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Microsoft chairman, Tech Data CEO on how perceptions of IT have changed — and how they have not

Long before he became Microsoft's chairman, John Thompson came to Tampa without any ambitions of working in tech. Back in the 1970s, he took a job as an IBM salesman, but he had hopes of a career in the law, not in computers.

But a mentor in the Tampa office helped nudge the West Palm Beach native toward a path at IBM. Decades later, he would become a top executive at the computer giant, eventually running its Americas division.

He then spent a decade running Symantec, the security software company, and in 2014, he was named chairman of Microsoft, where he advises CEO Satya Nadella as the company looks to regain its footing.

In the course of his career, he crossed paths with Bob Dutkowsky, now the CEO of Clearwater's Tech Data Corp., Tampa Bay's largest public company. The two became friends and have kept in touch since.

They met in IBM's Chicago offices, where they developed a model that would replace the company's outdated sales methods. The "Chicago model" created a sales staff of product specialists, not generalists, and it helped shake the company from its doldrums in the 1990s.

Thompson and Dutkowsky talked with the Tampa Bay Times in an interview that has been edited and condensed.

How have the lessons of the Chicago model guided your career?

Thompson: Well if anything, for me, it's more about the notional idea that nothing's sacred. That if you are brought in to change something or if you see results that have not been predictably consistent, then you shouldn't assume that what you're doing is sacred, and you should challenge the status quo and challenge the existing systems and look for ways to change things.

And one of the great things about my IBM experience was over the course of the time I was there, I seemed to always get jobs where stuff was broken. I got sent to the Midwest because it was broken. Now, I didn't realize just how broken it was, and I didn't realize just how bad of shape the company was in until I got there, but the best time to challenge the status quo is when things are not going well. To keep doing the same thing is what they call stupidity.

Dutkowsky: Don't ever waste a good crisis. If there's a problem, go solve it.

At the time you were selling computers, you had to sell businesses on the idea of computers in the first place. Is there anything like that you're dealing with today?

Dutkowsky: My job was to sell to companies that never had a computer before. And this was before the PC, so you would walk into these accounts, and you would say, "See all those people in there on tub files and ledger cards? We could put all of that into this box." And the executive would say, "Oh, that's impossible." So you had to educate them on what was possible and get them to believe that automation could really help them. Fast-forward to today, there's a phenomenon in the IT space called the cloud where no longer does that computing happen in the box, but it happens off-site somewhere else. And it's the same conversation again with senior executives and (chief information officers) to say, "We can do this better, faster, more efficiently, but you've got to believe that this is going to happen." And you get the same exact blank stare I got 35 years ago selling new accounts.

Thompson: I think what is different today, however, is that the world has seen 50 years of success in information technology. And the world has seen how IT has changed it — has changed the workforce, has changed the skill base, has changed everything about how businesses run today. So I don't think people are as reluctant to embrace technology today as they may have been when Bob and I were young salesmen 30 years ago. I think the real question they have is the applicability of that new technology to my business. Not whether or not I should embrace new technology, but how applicable is it to the business that I'm trying to run day in and day out.

Microsoft chairman, Tech Data CEO on how perceptions of IT have changed — and how they have not 03/12/16 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2016 12:16pm]
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