Interview: Autonomy Boss Robert Youngjohns Picks Up the Pieces, Spots Some Gems

It’s a highly sensitive topic given the legal dealings surrounding it, but really there’s no avoiding the subject of HP’s late-2011 acquisition of Autonomy that later saw the parent company write off most of the $10.2bn purchase. And to be fair to Robert Youngjohns, the recently appointed general manager of Autonomy, he isn’t dodging the issue.

“The conventional view put out by the previous management is that all the good people have left but aside from [former CEO Mike Lynch and his leadership team] we kept all the rest of the product-oriented senior management,” says Youngjohns, when we talk by phone. “Is the company valuable and did we pay too much? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’.”

Youngjohns is a Brit who was raised in South Africa, graduated from Oxford, once worked for the UK’s security and intelligence agency GCHQ, and is a veteran of the tech sector at companies including IBM and Sun. Most recently he ran Microsoft’s North American operations and he was recruited to HP Autonomy by another former Microsoft executive now at HP, Bill Veghte.

“[Veghte] described it as an acquisition that needed some ‘adult supervision’ and it was probably a bit more than that,” Youngjohns says with wry British understatement. “It was a good software company fundamentally, but the acquisition hadn’t gone well and it needed someone to bring that [potential] out.”

Youngjohns took on the challenge (“in spite of having to leave Seattle, my favourite city”) in part because he believes there remains enormous untapped potential in discovering patterns in unstructured information and – a term hard to avoid these days – Big Data. That means everything from analysing doctors’ notes in order to understand children’s diseases to analysing surveillance video.

Second, there’s what he calls “machine-augmented information governance”, helping organisations stay on the right side of rules and regulations through backup, archiving, records management and sifting of information.

Although Autonomy’s core IDOL technology is often cited as central to what it describes as “meaning-based computing”, Youngjohns points to the 2007 acquisition of archiving and eDiscovery firm Zantaz as critical, and talks up synergies with HP hardware, software and services.

“Compliance is elevating itself among CIOs to a number-one or number-two priority. CEOs in financial services are saying systems for compliance are a number-one priority,” Youngjohns claims.

Third and finally, there’s ‘digital experience’. Here, Youngjohns spies the chance to use IDOL and more Autonomy-acquired technologies – this time from Interwoven and Vertica – to “take web content management to the next level with real-time analytics in the background to create websites that suit the specific needs of a user” based on his/her use of social media, public sources, buying and browsing history and other criteria.

Youngjohns says that he was surprised at the hidden riches at Autonomy.

“Underneath, there were a bunch of software businesses and that was a major discovery for me. It isn’t just IDOL.”

Combining these programs with the domain expertise of HP’s consulting army and the company’s scale will be powerful, he argues: “You still need someone who understands the medical profession, the workflow and some of the semantics, and HP has immense resources.”

Sensibly, Youngjohns is taking the ‘under-promise/over-deliver’ model as his mantra and says he is remodelling practices to be customer-centric.

“You have to define customer success as a metric [of Autonomy’s] success,” he says, adding, in another statement that won’t please previous management, that the company had been “seen as a little bit of a hit-and-run organisation”.

The current big job is to address “open sores” but within 18 months the aim is to have a clear product and strategy roadmap for Autonomy product evolution and to embed its technology in printers, servers, storage devices and services. He talks up the HP Flow technology for walk-up-and-print services and the Live Photo iPhone app that lets pictures launch short personal videos.

Most intriguingly, he talks about Aurasma augmented-reality technology as a way to “bring paper back to life” by having a greetings card that could show the kids singing happy birthday or a product catalogue or magazine page that invokes a digital demo and offer.

A keen magazine buyers who picks up “an armful” of titles at WHSmith every time he returns to the UK, he believes that magazine publishing could be revived by interaction such as digitally-activated ad pages that sell at a premium.

But already he says that Autonomy is “significantly profitable” and can be a growth engine for HP especially in the still-infant sector that is parsing unstructured data to deliver insights. After the soap opera that followed its acquisition, Autonomy is a tough job but, after a traumatic time spent in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it’s still a job with outstanding prospects.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director of IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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