I had an afternoon this week that felt like a ride in a time machine. I was turning the pages of a glossy user group magazine, devoted to HP server products. The HP 3000 was even mentioned in its opening pages. And there on an introductory page, right after an HP print ad, was an HP general manager who was bidding his customers farewell, moving out of a division.
But I only had to blink to notice the differences. The magazine was The Connection, 36 pages plus its covers devoted to the world of NonStop servers, the ones you might know as Tandems. The print ad was not devoted to HP iron, but to time software for the NonStop's OS. And that general manager, you may have guessed, was Winston Prather, saying farewell to another of his server customer bases.
Six men have been general managers of HP's 3000 business since the middle 1980s, but Prather is the only one who's remained at HP. Some of the rest have retired to private practices (Rich Sevcik, now an ardent evangelist in the classic sense of that word; Harry Sterling, enjoying a life in real estate) or have simply left HP for the next chapter of their business lives. Dave Wilde, the last fellow to hold the job, even was welcomed at last fall's HP 3000 Reunion. That was a conference which another of the ex-GMs expressed an interest in and best wishes toward: Glenn Osaka left HP before Prather even took his job, and is now working at Juniper Networks.
Networks hold the next opportunity for Prather, an executive best known for the "it was my decision" to end the 3000's futures at HP. This time he's left the NonStop group in the hands of an engineer who's tackling his first GM job at HP. That's the exact position Prather assumed in 1999 -- before he and others at the vendor gave your storied server the paddling it never deserved.
As NonStop customers and partners, you know that NonStop has been providing unique value for over 35 years. The products have evolved to keep up with the times: modern hardware, open standards and development environments. As I move on to the next stage of my career, let me leave you with a few thoughts. NonStop is truly a special business. You can see it in the products. You can see it in the dedication of the employees. And mostly you can see it in the statements that you, our customers and partners, make about how you depend on NonStop.
The customers' dependence on an HP product was not an element in his 3000 decision -- unless he was counting the number of customers. Prather, unlike the community's most-admired 3000 GM Sterling, is moving out of general manager work into HP's Networking unit, one of the few places where HP's still showing profitability growth. He's now Global VP of Engineering there, a management assignment not entirely unlike the R&D Manager job that he toiled at under Sterling in the 3000 division.
Olivier Helleboid, the GM who helmed the 3000 group as we started the 3000 NewsWire, has gone on to become VP of Product Management at Intuit. His encouragement gave us the green light to launch the publication. Sure, that era of mid-90s -- and even before, in the simplicity of the '80s -- might be adequately summed up in the language Prather chose while leaving yet another HP server group. This latest one, he says, can outlive his tenure because it has modern hardware, open standards and development environments. With the notable exception of living beyond his career aspirations, that all sounds familiar.
When Prather cut off the 3000, its PA-RISC hardware -- when unhobbled by management's OS decisions -- was as fast as any other server HP sold; Itanium didn't even have a worthy system to ship. The 3000 was struggling toward adopting modern backplane tech, projects that languished as Prather led the 3000 lab. Y2K was too much stress for those labs, and the new PCI-based servers were as seriously late as the first PA-RISC 3000s were in the '80s. Very little sold as new systems in the years around Y2K. Sales were stymied by the "its coming soon" drumbeats about the N and A Classes. Back in the '80s on the cusp of new RISC tech, the 3000 had management champions to pull the engineering oxcart out of the ditch. No champions could be found at the very end of the '90s. Marching in place with his proscribed headcount was Prather's path into a declining future.
It was his future vision that killed HP's business. In those days MPE, which had been turned toward its Unix features under Osaka's watch, had the same then-current calibre of open standards that NonStop enjoys today. As a GM Prather's predecessor Sterling made sure the division was devoted to the Internet; it captured its first set of open source tools. Development of partner apps had drawn to a standstill after one year of Prather's decisions, something that was due to marketing responses, product delivery and commodity competition. At that point Prather told us that as a GM it wasn't his job to sell 3000s -- just to deliver the right server to the customer from HP's many choices. Later that year he ended HP's 3000 life.
Now that HP is losing ground in such unique server markets, the GM who tolled HP's death knell for its 3000 unit has moved into a commodity unit, Networking. He's rid of the decisions about what to build next, because a higher level of manager will approve the calls that were his to make for the 3000 business. Being tied to a proprietary environment business is becoming a burden for career growth, where execs are measured by revenue increases and rising partner counts. Prather has gotten himself paroled from HP's proprietary jail.
It took a 3000 manager to sum up the last five years of Prather's career, a summary that invoked HP 3000 work on Prather's watch. Connect President Steve Davidek, who we interviewed in a 2010 Q&A, thanks "Winston for his support while at the NonStop Enterprise Division." Davidek said the move "is great news for Winston."
I first met Winston while I was giving the World Wide Advocacy Survey results to HP. Winston was still managing the HP 3000 division at the time. The survey results showed HP that, again, they loved their 3000s but the HP contracts were still a pain.
There was a lot more HP pain to come for Prather's customers and partners. He drank deep from HP's proposals for Unix, predicting at an Interex meeting in February, 2002 that more than 80 percent of the customers would be migrated within a few years. Instead, HP lost two of every three departing customers to other vendors. But HP had an enterprise unit to streamline after buying up Compaq's DEC business. Prather got his bosses to approve the elimination of a unit that was shipping current technology, bearing standards support and boasting a partner network more than 30 years old.
Those components are not enough to survive in HP when your leadership dedicated to the vendor, rather than the customer. Five other men found a circuit beyond HP's changing ways. It's telling to see that only Prather stays plugged in today.