Arik Hesseldahl

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Five Questions for HP’s New CEO Meg Whitman and Chairman Ray Lane

It’s been an extraordinary week for Hewlett-Packard. On Monday, HP was a sleeping giant with an unclear strategy, an unpopular CEO and a stagnating share price.

Then word came, via AllThingsD, that something big was coming from the board of directors. And as AllThingsD first reported (again), HP directors made one of their own, Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO who had become a director earlier this year, the new CEO. Léo Apotheker resigned, but don’t cry for him, because according to his contract, he made out rather well. Even before it was made official, investors applauded the move, sending HP shares skyward.

Analysts did what they always do, and, well, analyzed. And though it looked more like drama criticism, it’s not as if HP hasn’t known boardroom dramas before. Finally, the deed was done, meaning it was time to hold a conference call, but not before talking first to Kara Swisher of AllThingsD.

I got to talk to Whitman and HP Chairman Ray Lane yesterday, too, but I had to wait until after the conference call. With so many critics screaming that Whitman has no experience running an enterprise hardware company — and let’s be honest, there aren’t that many who do — I asked her to elaborate on the defense, made on the conference call with analysts, that her experience as a buyer of enterprise technology, during her years as CEO at eBay, provided important experience that will help her be an effective CEO at HP. I also asked about Autonomy, the British software firm that HP is in the process of acquiring for $10 billion, and how it will fit within HP; about the company’s plans for cloud services; and about the state of the HP brand amid all the corporate mishegas that has unfolded in the last several months.

AllThingsD: Meg, the main criticism of you, since you’ve been named CEO of HP, is that your primary experience before was at eBay, which is a consumer-facing company. The response on yesterday’s conference call has been that at eBay you were a purchaser of a lot of enterprise technology and that this gives you some important relevant experience. I get the point, but could you elaborate on it a bit? How does having been an enterprise buyer help you be HP’s CEO?

Whitman: What HP needs now more than anything else is management skills, communication skills and a commitment to executional excellence, all of which I know well, and are sort of core competencies from my 35-year career in business. I know technology because I ran a company whose very existence would not have been possible without it, and was a very significant buyer of technology products. And so that brings me a unique buyer’s perspective. But I have not spent 35 years in the enterprise business. Add so what that means is that I will be relying heavily on Dave Donatelli; on Todd Bradley; on the senior executives at HP; and also, frankly, on Ray Lane, who was at Oracle for many years, and EDS, and who knows this space well. So I think what customers will get is that one plus one equals three.

Lane: I agree with that. What we need here, and what we didn’t have before, is operational execution, communication skills, getting the team on the same page and leading them. The CEOs of $130 billion companies are not leading the technology development of those companies. I think Meg can go into any enterprise and visit with any CIO or CEO and do really well. So whether it is the technology side or the sales side, I don’t think anyone is giving her enough credit on those fronts. She can do just fine. And then on top of that she has strong operating executives under her who do know the enterprise business. But right now it is the need for leadership of the people, a focus on executing and operating. I could point back to Lou Gerstner at IBM, or even my own days at Oracle. When I joined Oracle, people thought the board had lost its mind, because I was a consultant at Booz Allen. People scoffed and said ‘How is a consultant going to lead the worldwide sales force at Oracle, a trained wolf pack?’ And somehow I figured it out. And I knew nothing about software, but I learned, and I learned from Larry Ellison, who is one of the best.

I want to talk a bit about Autonomy, and about unstructured data. You made a comment about that when you talked with Kara Swisher of AllThingsD yesterday. Talk to me about where you see Autonomy fitting within HP. Do you still intend to let it be independent? How do you see the alignment shaping up?

Whitman: It’s a big and fast-growing market. Of all the data out there, about 15 percent of it is structured and 85 percent of it is unstructured. And the unstructured data is growing by leaps and bounds. There are not a lot of good software companies that can help companies manage unstructured data and help companies make business decisions based on what they see in that unstructured data. So what we hope to do with Autonomy, and I’m enthusiastic about this acquisition, is take what is fabulous about Autonomy — they have a leading position in the marketplace — and put it through the very powerful HP distribution system. And I think what Mike Lynch is excited about — he is the founder and CEO of Autonomy — is taking this great product and getting it into more people’s hands. And we just need to grow this company as fast as we can; extend our lead and our accumulated experience in this area. So that’s the plan for Autonomy.

Lane: Yeah, I think the synergies are great, and I think it makes a lot of sense. It will make a lot of sense to customers if HP engages them in a dialogue of managing unstructured data.

You don’t think HP paid too much for Autonomy?

Whitman: You know what? It is what it is.

Lane: We wish we could have bought it for cheaper, but it was the market price. People thought we overpaid for 3Par, and you know what? We’re hitting it out of the park.

Is HP still going to be player in cloud services? That was a big commitment that Léo made in March. How far along is that plan?

Lane: Absolutely. The cloud is way ahead of plan. So our cloud services have gone live. So that is absolutely part of the plan, yes.

Meg, a lot of the same people who applauded your selection to HP’s board of directors are criticizing your selection as CEO. Why do you think there’s a disconnect?

Whitman: I don’t know. There’s always people who have different points of view on things. What I have to do — and I said this on the conference call — is lead this company, make it a great company again and fulfill its destiny as the icon of Silicon Valley and of California, and deliver the results. I will have to prove myself by delivering the results. If we’re going to restore the confidence that investors have in us, and that employees have in us, we have to deliver. We have to mean what we say and say what we mean and deliver the results. And that is what I intend to deliver.

Meg, you have a lot of history managing brands. I’m thinking of the job you had managing brands for Procter & Gamble. What’s wrong and what’s right about HP’s brand right now?

Whitman: I think HP is known as the world’s largest provider of information technology, and we are a trusted brand. We are a worldwide brand that touches both consumers and businesses. If you’re an enterprise, we have full suite of solutions. I know that when I bought enterprise hardware and software at eBay, I wanted one person to choke when something went wrong. I wanted one supplier to go to and say ‘Hey, this is not working.’ And so I think we have a fabulous brand in a world where technology is increasingly fundamental. I will say — and Ray would say this as well — I think we need crisper communications with all the constituencies. I think on Aug. 18 we confused people. We didn’t mean to do that, but we did. And so I think we’ve got some work to do around communicating crisply and cleanly about what we’re about — the moves that we’re making — to employees, customers, shareholders and, frankly, to the press.

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When AllThingsD began, we told readers we were aiming to present a fusion of new-media timeliness and energy with old-media standards for quality and ethics. And we hope you agree that we’ve done that.

— Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, in their farewell D post