Sixteen years ago this month, the HP 3000 community learned it was losing an essential component of the platform: A general manager who'd stuck his neck out for the server's customers. Harry Sterling announced his retirement from Hewlett-Packard and the world of the 3000.
Sterling came into the 3000's wheelhouse from a technical role, moving through product development and into the job of R&D manager for the server. On his watch in the labs, IMAGE gained B-trees for state of the art searches, MPE gained a Posix interface and namespace, and MPE/iX got its first Internet tools and utilities. MPE/iX 4.0, 5.0 and 5.5 were developed in the labs that Sterling managed. When Olivier Helleboid moved up from his GM post in 1996, Sterling was ready to make business distinction for the 3000. He was the first 3000 GM whose roots where wholly in tech.
While Sterling led the division for four years he never lost touch with the customers and their perspective. Even though the overwhelming majority of them worked at small companies, he knew their needs were important to HP. No other leader of HP's management team believed this and acted upon it better than Sterling. Many GMs chose to work for HP, instead serving the vendor's customers. At its worst, that kind of allegiance sparks protests, lost accounts, and untold waste of budget and manpower. Business in computing is hard, but Sterling usually managed to make it look smooth while he kept it personal. He made mistakes, like all of us, but it rarely seemed like the decisions were being made at the customers' expense.
Sterling was one of the best things that ever happened to HP 3000 customers. I can be accused of a clouded assessment because he was a key ally while we established the NewsWire. We never got better access or more cooperation than when he ran the 3000 business. He also green-lit a 25th Birthday Party for the server in Germany in 1997 that made people believe the best was still yet to come. We all needed to hear that while HP made Unix the favored child.
But one proof of his positive impact is the recovery of the platform as a strategic choice for HP. One of the most interesting things that happened in the period he ran the division involved resetting beliefs about computers in the 3000's age group. HP had thought such products were the children that it needed to eat in order to keep growing and improving. After a few weeks talking with Sterling's division managers, technology marketing guru Geoffrey Moore decided his own beliefs about legacy products needed revising.
Sterling's strategy helped pave the way for his decision to support IA-64 on the HP 3000. He committed to lowering profit margins for the division while it ramped up for the new architecture. IA-64 looked important, and Sterling convinced HP it should pay for the transfer. It was the most significant investment plan for the 3000 customer since HP committed to RISC processors for the box in the middle 1980s. In the end, his intention to rework MPE for IA-64 — now known as Integrity, and vital to enterprise survival in HP's product line at the time — got scuttled after he took an early retirement.
Things didn't get more inventive, or even better, after he left the job for good at the end of 1999. The 3000 passed the technical muster of Y2K, and in time the delayed N-Class systems were finally released for sale. In less than two years after he retired, though, his replacement helped HP stop thinking of any future for the server. I think of Sterling in the same way as I do another Harry, US President Truman. That President's strength was his connection to the citizens, and Sterling's bedrock was his closeness to the customers.
Sterling assumed his GM job under the same cloud of doubt that surrounded Truman — some said he was not classic 3000 GM material, coming from the technical side of the division. A classic GM for the 3000 would have been looking for better post inside HP. Those before and after did just that. Sterling stuck to his job in spite of long odds against the system.
Sterling kept his management style authentic and realistic. Just before he left HP, he gave us an interview where he came out to his customers as a gay man, this during an era when business had far less opportunity for a gay executive. One small-minded subscriber canceled his subscription when he read the article. It was not the first notice HP had received about Sterling's life, though. Years earlier, he'd been part of a Reader's Theatre for top HP brass, and the result was Hewlett-Packard extended same-sex benefits to its workforce — the first Fortune 500 company to do so. He retired early to set up a Palm Springs real estate practice, where he continues to sell with a personal touch.
There were other challenges ahead for the 3000 community, places where Sterling's successor had a chance to leave a mark. The N-Class release and Y2K tech notwithstanding, what was left was a blemish rather than a beauty mark. If there was a zenith to the 3000's renaissance in the 1990s, it could be pegged at 1999's HP World conference. Sterling came out wearing a tuxedo to make his State of the Product Line speech, then unspooled a yo-yo. He had knack for knowing when different would be better for the crowd.