Q&A: Sybase CEO John Chen touts a turnaround

He talked about his leadership at Sybase before the SAP acquisition was announced

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Few companies get a chance at a second life. When John Chen signed on as CEO of Sybase 12 years ago, the database software vendor was, in Chen's words, "a very, very dead company." Once a strong competitor to Oracle, Sybase had missed an opportunity to push into the enterprise application market Oracle now leads.

Over the next 10 years or so, Chen and his team helped Sybase turned around and reinvent itself as an enabler of the "unwired enterprise." Then, last month, enterprise software bigwig SAP signed a merger agreement with Sybase, citing the compmany's leadership in both mobile and in real-time analytics. The deal was valued at $5.8 billion.

Since that deal was announced, Sybase has had little to say. But in March, before rumors about the merger began circulating, John Gallant, Chief Content Officer for IDG Enterprise (IDGE), and Eric Knorr, Editor in Chief of InfoWorld, sat down with Chen for an hour-long chat as part of IDGE's CEO Interview Series. The interview explored how Chen was able to rescue Sybase and establish it as a key mobile enterprise player. The result: A discussion rare in its frankness - one that offers retroactive insight into the real reasons SAP found Sybase so attractive.

Excerpts from that interview follow.

John Gallant: You've got a pretty interesting and diverse product set. You have the database, analytics, mobile management tools, and mobile tools that are pretty widely deployed among the service providers. Help us understand how those different technologies fit into a cohesive strategy that makes Sybase unique. Sybase traditionally has been an infrastructure software provider to the enterprise. We started as a client-server database company and then moved into development toolsets when we acquired PowerSoft. And after I came on board, we continued to develop our database. Gradually, we positioned ourselves in high-growth areas, like analytics, mobile middleware, and mobile services. And how we envision that it all comes together is that we believe mobile enterprise computing is going to be the next really big thing.

If you think that e-commerce was a big sea change in the early 2000s, m-commerce will make e-commerce a very small thing. M-commerce reaches almost the majority of six billion people around the world.

Eric Knorr: What characterizes an enterprise mobile service as opposed to a consumer service? Applications must talk to applications; machines must talk to machines. There has to be intelligence gathering, mobile analytics, real-time reporting, all these things. We could be a leader in providing those kinds of infrastructures. It starts with backend infrastructure in a data center to people sitting here with a device. That's a whole stack of a computing path.

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