DellWorld 2013: Reflections on the Keynote

Dell World 2013

I mentioned previously that the Dell keynote by Michael Dell was underwhelming, and I’ve been trying to work out why I felt that way. It’s because, once you strip away the boosterism and sloganeering about “disruption” and “World’s Largest Startup”, it didn’t really offer anything new. There were plenty of excited reactions from other people, both at the time and subsequently, but I feel like they were watching a different keynote to me.

Dell is now a private company, after a lengthy slog to become so. That was tiring, and people were fatigued, so some boosterism and rah-rah speechifying was inevitable, almost required. You have to inject energy into the room, even if it’s artificial at first, so that customers, partners, and employees can feel that there’s something going on that’s worth paying attention to.

The opening keynote was all about nebulous vision and feelings, not anything concrete. Michael Dell was talking to customers, partners, and employees about how their relationship with Dell would feel, compared to before. “The world’s largest startup” means Dell should, ideally, feel more like a startup (customer focussed, trying to find good product-market fit, shipping revisions constantly even if they’re not quite ready), but also like a larger company (resources to do lots of things simultaneously, able to take on more ambitious, long-term projects).

That’s why Elon Musk was there. He represents what Dell the man, and therefore Dell the company, think the company should look like. Taking on ambitious projects, sometimes failing in large ways, but always striving to do stuff that’s cool. Not at all surprising when you choose “World’s Largest Startup” as your primary talking point. And as a way to draw a line under the ‘old Dell’, there’s nothing really wrong with that.

The challenge here is that not everything Dell’s customers need is actually cool. There is a lot of stuff out there that is boring, but necessary, and quite lucrative to those who provide it. Life insurance. Sewage treatment. Accounting. Most companies, and most of Dell’s customers, aren’t Space-X, or Facebook, or a Formula-1 racing team. But they all need IT systems, and Dell is just one of the potential suppliers of those systems.

And Dell will have to manage the inherent tension between trying to be a startup and still doing grown-up company things. Things like HR systems, and remuneration that doesn’t include stock options. Coordinating the actions of thousands of employees across the globe, not eight in a garage. It’s very hard to hire thousands of A-grade employees, and good management systems are what allow a company to get A-grade results from A mix of A-, B- and C-grade employees. That’s what management is for.

And that, I think, is what lies at the heart of my unease. I’m over ‘innovation’. I’m sick to death of people wanting to ‘disrupt’ things all the time. That’s all Silicon Valley has been able to talk about for the past few years, and none of them, zero, have disrupted a damn thing. Unless, of course, you redefine ‘disrupt’ or ‘innovate’ to mean ‘make slightly different’. Suddenly painting a fork a different colour is “disrupting the food/human interface” and is good for a couple of lazy million from dipshit VCs who are looking for even stupider people to buy into the scam. It’s all “Over here! Look at how new and exiting and disruptive I am! I’m changing the world!”

The world doesn’t change over-night. It changes slowly, gradually, as the standard bearers for the old ways die out and the young turks grow up and learn why those old buggers weren’t always utter morons. It changes by steps, bit by bit, as patient and inexorable as a mountain. Change requires persistence, not dramatic revelations. What’s remarkable about the world isn’t how different it is since we invented smart-phones, or the microchip, or washing our hands, but how utterly the same it is.

And there’s the thing. Look at Dell the company, what it’s doing, what its goals are. Transition from an efficient supply-chain for consumer PCs to a company that can supply products and services in a range of technology areas, enough to serve all of the needs of a reasonably substantial business. Same as last year. And things are progressing nicely. Services revenues are up, consumer is steady to down slightly, and killing the focus on Windows 8 tablets will help mightily there, other parts of the business are lining up nicely behind the one master Dell brand.

I think that the rhetoric of disruptive startup will be gone in a year, much as the central importance of Windows 8 was gone from last year. Windows 8 was The Future, and it garnered a total of zero mentions this year. All the talk of disruption and innovation is a fad, designed to incite breathless copy from lazy journalists accustomed to a steady diet of Silicon Valley hype.

I’m disappointed that Dell gave us a circus sideshow keynote again. Last year was Bill Clinton’s turn, and I’m sure there was plenty of good stuff about what Mr. Clinton was up to, and he’s certainly entertaining to watch. Similarly, Mr. Musk was intriguing, and I like him a lot more now than I did previously. That’s great for Clinton’s and Musk’s brands, but what on earth does Dell have to do with it? Are they just hoping for a bit of the glitter to rub off? Is a celebrity endorsement the best they can do?

Because if you scrape off the greasepaint, you get a company that’s still doing the same transition it started several years ago, and with some degree of success. Good news, but not exciting. It’s basically the same plan as IBM or HP. But the vision of the keynote, all startup glitz and glamour, is a mirage, and will be gone within 12 months. What will be left after the sun goes down and the distant shimmering of water is revealed to be so much barren sand?

After the keynote, and all of Dell World, I still don’t know who Dell wants to be when they grow up.

Do they?

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