In an App-Driven World, Software Is the Once and Future King

Q&A with Robert Youngjohns, EVP and general manager, HPE Software

It was way back in 2011 when Marc Andreessen, general partner of the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and co-founder of Netscape, penned the phrase “software is eating the world” in a now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed. That sentiment is echoed by Robert Youngjohns, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s executive vice president and general manager for software, when he speaks of the ways that software today is the critical innovative force in virtually every imaginable industry.

In this interview, Robert explains how the drive for more agility and efficiency is transforming the enterprise landscape, what makes the technology business, for him, so endlessly thrilling and why, in the software realm especially, resting on one’s laurels amounts to a self-imposed death sentence.

So much of what one hears today in any discussion about enterprise innovation—DevOps, convergence, hybrid cloud, automation—seems to boil down to an acknowledgment that speed is everything. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Not quite, no. There are two critical dimensions to the current approach to software, apps and innovation. The agility dimension, if we can call it that, is where speed comes in. The ability to continually develop and deploy new, stable applications, for example, is something that sets one enterprise apart from another. So in that sense, speed is definitely a central feature of what HPE calls the “Idea Economy.”

But for HPE, there’s also an efficiency dimension to this new economy, which involves the intelligent use of a client’s existing assets. With the public cloud, in particular, the second objective of heightened efficiency is increasingly important because there’s a natural benchmark out there in which clients ask, “What is going to make my own operation as efficient as it can be?”

An analogy I like to use is a person or a household faced with choosing between using a generator to power their home or buying energy from a local utility. When it becomes clear that the local utility is more efficient and more economical—especially at scale—then at that point, switching off the generator begins to make sense.

Most people feel that they have a grasp of what software is, or what that term means, but with the ascendance of the app-driven economy, has the definition of software effectively changed in recent years?

I’m not sure that it’s changed all that dramatically. What’s happening, though, is that the boundaries are getting blurred. Software has always tended to migrate downward, toward infrastructure. When there’s a common functionality with application software, for example, the tendency is to implement that function in the operating system. And in terms of hardware, if it’s determined that an operating system needs virtualization capabilities, eventually those will be integrated into the hardware layer. I think the boundaries between the various software families has always been quite fluid, and that’s a trend that’s bound to continue. But fundamentally, to answer your question, no, I don’t think there’s been a dramatic change to the definition of software over time. We still write code.

You still write code, but for anyone who’s been around the business for as long as you have—you were president of Microsoft North America, you worked at Sun Microsystems and at IBM—this has to be an incredibly exciting time to be in the software game.

I would phrase that somewhat differently. One of the things that keeps me going in this industry—and I use this expression quite often when speaking to my colleagues—is that this year, or whatever year it happens to be, is always the most exciting year I’ve ever seen in the technology business. That’s because we have this relentless cycle of innovation that just keeps on churning, and that in turn enables more and newer uses of the technology. It’s a classic virtuous circle, which is one of the defining characteristics of this wonderful industry. So while we certainly seem to be living through extraordinary times, I wouldn’t say there’s anything spectacularly different about this year, or the past few years. It's a continuation of the phenomenal innovation and evolution I've witnessed for decades.

Which implies that this is a business where there are absolutely no prizes for standing still. There are certain industries where you might be able to say that you’ve designed a first-class product with a 30-year shelf life, and you can now sit back and reap the benefits of all the time, energy and money you’ve invested in that product. That’s simply not the case in the tech industry, and that’s not the sort of thinking that the industry attracts. We’re much more on the bleeding edge of things, as opposed to resting on our laurels. The fact is, in this environment, if you’re not innovating, then you’re dying.

With all of the massive and rapid changes underway across so many aspects of the enterprise world, is there one specific challenge you can identify as something HPE—and your competition—will have to address sooner rather than later?

My answer might sound somewhat generic, but that doesn’t make it any less sincere. The big question is, can we crank out innovation and get that innovation out into the market quickly enough that we stay ahead? Or is the wave going to pass beneath us? This is a world, after all, where your biggest competitor is often all the old stuff you used to do. Then the question becomes: Can you keep your existing customers happy while also keeping the innovation machine running?

Legacy services and products are still a plus in some cases—they’re unquestionably a plus for a company like HPE—but if you’re not careful, a legacy can blind you to the need to keep innovating. In the end, the underlying message of all this is that, like Andreessen said a few years back, software really has eaten the world, and it’s innovation that ultimately makes the difference between success and failure in this industry.

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