Sybase CEO: Create and Execute a Corporate Vision

From the Road

Few companies get a chance at a second life. When John Chen signed on as CEO of Sybase in 1998, the database software vendor was, in Chen’s own words, “a very, very dead company.” Once a strong competitor to Oracle, Sybase had lost its way, in part because it missed the opportunity to enter the enterprise application market. But through the efforts of Chen and his team, Sybase reinvented itself as an enabler of the “unwired enterprise.” InfoWorld Editor in Chief Eric Knorr and I sat down with Chen shortly before SAP signed a merger agreement with Sybase in 2010, citing Sybase’s leadership in both mobile and in real-time analytics. We discussed how he and his team brought customers along as they rebuilt–and repositioned–the company.

Decide on a Story

Customers who used Sybase’s traditional database products were loyal, but they needed to know Sybase had a future. Chen needed a roadmap and a story to tell customers about where Sybase planned to go. “You have to have something that you are uniquely qualified to do. I always ask the question — what is our right to be a company?” Chen said.

PDAs were an emerging technology, and Chen and his team saw a future in mobile commerce. Companies would need to tools to deliver information to mobile devices. “There has to be intelligence gathering, mobile analytics, real-time reporting, all these things,” Chen said. Sybase could become a leader in providing the back end infrastructure in a data center needed to deliver information to people with mobile devices. The company adapted the “unwired enterprise” concept that its partner, Intel, was promoting.

“If you think that e-commerce was a big sea change in the early 2000s, m-commerce will make e-commerce a very small thing,” Chen said. “M-commerce reaches almost the majority of 6 billion people around the world.”

Craft Your Market

Sybase’s sales force didn’t know how to explain mobility to enterprise users a dozen years ago. The “unwired enterprise” sounded cool, but customers didn’t understand it. “The key was that we had a team of people who were willing to do this, who would hang in there,” said Chen. “Because there were going to be a lot of ups and downs.”

Sybase had always been an infrastructure software provider, and its core product, its database software, held the key. “A database could be an embedded persistent store in the field, like if you’re driving a truck, with a FedEx machine, or in U.S. Navy or Army deployment units — they have on-board computers. That’s an embedded database.”

In the mid 1990s, Sybase had acquired PowerSoft, which owned a firm that made compilers. “In the year 2000, nobody was buying compilers,” Chen recalled. Sybase decided to use the compilers to help customers develop and deploy applications with embedded databases that could run on early handheld devices. He pitched the idea to 3Com, which made Palm PDAs. “I said, well, these kinds of devices don’t have a lot of memory or processing, but it’s got to be able to do more than just keeping contacts, address books,” said Chen. Sybase ended up capturing most of the market share for embedded database technology, which was adopted by retailers for use in price scanners and by companies such as FedEx for their handheld devices.

Evolve with Your Customers

Sybase has diversified it’s products to support high-growth areas such as analytics, mobile middleware and mobile services. Enterprise customers might just want the analytics, in order to crunch the data in a Sybase database. But if they want to deploy applications to mobile devices, and to manage security for those devices, Sybase is ready to to address those needs as well, said Chen.

Multiple data delivery and transaction platforms, whether a smartphone, a tablet, a TV or a voice-over-IP device, will become integrated using unified communications, Chen observed. “We’d like to be a participant in that.” He foresees enterprise needs for mobility evolving beyond delivering information such as email to “action-based” platforms that use data to execute transactions. “That whole area — the machine-to-machine, point-to point-of-action space — is still in a very, very early stage of life.”

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