Monday, 12 November 2007

Gabriel Consulting Group: the Currie Motors of the Analysts world

Here's a forgotten post, our apologies to Dan Olds from the Gabriel Consulting Group.

It all started on this post from IBM Sun IBM AR Professional: interview with an odd Gabriel. We then started a conversation with Dan about research, and it turns out it's a small firm that still does primary non-syndicated research. So it's not all just fluff and opinion, which is refreshing (Dale and Clive [ouch, managed to put them in the same sentence, that hurts] will certainly agree...).

After this, Dan sent us some background on GCC, which is reproduced verbatim below. Not exactly concise but interesting, candid and straight.

ARmadgeddon's take: independent analysts can bring value to vendors is used appropriately. Do research them and check the links above for examples on how GCC was used by a vendor. For analysts, the Currie Motors motto "Nice People To Do Business With" might be a good positioning.

I started GCG in early ’02 with a partner. We didn’t initially intend for Gabriel to be an analyst firm, we were aiming to do strategy work with vendors coupled with a customer education program that would teach them how to better execute IT projects (a pet project/obsession for my partner). We were semi-successful in that the vendor side of the house earned revenue and the education program never really got off the ground. Disagreements over the future of the business led to a breakup and my subsequent re-directing of Gabriel towards analysis. There’s probably no reason to tell you guys about this, as this first incarnation isn’t really relevant to anything GCG does today, but it is where the GCG story began and thus might be of passing interest.

I started generating research reports in early ’03, but later moved towards doing more basic research so I could generate my own data to supply grist for my analyst mill (jeez, that was a horrible analogy). My first ‘big’ project along these lines was a survey of enterprise Unix shops that asked them if they are using their Unix systems as consolidation platforms – if so, why? If not, why not? I was very happy with the results of this survey – it gave me a lot of data and the results contradicted some of my own long-held beliefs – forcing me to change my mind about several factors. Another survey looked at buyer criteria for x86 servers (what’s most important? Purchase price, feeds & speeds, support, etc.?) and I also introduced our Unix Vendor Preference and x86 Server Vendor Preference surveys. I’m thinking about applying this survey model to other areas of the industry – storage, new usage models (looking at virtualization/consolidation again), etc.

My experience in the industry, up until GCG, is mainly on the vendor side. Here’s a quick bio:

My formal education is in business. I have an undergrad in Finance, plus a MBA from University of Chicago with concentrations in Finance and Marketing (although I tried to focus on strategy)
After graduation, I went to work for Sequent Computer, beginning as a competitive analyst and ending up in Strategic Marketing, trying to get a handle on what and where the company should go in the future.
I was then recruited away from Sequent by Cray Research, and was arguably the last employee hired by Cray (I accepted my offer that day SGI announced the Cray buyout). Even though the company was a bit precarious, I had received an NDA briefing on their upcoming E10000 system and knew it was going to be big. Cray was purchased by Sun Microsystems shortly after I joined Cray. One of my initial duties was to help roll out the E10k to the Sun sales force and customers. This was the start of many hundreds of customer meetings and presentations.
One of the big problems we had was how to justify such a huge server (then 64 cpu, 64 GB memory) to customers. We initiated one of the first server consolidation programs in the industry and I was the first manager of that effort. This gave me lot of opportunities to talk to huge numbers of customers and get a real feel for their pain points and possible solutions.
I was then recruited away from Sun by IBM, first working as their ‘big Unix expert’ in the mainframe division, then moving onto their pSeries/xSeries divisions. I left IBM in ’01, or actually they left me when they shut down much of their operations here in Beaverton, Oregon.

Before discussing how GCG is different from the rest of the analyst community, I gotta cover how I have seen the IT markets evolve over my career and where I see them going in the future…

One of the biggest changes from the 90s is that the IT department doesn’t have nearly as much access to the corporate checkbook as they did previously. IT spending has now come under corporate control and buying technology for its own sake is now taboo in more organizations. In short, now IT purchases have to undergo the same cost/benefit analysis as factory equipment or machine tools. Business management is now more firmly in control.
With the above in mind, the ultimate decision makers are more often people with primarily business backgrounds. I’ve noticed this change when making presentations to customers. While covering technical points, everyone nods their heads and acts like they know the score. Later on, in emails and conversations, these same folks furtively ask questions that reveal that they really don’t understand the topics under discussion. It isn’t that these guys are dumb or aren’t paying attention – it’s just that there this is complex stuff and there aren’t many folks who are willing and/or able to break IT mumbo-jumbo down into understandable chunks or translate the techie stuff into terms a business person can understand. I can certainly sympathize with these guys and I was (and still often times still am) in the same boat. I’m not the most technical guy in the world, so when I’m getting briefed or doing research, I’m constantly asking “Why is this important? How will it make a difference in the real world?”
On the vendor side, it is getting much more difficult to differentiate products. In servers, for example, most of the products work fairly well, aren’t hideously over or under prices, and are reliable. Kind of like the car market – most car manufacturers put out a decent product that is relatively standardized (same pedals, steering wheel, etc.) It’s also getting harder and harder to gain any sustainable competitive advantage that is technology based. All of the vendors have access to pretty much the same technology, some will have it sooner than others, but all have the ability to field at least an arguably competitive product to respond to an advance made by a competitor. So what’s a vendor to do? I believe they need to prove their differentiation and gain advantage by playing to the business value of their products and proving that value through customer experience. My vendor preference surveys are aimed squarely at showing how customers rate/rank their experiences with the various vendors on a wide variety of technology and support criteria. Since it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to objectively ‘prove’ that one server brand is better than another, the next best thing is to measure which brand of server customers (the large majority of whom have had significant experience with multiple brands) believe is best.

One of the tougher questions I wrestled with is how to explain how GCG is different from the hundreds (thousands?) of other IT analyst firms. Here’s my best shot: Remember how in high school, there were always the guys in wood shop or in the locker room who constantly talked about cars – the merits of turbo chargers vs. superchargers, Ford vs. Chevy, or, in better high schools, BMW vs. Mercedes? These discussions/arguments were never ending, but pretty interesting and entertaining for the car guys. I see many of the other analyst firms in this mold, they love the technology, the bits & bytes, and all the inner workings of things like TCP/IP stacks. But there’s another set of folks who are very interested in cars, but for entirely different reasons: rental car fleet managers. They need to know that the cars they purchase will reliably help them service their customers, if they’ll break down, if the auto manufacturer is behind them, if maintaining or managing the fleet is better/easier than before, plus a myriad of other considerations. More and more IT decision makers – the ones who actually own the check book, are much more rental car fleet managers than they are car nuts. These guys are the audience I am aiming at and who I think I can best help understand what’s important in the industry and what isn’t.

At this point, I’m learning more about this whole analyst business. I’m still feeling my way along, and have lots of questions about what to charge for things, if and how to develop a better end-user business, how to build relationships with more vendors, get more press mentions/speaking engagements, etc., etc., But it looks like I’ll be around for at least the foreseeable future, and I’m going to keep pushing forward.

Damn, that’s more than “a little background on Gabriel”…sorry for going on so long. It wasn’t my intention to give you the full double-barreled history+resume. Anyway, that’s the Dan Olds/Gabriel Consulting Group story. If you want to refer to GCG in a note, that would be great, but could you hold off until I get my new web site up? The site now is pretty crappy and static, while the new site should be less crappy (at least 50% less crappy by my estimates) and will have a blog – yeah, I’m late getting on the blog bandwagon, but at least I’m finally doing it. I’m pretty sure my ancestors were the ones who thought that fire was just a passing fad and that the wheel was just some sort of fancy frippery that would never be useful…

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