The Friday Interview: Mark Combs, CA

24 Jun 2005

When you talk about seasoned IT industry veterans, few come as senior as Mark Combs, who heads up Computer Associates’ (CA) five divisions. As head of its products group, Combs is supportive of the open source movement but because of the homogenous nature of IT he doubts there will be any clear winners.

Meeting Combs in person, tackling the twists and turns of the global tech industry, is more akin to discussing philosophy with a university lecturer than discussing grand strategy with a high-powered executive heading a division of one of the world’s biggest software firms. Combs isn’t one to be distracted by marketing speak but instead has his mind fixed on what companies are doing with technology and why.

Prior to taking on CA’s products division, Combs was senior vice-president of research and strategic initiatives and was responsible for developing pricing and licensing models. Prior to that Combs was senior vice-president of advantage and mainframe solutions, responsible for all aspects of CA’s data management, application development and mainframe product lines. He joined CA in 1978 and has held a variety of management positions including senior vice-president of research and development. With 30 years of experience in IT, he has been instrumental in designing and growing CA’s technical support and quality infrastructure. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Long Island Software and Technology Network and the Long Island Software Incubator at the State University of New York. Before embarking on his odyssey in the world of software, Combs studied history, philosophy and computer science at University of Oklahoma.

In recent years CA went through a difficult time and had to restructure in order to remain viable following embarrassing financial disclosures that forced the company to restate its revenues going back as far as 1999. Following a period that saw IT publisher Kenneth Cron hold the reigns as interim CEO of CA until the company’s new CEO John Swainson takes over, the company has restructured into five divisions and recently posted solid, profitable quarterly results. The five new divisions include: enterprise systems management, security management, storage management, business service optimisation and products headed by Combs.

Combs describes the product group as an amalgamation of all other technologies and business groups that are relevant but not part of a grander strategy to merit having a division of their own. “We recognise we’ve got products that are still good products, they are competitive with good customer bases and a place in the market and contribute significantly to our bottom line and we collected those together that are not in our main area of strategic focus, put them into a business unit.

“That is the mission of my group, I’m responsible for the division of discrete products that are not systems management, not security and not storage. These include products such as our database products that have big customer bases and are key to the company such as All Fusion Gen for the application development environment. Very functionally rich product, best in class in its particular reach. We also have reporting products such as EasyTrieve. The division is a large, but not gigantic proportion of our revenues. The products are too big not to give some focus to. The idea of the group is to focus on these products as individual product lines instead of trying to weave them into a grander strategy.”

With more than 30 years of experience of the IT industry, Combs has a strong grasp of what companies are spending on IT and why. Influenced by the bottom line, companies he believes are restricted in how they deploy technology. “I don’t see that that sort of freedom to experiment that existed in the Nineties to today. It is very bottom-line driven. Every single investment is looked at with a jaundiced eye to see how it can either reduce costs or contribute to the business. The idea the IT department itself is going to come up with something that’s good just for its own sake as in 2000 will never come back. Every single thing is looked at either as how does it contain my costs or lower my costs or how does it contribute to my business group very specifically. There has to be good return on investment surrounding that within a very short time frame.”

Combs is an advocate of the open source movement, but more as a pragmatist than a zealot. He is conservative about the future of open source and its battle royale with traditional proprietary technologies. Microsoft, he believes, should be concerned but is adapting to the threat. “Nobody’s terrified, but open source is definitely making inroads. Proprietary vendors IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Sun have strong solutions that are useful and value for money, but what’s happening is the open source area and associated things such as Linux are growing up to be the commercially viable vendors. I don’t think Linux will dominate. It’s going to get to the point where there’s a really significant participation by the open source pieces. We are already seeing that. Companies are bringing in Linux willy-nilly on servers but there hasn’t been that much traction on the desktop side of Linux. There has been no replacement for Windows yet that has achieved serious commercial traction.”

In conclusion, Combs has a vision of where CA will sit in the new order of things. “The reality of the IT world is that it is all heterogeneous. Every single company uses technology from virtually everybody. There is no real business out there that is purely a Microsoft shop or an IBM shop. This brings to CA a unique competitive benefit because we are the only big software player that is not also a big platform vendor.”

By John Kennedy