SAN JOSE, Calif. – When I meet Hewlett-Packard engineers at events these days the greeting usual starts off with a painful grimace that quickly breaks into a laugh and a long talk. How horrible can this thing get?
At this stage, HP's engineers and managers need a chief executive that can quietly get behind them to provide the corporate blocking and tackling needed to help them solve some really, really big problems.
In a market increasingly split between hot mobile gadgets and enabling cloud services, HP stands in an awkward middle space. It has no smartphone or tablet products and it has indicated it may not even want its world-leading notebook and desktop group. It has solid server, networking and storage products but no cloud service business to wrap around them.
Most importantly, it has a world-class team of engineers and managers and no credible CEO to lead them.
HP's founders' wrote the book on managing innovation in a humble, engaged way as they created a Silicon Valley icon. Now it's a different day. HP is a $127 billion behemoth, leading in a PC business with razor thin margins and based on technologies controlled by other companies.
The way forward is anything but clear, and in no way easy.
The company's immediate problem appears to be a dysfunctional board of directors, based on a fascinating report from the New York Times.
I weighed in a month ago about why I don't think Leo Apotheker, the current CEO, can save HP. He is now set to be replaced, reportedly by Meg Whitman whose credentials are mixed at best after her failed run for California governor and difficulties in her final days at eBay.
Once upon a time HP had its own symphony orchestra (pictured below). The next CEO could take a cue from that history and be more of a conductor and less of a celebrity.
The changes come at a time when HP Labs has been reinvigorated by a new leader. Its achievements in memristors and sensor networks mark some of its best work to date.
Its server group is in the hunt. HP has acquired with companies such as 3Com, 3Par and its own internal developments all the pieces it needs for the next generation of highly integrated computer-networking-storage infrastructure. But so have Dell, IBM and Cisco.
There's a race on to get to this next generation system of systems. The contestants need to have world-class focus to ensure their separate engineering and business teams jointly plan a winning road map. That's work a new CEO should enable—or at least not distract.
Creating a mobile strategy is a harder job. HP is behind even Nokia in responding to the smartphone and tablet era. It should probably keep its WebOS team and quickly jump on the Android bandwagon while it waits for the next discontinuity to create another market opening.
Then there's the culture issue. HP has great people and a rich heritage. The struggles it has been through with Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd and Leo Apotheker have strained both the people and the history almost to the breaking point. Almost.
HP's corporate offices stand right in between Apple and Google, ground zero of today's mobile and cloud revolutions. The company is still a gem, albeit a tarnished gem, in a Silicon Valley that's in many ways richer than ever.
Whether you are an HP employee, an alumn or just an observer, I'd love to hear what you think the next CEO ought to do to polish it.