Dell World 2014: Keeping Dell weird

Michael Dell onstage at Dell World 2014

I spent much of last week in Austin, Texas at Dell World 2014, the company’s annual convention/party for thousands of customers and partners. Dell World has many of the same features as other vendor conferences – executive keynotes, customer panels, technical sessions, a show floor crowded with vendor booths. But after 3 days I came to believe that Dell and Dell World are tapping into something essentially unique. (Disclosure: Pund-IT has consulting relationship with Dell.)

That’s partly due to the location itself. For anyone who hasn’t visited, Austin is a singular community deep in the heart of Texas—radically more liberal and progressive than the rest of the state, which is odd since it’s also the state capital. But when you consider that no Democrat has won a statewide Texas office in the past 24 years, a local wag’s description of Austin as “a blueberry in a tomato patch” seems entirely apropos.

In fact, the city is so determinedly eccentric that “Keep Austin Weird” is a popular local motto that you see pasted on tie-dyed t-shirts and ball caps galore. There are hundreds of funky clubs, scores of venues for live music and theater and art galleries up the wazoo. Plus, Austin is the home of SXSW, the well-known event that has spotlighted talented musicians, bands, filmmakers and tech start-ups well before they hit the big time. “It’s Burning Man without the sunburn and sandflies,” as one Dell VP put it.

All this might make Austin a strange locale for a business IT conference. In fact, the vast majority of similar events occur in Las Vegas, which certainly knows how to give tens of thousands of people a sterile good time. But consider Dell World’s host vendor. Dell has spent much of its existence, and especially the past couple of years breaking rules, challenging convention, and winning big with counterintuitive strategies. Acting weirdly, in other words. So maybe Austin really is Dell World’s spiritual home.

Exactly how weird is Dell? Consider this:

  • While its competitors (HP, in particular) seem to believe their PC businesses require major damage control, Dell has increased its investment in product development and created innovative PC, notebook and tablet designs and form factors light years beyond the workmanlike products it was once known for. Those efforts are paying off big time. At Dell World, Jeff Clarke, president of the Client Solutions group, noted that Dell’s global PC sales grew nearly 10% YOY, and that its PC sales in the U.S. grew 25% in the past quarter, more than the company’s top two competitors combined.
  • At a time when some Dell competitors like IBM are retreating from x86 system solutions or hard-selling proprietary platforms, Dell has doubled down on Intel-based solutions. Not only that but at Dell World 2014, the company proved that there’s a lot of innovation to be had in industry standard components, at least for those who know how to look. Among other things, the company’s new PowerEdge FX architecture could rewrite the book on converged system design.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Dell World 2014 found the company doing fine and dandy a bit more than a year after Michael Dell successfully took the $25B organization private. That effort faced serious resistance from some quarters, including the vociferous opposition of Carl Icahn and other activist investors, but Dell stuck to his plan and made Icahn and his cronies look like overly-caffeinated Corgis instead of pit-bulls as some described them. From the look of things at Dell World 2014, Dell and company couldn’t have made a better decision or surer bet.

Weirdness isn’t a matter of curious dress or cultural defiance. Instead, it arises from a sometimes lonely willingness to think for yourself, ignore common wisdom and pursue a singular path. Oddly enough, it can also successfully cohabitate with convention. There weren’t a lot of tie-dyed t-shirts on stage in Austin, and the point of Michael Dell’s efforts to reinvent the company he founded some thirty years ago was not to establish a sort of techno-commune but to unleash the best qualities of a thoroughly commercial business organization hampered by short-sighted expectations and market demands.

In a business world too often driven by conformity and peer-pressure, that makes Michael Dell and company decidedly weird. The fact that his audacious plan is succeeding beyond most expectations, and thereby shoving so-called “experts” cautionary advice back down their throats is weirder still. From the buzz in the air at Dell World 2014, the words I heard on the show floor and the looks on attendees’ faces, Dell’s customers and partners hope the weirdness never stops.

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