It made a good product, sold it effectively to customers, and supported them well. It made a lot of money, and was seen as successful.
However, the seeds of its success ultimately proved to be its eventual undoing.
I Was There
It's the late 1990s, and I was working at EMC. We had a very successful product: Symmetrix. We posted continual revenue and margin growth, and were very much in love with ourselves and our stock.
But there was a darker side to all of this.
Because we had only one product, we only had one answer to any problem. For some customers, our single product was a good fit. For others, it wasn't. And customers tend to resent it when you sell them something that doesn't fit.
It didn't matter what the question was, the answer was always "Symmetrix". If we didn't have it, you didn't need it. We rocked, everyone else sucks.
At the time, our success bred a certain type of arrogance that you rarely see these days. We couldn't accept that there might be other technologies in the market that did a pretty good job as well. Nobody "got it" as we thought we did.
We furiously argued our religious perspective with customers, often to the point where they didn't want to talk to us any more. If you worked for the company, you had to drink and share the kool-aid every day.
As I remember the time, basically all we did was blab about our product, our company and our stock price. It was all about being "on message".No discussion or debate permitted.
One example was around backup. Since we didn't make tape drives -- or backup software -- at the time, we tried to convince people that replicas were just as good as traditional backups. I think we ended up doing some harm to the people who believed us at the time.
Another example was RAID 1 vs RAID 5. As the industry moved to RAID 5, we steadfastly hung on to our belief that RAID 1 was just "better". Reminds me of how some vendors are reacting to things like flash drives and autotiering.
Worse, we didn't keep an eye on our pricing. At the time, we saw an opportunity to get high margins for our product, and we did the capitalistic thing. Customers knew we were were doing this, and got resentful.
We weren't investing in the future, either. Our product was starting to look a bit old-school compared to the newer stuff out there. We got almost all of our revenue from a single architecture that wasn't getting any younger. And there was no incentive to diversify our portfolio or offerings.
After all, why mess with success?
Wall Street Vs. Customers
Perhaps the worst part of it at the time was our obsession with our stock price, and what analysts were saying about the stock. For many people at EMC at the time, you'll recall that the ultimate barometer of success was the daily stock price.
It became less about the really important stuff that supported the stock price long term, like creating innovative products, or fostering long-term relationships with customers. And it led to some pretty bizarre behaviors and decisions at the time.
It's hard to be open to things like long-term customer satisfaction -- and secular shifts in the industry -- if you've convinced yourself that you're successful.
After all, if you're doing good, why mess with success?
I got the first inkling that something was seriously wrong in our happy, self-obsessed bubble-land at a customer council in the late 1990s.
It was a 1x1 customer conversation along the lines of "the world has changed, and we're doing everything we can to get off of EMC".
A sobering moment. I started to probe around. Not good. By the time you see the first termite, the damage is already done.
Such was the case with EMC at the time. As the economy contracted rapidly, and the dotcom bubble burst, we were badly exposed.
We had a single product that didn't fit what the market needed. We had treated many of our customers poorly, so they generally weren't rooting for us. And there was plenty of "good enough" solutions that did what customers wanted for a fraction of the cost.
Worse yet, we had a bunch of people who were in complete denial, and were now part of the problem instead of the solution.
Serious times indeed. It was one of the grimmest times of my career. Many of us worked night-and-day for many years to repair our products, our positioning, our relationships -- and, ultimately -- our corporate culture.
From The Ashes
Before it all came undone, Joe Tucci had just been appointed as the new CEO. He'd been on the job a while when it became apparent EMC was in deep yogurt.
Fortunately for all of us, Joe had seen this movie before. He knew what had to be done, and got on with it. Joe's vision, strategy and passion is directly responsible for the EMC you see today.
Someday, I hope his story is written and shared. It's a study in leadership and character that needs to be told as an example for others. I feel very privileged to be a small part of it.
But here's the lesson: without our near-death experience, we wouldn't have changed our ways. Ultimately, we became a far more viable and strategic player in the IT industry rather than just being a single-product storage company.
So, Here's The Question ...
Does history repeat itself?