Where People Count More
Michael Morrison, President and CEO, Datawatch
A lot of CEOs, when asked about the key attributes of their success, will try to bamboozle you with platitudes such as "vision" and "leadership." Michael Morrison has a different answer:
"People. Put the right people in place and the good stuff will happen."
Michael Morrison is the CEO of Datawatch Corporation, a software company that specializes in information optimization solutions. More on that in a minute.
Michael's background is sort of circuitous, like many overachievers, but it makes a lot of sense in hindsight. He comes from a family of 10—"So we didn't have a lot"—but eventually received a B.A. from Tufts in mathematics. "But what can you do with a math degree?" he laughs. "So I went to law school. I'm a lawyer by trade, but I don't typically acknowledge that in public."
His first job in software was as a legal counsel for NYNEX (one of the post-Ma Bell divested regional Bell operating companies). "Then I went into operations, or as we call it, ‘the dark side.' And it's been great ever since."
He moved on to join Cognos, the well-known business intelligence (BI) provider. His first role at Cognos was as legal counsel and he also ran human resources. But he soon moved over to run a smallish start-up within what he calls "the safety net of Cognos" that was the company's first foray into business applications.
Let me explain that.
Business intelligence—BI—looks at various sets of data you've collected from your core business processes, such as ERP systems and financials, and then tells you what happened. That's it. Doesn't sound very exciting, but the development of BI tools led to the emergence of some of the largest and most successful software companies back in the '90s.
The thing is, BI is good at looking backward; it's not too good at predicting what will happen next. This concept of "analytics," and the ensuing forecasting and budgeting, sort of dawned on all the BI companies in the late '90s, and they all knew it would be the key to adding value to their products going forward. They all, Cognos included, started thinking about how to bring a more strategic business value to the table, and began acquiring technologies that would allow their products to be more forward-looking and predictive. That's how this "analytics" movement got its start, and Michael was pretty influential in that evolution, I'd say.
Moving On and Around
Through a series of acquisitions, Michael moved away from Cognos, then back into Cognos, then after yet another acquisition, to IBM. (Talk about the dark side!) Anyway, he then was drawn to look at Datawatch. This was in February of 2011.
Recalling that move, Michael will tell you two things quite openly: Datawatch had great technology and "passionate" (he likes that word) customers. It was also in decline. "Whether it was the wrong strategy, or failure to hit the right market... it was clearly a troubled company," he admits. But like any smart executive, Michael knew enough to do the proper due diligence. He did it by doing what he does best—evaluating the people. "Before I joined Datawatch, I spent time with customers, and investors and employees. I got a lot of good vibes."
So he took over as president and CEO. He spent even more time getting to know the place, talking with the various teams and individuals. And he determined something kind of rough—he had to make some changes. "I replaced the entire sales and marketing team, mostly with people I already knew and had worked with. I knew what they could do," he says.
"I'm a huge believer that everything starts with the people. If you put the right people in place, you're going to be successful," he insists. But that's easier said than done. People can be opaque; quality is hard to determine. How do I identify the "right" person, I ask him. "The people who do well are the ones who put in extra effort. I try to tell my kids that, but they never listen," he laughs. "Seriously, there are actually three things I look for in a corporate culture: Effort, communication and attitude. And effort is the most important. You can overcome a lot of shortcomings just by working harder than the other person."
He continues: "When you have a company that has fallen on hard times, it takes an immense effort to turn it around. If you don't have the greatest market perception, or the greatest tools on the market, you've gotta just out-hustle." (Of course, he quickly adds his company has great technology!)
Out-hustling is a demanding proposition. "Yes, but you can sense it in the people who are putting in the effort. It's a 2 AM email response, or flying on a business trip on a Sunday afternoon, or writing a 12-page white paper in a week at the request of a sales executive... you can see it from their actions. There aren't any gaps. You never have to ask: ‘Why hasn't that been responded to?'"
It's easy to see how all that 2 AMing and Sunday afternooning gets his employees noticed. But what about him? What's his typical day? "At first, I did a lot of assessing the corporate culture locally. But now I do a LOT of travel. We have offices in the UK, Germany, Singapore, Manila... but they're small groups of people that constitute those offices, and they're pretty far away. They need to see ‘corporate' and feel like they have a personal connection. We're in a very exciting market, but it's still an evangelical sale. We've reinvented ourselves. We have a new message, a new position, so it's very important to get in front of the people on the ground out in the remote offices—like on an island off Australia—who are tasked with delivering that message. And it's good to get their feedback. The people on the front lines have, by far, the best input into whether our approach is effective. That's where you get your best information."
Loving The Software
I mentioned that Michael likes to use the term "passionate" when describing his customers. I like the message, but I find it hard to think of software as stirring much passion. "I agree 100%," says Michael. "I consider software a necessary evil. So to get worked up about software takes something special. It's usually a person who has struggled for months or maybe years with very manual, unproductive processes to pull data together for analysis. It was hours of mundane, laborious work. Now all of a sudden they're given a tool that—while it might not have cool 3D graphics and bells and whistles—does that job in minutes or seconds, freeing them to do more value-added things. I can't tell you how many times I've heard users say, ‘Man, I got promoted because of this software!' I'm like you...when I think about software, I'm unimpressed. Meh. But people who have struggled with the alternative, they tell a much different story."
There's also the sense that new-generation tools are more democratic. Due to BI's complexity and expensive license costs, most companies would employ a few, or one, power user as "the BI guy." Users would have to go to him with their hands out like Oliver Twist and ask, "Please sir? May I have a report?" Technology like Datawatch's Information Optimization Platform removes that disconnect between information and people. And that's a good thing.
Just as sort of a postscript, I admitted to Michael that his was my first interview in this new "Meet The Leaders" project we have started here at KMWorld. So it might be a little rocky. "Well, floss it up and make it sound interesting," replied Michael. "I'd hate to be the guy who killed the whole project."
No problems. With a guy like Michael, it doesn't take much flossing to make it interesting.
Michael Morrison, President and CEO, Datawatch