January 13, 2012

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I got to know Judith Burton when she was still Judith Clarke and Senior VP Corporate Marketing for Novell, in 1987. Novell had just bought a company called CXI, which had been a client of Hodskins Simone & Searls, the Palo Alto advertising agency in which I was a partner. By that time HS&S had come to specialize in communications technology clients, and the chance to do something with Novell as well seemed more than opportune, since it was clear that Novell was smarter about comms than just about anybody at that time.

So David Hodskins came up with the idea of putting together a “connectivity consortium” made up of Novell and several other HS&S clients. In seeing connectivity as a hot topic on the horizon, David was way ahead of everybody’s time. But that made it perfect for the two most forward-thinking minds at Novell: Judith and Craig Burton, who would later become her husband.

I didn’t know Craig before I pitched Judith on the connectivity consortium idea — and she took the bait. She brought Craig to our first meeting, and the two of them together blew my mind. Judith saw no boundaries to what could be done with marketing, and Craig saw the Big Picture of connectivity better than anybody I had ever met, before or since.

In the short term, over subsequent conversations and meetings, I saw how it was that Novell changed the networking conversation so quickly and completely. It was during these learnings that I came up with the “markets are conversations” line that became the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto, more than a decade later. Because Novell was busy proving it, more than any other company in technology at that time.

Just a few years earlier, the network conversation was mostly about “pipes and protocols.” Data Communications and Communications Week were the leading trade pubs in the space, fat with stories and ads that pushed and compared the virtues of Ethernet vs. Token Ring and bus vs. ring vs. star topologies. Every vendor sold whole networks from the wires on up, including everything that ran on those wires, file servers, network interface cards in the backs of PCs, and applications. If you bought a Sytek or a Corvus network, you couldn’t use anybody else’s hardware, software or wiring. Every vendor had its own silo (or, in some cases, such as IBM’s, an assortment of silos). And it occurred to almost nobody that there should be a choice other than silos and lock-ins.

It was Craig Burton’s idea make Novell’s NetWare a “Network Operating System” (NOS) that could run on everybody’s hardware and wiring. NetWare thus became a new platform for network services that could run everywhere, starting with group file storage (the first local “cloud,” you might say), and printing.

But nobody talked about networking on Novell’s terms until Judith Clarke literally invented whole new venues for network conversations. These included a magazine (LAN Times), a trade show (NetWorld), a reseller channel and a class of networking professionals (Certified Netware Engineers, or CNEs). By the end of the Eighties the world talked about networking in terms of capabilities and services rather than of pipes and protocols.

One move that stands out for me was Novell’s decision to drop its grandfathered position at the center of the Comdex show floor (this was when Comdex was one of the biggest trade shows on Earth) and rent ballroom space next door on the ground floor of the Las Vegas Hilton. So rather than show stuff off on the floor with everybody else, Novell set up a storefront and business meeting space right where the traffic was thickest. And it worked.

As Craig put it to me a few days ago, “She changed the industry in the way she approached people and ideas, taking a podunk company in Provo and making it look like it owned the planet — which, in many ways, it did. And she unselfishly gave credit to everybody else all along the way.”

Novell began to slide after Judith and Craig left the company, in 1989. With the Burtons gone, Novell forgot where it came from. While Judith and Craig liked to zig where Microsoft zagged, and to embrace Microsoft’s — and everybody else’s — platforms and technologies, Novell CEO Ray Noorda preferred to attack Microsoft head-on, by acquiring already-lame competitors (remember WordPerfect?) and failing over and over to make a dent in Microsoft’s hull. It was sad to watch.

For reasons I forget, the connectivity consortium didn’t happen, but I got to be close friends of both Judith and Craig, and have remained so ever since. I also consulted the couple after they left Novell to co-found The Burton Group with Jamie Lewis, another brilliant Novell veteran.

A few years later Judith and Craig moved on to consulting on their own. (Under Jamie’s continued leadership The Burton Group was sold to Gartner a couple years ago.) Craig especially has been a steady source of original thinking on countless subjects. Judith sometimes participated in projects with Craig, but mostly focused on philanthropic and civic projects, and time with family. (Here is her Linkedin profile.)

On Tuesday of this week she collapsed at her home, and died later in the hospital. Her death is a shock to everybody. Even though she hit a few medical bumps this past year, she seemed to be doing better. And she was just 66. Being 64 myself, I consider that age way too young for life’s end.

My heart aches for Craig, and for Judith’s kids and grandkids, whom she adored. In my own memory, her amazing blue eyes, bright smile and sweet voice persist. She was a beautiful woman, as well as a smart, creative and loving one. The picture above gives just a hint toward all of that.

It does bother me a bit that her death has not made bigger news. If she had passed during her heyday at Novell, the news would have been huge. But then, the news ain’t what it used to be, and will continue to evolve away from the old top-down few-to-many systems. The Internet is everybody’s connectivity consortium now.

We didn’t end up needing Data Communications, Comms Week, LAN Times, NetWorld, Comdex or countless other once-sturdy institutions that were obsoleted by something Craig and Judith both saw coming long before it arrived: the ability of anybody to connect with anybody, outside of any one company’s system for trapping customers and users.

Judith’s work back in the decade helped make the future in which we now all live and thrive. We’ll miss her, but we won’t miss each other. To Judith, all of us were the people networks were for. And now we have that, regardless of how hard any company or government works to lock us back into silos or limit what we can do in them. Had she been less loving, I doubt she would have seen that, or worked so well at what she did for all of us.

[Later...] Here is an email from Jamie Lewis that fell through the cracks when it arrived (apologies for that):

I first met Judith in 1984, when I was working for a publication for PC retailers. I was writing about PC networking, so I inevitably met both her and Craig in my coverage of Novell. I started getting to know Judith in 1985, when the magazine I was working for folded, and Novell offered me a job in the corporate marketing department.

As many people know, there’s a very long list of things Judith did in making Novell the company it was in its hey day. She founded the LAN Times, a corporate newspaper devoted to networking. (Yes, it sounds obvious today. But in 1983, not so much. And there are more than a few technology writers still working today that earned their chops writing for the LAN Times.) She created the NetWorld tradeshow. (Again, obvious or even antiquated in today’s context, but then, it was the first of its kind.) She built a PR and marketing machine, complete with relentless press tours, events, and other efforts to get the NetWare word out.

The list goes on. But that list is just that—a list. While most, if not all, of the stuff on that list was important, innovative, and impactful, it really doesn’t do the woman justice to simply enumerate things on a list. She was more than the sum of the items on that list.

If you look the word “dynamic” up in the dictionary, you’ll find Judith’s picture there. When she walked into the room, the room changed. She commanded attention. She ran the show. She exuded authority and confidence. This could rub some people the wrong way, but it is what made her successful. That she accomplished what she did in a time and place that wasn’t exactly ideal for a career-oriented woman says a lot about her resolve.

And that gets to the most important thing I learned from her, something that I think was at the heart of why Novell did so well during her tenure. Simply put, it’s this: Have the balls to act like who or what you want to become. If you wait until you are that to start acting like that, you’ll never be that.

It’s clear how this approach worked so well for Novell. When I joined, Novell had about 250 employees. Its revenues were microscopic in comparison to the “big guys” – IBM, Digital Equipment and, later, Microsoft – that it was challenging while simultaneously doing battle with a host of similarly sized companies on the other.

But I can’t tell you how many times I heard people say, “Wow, I thought Novell was a lot bigger than that,” when they heard how many employees we had, or what annual revenues were at the time. Novell in every way looked and behaved like it belonged in the big leagues—like a much bigger company—due in large part to Judith’s skills in marketing and communications. It’s a mistake to underestimate how important this was to Novell’s success.

The fact that NetWare was a great product certainly helped. But we all know that the information technology market is littered with the corpses of companies that had great technology but didn’t know how to market it or sell it. Judith’s ability to position Novell played no small part in ensuring the success of what was a very good product. Because Novell acted like it belonged in the big leagues, it did belong. This raised the customers’ comfort level, making it easier for them to bet on a small company for such an important product. It also forced much larger companies, such as DEC and IBM, to treat Novell as a peer.

I can distinctly remember when I realized how important this was. We were in final competition with DEC for a very large deal with a very large company. A Fortune 200 company. If we got the business, it would be a major win, a win at the “corporate standard” level, the kind of win that would be a major milestone. During the final stages of the competition, DEC issued a 30-page white paper that we later subtitled “why NetWare causes cancer in rats”. The sales person on the account phoned me in an absolute panic. The paper was full of misinformation, she said, and she was afraid the customer was going to believe it. I told her that we first needed to thank DEC for establishing Novell as a legitimate competitor in the eyes of the customer. We would respond to the paper, I said, but would be careful not to spoil the big favor DEC had just done for us. We did respond, but in the high road fashion that Judith (and Craig) established as our modus operandi, the approach that drove my initial answer to the call. And we won the business.

That positioning also made Novell look superior in comparison to the companies that were much closer to it in size and revenue. 3Com was our nemesis, the one company that everyone in our company loved to hate. Yes, 3Com was hardware to Novell’s software, which is why NetWare prevailed. But NetWare also succeeded because Judith was so good at positioning Novell, establishing software as the issue in the market and forcing 3Com (and later Microsoft and IBM) to fight on Novell’s terms.

There were, of course, a very large number of people responsible for making Novell what it was. It’s also nice to be on the right side of the issue, and there’s no question that Novell and NetWare were in the right place at the right time. But the attitude, the positioning, and the messaging that was Novell’s essence during that amazing run in the 80s and early 90s, that was all Judith. Novell wouldn’t have been the same company without her efforts. That win over DEC, for example, wouldn’t have happened without the months and years of relentless and effective marketing that preceded it. And I don’t think the correlation between Judith’s personality and Novell’s was any coincidence. Novell had the audacity to act like it belonged because Judith did.

Years later, at Burton Group, whenever I heard people say they thought we were bigger than we actually were, I never failed to think of Judith. We carried that same attitude, a willingness to believe and act like we belonged. I learned a great deal from Judith, but it’s that lesson that had the biggest impact. She and Craig took a chance on a journalism major that had never written a line of code, and for that I will be forever grateful. She inspired and drove those around her to be better, to be what they aspired to be. I think I can speak for all of the people who knew and worked with her when I say she’ll be missed, and that we appreciate what she did for us, and for the industry she played such a large part in creating.

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