Q&A: Lotus Incoming CEO Al Zollar

At Lotusphere 2000 in Orlando this week, Lotus Development Corp. introduced new CEO Al Zollar to customers, partners, analysts and the press. The 23-year IBM veteran will take over for outgoing CEO Jeff Papows Feb. 1. Computerworld senior editor Lee Copeland spoke with Zollar about his strategic vision for the groupware vendor.

Congratulations on your new move to Lotus.

Thank you. This is a team that is a powerful portion of the industry, and I am delighted to be associated with it as its new leader. The challenge of taking it to the next level in this knowledge-driven world is the thing that makes me extremely excited about our future.

What skills are you bringing to Lotus that will help move the company forward?

I've had a lot of experience in software. And that experience has gone across many technology areas: databases, application development, systems management, Java. And I think those experiences in software -- plus the experiences I've gained in developing strategies, sales and services, and in other aspects of what it takes to be a successful software business -- will serve me well.

Another thing that I hope will serve me well is that I have always been a believer in diversity. Not in the classic way of thinking about it, but in diversity of thought. It opens new ideas and new approaches, and that type of innovation has been a hallmark of Lotus. And hopefully those things and others are the skills that I can call on.

You have been described as a true techie. Is that an accurate moniker, and what part will you have to play in driving research and development?

I would describe myself as an OK engineer. Not a superb engineer, not a great engineer, but someone who appreciates what technology can do and how people use it. But it's been a long time since I've done any type of engineering. Most of my time has been focused on building software businesses and looking at business models and acquisitions and relationships that are important to building a successful software business.

While at Lotus, departing CEO Jeff Papows has been criticized for not having enough of a handle on development. Notes/Domino 5.0 shipped almost two years late and, I've heard, at twice the anticipated costs. Will one of your top priorities be to get on top of development?

Software engineering is quite complex. And Lotus is not the only team that could be described as having problems from time to time meeting execution milestones. That being said, I have every confidence in the team that we currently have and their ability to execute with time, precision and customer focus. I think at the end of the day, it's hard to move dates out, but its usually based on a deep concern on what the customer experience with the product will be.

Products are typically ready long before their ship dates. It's a question of whether there is enough quality engineering in the product to ensure the customer has a positive experience with it.

Any deliverables, in terms of development or sales, that you can talk about now?

I'd rather talk to you later about those. I am not effectively on the job yet.

As IBM and Lotus meld a bit more, what will be the role of Iris [the development group inside Lotus]. Will it go away?

Absolutely not. Iris is the heart and soul of Lotus and heart and soul of innovation that makes Lotus what it is. I want to know how I help them to continually improve that team and innovate as they always have.

What about SmartSuite? What plans do you have for boosting that product technically and in sales?

It's premature to have anything really intelligent to say. The focus that we have with SmartSuite these days is really on our customers and satisfying that base of customers, who also happen to mostly be Notes users.

We've seen a lot of voice-activated technology coming into Lotus, in products like SmartSuite and Raven. Is that coming from Lotus or IBM?

The fundamental research on voice technology comes from IBM's research labs.

IBM has long had some very good, solid computer science around voice recognition. It's a great example how Lotus is able to leverage IBM to find good technology, then is able to turn it into a solution that's good for customers.

The next thing coming up for Lotus is Raven. What needs to happen next technologically to get it off the ground?

I think it's a matter of execution. The vision of Raven is outlined in our demo. The real point of Raven is that the value of being able to know what you know through the discovery capability that Raven brings. Then [the next step is] to put that information in the hands of those who need it, when they need it -- the expertise-location capability. Then, finally, the capability of establishing a portal that knowledge can be accessed from. All those are fundamental capabilities that will improve the ability of our business partners to build solutions and for our customers to build their own solutions if they choose to. I think knowledge is going to be one of those valuable assets that allows businesses to compete in this fast-paced world.

While Raven is cooking, what is Lotus going to do to help get collaboration and e-mail migrations off the ground? There are a lot of customers that are still in the Lotus 4.0 world. And there still are a lot of customers that haven't yet started creating collaborative applications off the Domino architecture.

All I will say right now is that I've heard some of those things. Once I become more of an authority, we'll see if a course correction is required. But Domino as development platform is very successful, but I need more insight to give a better answer.

Microsoft Corp. and Lotus seem to be moving in parallel ways in terms of how both companies are developing their knowledge management strategies and products. Raven and Microsoft's Digital Dashboard look very similar. How is Lotus going to continue to differentiate itself marketing- and technology-wise from Microsoft?

A lot of that comes from the fact that we're talking to our customers and listening to the market, so the solutions may look similar. But one fundamental point about Lotus, however, is that we embrace the diversity of the Internet.

It doesn't matter whether you're talking about [Windows] NT, Linux, Unix, S/390s or AS/400s. We embrace the universal messaging devices and personal digital assistants. We embrace the diversity of the Internet. And that will be one measure, as customers evaluate their alternatives. They will see real differences between what Lotus offers and what Microsoft offers.

You are an African-American, and there are very few blacks in the technology industry or in the business world at your level. What do you make of that?

I think it represents an example of what we ultimately would like to see across the board. As people build a skill set and portfolio of experience that represents a set of talents that they bring to the job, that becomes the deciding factor in why they are selected. I would like to believe that that is why John Thompson selected me for this position. The fact that I happen to be African-American is a positive sign, relative to demonstrating a commitment to diversity. But I hope it's the talent of individuals that are allowed to shine without any blockage or barriers that are artificial. I feel fortunate to have had that type of treatment inside of IBM and now inside of Lotus.

Do you think in the technology industry as a whole there have been opportunities for minorities and, in particular, African-Americans?

Technology is one of those industries where it's easy to become color-blind, because it's about the skills that you bring to the table. I think it's been reported by the U.S. Department of Labor that there were over 350,000 open IT positions. So I think people don't have a lot time to worry about anything but talent. And I think that's good for everybody.

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