Internationally Regarded Group Publisher, Noted Editor and
Journalist, Top Ranking Senior Executive
This week, Stephen
Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Fritz Nelson.
Fritz Nelson, Vice
President, Group Publisher for the Network Computing Enterprise
Architecture Group, is responsible for the overall direction and
management of the following media brands: Network Computing, Network
Magazine, Intelligent Enterprise, Secure Enterprise, Storage
Pipeline, and Transform.
Previously, Fritz has
served as the reviews editor, the features editor, executive editor,
editor, and editor-in-chief for Network Computing. He wrote a column
called Full Nelson, a satirical look at the seedier side of vendor
hype. Prior to joining Network Computing, Fritz worked with Martin
Marietta’s Computing Standards group -- a team that tested and
evaluated technology, and whose objective was to set corporate
computing and networking standards.
Fritz was a technical
writer for USBI, a subsidiary of United Technologies that manages
parts of the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program.
Fritz graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Maryland with
a B.S. in journalism.
Q: Fritz, you have an
impressive and long record of accomplishment as a writer,
journalist, senior editor, publisher, and vice-president. We are
fortunate to have you do this interview—thank you!
A: With all of the other
distinguished people you’ve interviewed, I’m honored.
Q: What sparked your
interest in computers?
A: I couldn’t really
pinpoint any particular circumstance or defining moment. When I left
college, computing was just part of life and it became an
interesting industry to learn and write about.
As a journalism guy,
getting into the world of computing in large corporations, I’d pick
up the trade journals and read, and that probably sparked my
interest more than anything. From those journals, I learned, but I
also found some of them entertaining, and I realized that maybe
there was some combination of the skills I was learning and the
journalism I was trained for.
Q: Do you have any
“surprising” stories to tell from your days at USBI and Martin
A: I was at USBI (now no
longer around) shortly after the Challenger disaster, and we spent a
great deal of time recovering and getting ready to get back into
space. I was fresh out of school, and my job was to help engineers
and program managers write change orders for the booster rockets. If
anyone thinks the language of computing is arcane, just spend a few
months with the space program!
Two stories come to mind
in particular. I began working with our PR department as we prepared
for the first flight following Challenger, and we were planning an
all-company party in Huntsville, Alabama to celebrate the launch.
One of our tasks was to create a big banner for the party and we
were brainstorming what it should say. In a fit of gallows humor,
one of us (OK, it was me) suggested “Way to go, USBI,” which could
be used in case of success or failure.
My all-time favorite
story, however, was a change order we processed close to a launch.
There had been a leakage problem with one of the batteries aboard
the boosters. This would have prevented a launch, so someone
somewhere came up with a plan to wrap the battery with disposable
Martin Marietta (now
Lockheed Martin) was fascinating. So many divisions, so many people,
so much going on. Our group helped move so much Novell NetWare just
within our company that we were given Reseller status. One of the
things that still sticks with me to this day is that we had a
company-wide videoconferencing system. I suspect that many companies
had room-based systems, but even so, this was 15 years ago, and we
used this technology relentlessly. One of our favorite things was to
ask the executives of some of the biggest vendor companies to come
speak to us, via videoconference. And they always did – one of the
beauties of being such a big company. We had John Sculley (of Apple
at the time), Steve Ballmer, and many others over the years. There
were probably 30 – 40 of us spread out throughout the company, and
we’d get to ask questions.
A little known fact about
Lockheed Martin, perhaps, is that, at least in those days, where
most of the company was run on mainframes, there was a small-ish
group in Bethesda that had a business in leasing time-shares on our
mainframes. I was fascinated to find out, for instance, that we ran
Burger King’s payroll system.
One of the things I still
remember about the technology and product evaluations we would do is
that our company’s purchasing department would do a vendor viability
study of all of our “finalist” companies. We wanted to make sure
those we did business with were financially sound. I find it
remarkable that we were doing that back then. We’re finding that
viability, service and support have become key evaluation criteria
today – probably not a big surprise, given the number of companies
that have gone out of business or fallen down on service and
support. But the big surprise is that IT folks are being held
accountable for this aspect of the decision-making process.
Q: From your column, Full
Nelson, which story provoked the most controversy? Do you have any
funny stories to share?
A: It’s always when I
tackled the big companies, poking fun or challenging them to do
better. And the response came from both sides: either supporters of
those companies questioning whether I was just like all the rest,
piling on because they are easy targets, or detractors thanking me
for saying what they so often felt.
My column “Here Comes The
Sun” probably was the epitome of this. I ripped into Sun for its
long-standing history of arrogance, which I’d heard from many
customers, but which I also experienced first hand. They would often
call to offer a product for review, but only in exchange for it
being on our cover. I really tore into them, and I got tons of
e-mail thanking me for finally saying what so many others had not,
for not always just picking on Microsoft. But I also got quite a few
asking whether I was a Microsoft tool. One of my favorite comments:
“When Bill Gates farts, your breath stinks.”
Some of the more
nostalgic pieces also drew a great deal of e-mail. I think people
like to take walks down memory lane. People also seemed to like when
I evaluated the marketing lexicon of the time. And when I wrote,
with our Editor at the time, Art Wittmann, a feature on the CEOs of
Lucent, Cisco, Nortel and 3Com, I wrote an accompanying column that
drew a big response. I always love how vacuous these CEOs can be,
and so I took some of their quotes and did my own, um, analysis of
what they really meant to say – which I thought was far more
interesting than what they actually said.
Finally, anything I ever
wrote about Novell drew massive response. People are just fanatical
about Novell, even to this day. A couple of years ago, I took Novell
to task, and I said their earnings were as flat as Winona Ryder. I
got a flurry of e-mail on that one.
Oh, one regret probably:
I once said that some useless technology – I can’t remember what it
was – was as useful as dental floss in West Virginia. I still think
that’s a pretty funny line, but it really made some people angry,
and because of that, I wish I hadn’t written it.
Q: You have an amazing
record of successes! What are your top three achievements and why?
A: I cannot classify
anything I’ve done into an amazing success, and when you look at
what so many people have done in our industry, I’m lucky to have
been a fly on the wall, at best.
Q: Which three “prior”
positions provided the greatest challenges and lessons? What were
A: Columnist -- For some
people it might be easy to have an opinion on things. In fact, when
I read columns in any publication, I am floored by the lack of
originality and quality. I’m not sure I ever did it any better than
anybody else, but I sure as hell made damn sure I did it with
originality in both thought and execution. If you’re going to take
on a challenge like writing a column, you can’t just put thought to
paper – it’s not enough, and people can get that anywhere. Go that
extra step, put yourself into it, and make a statement.
From editor-in-chief to
publisher -- Moving from being focused on content to being
responsible for the overall business was a big leap for me, and one
I almost didn’t make. There was so much I didn’t know. What I
learned, however, is that just like anything I’d ever done, I wasn’t
alone. I have had the most remarkable people to work with over the
Technical Writer for USBI
-- The challenge was simple: there wasn’t that much to do. Anyone
who wishes for an easy, cushy job is fooling themselves. I’ll never
want a job where you just make yourself busy; it’s got to be
Q: Can you describe your
current work with your various media brands?
A: I have two primary
roles. First, I am the publisher of each of five stand-alone media
platforms (by which I mean print magazines and associated web,
newsletters and events): Network Computing, Network Magazine,
Intelligent Enterprise, Secure Enterprise and Transform. This also
includes a six-time supplement, called Storage Pipeline, which runs
across a couple of those magazines. In the publisher capacity, I’m
responsible for each of the business entities, which includes the
product (content), sales and marketing. Because I have more of a
content background, I probably get more heavily involved in the
editorial processes than many publishers – in fact, the editors
occasionally ask me to write an article or two. Second, I serve as a
vice president and group publisher for those platforms, and how they
fit into the overall scheme and business of our company, CMP Media.
Q: What are the major
strengths of your company?
A: CMP Media is a big
company with many focused and nimble parts that act as business
entities targeting specific market sectors. It’s the best of all
worlds, really. We have the credibility of being a big, successful
media company with a profitable, well-capitalized parent company
(United Business Media). Yet we are the only media company with
expertise and leading brands in the channel (CRN, VARBusiness),
electronics or OEM (EETimes), gaming and software development
markets (Dr. Dobbs), not to mention, of course, the
enterprise/end-user business technology market that Network
Computing and InformationWeek are in, for example. We also have an
incredibly successful health-care publishing division within CMP.
Each group within CMP is
very focused on its particular audience segment and subject matter,
so we can compete with niche publishers on that basis if need be,
but more important we can be the authoritative voice of information
in those markets. But we all also work together, so we can offer our
advertisers any customer set they want, depending on what they’re
trying to accomplish and how they’re going to market. We do that not
just by knowing each other and working well together (which we do),
but because we’ve also centralized things like audience development
(readers) and our web business, two very big keys to our success.
Having a single, unified audience database allows us to help our
advertising customers understand their customers better, and how
they can reach them through our various media platforms.
Techweb, our overarching
web brand, has also been centralized, which allows our reader
customers a single point of entry into our network of web platforms,
but also consistency across those platforms.
In other words, our
strength is in our depth in each market, and our breadth across all
of those markets.
Q: Where do you see
yourself and your company in five years?
A: I always think that
five years is too far out to really understand and make predictions
on – maybe that’s short-sighted of me, but even at the fast-paced
clip of the technology industry, five years seems like an eternity.
Five years ago, I was an editor and hadn’t given any thought to
becoming a publisher.
However, I think it’s
becoming clearer that the publishing landscape will change in
interesting ways over time. Hopefully we’ve all put notions of the
elimination of paper out of our heads for the time being. But I’ve
personally seen a change in how people use different media formats,
and certainly the web has changed how we do business.
It’s uncertain how this
will happen, but I think it’s fairly easy to see that information
needs are being served on a more customized basis, and that trend
will continue. In fact, there will be a radical change eventually in
that these customized information needs are being served today
selectively by readers – that is, they go where they need to on our
web sites, and bounce from topic to topic and site to site at their
whim. Once we start to understand that behavior better, the
possibilities are endless.
For example, today we
talk to our readers constantly, and we build editorial calendars
that seem to fit with what we’ve interpreted as our readers’
informational needs. We have no way of knowing how much of an issue
anybody reads – polls tell us a few things, but it’s never exact.
Online, you know where people are, where they go, what’s popular,
what’s useless. That’s a bit overstated, of course, because
sometimes good content may simply be too well hidden, but the point
is that if you do things right, you’ll only ever have to produce the
information people want. You can try new things, but you’ll get your
More important, you can
begin to create more personalized information or versions of your
content. The technology is already there, but nobody has done it
right, yet. We still think in terms of “broadcast.” Print is really
a broadcast to a defined audience. Our media websites are
reader-selected broadcasts. Ultimately, we want to deliver just the
right information to just the right reader.
Of course, for an
advertiser, that also has amazing appeal. Today, with targeted
information vehicles like electronic newsletters and webcasts, we’re
already seeing advertisers ask for less reach, and better targeting.
What I’ve just described is the ultimate in doing that. We’ve been
experimenting with that in a special e-mail newsletter we do on
security threats – subscribers have been allowed to sign up for the
portions of the content (based on what operating system platforms
We also think that
because there’s so much you can do differently online, that
web-based publishing will change the way we do print publishing. For
instance, we can build and encourage far better reader-interaction
mechanisms online than in print. We began a project in 2003 to
experiment with these concepts, where we actually build articles
online, piece-by-piece, depending on reader input and feedback on
how we’re evaluating technology. Thus we’re able to shape that
content better according to the needs of our readers, but we also
get a whole bunch of content we would never have had in some cases.
Q: From your remarkable
career, what are your top ten tips?
A: I’ve found a few
things helpful just by watching others I admire, and some other
things helpful by screwing up and learning the hard way. But here
1) Surround yourself with
great people and you will not fail. Then . . .
2) . . . realize it’s
them, not you.
3) You spend probably
half your day or more doing your job. If it isn’t fun, get the hell
4) A different spin on
that last one: have a sense of humor, for goodness sake. You’re
excused if you’re saving lives, but even then . . .
5) There are leaders who
compel people to follow, and those who command. Be the former.
Respect is harder to earn than fear, of course, but its affect is
more far-reaching and longer-lasting, not to mention just a better
way of living. I can’t stand if someone is afraid of me – I find it
6) If you find success at
any level (a project, a career milestone, a profit, whatever), stop
for a moment and bask in it. Hell, soak in it! The next thing will
still be there, but too often we all fall into the trap of building
to build, rather than building to achieve.
7) Know that the person
you just dismissed or treated a little rottenly will someday be in a
position to do the same to you. For example, personally, I’ve been
the pursue-ee (when I was an editor) and the pursue-er (as the
publisher) and it’s frightening how often the tables have turned and
I look up to find that person I may have treated a bit too
cavalierly years ago.
8 ) Look outside of your
industry and you will find ideas you can modify as your own. As a
columnist, I had to find my own voice, but I needed to learn from
others. Because I’m responsible for a business unit, I love to see
the metrics someone in, say, the airline industry uses, or
9) Constantly evolve and
innovate, no matter what. If you aren’t doing that, it’s probably
time to move onto something else.
10) Really do care about
your subjects – if it’s a customer, if it’s someone you’re
interviewing for an article, whatever – don’t just listen to say
you’ve done it.
Q: What experiences
continue to “amaze” you?
A: At the risk of coming
off a cynic, I am constantly baffled by the ability of technology
marketers to shroud the realities of their technology with goofy and
empty terminology and jargon. There’s nothing like the truth to
build credibility. Sure, there’s a value proposition to communicate:
sometimes it’s got to be more than just a switch or a CRM product –
it enables business or provides strategic advantage or enables the
management of the entire life cycle of the information or helps
optimize your business processes. But damn! What is it? That’s
On a more positive note,
I’m blown away by the ingenuity of people in this industry. Just
when you think everything’s been invented, there’s something new,
I am amazed that
often-times technology comes full circle. Web Services? Same idea as
distributed applications. Utility computing and grid? Very similar
in concept to time-sharing. Wireless vendors are going through many
of the machinations and evolution seen by the wired Ethernet
industry years ago.
I am always amazed at the
daring of people to go start something new, and the passion they
bring to these endeavors in the face of great risk and uncertainty.
I was amazed when I once
asked Cisco CEO John Chambers if he knew any good West Virginia
jokes (that’s where he was born and raised, and it’s kind of a
border joke thing, since I spent many of my formative years in
Maryland) that he went on for 10 minutes about how West Virginia was
like a small business! Yet I am equally amazed at what a kind,
caring, person he is . . . without fail, it seems.
Q: Do you have any
additional humorous stories to share?
A: Well, there is this
one. Way way back, a PR person had a wild sexual escapade with an
editor of another publication. I know that because she sent the
details of that not to her friend, as she thought she had, but to
our entire editorial team! I’ll never forget that.
I have others I can’t
Q: What are the five most
important IT trends to watch, and please provide some
A: 1) Utility Computing
-- It seems we’ve embraced this trend already, but there are still a
few technologies challenges, mostly in the area of network
management. In the sense that we can deliver IT as a service, this
2) Wireless -- Though we
all obsess about this because it has a high cool factor, I truly
think wireless technology will rule the day. The question is when. I
think we’ll look back 20 years from now with little understanding of
why it all took so long.
3) Outsourcing --
Probably little debate here – all of our research tells us that this
is just a way of life now. But what our readers are finding is that
there’s just as much work in managing the outsourcer relationship,
and that some things just don’t make sense to let go of. The
challenge will continue to be figuring out the right way to do this.
4) Performance Management
-- Everything from the management of operational performance to
financial performance to IT performance. We have become a business
society infatuated with process and performance improvement, and the
measurement of improvements
5) A rapid congealing of
enterprise content management technologies and strategies. There is
so much unstructured data, and we’re beginning to be incredibly
specialized in how we provide access to and delivery of that
critical asset. This affects so many industries, from insurance
(claims processing) to financial institutions (loan and mortgage and
investment processing) to the government record keeping to simply
anyone doing business on the web.
I didn’t mention Linux
and Security on purpose. Because . . . . partly because they’ve been
hyped enough, but also because I think these are just part of the
fabric now. A trend isn’t a trend when it’s taken hold and taken for
granted. You could argue that various aspects of Linux deployment
and security technology have a long way to go before they have
wide-spread penetration and acceptance and maturity – I wouldn’t
disagree. But I think we’re well on our way, and these issues
(especially security) are just a part of daily IT life.
Q: What are the five
greatest challenges facing businesses today? What are their
A: In no particular
1) Customer Privacy -- As
our ability to reach customers, suppliers and other partners
evolves, we cannot lose control, either as businesses ensuring a
customer is really a customer, but also as businesses protecting
customer data and privacy rights.
2) In the short term,
getting more out of what you have – that infrastructure might be
creaky, you may have 30% of the manpower you once had, you may have
had to make sacrifices that have reduced quality somewhere. We’ve
learned our most recent lessons on extravagance and blind optimism.
So even with a positive economic outlook, we all know we’ve got to
make due, and in many cases continue to get more out of the
resources we have.
Productivity -- Competition is so fierce and unrelenting. In many
industries, innovation lasts a nano-second. Productivity improvement
must become part of the culture.
4) Ethics, Compliance,
Regulation – Customers come in the form of employees, buying
customers, shareholders. Business owners must please them all. Part
of that is really deciding what kind of business you are – now, with
recent legislation and the wake of so much scandal, there’s teeth
behind needing to be better corporate citizens. Suddenly we are all
scrutinizing everything we do with a fine-tooth comb.
5) Growth -- Where will
it come from? This isn’t new, but I think we’re all tired of looking
at ways to re-structure our businesses and get more out of existing
resources and making do. I think by now we’d all rather grow. But
growth won’t just come, we’ve got to go find it, and often that
means in new places, by taking different approaches.
Q: Who are the winners
and losers in the next five years?
A: - I think Sun loses
unless it can adapt; or re-invent itself as Apple has.
- I think Dell continues
to win. Nobody has come close to approaching its business model.
- I think Microsoft
continues to win, but so does Linux. I think they can co-exist and
both grow. Microsoft will simply have to grow in different ways, and
they’ve proven effective at that already.
- I think Novell loses,
because although their Linux play is compelling, they have paid
little to no attention on their loyal customer base. I want them to
win, but they drive me crazy.
- I think end-users win.
Despite my earlier diatribe about e-mail, personal productivity
tools are rapidly improving.
- I think for a while,
information consumers will lose as often as they win. When was the
last time you needed to go to the library? I never go, because it’s
all there on the web. But because it’s so easy to be an information
publisher on the web, anyone can do it – and so anyone does! I
sometimes don’t trust the medium and the message . . .and I suspect
I’m not alone.
- EMC wins. I didn’t
think so for the longest time, but they’ve climbed down from the
perch of arrogance. They have flexible pricing. They are forming
partnerships. Their recent acquisitions (Legato and Documentum) show
tremendous foresight about the relationship between data and
- I want a company like
Symantec to win, but I haven’t seen anything that would suggest it’s
possible. But I think they are in the best position to be the
comprehensive security solution provider. It’s theirs to lose and
- Cisco will win, but I
think at some point they’ve got to innovate in new markets. Hell,
maybe just once to remind people they can do it and re-establish
that credibility. The not-so-fast-but-just-right-follower approach
has been brilliant, but I sense a growing lack of weariness about
Cisco as a company.
Q: Any predications about
the economy and future IT spending?
A: I don’t know enough to
predict the direction of our economy, though I certainly feel
positively about it after a few tough years. I also believe that
optimism and pessimism can feed the fire either way – I think we
sank into a recession so quickly because everyone just believed at
once that the economy was starting to fail, and we all stopped
spending. A self-fulfilling prophesy to some extent. But I also
think the reverse can happen. I think it is happening, but we’re all
just kind of reluctant to say so out loud!
Q: What kind of computer
setup do you have?
A: I have an IBM Thinkpad
that I use on the road, in the office and at home. I try to connect
wirelessly wherever I go, but that’s not always possible. I’m fairly
practical in this regard, in that I don’t really need much more than
that – I don’t carry any fancy hand-held (though I’ve tried them) or
phone . . . just sort of your basic company issue. One thing I’ve
learned in becoming more of a publisher is that there’s far more
value in human contact – years behind the screen made me forget
I also happen to find
e-mail distracting. I like that it can be done on my time, at my
behest. But I also think it’s too intrusive. Although it’s an
invaluable tool, sometimes I just wish it would go away. I think
many of us create our priorities around what other people are
telling us in their electronic communications. It’s a double-edged
Q: If you were doing this
interview, what three questions would you ask of someone in your
position and what would be your answers?
A: You know, there are
some questions I’d ask. In fact, these are questions I have asked
others, in slightly different ways.
Q1: Who would win in a
fight between you and your rival publisher?
A1: I’m a lover, not a
Q2: Why aren’t there more
women in IT?
A2: Probably for the same
reasons there aren’t more women in lots of professions. One of our
most prolific and respected writers is Lori MacVittie, and she is a
technologist with extraordinary insights and capability. I think
it’s somewhat incumbent on people like Lori to serve as role models
and encourage young women to embrace technology. I think our high
schools, which are creating more IT curriculum than ever, need to
encourage this as well.
Q3: Have you ever been
offered a bribe?
A3: That’s not a very
Q: Fritz, your in-depth
insights are of great value to our audience. Thank you for doing
A: My pleasure.