Feb 16, 2005
So Carly’s bloody axe has fallen on . . . Carly. Much ink spilled on What It All Means, most of it wasted. This story really isn’t about Carly, as much as we Americans love simple stories with white hats and black hats.

Carly was not the most brilliant strategist, nor does she seem to have the common touch that endears her to directors or employees. But the real story is the HP story, not the Carly story. And the HP story is not a pretty one.

Other than printers and test equipment (which was spun off as Agilent), HP has been a consistently mediocre performer. Employees can boo-hoo all they want about the loss of the HP way under Carly, but the fact is that Hewlett and Packard should have done the job themselves 20 years ago. Like another famously successful engineer, Ken Olsen of DEC, Hewlett and Packard imported academic research attitudes into the computer business, flourished while the business boomed, and then couldn’t take it to the next level as the computer market differentiated into some very un-academic segments.

The chief fault of academically-based entrepreneurs is the “let a thousand flowers bloom” attitude. A good thing when markets are young, since who knows what will be successful, but a focus-killing luxury once the best targets are in view.

Train a group of bright, aggressive people to “follow their dream” and you will get occasionally brilliant, usually noisy and always chaotic activity. Which translates to expensive mediocrity. Sun, whose resources and intellectual property paled besides HP even as its growth and innovation far outstripped it for two decades in HP’s core markets, had a finely developed culture of “followership” where everyone had three options: agree and commit; disagree and commit; or leave.

Sun’s (and McNealy’s — credit where credit is due) genius was fostering a culture of focus and nimbleness in a fast-moving marketplace surrounded by much larger (IBM, DEC, HP) competitors. At Sun, once a direction was set everyone was expected to go for it at 100%. Free and open communications, up and down, meant problems got quickly scoped, mid-course corrections were common and expected based on feedback. Change is easier to implement when everyone is already moving

From a storage perspective the sorriest aspect of Carly’s reign is that StorageWorks engineering and brand were left to go to seed, reducing competition in an industry that needs much more to foster innovation. Byte and Switch has suggested that a revitalized HP storage group will be out shopping for OEM products to resell. If true this is precisely the wrong strategy for HP, whose historical expertise is in point products, not systems integration.