michael-dell
Business Management

Exclusive: Michael Dell interview

The rain outside the convention centre in downtown Austin, Texas last week was a little pathetic when Dell World kicked off on the Wednesday. By the end of the week, Hurricane Patricia was pushing serious storms into the area, forcing the cancellation of F1 Grand Prix motor racing practice sessions and bringing the city to a bit of a standstill. It was short lived. The initial shock of the downpour was brushed off and everyone got on with it, including the F1 circus which put on one of the best races of the year.

By the time British driver Lewis Hamilton was crowned world champion on the Sunday, pretty much all of the Dell World delegates had disappeared. Dell, which dabbled with F1 racing team Caterham a couple of years ago, had little direct connection with the US Grand Prix this year and there was a feeling that it didn’t need it. If anything, it was a distraction.

There was a pragmatism about Dell World. Designed as a customer conference, it was also a chance for the company to chest-beat and show off its new products and plans to analysts and the media and ultimately talk about the impending deal with EMC and how it fits into the Dell vision. There was little razzmatazz but there were some big statements.

Founder and CEO Michael Dell was typically ebullient. Unsurprisingly, EMC was a constant talking point, the $67bn purchase clearly posing more questions than it is answering.

“I’m giving you version 1.0 of my unifying theory of the universe,” he said, speaking to a large room full of eager but quizzical customers. “I’ll give you version 2.0 when the EMC deal closes.”

Version 1.0 was essentially about how a combined Dell and EMC business would become “an enterprise solutions powerhouse” that would “build the world’s IT infrastructure for the next 20-30 years.” This is based on the collective products and experience of various companies including, Dell, EMC, VMware, RSA, Pivotal, Boomi and Statistica, the logos of which were plastered on the background screen.

This was showmanship and the messages kept coming.

“We’re investing for the future, for the long term,” Dell proclaimed, adding that the two-year-old switch to being a private business has enabled the company to transform quickly.

“Buying EMC, $67bn. Being master of our own destiny, priceless,” he said.  

Five hours later I was sitting next to him, in a small room, created from pre-fab partitions. His hair is flecked with grey now, bearing testament to the days when he was the wonder boy of the PC world and regularly cited as one of the most brilliant young CEOs of his generation.

“What, err, what’s on your mind?” he asked.

So much, I thought, and not all related to Dell. It was tempting to recall episodes of TV show Dallas, Dell’s Texan tones reminiscent of the main characters, but I bit my lip.

“You talked a lot about the hybrid cloud and data and how controlling data is key to the development of IT systems. What are your thoughts on data sovereignty?  Could this have an impact on Dell in any way and its plans for cloud?” I asked.

“Yes, I saw the news on that recently but I’m not sure I have a whole lot to say about it,” replied Dell. “I think the good news is that it’s pretty easy to build IT systems and place them all over the world in each country but that could be expensive for companies trying to build a global business, to put the data in every single place. These decisions are more in the domain of society than technology. It’s not really a technological problem, it’s a social one.”

OK, not a great start. It was at that moment it struck me that this was the bloke who, with Bill Gates at Microsoft and Steve Jobs at Apple, became a founding father of the modern technology industry, helping to bring technology to the masses, ultimately through his pioneering, build-to-order, direct to market strategy in the early 90s. It was difficult to think he was still there, at a company he started in 1984 with $1,000 borrowed from family, just a few blocks from where we were sitting.

So what was your best ever decision?

“Leaving university to start the business would be up there,” he said. “Asking my girlfriend to marry me. That was a massive one and going private of course.”

Can you explain that last one further?

“Being a private company gives us speed, agility, the ability to focus over a longer period of time. Reality is that public and private companies can do the same things; it’s just harder if you are a public company [he laughs] because you have to go through lots of steps, right? When you have a smaller number of shareholders it’s pretty easy but in a public company? Now I’ve watched the [British] House of Commons on TV and what I see no one agreeing to any bleepin’ thing, right? They stand up and make a little speech, they argue they fight and then they sit down and rarely does anyone agree. So that’s what public can be like.”

Dell the man and the company is clearly revitalised by the experience. His excitement at doing the deal for EMC is obvious. So what will it mean to Dell to get access to EMC’s product or is there more to it than that?

“Well, I think certainly there are a wide variety of products that EMC has that Dell does not have today. When I look at the 20,000 sales people we have and 176,000 partners we have, they all seem excited about the potential of EMC, RSA, Pivotal, Virtustream and so on, especially in the mid-market. There are definite opportunities.”

Where would those be?

“In new areas where IT is going – converged infrastructure, hybrid cloud, digital transformation, security, mobile – there are a lot of things that we can do with the various products and tools. This would have been much more difficult to do if they were just commercial alliances. As we get closer to the conclusion of the deal we will talk more about future opportunities and there’s no shortage of them. There are all kinds of revenue synergies between the companies to generate more demand and combine things together.”

You talked about EMC being an “incubator of new technology” so is there anything hiding in the EMC R&D cupboard that piqued your interest?

“Yes – well one thing in particular I will point to is a [Flash-based storage] company that EMC acquired called DSSD. It hasn’t shipped any products yet but if you look up what this is, it’s a game changer so I am very excited about it. There are so many of these things. They’ve got Pivotal, which has Cloud Foundry, a leading, cloud data suite, so there many great technologies inside this company.”

Is the situation with Virtustream and VMware, where the former cloud management company will sit under the latter, complex?

“Until the acquisition is closed they are all still separate companies. I am supportive of the announcement and we have no different intentions as to what EMC is doing to today with that announcement.”

What about the Internet of Things? You have a new gateway product. How important is this to the overall Dell plan?

“We see big industrial companies, Tyco, Siemens, GE and so on. The products they are making are moving from analogue to digital to improve uptime, preventative maintenance, upgrades et cetera. Industrial machines are now digital products spinning off huge amounts of information. Take Emerson, which makes fluid and gas control systems, for refineries and treatment plants – each plant and valve is going digital by adding sensors. And now they have datacentres – it’s all Dell. The level of activity with smart buildings, the announcement from Tesla doing new things with cars – we supplied servers to enable this all to happen. It’s huge business.”

‘Powered by Dell’ becomes a bit of a refrain. He gives, he takes but mainly he gives. He is a skilled operator who knows how to market his business and big up the achievements and opportunities. He skates over questions about potential job losses and rebuffs accusations that he is building a strategy based on market pressures. This he says, is not true. He doesn’t look at competitors to build a plan of action.

“I have never been afraid to take my own path,” he says, breaking into a laugh. “I’m on a really big adventure here. I am having a great time. I had a thousand dollars over there [when starting out] and now here we are. This is fun for me, this is what I like to do. I’d be depressed if I couldn’t do this.”

Really, you’re not just saying that?

“I am very excited in the role technology has in changing the world – in healthcare, cancer research, education and the advancement of society. We’ve had a lot of progress and that mirrors the rise of processor. Someone in Africa for $30 can have more information than the President of the United States had 25 years ago. That’s amazing and I get a front-row seat.”

Next stop, the world… powered by Dell of course.

 

Also read:

Dell-EMC: What happens next?

Software at heart of Dell’s attempted renaissance

Accenture scales a luminous summit with Cloud Sherpas deal

Dell-EMC: The simple guide to a complex deal

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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