John Swainson: CA's Mr. Fix-It

Q&A John Swainson, president and CEO of Computer Associates, talks tech.

No one can accuse John Swainson of idleness.

Since becoming president and CEO of Computer Associates International in February, he has helped refocus the technology giant, still dogged by past accounting and management troubles, on the business of selling software.

Or acquiring companies that can. This year alone, CA has made six acquisitions, including providers of security software, business services optimization and enterprise systems management.

Swainson, 51, also has pushed the company to expand internationally, improve customer relations and enhance CA's integration capabilities. "The reality of the situation is that significant change at CA is clearly more a marathon than a sprint, but Swainson is now putting his stamp on the company and positioning it for greater success," says Gregg Moskowitz, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group.

John Swainson is
CA's incoming CEO.

Beyond his leadership qualities, Swainson is, deep down, a classic gear head. An engineer by trade, he spent 26 years at IBM, where he held 13 different positions, including a job overseeing software sales. In corporate circles, Swainson is known not only for his sales skills, but also for his industry insight and technology chops--he was a driving force in creating WebSphere, IBM's popular middleware platform.

At CA's annual trade show in mid-November, held this year in Las Vegas, Swainson offered his thoughts on the biggest problems confronting companies in dealing with technology and laid out his vision of the rapidly changing software sector.

Q: What are the biggest technology challenges facing companies today?
Swainson: Companies have two almost conflicting challenges. They have technology that is getting ever more complex, ever more sophisticated and ever more critical. And at the same time, the business is saying, "But I need more faster, cheaper."

The challenge is that technology has become even more important, and yet the complexity of managing that technology has grown, and that's why we've started to talk a lot about enterprise information technology management as a way of helping reconcile what appears to be two irreconcilable things: simplifying and unifying the IT environment and then connecting that environment better to the business environment, allowing people to make IT responsive to business and not the other way around.

Why has technology become so complex and, in many ways, unmanageable?
Swainson: In the computer industry in general, we still have all of the sort of architectures and artifacts that have existed since essentially the beginning of the software era. There has been some attrition, but the fact is that there are mission-critical business applications that are 30 years old running inside most large corporations today. And there are 20-year-old apps, 10-year-old apps, 5-year-old apps and 2-year-old apps, and there are applications that just got written.

(Companies) don't think about how they are going to manage the technology infrastructure long-term, and they end up with messes--huge messes that are almost impossible to unravel.

All of those things coexist and have different standards for management, interoperability, security, and somehow you have to make sense of all that stuff. It's a really hard problem for customers to then make it secure, make it manageable, make it auditable, make it compliant with Sarbanes-Oxley. This is not for the faint of heart.

What are the biggest mistakes companies make in buying technology?
Swainson: They don't think about how they are going to manage the technology infrastructure long-term, and they end up with messes--huge messes that are almost impossible to unravel. They look at everything in a very isolated way.

I've looked at hundreds of different IT installations, particularly over the course of the last year. All the ones that are well-managed have one characteristic--they are architected to be managed. Some have mainframes, some have Unix systems, some have other platforms. It doesn't matter what architectural choices you've made. It's the fact that you've made a choice and created something that you know how to manage.

So how can companies take control of their systems?
Swainson: Well, ultimately, you have to reconcile things. It makes a great business for consultants. It makes a great business even for companies like CA, because our job is to help manage the complexity. But frankly, people make it harder than they need to by not thinking about the long-term operational implications of the technology choices.

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