Checking in on HPE: A 2016 report card

It's always interesting to revisit a vendor after a few years out in the cold. So how is HPE's transformation coming along?

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What it all means: MyPOV

A few years ago HP was, to be honest, a bit of a mess. It was a hardware company that was trying to spin its way into a story of software. That was a clash that didn't resonate. Since then HPE has worked hard to deliver a consistent and coherent story about its future.

But it's not easy. The fact of the matter is that no matter what the executive ranks say, it is at the sales force level where the rubber hits the road. HPE's sales force is traditionally compensated in ways that encourage a continuation of a hardware-centric view, and this is the internal cultural element that HPE has been facing.

In a one-on-one session with the head of all of HPE's software businesses, Robert Youngjohns, I got an honest appraisal of where HPE is on this journey. Youngjohns admitted that it is early days and that much work still needs to be done in this area.

It was interesting to hear Whitman bare all in the influencer Q&A and state very clearly that where HPE fails is when it tried to do stuff that isn't within its core DNA and experience. I reflected upon that during the keynote when both Docker and Mesosphere had speakers on stage. While both of these technologies are important, and have a role to play in HPE and its customer's future, it felt a little bit like Whitman, and HPE more generally, was jumping on the "cool new thing" bandwagon and chasing fads. I'm not suggesting that either containers or cloud-native approaches are fads, but HPE's pushing of these companies seemed more marketing that functional. (It should be noted that HPE was a participant in the recent capital raise by Mesosphere, the company commercializing Apache Mesos.)

Youngjohn's perspective on this is that HPE is achieving two things. Firstly, it is showing its customer base that it is looking deeply into emergent technologies. Secondly, it is experimenting with technologies that it uses to build its own core solutions -- HPE has used both Docker and Mesos, for example, in recent product buildouts.

This "trying to appear cool" issue is one I keep coming back to. Indeed, one journalist said to me via private message that sometimes watching HPE is like watching your parents listening to rap and pretending to "relate" to it. It's something that HPE needs to work on and a trap they need to try to avoid falling into.

This tendency to chase the new shiny thing was a topic I discussed with a number of HPE executives at the event and is something that they are aware of. Indeed, in a briefing at the show, Jay Jamison, HPE's product marketing czar, stated a focus for meeting its customers where they are today and helping them make a planned and well thought out move into newer technology areas:

HPE is committed to meeting customers where they are. As customers look at Mesosphere and Docker as infrastructures that are important to them, HPE is committed to being a strong partner and supporter of those technologies, both in our software, as well as with our hardware infrastructure capabilities. [Ours is] a very broad strategy that we think enables customers to have a strong partner that’s focused on meeting them where they are, and providing them solutions to the problems they most commonly face.

Fundamentally, I struggle with some people's contention that HPE needs to focus strongly on building product for, and encouraging adoption by, developers. Don't get me wrong, I realize that developers are critical to an organization's ability to innovate and become agile, but I am not convinced that, for a company like HPE at least, trying to become a bottom-up vendor is the right way forward.

As I see it, the real opportunity for HPE is to leverage the relationships it already has with CIOs and the IT department and, rather than forsake that relationship in an attempt to chase developers, they need to subtly shift their CIO messaging. For me, the appropriate angle is to go to the existing customers and show them how HPE is continuing its historical journey, that of being a trusted provider to IT. But within that "trusted provider" paradigm, the opportunity is to show IT that HPE is enabling them to offer their own developers the flexibility they demand.

While much is made of the fact that developers demand absolute autonomy over their tools of choice, the fact of the matter is that most pragmatic developers just want to be able to use tools that allow them to move quickly. It's not so much a dogmatic "I must use this particular CI/CD tool" perspective but rather an "I just want to use a tool that lets me do my job quickly" one.

The bottom line is that HPE has a long and successful history of creating and maintaining relationships with technology decision makers. It seems ludicrous to me for the company to move away from that in an attempt to court developers directly.

Using Whitman's approach of focusing on what HPE has historically done well, it seems to me that the company could fairly easily craft a narrative that continues to meet CIO's needs, while also giving them a way to offer their developers the agility they yearn for. It's about being honest about what they are and, more importantly, what they aren't. There's a successful future for HPE if they just accept that fact.

I'd give HP a 7 out of 10 for their progression in transforming their business -- they've come a long way with much road ahead left to navigate.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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