Apple buys HP 3000 campus to return home
HP engineers connection with Integrity R&D

A Sterling Example of R&D Innovation

This month marks the 15th anniversary of our printed issue of The 3000 NewsWire -- we mailed copies of our November 2010 edition at the start of last week. Just as those copies (with print-first exclusives) landed in mailboxes around the world, I got a LinkedIn connection invite from Harry Sterling, the last general manager of the 3000 division to engineer a bigger market share for the server. When we first spoke with Sterling he ran the group's R&D, an aspect of today's HP that analysts and veterans believe needs a renaissance.

SterlingP221995I caught up with Sterling to learn he's still pursuing and loving his new career after HP retirement in 1999: real estate, selling residential property in his adopted hometown of Palm Springs. After he retired, Sterling spent a year off in consulting and renovating a house in New Orleans, but reports he's now pursuing what he loves -- contact with people. The sales have been hard in the recent market, a feeling he probably remembers from selling the 3000 in the '90s.

I have always been interested in Real Estate so I decided to give it a try.  My technical skills have given me an edge with web marketing. Most of my new clients come to me via my web sites. I got my license in December of 2002. It is a tough market now with lots of foreclosures and short pay sales. Hard work – harder than I thought it would be. But I do love it, especially sleeping in my own bed every night and meeting new people all the time.

I was surprised to see our very same November, 1995 issue included our first Q&A with Sterling, back when HP still had executives who could speak about the HP 3000 as something other than a dead product. With the HP campus where Sterling led a rejuvenation now sold to Apple, it seems worthwhile to study what a manager can pursue when customer delight is the goal. The interview with him revolves around Customer First and how it was practiced down to the lab level of the division, a group that once worked in a building HP owns no more.

Unlike the HP which devolved after his retirement, Sterling was willing and able to make moves that didn't follow the company's stock messages. In 1998 he engineered the purchase of OpenSkies, a company built around HP 3000 use which had a lively business processing digital airline tickets. The object of the purchase, which some senior execs questioned, was to establish an application service provider -- HP called it Apps On Tap -- who'd use more 3000s to open up the customer base for the computer.

SterlingToday I place Sterling in a special category because he was the final GM to believe and work to make the server attractive to new customers. Ecometry sold a pile of them to power the emerging e-commerce market on his watch. And when he retired he told his story of being the highest ranking gay executive at HP, doing a "reader's theatre" presentation with fellow gay employees to educate Hewlett-Packard about engaging with a workforce still uncovered by company benefits. A few months later, HP changed its policy and extended its family benefits to all of its workers.

With HP's R&D efforts gaining a bit of hope in the report from its new CEO, what Sterling said 15 years ago stands as an example of how R&D needs motivated, compensated engineers to reach out to customers and put them first -- even, at times, in front of bald demands for profits. We asked Sterling back then if he'd found the Customer First changes were most profound at the R&D level. He referred to the low point of HP-customer 3000 relations at the Interex conference in Boston five years earlier, and how listening changed the future.

The management team had to really change the way we think about what we were responsible for. There's a cartoon of a tightrope walker who sees a fire climbing up the pedestal, and he's hesitant to go out. That's what it was like for us. In Boston [in 1990], the customers set fire to our pedestal and we had to move.

For the CSY engineering community in particular, it was very hard. In our culture, that [customer communication] was somebody else's job. We had compartmentalized the whole value chain, and tossed it over the fence to the next person who was responsible. When our customers said “The whole sales model has changed, we're not happy with what's going on, you're not hearing our needs,” our immediate reaction was, “The field has screwed this up. They've got to fix it. Or marketing has the problem.” We had to change philosophically, and realize we're responsible for all of it, whatever it takes. If there's something wrong in the value delivery system, it's our responsibility to fix it.

We're delighted that Sterling is enjoying his next chapter as a Palm Springs realtor, taking what he knew about technology and talking into a new field. Even though the HP of 1995 is long-ago dismissed, that doesn't make Customer First any less effective. For any HP group with customers captive to its technology (clearly, that's the customer base migrating to HP-UX), listening right down to the R&D level is essential to keeping proprietary products afloat in a time with so many chances to drift from HP's ways.

HP's got some of its R&D managers in the Business Critical Systems group selling advantages of new Integrity server solutions. At least it's communication from a BCS lab, if not between customers and engineers. We'll have more to say about that fresh start in a story for tomorrow.