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HP: Still choosing the wrong women

Ann Livermore and the road untraveled

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

The news that Meg Whitman has taken over the top job at HP has left some in the industry scratching their heads. Sure, she was a reasonably safe pair of hands at eBay (besides splashing out billions on Skype for reasons best known to herself), but as a replacement for Leo Apotheker, she’s unlikely to be a success. That’s because HP has an identity problem. There’s no status quo to manage.

HP’s problem at the moment is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It seems to be trying to pull an IBM and reinvent itself as a software and services company. Prior to that, it was going to be the tech world’s biggest box shifter, and under Fiorina and Hurd’s leadership, it achieved this by buying up the competition and attacking on price. But the fact remains that HP was, and really should be, an engineering and innovation company.

For decades, HP bumbled along under the leadership of its founders as an instrument and equipment company. It wasn’t plain sailing, but the company had an enviably flat corporate culture and loyal and clever staff, and it managed to produce enough new inventions to keep itself growing. That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes (turning down the chance to build the Apple I for example), but the company did well enough.

But for many industry watchers, 1999 was the year that HP really screwed the pooch. In that annus horribilis, HP made two key mistakes, the effects of which continue to haunt the company. First, it spun off its traditional business, and most of its smart people, into Agilent. Second, it made a catastrophic wrong choice for CEO, when the right choice was right under the board’s noses.

When Lewis Platt stood down as the boss of the company, the board was faced with a choice. It could promote from within, as it had always done, or it could look outside the company. It chose to go outside the firm, and it plumped for Carly Fiorina with disastrous results. As we discussed in the El Reg offices today, it could all have been very different if the board had stuck to internal hiring and picked Ann Livermore.

Livermore is old-school HP to the core. She’s never worked anywhere else in her career, loves the company with a passion, and has run the software and services arm of the company with skill and aplomb for many years. It’s difficult to imagine her being quite so brutal in slashing employees while lining her own nest like Fiorina, conducting illegal investigations like Pat Dunn, or fiddling her expenses (and other things allegedly) like Hurd.

Time and again, Livermore has been passed over for the top job. Initially, it was rumored that she lost out to Fiorina because she had expressed an interest in getting the job openly. Then there have been lingering concerns over her health. She’s now been kicked upstairs to the board of directors and is, in the eyes of many, too old to take a position at the head of the company. It’s a pity, because it’s a job she should have had years ago. ®

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