When You Come To a Fork In The Road...


Do you lean toward the road more or less traveled?


Came to a fork in the road recently and had to decide which way to go. No time for planning, no time for an escape. The path diverged, and a choice had to be made.

I chose left. Dan Vertrees, HP's vice president in charge of strategic alliances, chose right. Such are the things that happen when two travelers meet in an airport. In this case, Vertrees and I literally bumped into one another in the Minneapolis International Airport. We were both on our way out of town after spending three days there to attend Microsoft's worldwide partner summit. While snaking our way through the airport's security-screening line, we came upon a metal stand with a handwritten sign telling us to split into two lines. On a whim, we bet to see whose decision would prove to be the better choice. From that point, we wrapped around a blind corner, preventing us from seeing which was the shorter of the two lines. With no empirical experience to base a decision on, which way we chose to go truly came down to intuition.

Left suits me better, I told him. It always has. I tend to favor the less-traveled path, and in Minneapolis, left was the line fewer people chose. That has always been my draw. I live in the mountains instead of near the shore. I use a Macintosh, not a PC. And I drive a car that has never owned more than 2 percent of the U.S. auto market. I root for sports teams that cannot fill their stadiums and buy clothes from shops that always seem to fail. When I shop on Amazon.com or buy from iTunes, I look to see what other like-minded people recommend. Far too often, there aren't any; seems in certain categories, I shop alone.

In a zig-zag world, I am part of the zag minority.

Dan, in contrast, zigs. He is more mainstream, though a highly refined individual. A corporate survivor, he has charted a career course through the mergers of Apollo and Compaq, Compaq and Tandem, and then again through Compaq and HP. When transitions are complete, he always winds up with an influential job, while peers above and below him wind up with nothing. To this day, he continues to play an important role at HP, helping to manage some of its most strategic partnerships and alliances. He also uses a PC.

Why this matters is simple: The people who zig have made Windows the dominant computing platform of the day. They have made Intel the chief of chips, and Cisco the top of the network stack. But they may not be right. Nor have they slowed the onslaught of the alternatives. Open source continues its march into areas where it was believed it would never find a home. Apple, meantime, is enjoying a resurgence, and Salesforce.com, another zagger, is growing, too. One could argue today that there are more alternatives than ever before, and that the zag minority is becoming more influential. It is entirely possible to run a network or business, for that matter, without using a single piece of Microsoft software. It may not be desirable, but it is doable, nonetheless.

What amazes me is how passionate some people are about the decisions they make. Open-source fans hate Microsoft; they loathe SCO even more. Mention in print or online that you think SCO might have some legal justification for suing Linux enthusiasts, and you'll be buried under a pile of flame mail. Ditto for saying anything negative about a Mac. Hey, I personally believe a Mac offers a better computing experience. But then again, I recognize that 90 percent-plus of users out there don't necessarily agree.

That's not to say some decisions aren't better than others. On the contrary, there are good ones and bad ones, to be sure. Betting on WordPerfect was the wrong move. Same with OS/2, HP's application server (whatever that was) and a litany of other products once thought to have promise.

What we use, who we depend on and what we believe largely shape us, but not necessarily define us. (I chose the shirt I am wearing, but is it really me?) As for Dan and me, we comically emerged from the security line in Minneapolis at the same time. "No difference," Vertrees commented. But I thought otherwise. Our destination may have been the same, but our experiences--whether they are based on the computers we use, the companies we work for or even the lines we choose--were vastly different. After shaking hands and saying goodbye, we went our separate ways. He zigged right, and I zagged left, to the road less traveled.