May 02, 2010, 6:49 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Scott Archibald hit the ground running and never looked back. He's been with both big and small companies, and had the enormous responsibility for the IT infrastructure on the first day of the merger between HP and Compaq. At school, he received a degree in Communications, and had an opportunity to study a sub-genre called "information studies," or how computers and people interact.
Scott parlayed that education, which taught him the "human side" of computers," into a fascinating career. Finally, Scott made the transition from the corporate world to working with a more nimble, entrepreneurial company, where he enjoys tremendous variety -- with a new challenge every day.
What was your high school experience like? Any big technology focus?
I did have a computer class, which was one of the first ones they offered at the time. I graduated high school in 1984, and they were using Commodore computers, with a little tape drive and green monitor. I kind of dabbled in computers, and I had a Texas Instruments computer at home.
What did you study in college?
I got a BA in Information and Communications Systems at Chico State in California. I changed my major a few times, and had a minor in computer science. The Communications degree was interesting, because the school was the same for Journalism and Marketing and PR, but they had this small off-shoot of Information Studies, which was how computers and people interacted, and the behavioral aspect of using computers.
It sounds very different from the traditional IT degrees.
It wasn't the traditional MIS or anything like that. It was the behavioral, human aspect of computers. In the computer science curriculum, we programmed in Assembler, FORTRAN and Pascal. I never used Assembler in my career, but it really gave me an understanding of how a computer works.
Let's talk a little more about the Communications side. How did the study of how computers and people interact benefit you in your career?
It taught me the "human side" of computers. It opened my eyes into how computers could be used in our personal lives. My senior paper was about online shopping, at that point, there was only a couple different environments where you could do online shopping. You're talking about a 28K modem, and you had to go onto AOL, and there was a shopping center where they picked the stores, and you were held captive to the few things they would allow you to do. Nothing like today.
What was your first job right out of school?
I went to work for Intel in 1990. I was an IT support guy, and somehow, I'm not sure how this happened, I wound up working on a project that Andy Grove had. Andy's big thing back then was to say that we're a high-tech company, but he's got half his executives who didn't even turn on a computer in their offices. So he gave all his executives Compaq LT 386 laptops. He said, "I want you guys at least once a day to turn this on, and get your email from this, whether you're on site, off site, wherever you happen to be." I was part of the team that had to take care of the technology aspect, to make sure it would boot up, and give them a menu. If they wanted to check email, they would press a number, that would load up a system that would start their modem, dial into our IBM mainframe, and get them into email. So I actually got to put to use some of the things I learned at college. I was very naïve coming out of college, and it helped me enormously later on because I learned how to deal with executives. I learned very quickly that there's a sense you have to acquire. I didn't recognize at the time that I was learning this skill, until I realized later on, that I'm getting kind of good at dealing with these executives. When I think back on it, I pinpoint a lot of it to the work I did during the first couple years with the Intel executives.
When you were working with those executives and showing them how to use these notebooks, were these guys starting completely from scratch, with no knowledge at all?
It was a mixed bag. Some were very computer savvy and wanted to use the latest and greatest. Then we had some that really resisted it. They would have their admins print out email to read in paper format and then they would write notes on it. I would think that some of those folks that were resistent, would be more open to it because of the roles they were in. It was an interesting experience.
How do you go about training a top executive to use technology after they were ordered to learn it by their boss?
We tried to do a couple things. One, we provide value, so there's a reason they want to make their job easier. The other aspect was to make it fun. Obviously, the third was Andy. He told me I had to do it, so I had to do it. And honestly, if we didn't have that, I don't think we would have gotten anywhere. That got us in the door and got the project going. It turned out to be a real benefit to them. They really saw the power of getting access to info, and not having to wait to get back into the office in Santa Clara.
So after Intel, you were recruited by HP, how did that come about?
One thing I started doing at Intel that led to HP was that as time went on at Intel, I got more opportunities, and by the time I was leaving Intel, I was heading up the world wide deployment of Lotus Notes and some other group activities. HP had got in touch with my boss, and asked if she could come to HP and make a presentation to their IT managers on her email system, because Intel at the time had a pretty integrated email system. HP was saying, "We're trying to do something similar, can you come talk to us?" We had four or five different email types. So I went and talked to these guys and had a great conversation, I told them what we were doing and things to look out for, what to do, what not to do. I got a call a few weeks later, and they said, "We're looking for this kind of person, do you know anybody?" And I said, "Yeah, me." I went to HP and started doing the same thing, but on a different scale. It was working in their corporate organization and putting the infrastructure in for Lotus Notes and some of the groupware products.
Was the decision to move from Intel to HP an easy one?
It was at the time. I think part of that was because I was young. One thing was HP offering a significant increase in salary.
That's always hard to turn down.
Yes. And HP for me, was always a company I wanted to go to work for. Everything sounded great. And at Intel, we were going through a very high growth period and it was getting a little chaotic, and HR had said, "you're rising too fast in this company. You came in too low, you've been promoted every year, you're getting more money and that's not going to happen any more. Well, that's not good. They were telling me I'm not going to go anywhere, at least that's how I interpreted it. And HP, the company I always wanted to work for, was offering me more money, so from that standpoint, it was an easy decision. ''
Tell me more about HP. You were responsible for the IT infrastructure from the very beginning of the HP-Compaq merger, right?
I was in the clean room for the merger, and was responsible for our day-one IT infrastructure. I was making sure the web presence for both was shown as one company, that the email systems were connected, and that the Compaq employees had an HP email address. Their voicemail systems were integrated, and people had changed their greetings. It was presenting on the outside as well as on the inside that everything's connected. I was responsible for that. That was a fun job.
It seems pretty overwhelming. What was the most difficult thing about working through that merger?
The most difficult thing was trying not to get overwhelmed with everything that was going on. Typically when you're in any organization and you're a good employee, you tend to get more work. You wind up doing one and a half, maybe two jobs. One thing about the merger was that you only had one job, one thing to focus on, and that was making sure that everything on day one was working. You didn't have any other distractions. You didn't have any budget meetings. You didn't have any performance evaluations. Because we had been two competitors, they took us out of our day-to-day operational jobs, and put us in the clean room, so your only job was to work on the merger.
After that wound down, then what?
After that I went back to the IT organization within HP. I was providing infrastructure services. The theory was that since we're providing these services on the outside, we should be a customer of our own stuff. The whole "Eat your own dog food" kind of thing. It was very difficult to make that work, because the internal customer was not viewed as a paying customer.
What would you say is the most surprising thing about HP when you worked there?
I was always surprised that with so many smart people, we really seemed to have trouble just getting stuff done. One of the things I was surprised at, and one of the reasons I left the company, was I was disenchanted with not having that line of sight between the activities we were doing in the organization, and how that helped our external customer who paid money to use HP products and services.
So that leads into the transition from HP to Bender Consulting. How did that happen?
It was a very interesting transition. A friend of mine hooked John Bender and I up, and said we had to talk, and from there we haven't looked back. As I got out of corporate and into a smaller company with more of an entrepreneurial mindset, my eyes were opened to all of the things I was shielded from in the past. When you're at an Intel or an HP, you have a Finance group and they do all the finance stuff. You have an HR group that takes care of all your employee stuff. When you're an entrepreneur you have to know for example, what's the tax implication of this, what's the financial aspect, and the employer aspect of this? Also, when you're in an IT group, you don't have to worry about selling products. You assume somebody's doing that. When you're an entrepreneur, you're a salesman. You're a marketer. You have to do all this stuff and be good at it, because if you're not, it won't get done. You could be an engineer at HP and you would be shielded from all this. It opens up your eyes as to how business is run, and what you need to do. It's been a very positive experience, since it forces you to think in a different way.
So Bender was still a young start-up when you got there?
John and his partner had been going for just about a year. We're still a young company.
What was the deciding factor in making that big leap from corporate to something more entrepreneurial?
Part of it was the frustration of being in the corporate machine. Part of it was also when we had a new CIO come in and said HP was too distributed, and came to everybody and said you had to work in one of these locations. For me, it was a personal decision as to whether I wanted to change locations.
What do you do at Bender Consulting?
We work with small and large companies on a variety of things. One thing we've been getting a lot of interest in is IT transformation, how to help IT executives and leaders transform their organizations to be more business-driven.
When you're dealing with transformational technology, are you finding that the focus is more on what it can do for a company from a strategic perspective, as opposed to purely a technological perspective where it may change a process, but it doesn't really transform anything?
Yes. It's more about strategic use of that technology. It's the technology, but it's also the people and processes that support it. So you're looking at all three of those. People think that technology is a cure-all that will solve all the problems, but you still have to line it up strategically with where you're going as a company and how it plays into the bigger picture. That's where some people miss the mark.
What's your favorite thing about your current position at Bender Consulting?
I love the variety. I love being able to work with a number of different clients who all have different perspectives. That's not something you get in a corporate environment, where typically you learn who the players are, but they don't change all that much. You don't get that variety with every new project.
Is there a downside to it?
Sure. When you're with a big corporation, you have perceived stability. Even though something could happen, there could be a mass layoff, you could lose your job, but you have this perception of security.
Sure, but it's an illusion. That security doesn't exist.
Exactly, it really is an illusion. But from a psychological standpoint, it's a comforting illusion. When you're with a smaller company, at the end of the day, you have to figure out what you did to make some money today, what did I do today or what will I do tomorrow that will help us get the next client? That gets stressful at times. It's not that the big company is any safer, but there is that illusion, that mindset that people get comfortable in. When you have 20 years in that mindset, it's a difficult transition to make.
What advice would you have for somebody that's in college right now and wants to have a career in IT?
I'd do a couple things. I'd make sure to have some classes that have a business focus, whether it's financial, general business, or economics. I think that we're seeing in IT organizations, a lot of the key people are not just technology focused. They understand technology, but they also understand business. So I would recommend that if you're going into an IT field today, even if you're going to be a programmer, it really helps to have a business background so you can understand some of the decisions that will inevitably be made that you might not agree with from a technology standpoint, but there's more than technology going on. The other thing I'd recommend is to do some communications or speech courses. Learn how to give presentations from the standpoint of fewer words and more images.