Careers: Interviews
Internationally Regarded Group Publisher, Noted Editor and Journalist, Top Ranking Senior Executive

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Fritz Nelson.

 

Fritz Nelson, Vice President, Group Publisher for the Network Computing Enterprise Architecture Group, is responsible for the overall direction and management of the following media brands: Network Computing, Network Magazine, Intelligent Enterprise, Secure Enterprise, Storage Pipeline, and Transform.

 

Previously, Fritz has served as the reviews editor, the features editor, executive editor, editor, and editor-in-chief for Network Computing. He wrote a column called Full Nelson, a satirical look at the seedier side of vendor hype. Prior to joining Network Computing, Fritz worked with Martin Marietta’s Computing Standards group -- a team that tested and evaluated technology, and whose objective was to set corporate computing and networking standards.

 

Fritz was a technical writer for USBI, a subsidiary of United Technologies that manages parts of the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program. Fritz graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Maryland with a B.S. in journalism.

 

Discussion:

 

Q: Fritz, you have an impressive and long record of accomplishment as a writer, journalist, senior editor, publisher, and vice-president. We are fortunate to have you do this interview—thank you!

 

A: With all of the other distinguished people you’ve interviewed, I’m honored.

 

Q: What sparked your interest in computers?

 

A: I couldn’t really pinpoint any particular circumstance or defining moment. When I left college, computing was just part of life and it became an interesting industry to learn and write about.

 

As a journalism guy, getting into the world of computing in large corporations, I’d pick up the trade journals and read, and that probably sparked my interest more than anything. From those journals, I learned, but I also found some of them entertaining, and I realized that maybe there was some combination of the skills I was learning and the journalism I was trained for.

 

Q: Do you have any “surprising” stories to tell from your days at USBI and Martin Marietta?

 

A: I was at USBI (now no longer around) shortly after the Challenger disaster, and we spent a great deal of time recovering and getting ready to get back into space. I was fresh out of school, and my job was to help engineers and program managers write change orders for the booster rockets. If anyone thinks the language of computing is arcane, just spend a few months with the space program!

 

Two stories come to mind in particular. I began working with our PR department as we prepared for the first flight following Challenger, and we were planning an all-company party in Huntsville, Alabama to celebrate the launch. One of our tasks was to create a big banner for the party and we were brainstorming what it should say. In a fit of gallows humor, one of us (OK, it was me) suggested “Way to go, USBI,” which could be used in case of success or failure.

 

My all-time favorite story, however, was a change order we processed close to a launch. There had been a leakage problem with one of the batteries aboard the boosters. This would have prevented a launch, so someone somewhere came up with a plan to wrap the battery with disposable diapers.

 

Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) was fascinating. So many divisions, so many people, so much going on. Our group helped move so much Novell NetWare just within our company that we were given Reseller status. One of the things that still sticks with me to this day is that we had a company-wide videoconferencing system. I suspect that many companies had room-based systems, but even so, this was 15 years ago, and we used this technology relentlessly. One of our favorite things was to ask the executives of some of the biggest vendor companies to come speak to us, via videoconference. And they always did – one of the beauties of being such a big company. We had John Sculley (of Apple at the time), Steve Ballmer, and many others over the years. There were probably 30 – 40 of us spread out throughout the company, and we’d get to ask questions.

 

A little known fact about Lockheed Martin, perhaps, is that, at least in those days, where most of the company was run on mainframes, there was a small-ish group in Bethesda that had a business in leasing time-shares on our mainframes. I was fascinated to find out, for instance, that we ran Burger King’s payroll system.

 

One of the things I still remember about the technology and product evaluations we would do is that our company’s purchasing department would do a vendor viability study of all of our “finalist” companies. We wanted to make sure those we did business with were financially sound. I find it remarkable that we were doing that back then. We’re finding that viability, service and support have become key evaluation criteria today – probably not a big surprise, given the number of companies that have gone out of business or fallen down on service and support. But the big surprise is that IT folks are being held accountable for this aspect of the decision-making process.

 

Q: From your column, Full Nelson, which story provoked the most controversy? Do you have any funny stories to share?

 

A: It’s always when I tackled the big companies, poking fun or challenging them to do better. And the response came from both sides: either supporters of those companies questioning whether I was just like all the rest, piling on because they are easy targets, or detractors thanking me for saying what they so often felt.

 

My column “Here Comes The Sun” probably was the epitome of this. I ripped into Sun for its long-standing history of arrogance, which I’d heard from many customers, but which I also experienced first hand. They would often call to offer a product for review, but only in exchange for it being on our cover. I really tore into them, and I got tons of e-mail thanking me for finally saying what so many others had not, for not always just picking on Microsoft. But I also got quite a few asking whether I was a Microsoft tool. One of my favorite comments: “When Bill Gates farts, your breath stinks.”

 

Some of the more nostalgic pieces also drew a great deal of e-mail. I think people like to take walks down memory lane. People also seemed to like when I evaluated the marketing lexicon of the time. And when I wrote, with our Editor at the time, Art Wittmann, a feature on the CEOs of Lucent, Cisco, Nortel and 3Com, I wrote an accompanying column that drew a big response. I always love how vacuous these CEOs can be, and so I took some of their quotes and did my own, um, analysis of what they really meant to say – which I thought was far more interesting than what they actually said.

 

Finally, anything I ever wrote about Novell drew massive response. People are just fanatical about Novell, even to this day. A couple of years ago, I took Novell to task, and I said their earnings were as flat as Winona Ryder. I got a flurry of e-mail on that one.

 

Oh, one regret probably: I once said that some useless technology – I can’t remember what it was – was as useful as dental floss in West Virginia. I still think that’s a pretty funny line, but it really made some people angry, and because of that, I wish I hadn’t written it.

 

Q: You have an amazing record of successes! What are your top three achievements and why?

 

A: I cannot classify anything I’ve done into an amazing success, and when you look at what so many people have done in our industry, I’m lucky to have been a fly on the wall, at best.

 

Q: Which three “prior” positions provided the greatest challenges and lessons? What were these lessons?

 

A: Columnist -- For some people it might be easy to have an opinion on things. In fact, when I read columns in any publication, I am floored by the lack of originality and quality. I’m not sure I ever did it any better than anybody else, but I sure as hell made damn sure I did it with originality in both thought and execution. If you’re going to take on a challenge like writing a column, you can’t just put thought to paper – it’s not enough, and people can get that anywhere. Go that extra step, put yourself into it, and make a statement.

 

From editor-in-chief to publisher --  Moving from being focused on content to being responsible for the overall business was a big leap for me, and one I almost didn’t make. There was so much I didn’t know. What I learned, however, is that just like anything I’d ever done, I wasn’t alone. I have had the most remarkable people to work with over the years.

 

Technical Writer for USBI -- The challenge was simple: there wasn’t that much to do. Anyone who wishes for an easy, cushy job is fooling themselves. I’ll never want a job where you just make yourself busy; it’s got to be meaningful.

 

Q: Can you describe your current work with your various media brands?

 

A: I have two primary roles. First, I am the publisher of each of five stand-alone media platforms (by which I mean print magazines and associated web, newsletters and events): Network Computing, Network Magazine, Intelligent Enterprise, Secure Enterprise and Transform. This also includes a six-time supplement, called Storage Pipeline, which runs across a couple of those magazines. In the publisher capacity, I’m responsible for each of the business entities, which includes the product (content), sales and marketing. Because I have more of a content background, I probably get more heavily involved in the editorial processes than many publishers – in fact, the editors occasionally ask me to write an article or two. Second, I serve as a vice president and group publisher for those platforms, and how they fit into the overall scheme and business of our company, CMP Media.

 

Q: What are the major strengths of your company?

 

A: CMP Media is a big company with many focused and nimble parts that act as business entities targeting specific market sectors. It’s the best of all worlds, really. We have the credibility of being a big, successful media company with a profitable, well-capitalized parent company (United Business Media). Yet we are the only media company with expertise and leading brands in the channel (CRN, VARBusiness), electronics or OEM (EETimes), gaming and software development markets (Dr. Dobbs), not to mention, of course, the enterprise/end-user business technology market that Network Computing and InformationWeek are in, for example. We also have an incredibly successful health-care publishing division within CMP.

 

Each group within CMP is very focused on its particular audience segment and subject matter, so we can compete with niche publishers on that basis if need be, but more important we can be the authoritative voice of information in those markets. But we all also work together, so we can offer our advertisers any customer set they want, depending on what they’re trying to accomplish and how they’re going to market. We do that not just by knowing each other and working well together (which we do), but because we’ve also centralized things like audience development (readers) and our web business, two very big keys to our success. Having a single, unified audience database allows us to help our advertising customers understand their customers better, and how they can reach them through our various media platforms.

 

Techweb, our overarching web brand, has also been centralized, which allows our reader customers a single point of entry into our network of web platforms, but also consistency across those platforms.

 

In other words, our strength is in our depth in each market, and our breadth across all of those markets.

 

Q: Where do you see yourself and your company in five years?

 

A: I always think that five years is too far out to really understand and make predictions on – maybe that’s short-sighted of me, but even at the fast-paced clip of the technology industry, five years seems like an eternity. Five years ago, I was an editor and hadn’t given any thought to becoming a publisher.

 

However, I think it’s becoming clearer that the publishing landscape will change in interesting ways over time. Hopefully we’ve all put notions of the elimination of paper out of our heads for the time being. But I’ve personally seen a change in how people use different media formats, and certainly the web has changed how we do business.

 

It’s uncertain how this will happen, but I think it’s fairly easy to see that information needs are being served on a more customized basis, and that trend will continue. In fact, there will be a radical change eventually in that these customized information needs are being served today selectively by readers – that is, they go where they need to on our web sites, and bounce from topic to topic and site to site at their whim. Once we start to understand that behavior better, the possibilities are endless.

 

For example, today we talk to our readers constantly, and we build editorial calendars that seem to fit with what we’ve interpreted as our readers’ informational needs. We have no way of knowing how much of an issue anybody reads – polls tell us a few things, but it’s never exact. Online, you know where people are, where they go, what’s popular, what’s useless. That’s a bit overstated, of course, because sometimes good content may simply be too well hidden, but the point is that if you do things right, you’ll only ever have to produce the information people want. You can try new things, but you’ll get your instant feedback.

 

More important, you can begin to create more personalized information or versions of your content. The technology is already there, but nobody has done it right, yet. We still think in terms of “broadcast.” Print is really a broadcast to a defined audience. Our media websites are reader-selected broadcasts. Ultimately, we want to deliver just the right information to just the right reader.

 

Of course, for an advertiser, that also has amazing appeal. Today, with targeted information vehicles like electronic newsletters and webcasts, we’re already seeing advertisers ask for less reach, and better targeting. What I’ve just described is the ultimate in doing that. We’ve been experimenting with that in a special e-mail newsletter we do on security threats – subscribers have been allowed to sign up for the portions of the content (based on what operating system platforms they run).

 

We also think that because there’s so much you can do differently online, that web-based publishing will change the way we do print publishing. For instance, we can build and encourage far better reader-interaction mechanisms online than in print. We began a project in 2003 to experiment with these concepts, where we actually build articles online, piece-by-piece, depending on reader input and feedback on how we’re evaluating technology. Thus we’re able to shape that content better according to the needs of our readers, but we also get a whole bunch of content we would never have had in some cases.

 

Q: From your remarkable career, what are your top ten tips?

 

A: I’ve found a few things helpful just by watching others I admire, and some other things helpful by screwing up and learning the hard way. But here goes:

1) Surround yourself with great people and you will not fail. Then . . .

2) . . . realize it’s them, not you.

3) You spend probably half your day or more doing your job. If it isn’t fun, get the hell out.

4) A different spin on that last one: have a sense of humor, for goodness sake. You’re excused if you’re saving lives, but even then . . .

5) There are leaders who compel people to follow, and those who command. Be the former. Respect is harder to earn than fear, of course, but its affect is more far-reaching and longer-lasting, not to mention just a better way of living. I can’t stand if someone is afraid of me – I find it insulting.

6) If you find success at any level (a project, a career milestone, a profit, whatever), stop for a moment and bask in it. Hell, soak in it! The next thing will still be there, but too often we all fall into the trap of building to build, rather than building to achieve.

7) Know that the person you just dismissed or treated a little rottenly will someday be in a position to do the same to you. For example, personally, I’ve been the pursue-ee (when I was an editor) and the pursue-er (as the publisher) and it’s frightening how often the tables have turned and I look up to find that person I may have treated a bit too cavalierly years ago.

8 ) Look outside of your industry and you will find ideas you can modify as your own. As a columnist, I had to find my own voice, but I needed to learn from others. Because I’m responsible for a business unit, I love to see the metrics someone in, say, the airline industry uses, or manufacturing.

9) Constantly evolve and innovate, no matter what. If you aren’t doing that, it’s probably time to move onto something else.

10) Really do care about your subjects – if it’s a customer, if it’s someone you’re interviewing for an article, whatever – don’t just listen to say you’ve done it.

 

Q: What experiences continue to “amaze” you?

 

A: At the risk of coming off a cynic, I am constantly baffled by the ability of technology marketers to shroud the realities of their technology with goofy and empty terminology and jargon. There’s nothing like the truth to build credibility. Sure, there’s a value proposition to communicate: sometimes it’s got to be more than just a switch or a CRM product – it enables business or provides strategic advantage or enables the management of the entire life cycle of the information or helps optimize your business processes. But damn! What is it? That’s important too.

 

On a more positive note, I’m blown away by the ingenuity of people in this industry. Just when you think everything’s been invented, there’s something new, something better.

 

I am amazed that often-times technology comes full circle. Web Services? Same idea as distributed applications. Utility computing and grid? Very similar in concept to time-sharing. Wireless vendors are going through many of the machinations and evolution seen by the wired Ethernet industry years ago.

 

I am always amazed at the daring of people to go start something new, and the passion they bring to these endeavors in the face of great risk and uncertainty.

 

I was amazed when I once asked Cisco CEO John Chambers if he knew any good West Virginia jokes (that’s where he was born and raised, and it’s kind of a border joke thing, since I spent many of my formative years in Maryland) that he went on for 10 minutes about how West Virginia was like a small business! Yet I am equally amazed at what a kind, caring, person he is . . . without fail, it seems.

 

Q: Do you have any additional humorous stories to share?

 

A: Well, there is this one. Way way back, a PR person had a wild sexual escapade with an editor of another publication. I know that because she sent the details of that not to her friend, as she thought she had, but to our entire editorial team! I’ll never forget that.

 

I have others I can’t tell.

 

Q: What are the five most important IT trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?

 

A: 1) Utility Computing -- It seems we’ve embraced this trend already, but there are still a few technologies challenges, mostly in the area of network management. In the sense that we can deliver IT as a service, this is useful.

 

2) Wireless -- Though we all obsess about this because it has a high cool factor, I truly think wireless technology will rule the day. The question is when. I think we’ll look back 20 years from now with little understanding of why it all took so long.

 

3) Outsourcing -- Probably little debate here – all of our research tells us that this is just a way of life now. But what our readers are finding is that there’s just as much work in managing the outsourcer relationship, and that some things just don’t make sense to let go of. The challenge will continue to be figuring out the right way to do this.

 

4) Performance Management -- Everything from the management of operational performance to financial performance to IT performance. We have become a business society infatuated with process and performance improvement, and the measurement of improvements

.

5) A rapid congealing of enterprise content management technologies and strategies. There is so much unstructured data, and we’re beginning to be incredibly specialized in how we provide access to and delivery of that critical asset. This affects so many industries, from insurance (claims processing) to financial institutions (loan and mortgage and investment processing) to the government record keeping to simply anyone doing business on the web.

 

I didn’t mention Linux and Security on purpose. Because . . . . partly because they’ve been hyped enough, but also because I think these are just part of the fabric now. A trend isn’t a trend when it’s taken hold and taken for granted. You could argue that various aspects of Linux deployment and security technology have a long way to go before they have wide-spread penetration and acceptance and maturity – I wouldn’t disagree. But I think we’re well on our way, and these issues (especially security) are just a part of daily IT life.

 

Q: What are the five greatest challenges facing businesses today? What are their solutions?

 

A: In no particular order:

 

1) Customer Privacy -- As our ability to reach customers, suppliers and other partners evolves, we cannot lose control, either as businesses ensuring a customer is really a customer, but also as businesses protecting customer data and privacy rights.

 

2) In the short term, getting more out of what you have – that infrastructure might be creaky, you may have 30% of the manpower you once had, you may have had to make sacrifices that have reduced quality somewhere. We’ve learned our most recent lessons on extravagance and blind optimism. So even with a positive economic outlook, we all know we’ve got to make due, and in many cases continue to get more out of the resources we have.

 

3) Maximizing Productivity -- Competition is so fierce and unrelenting. In many industries, innovation lasts a nano-second. Productivity improvement must become part of the culture.

 

4) Ethics, Compliance, Regulation – Customers come in the form of employees, buying customers, shareholders. Business owners must please them all. Part of that is really deciding what kind of business you are – now, with recent legislation and the wake of so much scandal, there’s teeth behind needing to be better corporate citizens. Suddenly we are all scrutinizing everything we do with a fine-tooth comb.

 

5) Growth -- Where will it come from? This isn’t new, but I think we’re all tired of looking at ways to re-structure our businesses and get more out of existing resources and making do. I think by now we’d all rather grow. But growth won’t just come, we’ve got to go find it, and often that means in new places, by taking different approaches.

 

Q: Who are the winners and losers in the next five years?

 

A: - I think Sun loses unless it can adapt; or re-invent itself as Apple has.

- I think Dell continues to win. Nobody has come close to approaching its business model.

- I think Microsoft continues to win, but so does Linux. I think they can co-exist and both grow. Microsoft will simply have to grow in different ways, and they’ve proven effective at that already.

- I think Novell loses, because although their Linux play is compelling, they have paid little to no attention on their loyal customer base. I want them to win, but they drive me crazy.

- I think end-users win. Despite my earlier diatribe about e-mail, personal productivity tools are rapidly improving.

- I think for a while, information consumers will lose as often as they win. When was the last time you needed to go to the library? I never go, because it’s all there on the web. But because it’s so easy to be an information publisher on the web, anyone can do it – and so anyone does! I sometimes don’t trust the medium and the message . . .and I suspect I’m not alone.

- EMC wins. I didn’t think so for the longest time, but they’ve climbed down from the perch of arrogance. They have flexible pricing. They are forming partnerships. Their recent acquisitions (Legato and Documentum) show tremendous foresight about the relationship between data and storage.

- I want a company like Symantec to win, but I haven’t seen anything that would suggest it’s possible. But I think they are in the best position to be the comprehensive security solution provider. It’s theirs to lose and win.

- Cisco will win, but I think at some point they’ve got to innovate in new markets. Hell, maybe just once to remind people they can do it and re-establish that credibility. The not-so-fast-but-just-right-follower approach has been brilliant, but I sense a growing lack of weariness about Cisco as a company.

 

Q: Any predications about the economy and future IT spending?

 

A: I don’t know enough to predict the direction of our economy, though I certainly feel positively about it after a few tough years. I also believe that optimism and pessimism can feed the fire either way – I think we sank into a recession so quickly because everyone just believed at once that the economy was starting to fail, and we all stopped spending. A self-fulfilling prophesy to some extent. But I also think the reverse can happen. I think it is happening, but we’re all just kind of reluctant to say so out loud!

 

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

 

A: I have an IBM Thinkpad that I use on the road, in the office and at home. I try to connect wirelessly wherever I go, but that’s not always possible. I’m fairly practical in this regard, in that I don’t really need much more than that – I don’t carry any fancy hand-held (though I’ve tried them) or phone . . . just sort of your basic company issue. One thing I’ve learned in becoming more of a publisher is that there’s far more value in human contact – years behind the screen made me forget that.

 

I also happen to find e-mail distracting. I like that it can be done on my time, at my behest. But I also think it’s too intrusive. Although it’s an invaluable tool, sometimes I just wish it would go away. I think many of us create our priorities around what other people are telling us in their electronic communications. It’s a double-edged sword.

 

Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

 

A: You know, there are some questions I’d ask. In fact, these are questions I have asked others, in slightly different ways.

 

Q1: Who would win in a fight between you and your rival publisher?

A1: I’m a lover, not a fighter.

 

Q2: Why aren’t there more women in IT?

A2: Probably for the same reasons there aren’t more women in lots of professions. One of our most prolific and respected writers is Lori MacVittie, and she is a technologist with extraordinary insights and capability. I think it’s somewhat incumbent on people like Lori to serve as role models and encourage young women to embrace technology. I think our high schools, which are creating more IT curriculum than ever, need to encourage this as well.

 

Q3: Have you ever been offered a bribe?

A3: That’s not a very polite question!

 

Q: Fritz, your in-depth insights are of great value to our audience. Thank you for doing this interview!

 

A: My pleasure.

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