Interview with Larry Nichols

The former Chairman of the Board of UNITE speaks candidly about his tenure, Unisys user loyalty, upcoming trends in the industry and the value of today's user groups for multiplatform users.

UNISPERE: What have been some the highlights as Chairman of the Board of UNITE?

NICHOLS: It’s been great! I’m not patting myself on the back, but I think we’ve successfully accomplished the merger of the Use, which was the Sperry organization, and Cube, which was the Burroughs organization; into a new entity, which is what UNITE is. We went through, just like any corporate mergers, transition periods, and I think we’ve now got comfortable and ... we’re off. So, I would say probably the last two years have been that period of time where the dust has settled.

UNISPERE: Were there any surprises?

NICHOLS: Oh, not really. I mean, we had to learn each other’s ways of doing things and what the delegates that came from the Use side of the house expected of the conference, and what the delegated from the Cube side of the house expected of the conference because their conferences were different. So UNITE is a blend – it’s a Renaissance – it’s the best of both. We’ve taken the best from Use and the best from Cube and created an organization that’s truly best in class.

UNISPERE: Did you accomplish everything you had planned?

NICHOLS: Yeah, one of the trials we went through was changing the format of the Spring conference. Working with Unisys, they wanted us to try a format of more of a line of business professionals’ services-oriented conference and not so much on technology - more on business problems, strategic planning, day-to-day business issues. And we did that. That would be the Spring of ’96 and ’97; those conferences did not go as well as Unisys expected them to go, but we gave it our best shot. We got good reviews, the problem is that we couldn’t get the attendance there. There were just too many other conferences that were directed in that, like the Gardener Conference and the CIO Conferences, and there are a lot of other business-style conferences. To build a brand new conference, which is what we did, based on where Unisys was seeing their market grow in, we just couldn’t attract people. With that said, the Spring of ’98, we reformatted the Spring and turned it into what we call a "Technology Symposium" which is what our delegates asked for. It was very successful. It’s more of an educational type of a conference.

There’s only three tracks or three business streams in that conference and they are very focused on how to get the job done. Not what you use to get the job done, but they’re hard core, technical content sessions - more like education. That was very successful; that was the Valley Forge Conference of 1998.

Spring 1999 will be in Irvine and that format will be repeated. We had excellent reviews from the conference in the Spring of 98, the delegates said that that’s what they wanted, so we formatted based on their surveys and questionnaires. We surveyed the audience, the delegates that we have in our database; they told us what they wanted, the cost they wanted it at, and the sessions they wanted to hear about. It’s not a large expo hall like our Fall, it’s called a market pavilion and we’ve almost sold it out for Spring of 99. We sold out the conference in the Spring of ’98 and it looks like ’99 is well on its way.

UNISPERE: What role does Unite play for today’s Unisys users?

NICHOLS: Probably it’s two-fold. I would say, one, it’s continual education and awareness through quality sessions and quality educational symposiums like we’re doing. Number two, the opportunity to meet other Unisys users, other business problems in the Unisys environment, networking, and a place where you can call and say, "I would like to talk to somebody in California, do we have any delegates out there?" So it does two things: We provide the education and the sessions, plus we provide the opportunity for networking and getting to know each other, and sharing ideas and sharing information. You know, blended in with Unisys engineering, it brings a lot to the table.

UNISPERE: What makes Unisys users so loyal?

NICHOLS: I think a lot of the organizations have come through the fire, per se; they were loyal Sperry users, they were loyal Burroughs users; and I would probably say that the companies that are at our conferences are those companies that started in the grass roots of Sperry and Burroughs.

Those are the people that come to our conferences. Now, that’s not to say we don’t see new faces; we do, but I would say the majority of our users are very loyal from their grass roots days. The people change, the faces change, but the companies don’t. You see the same company on the badges time after time, but you see new names because they hire new employees and employees move from one to another. You do see those organizations here that are new where Unisys has partnered with another third-party solution and they come to the conference. So it’s a blend but I would say the majority of the users are those grass roots users from the good ol’ Sperry and Burroughs days.

UNISPERE: What are the major concerns of today’s Unisys IS Manager?

NICHOLS: Probably technology integration. NT is becoming a very strong component of an IT organization. Unisys’ strategy with the Clear Path Boxes says that loud and clear. Is the synergy between an NT platform and a Unisys proprietary platform here to stay? It makes your world more complicated; gone are the days where you had glass houses and you had a mainframe in there and it was all centralized and controlled. Now you’ve got back office systems that have to integrate, you’ve got network systems that have to integrate, you’ve got more points of failure; so it makes the job much more complicated even though it makes the users’ lives much easier.

UNISPERE: How have the common concerns of your members changed over your tenure?

NICHOLS: I think there’s still that fear, and my reaction is I don’t think it’s founded, but you can’t change people’s fear - you build trust and you build knowledge ... but that fear is that Unisys will not be a technology provider, they’ll be a service provider. That’s a re-occurring theme, a re-occurring fear and I think Unisys has made it very loud and clear, as [Unisys Corporate Senior Vice President] Dewaine Osman said at the opening session, they are a technology-based company growing through services. I think a lot of people - and this comes back to the grass roots people, the people that grew up with Sperry and Burroughs and really love that hardware - get very fearful when they hear something in the trades that says Unisys is de-implementing technology. They’re not. But reporters tend to chop things apart and focus in on a word and so, we tend to try to put out fires here. PC Week misquoted Larry Weinbach saying that they weren’t going to be focused on their Enterprise Server line, the Clear Path line, and those fires traditionally happen every year, and it’s always through the media. It’s a misquote, they’ve pulled something out of context, they print it and then they come to the conference here and we put out the fire. So it’s a cycle.

UNISPERE: How has Unisys evolved to meet today’s IS managers’ needs?

NICHOLS: Well, I would say with the latest Chairman of the Board coming in, Larry Weinbach, we have seen the organization make a tremendous turnaround. Probably the last 12 months has been tremendous with what Larry is doing with that organization. The enthusiasm he has re-injected into the employees; they used to walk around like zombies with their heads down all gloom and doom; and he’s brought them all back to life. I’ve spoken to a few and they could pretty much reiterate this whole thing and it’s given them a new outlook.

UNISPERE: I’ve spoken to a few and they could pretty much reiterate this whole thing and it’s given them a new outlook.

NICHOLS: Absolutely. And it’s probably the best thing that’s happened to the Unisys Corporation in a very long time. The Board meets with him on a bi-annual basis - every six months or so. He’s very sincere, very honest, very open, very forward. It’s all the things you’ve wanted in a CEO, to call a spade a spade. Don’t beat around the bush and tell us what you think we want to hear, tell us what you’re doing, tell us how you’re doing - and you can see it in the people. You actually can see it in the Unisys employees.

UNISPERE: What market trends did you notice over your tenure as chairman?

NICHOLS: More and more integration, you know, it’s not that monolithical IT center any longer. It’s becoming much more complicated. What I would say is that the market trends were always there, they’re just becoming much more of the norm instead of the exception. It tends to make a very complicated life for the IT manager, it works, it takes constant attention. I would say there’s lots of software involved - you just don’t have one player involved anymore, you have lots of vendors helping you keep it running. So it makes the life of an IT manager much more sophisticated and complicated because there are so many players involved; it’s not just one vendor any longer.

UNISPERE: How has the Unisys landscape changed?

NICHOLS: It’s changed with the market. I would say the industry has changed and I wouldn’t say Unisys has changed. I mean, where the market is going is more services oriented, more professional services oriented and the reason is the world’s getting more complicated. An IT environment probably has 20-30 software vendors helping them get their job done so you need professional services to understand all those components. So I think it’s the industry as a whole, not Unisys in particular, that has changed.

UNISPERE: What trends do you see for the upcoming year?

NICHOLS: I’d say Y2K is going to eat shops alive. I was watching CNN this morning; they’re predicting billions and billions of dollars in fixing the Y2K bugs. I think 1999 is going to be a tremendous year of testing, certifications, renovations and I think all projects - the majority of projects in 1999, unless you’ve already gotten it taken care of - will be focused on Y2K. I think it’s going to suspend lots of business plans. The things people did each year to get their business better and better will be suspended because they’ve got to address that problem.

So I think ’99 will be a big focus, a huge focus - not to say ’98 wasn’t or ’97 wasn’t - but you can’t stop the clock. It’s going to happen, you can’t stop it. And if you don’t have your house in order, God help you. So ’99 is going to be that scramble to get it working, if you don’t have it working already.

UNISPERE: What’s the value of UNITE and other user groups like COMMON and INTEREX, especially as traditional hardware vendors turn to more services-based structures and as the industry in whole moves toward open systems?

NICHOLS: I’ve been coming to the User Association since 1978, so this is my 20th anniversary with this user organization in one form or another. The trends are interesting in how they move up and down the line. I don’t think mainframes will ever go away. I think Gartner and Metagroup and Forrester research have identified that you will have this world of open systems surrounded by a very powerful engine to run it. Be it an NT platform or a UNIX platform, it’ll be mainframe-like, it’ll just be a different operating system ... so you’re always going to have the need for a User’s Association for that synergy, that education and that networking of how you solve business problems and challenges. So even though the world might be changing in more service oriented styles, you’re still going to have a very large engine somewhere running your transactions. You’re going to need a large - you’re not going to get rid of ATM transaction, cash machines, banking - you’re going to need a very powerful, clustered environment with a technical staff to run that engine. It’s not just going to be a PC server here and a PC server there, it’s truly going to be an enterprise server. You can call it a mainframe or you can call it an enterprise server - you still need them.

UNISPERE: What do these user groups need to do to stay in business in the next century?

NICHOLS: I think there will still be that need, that synergy. It might be a smaller organization, it might be a larger organization. Technology trends now are changing at such rapid rate; they’re saying now that PC technology is evolving every 45 days. In the last three years you have seen such an evolution of PC hardware that the whole technology of video on demand, multimedia centers, the boxes are getting more powerful so you’re doing more things with them; and they’re getting more complicated. So I think you’re always going to have a need for a User Association of one style or another. The players might change, but the needs stay the same.

UNISPERE: Any final comments?

NICHOLS: No. It’s been fun!