to continue improving the HP 3000’s hardware, its MPE/iX operating system, and its IMAGE database management system. If they demonstrate they are behind the platform for the long haul, with IA-64 and Java, the rest will come. In addition, HP — at its highest corporate levels — must be aware of its HP 3000 accomplishments and mention them proudly outside of the stock speeches — from Lew Platt, for instance — for the installed base during HP World. We look forward to Carly Fiorina’s new attitude and to her full support for Harry Sterling and his hard-working team. Once she sees the numbers, she should become quickly aware that the HP 3000 is an under-appreciated gold mine.

How much difference do you think this new HP CEO can make to the HP 3000 customer?

For some reason that’s not completely obvious, it can make a huge difference. The customers should view it as an opportunity. If we get her attention and if she mentions the HP 3000 in public, there is no limit to what can be accomplished. The HP 3000 is coming in strong, precisely, in those areas that are critical for HP, in e-commerce, for instance. With a “modern” look-and-feel provided by a Java-based interface, and with powerful Internet connectivity based on many TCP/IP protocols, the valuable information that resides in thousands of IMAGE databases will get a totally new lease on life.

During a brief presentation at the HP reseller’s meeting in New York, I mentioned that, “with great foresight,” HP had made the 3000 the ideal server for e-commerce, providing a proven platform for all the e-commerce mission-critical requirements. It’s a great opportunity.

What is the best development — either strategic or technical — you’ve seen CSY execute in the last three years?

The major event has been incorporating Java into the HP 3000, after Alfredo’s public plea to Harry Sterling during IPROF ’96.

As CSY re-engages old partners for solutions, what can you tell companies considering a revival of their 3000 efforts about measuring the potential of being an active solution provider in today’s market?

The key signal is HP’s support for the platform. Strong support in HP’s marketing as well as in enhancements to its system software will send a strong signal to developers, both old and new. Lately, CSY has been sending very strong signals, worldwide. As a specific example, the 3000 spirit in Europe now is stronger than ever.

What impact do you expect IA-64 to have on the HP 3000 community over the next three years — say, through the year 2002?

The exact “delivery” is not as important as “knowing that HP is working on this with full force.” Users want commitment. They can live with less-than-ideal delivery schedules.

Many things can happen between now and 2002. The idea is to take advantage of technological leaps as soon as they happen (and as soon as they obsolete other more primitive approaches). Take Java, again, as an example. Most proposed GUIs for the HP 3000 have leaned heavily towards MS Windows. With Java, all client platforms become equal players. An analogous development in terms of IA-64 or its successors could have dramatic effects on what gets actually delivered in the end.

Are you taking any development steps now to dovetail your product with the new architecture? Can anyone, given what’s known about it?

Yes. We are constantly doing a lot of consolidation and cleaning up in our code to move it forward. Clean code is easier to move forward than messy code. So, this is a good thing to do regardless of the specific target.

Some people have forecast a slowing of HP 3000 revival once the tunnel of Year 2000 safety is cleared next year. How do you think the customer base will react — stronger use of a platform that carried them through the millennium shift, or renewed activity to move toward other choices?

It depends on HP’s approach: Are they going to be timid or proactive? Where would Windows be now if Bill Gates had been timid seven or eight years ago? The market penetration of Windows is not precisely due to its stellar qualities in its early days.

What advice would you give the IT manager whose CFO wants to turn his HP 3000 off?

Alfredo had a good answer in his interview with Astronaut Jim Lovell. IT managers should not let themselves follow blindly the recommendations from their CFOs. The 3000 position can be defended with reason and numbers. There is evidence of this: the Southwest Airlines ticketless system, Brookhaven National Labs. As I mentioned before, CFOs are very conscious of real costs now. I would tell that manager, “Don’t be shy — ask for help from your current 3000 suppliers as well as in 3000-L. HP has been very cooperative in providing supporting evidence.”

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