Deja vu All Over Again


John Swainson, the new president and CEO-Elect of Computer Associates, is a relative unknown in the channel. For most of his career he has played the role of stalwart understudy to the more widely known Steve Mills, the head of IBM's Software Group.

But it was Swainson at IBM that revitalized much of IBM's stagnant middleware business when he ran the company's Websphere product line. The funny thing is that Websphere is more of a concept than a product. In fact, what Websphere really consists of is a series of products that perform a related set of functions. Oddly enough, a fair number of the members of the Websphere family of products are based on incompatible sets of source code and to this day it is still relatively easy to get lost trying to navigate the Websphere product family. Of course, IBM came up with Websphere Express to try to solve the muddled middleware problem, but that offering still basically consists of the lower level functions of the Websphere family wrapped around an easier set of installation procedures.

The remarkable thing about Websphere is not the elements of the package but rather the way the package is presented. At the base of Websphere is an application server, but IBM has been successful marketing Websphere as a concept rather than a product. Basically, people understand that they need middleware to integrate their applications. But when they first get started down this path, they are never sure of exactly what they need so Websphere appears to be a safe platform because there are lots of expandable, albeit expensive, options that IBM packaged in a way to make the customer feel better about the whole experience.

Swainson needs to bring the same touch he used at IBM to stifle BEA to the myriad number of point products that make up the portfolio of software known as Computer Associates. Swainson definitely has the technical chops to sort the CA product morass and has already identified as a ripe opportunity the access management category where CA has its recently acquired Netegrity portal software and a number of related identity management and security tools that can be coupled with Unicenter. Swainson also readily admits that CA will develop and acquire new products in this space to be more competitive. That's a good thing because it expands the solution set, but it also introduces a broader number of products bearing more incompatible source code that in the short term exacerbates the challenges facing CA.

Swainson's most recent post at IBM, where he served as head of software sales after leading the Websphere team, served to sharpen his skills in terms of bringing products to market. It has also given him first hand knowledge of the challenges associated with the being in the channel.

For instance, he already knows that sales and marketing is another area where CA's shotgun approach needs to become more focused and tightly integrated. Today, CA has a direct sales force that pays lip service to channel partners, a group of nascent channel partners that it is still trying to develop with the help of a $25 million call center effort that generates semi-qualified leads and new efforts to sell software direct on its Web site and through retail.

Alas, chasing everything and anything does not exactly qualify as a strategy. Worse yet, the company took the opportunity this week to announce the cancellation of its partner conference. That decision, coupled with the reshuffling of channel chief duties between of a highly visible George Kafkarkou and Jim Tedesco, who managed the CA call center effort, is enough to leave anyone with deep reservations about CA's commitment to the channel. To his credit, Swainson supports the decision to cancel the event, but thinks he can pull together a better event before the end of 2005.

The good news is that Swainson is pro-channel and sees partners as largely an untapped resource. In fact, one of the first things he said without prompting in his introductory conference with press and analysts is that CA would take a less adversarial approach with its partners.

Given a few weeks to acclimate himself to life in the Byzantheum that is CA, Swainson will probably discover that many of the issues confronting CA today are similar to the same issues facing IBM a few years ago. Back then, IBM was struggling financially, it wasn't particularly well liked by its customers or channel partners and it didn't seem to have any particular product strategy. So as the immortal Yogi Berra once said, it's deja vu all over again.