COMMON System i Town Hall and Sound Off Recap
April 3, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The System i Town Hall meeting and the Sound Off meeting at the spring COMMON user group event in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last week didn’t have a lot of new stuff if you have been reading The Four Hundred for the past several months. But there were a few interesting bits, as there always are.
Mark Shearer, the general manager of the System i division, kicked off the Town Hall meeting, making jokes about all of the candid feedback that he gets before he attends each COMMON event. And, to his credit, he has now attended three COMMONs in a row, which gives him some sort of record. “You continue to tell me that this is still IBM’s best-kept secret, and in 2006 and 2007, we will continue to invest in getting the word out,” he promised the audience. “I told you last year that rejuvenating the System i platform was going to be a multi-year journey.” He said that the technology refresh in 2004 and the hardware kickers and marketing refresh in 2005 had reversed some negative trend lines for the platform, there is still much work to be done. “While we have begun to make some progress, we will continue to do this for years to come.”
One of Shearer’s pet projects is reinvigorating education and training for the System i product line, and he talked about a meeting he had at the University of Berlin with students who were getting training on the box, and who were very excited at the prospect of getting a job because of that training. This is the key, of course, to the longevity of the System i platform. “I am bound and determined to make this a vibrant community and to leverage colleges and universities around the world,” said Shearer.
But I think the education and training issue is something of a Catch 22. I know too many hard-core RPG and OS/400 professionals who are looking for work. Something is wrong out there, and I think IBM needs to help figure it out. Getting jobs for college students is one thing, but I think supply and demand for OS/400 experts are somehow not able to reach each other at the equilibrium point. Or, there is an excess of supply, in which case all of that training of newbies just makes it harder for more seasoned professionals to get work. Either scenario is deadly. IBM, head hunters, business partners, human resources managers at end user companies, and OS/400 and RPG experts had better get together and figure out which scenario is the reality–and then fix it.
Elaine Lennox, IBM’s new vice president of iSeries marketing, gave a fired-up presentation of why she asked for this job and why she thinks it is a great job–something she discussed with me in February in a Q&A interview. The journalists in the OS/400 trade press often help IBM’s executives hone their message, since we usually get access to the executives long before they get out on the road. Lennox is smart and energetic and committed, and she listens. I don’t know exactly how much power she has to change things or how much budget she has to accomplish any change, but like Shearer, I do not doubt her commitment to give all the energy she has to the monumental task she has ahead of her.
Lennox told the COMMON audience that she took the job, and then explained why. “Legacy is a bad word,” she said. “Legacy means ‘what can we do to prop this up until it just goes way.’ I took this job because I think we have a positioning problem, and I do not believe the System i is a legacy platform.” She said that awareness of the platform was up 20 percent in 2005 (although I am not sure how they measure it), and that the iSeries got 600 stories in the general press last year, which was a lot more than in prior years. She also pointed something else out that is hard to believe. She said that of all of the IBM server lines, the iSeries and now the System i has the best deal closing rate. “But the problem is that we don’t get considered. When we get considered, we win.”
If you closed your eyes and just listened to the meeting, you would have known you were at COMMON, since Al Barsa, president of Barsa Consulting Group got up to the mike to say that i5/OS V5R4 was one of the best releases he has every seen IBM deliver, something he has said for the past couple of releases. And Randall Munson, president of Creatively Speaking and a frequent speaker at COMMON who also does consulting work with many IBM midrange business partners, took the mike and expressed his dismay about the platform with wit and seriousness. He joked that it was time for the advertising sales person at the Wall Street Journal to get her semi-annual call from IBM to put out a two-page spread about the iSeries platform into the paper, which seemed as much about appeasing grumpy customers and partners who were displeased about IBM’s marketing (or lack thereof) as it was about actually marketing the iSeries to people who might have some power to buy them.
The seriousness is what matters, of course, and what strikes home deeper. “Many of my customers are your customers, and you are killing them,” Munson said. He then went on to explain that each System i partner has to make two sales for every sale: first, they have to explain what the AS/400-iSeries-System i platform is, and then they have to sell their solution atop of that. “If they sell on another platform, they just have to sell their solution.”
Yup. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Windows and Linux practically sell themselves, as the AS/400 did from 1988 through about 1993 and as Unix did from about 1989 through 1999. You don’t have to sell a Windows or Linux solution these days–but you often have to sell against them if you are peddling an OS/400 or Unix solution. The fact is, a server supplier can only do two things. A supplier can become like Windows or Linux, offering better bang for the buck and, in the case of Linux, embracing open source, or a supplier can pump a huge amount of money into marketing to increase your sales and awareness so your platform gets considered. And a vendor that does both–like Sun Microsystems is trying to do with its Solaris platform–has a much better chance of succeeding. If I were Shearer and Lennox, I would be chomping at the bit to go real crazy, but then again, Systems and Technology Group is not going to let one platform have the upper hand over the other.