Departing Lotus CEO tells his story

Lotus Development Corp. chief executive and president Jeff Papows will end his seven-year tenure with the IBM subsidiary next month. Since coming aboard as vice president of marketing for Lotus in 1992, many observers and analysts credit Papows with the business savvy that parlayed Lotus/Domino into a staple of corporate computing.

Papows spoke with Computerworld senior editor Lee Copeland Thursday afternoon and shared his thoughts on his accomplishments and challenges over the past seven years.

COMPUTERWORLD: What do you believe is your biggest accomplishment at Lotus and in the messaging realm?
My greatest accomplishment during my tenure is competing with a company of the stature and caliber of Microsoft [Corp.] in a segment that was obviously important to them and winning. The objective measurement of that is surpassing 50 million users this year. When I got to [Lotus], Notes was a nascent thing. We had hundreds of thousands of [seats], not millions of anything. And now, whatever people write or say, that is a pretty telling metric and something I feel incredibly gratified by.
CW: Is that success measured mainly in seat numbers, or are there other metrics that are important?
Well, the seat numbers are the most obvious and probably the most consistently measured thing. The other more qualitative statement is the value that we've created for customers, and to your point, has been the staple in computing topologies today. And we have thousands of customers that I think have tremendous competitive advantage as a consequence. You can't quantify that as easily, but I'm no less gratified by it.
CW: What do you think is the most crucial challenge in the Exchange vs. Notes battle? Is it a technical one or marketing? What is the big challenge and what needs to happen?
There are multiple dimensions to the playing field, as you know. But Lotus has always succeeded first on the basis of product. It's not Lotus Development Corp. by accident. I think we substantively continue to prevail over a very credible company because we've built a better mousetrap and I think that will be the thing that sustains us.
CW: Knowledge management seems to be the next step for Lotus right now. What does IBM and Lotus need to do to make it take off? It seems rather amorphous right now.
Yes. It's a fair question. Remember when I started talking about it down in Orlando [at Lotusphere '98] a couple years ago it was kind of an amorphous term that didn't have a lot of resonance. Now, interestingly enough, even Microsoft, who was very critical of it at that time, is ending all of its advertisements with "tools to manage knowledge." I think that the single greatest thing at this point is having established an understanding, is to codify that product that people can purchase that aggregates value, and that's what Raven is all about.
CW: Do you think Raven will make knowledge management more tangible? A lot of people are still unsure of how to achieve knowledge management from the computing side of things.
That's right, because it's more than just a technical issue; it's a human science as opposed to just computer science. But our industry has a way of maturing that always reaches a peak when you aggregate a product. It's been that way with front offices and back offices. There are killer applications to all of these, whether it's a spreadsheet or messaging. In this case its expertise location, which is at the heart of Raven. And I am absolutely confident that bringing that product to market will take us to the next logical piece of momentum.
CW: Your replacement at Lotus is Al Zollar, who is a 23-year IBM veteran. What does that mean for Lotus' autonomy and relationship to IBM?
People need to measure the guy and not the badge color. And I remind you that Lotus would have not been as successful as it is today, had it not been for IBM. I cannot imagine what life would be without that support. It's a reasonable question, Lee, but I hope people give Al the time to be judged on the basis of his performance. There is nothing in the plans, in the way that Al and I have discussed and planned for this transition, that will undercut this organization.
CW: It's to your credit that you're leaving on such as positive note. But there were some very serious allegations of impropriety last spring and the allegations from the [former female employee] regarding misconduct. Did that have a part to play in why you decided to leave Lotus?
It's a fair question. And the honest answer is that it was never pertinent from a business perspective to begin with. IBM was never less than fully supportive. And it certainly has nothing to do with my decision now. So the single answer is: no.
CW: How does having such an unflattering episode happen affect how you feel about assuming such a high-profile position in this industry?
It affects everybody differently, Lee. In my case all it did was make me all the more determined to ensure the company performed. And that's the way I want the whole thing measured.
CW: And what is next for you?
I was determined not to do what is sometimes done and look for a job while I was in this job; it's not fair to the customers or employees, so I've literally done nothing about that. And I won't until I help Al with this transition. But I'm sure I'll end up running a consequential software organization, as I have always done. And I'm looking forward to it. But I have a job to finish here before I can really turn my attention to that.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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