Banishing Ghosts

At the CA World conference in Las Vegas last week, CA CEO John Swainson made a memorable entrance for his opening keynote address. A Swainson avatar appeared in a Second Life-like environment on the big screens, flying majestically through the Las Vegas sky and into the ornately rendered virtual halls of The Venetian hotel.

When the (slightly less buff) real thing walked onto the stage, he was chuckling, probably at the silliness of it all. I really wasn't paying attention to what he was saying, because his entrance had caused my mind to drift back to the previous CA World event, where I interviewed Swainson for the first time.

It was April 2007, and the Special Litigation Committee of CA's board of directors had just announced its finding that CA co-founder and former CEO Charles Wang had instilled a "culture of fear" that permeated CA from its inception. When I asked Swainson if he still saw any vestiges of that, he said there were none.

"The ghost of Sanjay is in the halls," Swainson said, referring to former CEO and Wang successor Sanjay Kumar. "But there's not much of Charles left at CA."

So how was CA able to banish the ghost of Charles Wang? There's a two-part answer to that question.

The first part has to do with courage and openness. Neither Swainson nor any other CA executive I've spoken with in recent years has ever shied away from a candid discussion of CA's past. Swainson might have been forgiven had he banned talk of the "old CA." Instead, he opted for the cleansing that only honesty and forthrightness can provide.

The second part has to do with levity. There is something remarkably therapeutic about maintaining a sense of humor, and it's difficult to find a CEO with as ready a laugh as Swainson. It's downright impossible to find one with as strong a determination to avoid taking himself too seriously, as his grand entrance last week attested.

That the good humor has trickled down through CA's executive ranks was evident last week at the Senior Executive Networking Forum, a two-day summit for some of CA's top customers at CA World. I was invited to speak at the forum, and I was introduced by George Fischer, head of CA's worldwide sales. When I took the podium, I opened by noting that Fischer had become part of CA in 1999 with the company's acquisition of Platinum Technology. I also noted that that acquisition came just one year after Flip Filipowski, Platinum's CEO at the time, passionately told me that there was no way his company would ever allow itself to be acquired by the widely hated CA.

The anecdote was clearly meant as a good-natured jab at CA's past, and it drew as much of a chuckle from Fischer as from anyone else. It wasn't the only reference that the speakers and attendees made to the "old CA" during the forum, but there was no defensiveness, no dismissiveness, on the part of any of the CA executives present. Instead, they tended to joke about it. It's difficult not to admire that.

Footnote

One of the speakers at the forum was Vicki Hamilton, senior vice president of enterprise performance at Turner Broadcasting. Hamilton is African-American, and I wanted to get her input on the points I'd made in my two previous Editor's Notes about African-Americans in IT (see "Hoping for Equality in the IT Profession" and "Acceptance and Denial of Racism"). So when I introduced myself, I asked her if it would be OK to speak with her in her capacity as an African-American woman in IT.

"Absolutely," she said with a smile. She made it clear that she genuinely appreciated the overture, and we went on to have one of the most enlightening conversations about race that I've ever had.

It reaffirmed what I'd already learned. It's OK for non-African-Americans to notice that a person is black. In fact, it needs to be noticed so the problems that still haunt us can be discussed. The "color-blind" game needs to end so that we can banish those ghosts once and for all.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

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