Careers: Interviews
Internationally Regarded Group Editorial Director

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Rob Preston.

Rob is the editor-in-chief for Network Computing, but also serves in a larger fashion as Editorial Director of the Network Computing Enterprise Architecture Group, which includes Network Magazine, Intelligent Enterprise, Secure Enterprise, and Storage Pipeline.

Preston has more than 17 years of management experience in technology journalism. Before joining Network Computing, Preston served as editor-in-chief of InternetWeek, where he refocused the publication on how enterprises are deriving returns from their Internet technology investments. At InternetWeek, Preston also reorganized beats along technology and vertical industry lines; established an editorial advisory board of luminaries; and created the annual InternetWeek 100 special issue ranking the nation's leading Internet technology users.

Preston previously spent three years at InformationWeek, most recently as senior managing editor, overseeing the industry-leading magazine's news and features coverage. He can be reached by e-mail at rpreston@cmp.com.

Discussion:

Q: Rob, you have a remarkable history of accomplishment. Thank you for sharing your deep insights with our audience.

A: The pleasure’s all mine. Thanks for giving me this opportunity.

Q: Describe your experiences with InformationWeek and InternetWeek and your many challenges and successes.

A: My time at those publications—from 1996 to 2001—happened to coincide with the “glory days” of information technology. IT organizations no longer were considered behind-the-scenes cost centers. For many companies, the IT organization was “the business”. The Internet was the engine of economic growth, and it was transforming many companies’ business models. CIOs and e-business chiefs were rock stars, reporting directly to their companies’ CEOs rather than to operational executives.

While both InformationWeek and InternetWeek prospered with the times, we tried to keep our editorial coverage grounded. We focused less on what the dot-coms were doing and more on how established leaders like Wal-Mart, General Motors, Schwab, and General Electric were leveraging the Internet and information technology. Unfortunately, when the bubble burst, so did InternetWeek. Despite InternetWeek’s focus on mainstream applications of Internet technology, the media market lumped us with all the “new economy” cheerleaders.

Q: What two experiences stand out from that time-period?

A: Two case studies stand out the most. One reflects the best promise of the Internet and information technology. The other reflects the unkept promise.

While at InformationWeek, I and two other editors had the opportunity in 1997 to visit Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, AR, headquarters. We did what I still consider to be the definitive story package on how IT can make a huge difference, even on a tight budget. Even before the concept of “ROI” was in vogue, Wal-Mart was measuring every IT investment. Even before the concept of IT-business alignment was in vogue, Wal-Mart’s IT professionals considered themselves retailers first, technologists second. They were all on the same page, delivering custom-built systems at light speed. They even quoted folksy sayings from the company’s legendary founder, “Mr. Sam” Walton. It was a little scary.

Enron, another case study subject I was involved with (while at InternetWeek), was everything Wal-Mart wasn’t. Extravagant. Cocky. Dismissive. I had the opportunity to interview Enron CEO Jeff Skilling at the company’s towering headquarters in Houston, at the height of the dot-com bubble, and he was indeed an impressive man. Skilling had you believing that Enron would take over the world! Enron’s business model made intuitive sense: Owning the factors of production and distribution (like refineries and pipelines) isn’t nearly as important in the Internet era as they used to be, as trusted middlemen like Enron could make more money by bringing buyers to sellers electronically and taking a piece of the action. The company was moving aggressively beyond its energy roots into telecom bandwidth, metals, pulp & paper—just about any commodity that could be traded. Enron had entire floors of trading desks that rivaled anything on Wall Street. Of course, we all know now what was happening behind the facade at Enron. Even the constructive power of the Internet can’t overcome the destructive power of greed. 

Q: Describe the relationship between “a content focus” as editor-in-chief to “an overall business focus”.

A: The publishing business is somewhat unique in that we have two sets of customers with sometimes conflicting interests. As editor-in-chief, my job is to serve Network Computing’s reader customers. Our analysis of products, technologies and issues isn’t influenced in any way by advertisers, our main business customers. Our editors tell it like they see it, even if what they write is at odds with an advertiser’s marketing message. In fact, most of our writers couldn’t even tell you which companies advertise with the publication. The “separation of church and state” is very real—not just at Network Computing but across the Enterprise Architecture Group and CMP Media.

So my overall business focus isn’t about appeasing advertisers. It’s about managing an editorial budget; working with our marketing department to ensure that we’re presenting Network Computing (and our other group publications) in a consistent way; and working with the publisher to identify business opportunities outside the print and online publication.

Q: Describe your current work and roles with your various brands?

A: As editor-in-chief of Network Computing, I’m responsible for the overall editorial direction of the magazine—in print, online, events, etc. In addition to having the “business” duties I described previously, I work with the other editors to ensure we’re doing the right kinds of stories in the right areas, that our stories are the deepest, most thorough in the business, and that the end product is as professionally written, edited and designed as it can be.

My role with the other brands in our group is less hands on. Each of those publications has its own chief editor. They’re in charge of their brands. My job is to offer editorial advice and guidance, help them focus their coverage relative to the other publications in the group, at times coordinate coverage (and avoid coverage overlap), and serve as their bridge to upper management.

Q: Distinguish the media platforms which engage your time.

A: Our main media platforms are print, online and face-to-face events. The “legacy” is print—the biweekly magazine still accounts for the bulk of our revenue. But online (our Web sites, e-mail newsletters, Webcasts and the like) is the fastest-growing part of our business. Our editors are doing more forums and blogs, for instance. And we use online to extend the scope of our print cover packages, soliciting reader advice on upcoming reviews, and sharing our product testing methodologies. After select reviews, we’ll hold Web conferences with readers to discuss our results. We’re trying to use the online medium to interact more with our readers, not just to re-purpose traditional magazine content. Our face-to-face content, like Reality Check seminars at trade shows, allows our technology editors (who are former IT professionals) to present their product reviews and technical expertise in an even more interactive environment. We don’t have separate staffs for each medium. They are integrated. 

Q: How are you differentiated: CRN, VARBusiness; EETimes; Dr. Dobbs; Network Computing and InformationWeek; Health-care publishing; Techweb?

A: Our various brands are differentiated by their different readerships, and thus by the different content aimed at those readerships. EETimes, for instance, is written for electrical engineers and other builders and designers of IT systems. CRN and VARBusiness are written for integrators, resellers, distributors and other executive participants in the IT “channel.” Dr. Dobbs is aimed at software programmers and application developers. Healthcare publishing falls within an entirely different part of our company—their readers are healthcare professionals, not IT people.

Both Network Computing and InformationWeek are aimed at the heart of enterprise IT organizations—CIOs, CTOs, IT directors, network managers and (in the case of Network Computing) IT staffers. Network Computing’s content focus is more hands-on and technical than InformationWeek’s—we’re more about product and technology evaluations and reviews. Our technology editors test products in our own Real-World Labs. They’re former IT pros, not traditional journalists.

Q: Where do you see yourself and your company in the short, medium, and long term? Can you define these time-periods?

A: Short term, say a year out, we’ll continue to shift more of our focus to the Web—as I mentioned earlier, more forums, more blogging, more targeted Webcasts, more interaction with our readers as we create content rather than just providing readers with an end product, a story. We’ll also work more closely with real-world IT organizations. For instance, for big comparative reviews we did in 2004 on anti-spam software and Web analytics services, we worked closely with CMP Media’s IT organization to line up vendors, set up the tests and do the actual testing in a live environment. Network Computing evaluated the products just as CMP’s IT organization was evaluating the products for purchase by the company. We’ll do more of that in 2005, perhaps with other enterprise IT organizations.

Medium term, say one to four years out, we’ll focus more on other avenues for our content. We’re already dabbling in selling product testing services—we’ll go further. There may be some opportunities in IT training, research and consulting kinds of services. Along the way, we’ll look to derive revenue from new sources, not just from our traditional advertisers. We won’t always launch new products by ourselves—we’ll look to trusted partners as well.

The long run? All I can say is, during the next 10 years our business will change far more than it changed in the last 10 years. It should be an interesting ride.

Q: Please forecast how you see people using different media formats.

A: In general, I see readers using the print magazine for their broad edification and education. In one accessible read, they can get stories on multiple technology areas, presented in multiple formats. It’s their “kick back” read—what they read at the end of the day or week, on the plane…on the john. The Web is more focused. Web search allows readers to find exactly what they need when they need it. So the Web is more about research on specific products and technologies. People GO to the Web to find specific information that helps them solve specific problems (pull); people RECEIVE print magazines and e-mail newsletters (push), letting the editors define for them what’s important. Face-to-face and other live events like Webcasts give readers more intimate access to subject matter experts while letting them focus on specific topics.

Q: What is the impact of the Web, RSS, and Blogs on your business?

A: For us, Web logs and syndication tools have had a very positive impact on the way we generate content and how we structure our site. 

Traditionally, the tools used to publish content required specialized knowledge, preventing our broader pool of editors from creating and publishing content outside of the established "print" channels. However, by adopting tools such as Movable Type, we have given our editors the ability to publish short stories directly to the Web. Now editors can comment directly and immediately upon what they see in the industry and what they experience in the lab. The result is a much more "complete" experience for readers, who are following the ongoing work done by our technology editors.

This alone would be pretty revolutionary. But when you couple this "open" publishing tool with a powerful syndication tool such as RSS, what you get is a self-managed Web. For example, our group’s Network  Magazine, which publishes in print only once a month, has used blogs to generate daily content. Normally, this content would be trapped on a separate "weblog" server (in a weblog). But by building a system within our existing Web publishing system (ATG Dynamo) that interfaces with the RSS feeds generated by Network Magazine's blog, we're able to automatically populate content across six gateway pages and the Network Magazine home page, on the fly. Without the machine-to-machine language of XML (in this case RSS), it would take a Web producer hours to update these pages.

Q: Print and even Web sites are really a broadcast form of information delivery. How will this change over time to make it truly personalized and allow complete reader-interaction?

A: As I touched on earlier, we’ll see more interactive blogging and forums, giving readers more personalized exposure on the Web to our technology experts in seven core areas: security, business applications, mobile & wireless, storage & servers, digital convergence, network & system management and network infrastructure. Other new information products we provide, like testing services and training, will be tailored to specific customers. Our readers/customers don’t just want information. They want ACTIONABLE information, and the more we can refine and focus our content for their specific needs, the more indispensable we’ll become. Content provided online, in live events and in other formats can’t simply be the same content re-purposed for different media. It must take full advantage of the unique attributes of each medium.

Q: What are the top ten stories for 2005?

A: Let me mention 10 of the biggest story packages we’re planning for 2005. Those include Managing Offshore (where we’ll walk readers through our real-life engagement with an Indian software outsourcing company); Wireless LAN Switching; Enterprise VoIP Solutions; a Firewall Blowout written by our partners at consulting firm Neohapsis; a special issue titled This Old Data Center (where our technology editors will walk readers through the process of upgrading their data centers, just as Bob Vila might bring in an expert on flooring or electrical wiring); Business Process Management; Wireless Security; Server Virtualization; Supply Chain Management; High-End Storage Systems.

Q: Forecast the winners and losers for 2005 and beyond?

A: I won’t pick any specific winners and losers, but I’ll cover some traits. In terms of technology vendors, the winners will be those that solve their customers’ problems. Vendors that constantly change and evolve. Vendors that make technology implementation, integration and management easier for their customers. Vendors that make technology usage easier. Vendors that are easy to do business with. Vendors that make products that scale reliably. Vendors that make products that drive tangible business value. The losers? Those vendors that give short shrift to only one or two of those things.

Q: What are the major issues and challenges before businesses and IT professionals?

A: I think the major issue right now is the backlash from the tech boom. Bloated generalizations like “IT Doesn’t Matter”—that information technology and the expertise required to manage it are commodities—are rampant. Many IT organizations and professionals are in the position of having to prove their value once again. IT, especially to the un-enlightened, is once again another line item to be cut by the CFO rather than something the CEO wants to invest in and nurture as a source of competitive advantage. Many companies still “get” the value of IT, but those that don’t will make life hard on their IT pros. And every company, whether they get IT or not, will continue to demand that their IT professionals deliver business value from their IT spending. 

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

A: In no particular order, here’s my stab at a Top 10:

(1) Treat your colleagues with respect.

(2) Treat your customers (internal and external) with respect. Resist the temptation to be dismissive or condescending.

(3) Try to be humble and modest, even while you’re being assertive.

(4) Embrace change. Those who don’t are quickly marginalized.

(5) Always be learning. Read. Take training. Consult colleagues (internally and at other companies). Be well-rounded.

(6) Take time to think beyond the day-to-day rigors of your job. Think about what’s possible, not just what you need to accomplish now.

(7) Tell the truth. Your integrity is everything. 

(8) Stay ambitious. Never be completely comfortable or satisfied.

(9) Don’t give up. Career setbacks are setbacks, not the end.

(10) Try to have fun/be positive. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re wasting half of your life.

Q: Looking around both internally and externally, what events continue to “amaze” you?

A: The rapid pace of technological change. The fact that an industry giant like DEC or Compaq or PeopleSoft or MCI (or a Comdex) can shrivel up or be marginalized almost overnight. The sheer genius of technology innovations and innovators.

Q: With such a long and varied career, you must have laughed at certain situations that arose. Please share a few.

A: If you’re not laughing, you’re crying!

I laugh at how IT marketeers continue to move as a herd, using the latest industry buzz phrases. Of late, every vendor is helping you manage some “information lifecycle,” if they’re not ensuring your “compliance” with every known regulation, “future proofing” your IT investments with proven “ROI,” and helping you “securely” manage one thing or another “24x7” and in “real time.”

I laugh when a vendor begs Network Computing to add its product to a comparative product review, even after we explain that its product isn’t a very good fit for the review; and then the vendor complains after its product scores poorly in our review, mostly because the product wasn’t a very good fit.

I laugh at myself when I make dumb writing mistakes, like referring to Kansas in a recent column as the “Show Me State”. Years ago, while working for an international telecom publication whose readers were predominantly British, I wrote the headline “Italtel Picks Its Spots Abroad,” about the Italian telephone company’s selective international expansion. Little did I know that “spots” is a British-ism for acne.

Q: What are your top ten tips for our audience of IT professionals? Any pointers on the future job market?

A: I’m quite bullish on the IT profession. As I’ve written in past columns, while IT hiring has been flat this year and Network Computing’s own reader survey finds that most IT professionals don’t expect their organizations to do much hiring next year, there is reason for IT pros to be optimistic about the future. For one thing, the long-term U.S. labor market trend is toward increasing scarcity: By 2010, according to the Labor Department, the U.S. economy will be able to fill only 157 million jobs but will support 167 million. People with hot technical skills, broad IT management experience or both will be in the greatest demand. Hot skills include information security, network and database administration, software engineering, system analysis and business intelligence. Every IT job exported or eliminated is NOT an IT job lost forever. Some geographic areas are more promising than others, but the jobs—good jobs—will be out there.

I don’t have a Top 10 Tips, but some of the points I made in the previous “tips” question apply here: embrace change; always be learning new technical and management skills; think like a business strategist, not just a technologist; stay positive.

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

A: I’ll give you five challenges, but I think the solutions are too complex and varied to be boiled down in a Q&A.

(1) Competing in a global economy—managing global suppliers and partners; tapping global labor markets; competing with global rivals.

(2) Constantly staying a step ahead of competitors and customer tastes/needs.

(3) In an environment where you’re judged on your latest quarter, having the guts to invest in new businesses/ideas and take short-term losses to reap long-term gains.

(4) Knowing when to pull the plug on a business and move in a new direction—and again, having the guts to do it.

(5) Valuing honesty and integrity when all around you are bending and breaking the rules.

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

A: While we’ll never see a late-‘90s-style tech boom again, I'm bullish about the economy and IT. As long as the government regulates with a light, precise touch, there’s no limit to what entrepreneurs and commercial visionaries can create. As Ronald Reagan once said: "We who live in free market societies believe that growth, prosperity, and ultimately human fulfillment are created from the bottom up, not the government down.... Trust the people." I trust the people. And I believe that companies will continue to recognize that IT professionals are the drivers of much of their growth and prosperity.

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’ve done a pretty thorough job. But here goes:

(1) Why did you get into the high-tech publishing business? (The chicks.)

(2) What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? (An African or a European swallow?)

(3) Are you related to the actor who played the Music Man? (In spirit only.)

Q: Rob, thank you for sharing your years of experiences and wisdom with our audience.

A: Thanks for putting up with me.

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