Internationally Regarded Group
This week, Stephen
Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Rob Preston.
is the editor-in-chief for Network Computing, but also serves in a larger
fashion as Editorial Director of the Network Computing Enterprise Architecture
Group, which includes Network Magazine, Intelligent Enterprise, Secure
Enterprise, and Storage Pipeline.
more than 17 years of management experience in technology journalism. Before
joining Network Computing, Preston
served as editor-in-chief of InternetWeek,
where he refocused the publication on how enterprises are deriving returns from
their Internet technology investments. At InternetWeek,
Preston also reorganized beats along technology and vertical industry lines;
established an editorial advisory board of luminaries; and created the annual
InternetWeek 100 special issue ranking the nation's leading Internet technology
previously spent three years at InformationWeek,
most recently as senior managing editor, overseeing the industry-leading
magazine's news and features coverage. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Rob, you have a remarkable
history of accomplishment. Thank you for sharing your deep insights with our
A: The pleasure’s all mine.
Thanks for giving me this opportunity.
Q: Describe your experiences
with InformationWeek and InternetWeek and your many challenges and successes.
A: My time at those
publications—from 1996 to 2001—happened to coincide with the “glory days” of
information technology. IT organizations no longer were considered
behind-the-scenes cost centers. For many companies, the IT organization was
“the business”. The Internet was the engine of economic growth, and it was
transforming many companies’ business models. CIOs and e-business chiefs were
rock stars, reporting directly to their companies’ CEOs rather than to
While both InformationWeek and
InternetWeek prospered with the times, we tried to keep our editorial coverage
grounded. We focused less on what the dot-coms were doing and more on how
established leaders like Wal-Mart, General Motors, Schwab, and General Electric
were leveraging the Internet and information technology. Unfortunately, when
the bubble burst, so did InternetWeek. Despite InternetWeek’s focus on
mainstream applications of Internet technology, the media market lumped us with
all the “new economy” cheerleaders.
Q: What two experiences stand
out from that time-period?
A: Two case studies stand out
the most. One reflects the best promise of the Internet and information
technology. The other reflects the unkept promise.
While at InformationWeek, I
and two other editors had the opportunity in 1997 to visit Wal-Mart’s
Bentonville, AR, headquarters. We did what I still consider to be the
definitive story package on how IT can make a huge difference, even on a tight
budget. Even before the concept of “ROI” was in vogue, Wal-Mart was measuring
every IT investment. Even before the concept of IT-business alignment was in
vogue, Wal-Mart’s IT professionals considered themselves retailers first,
technologists second. They were all on the same page, delivering custom-built
systems at light speed. They even quoted folksy sayings from the company’s
legendary founder, “Mr. Sam” Walton. It was a little scary.
Enron, another case study
subject I was involved with (while at InternetWeek), was everything Wal-Mart
wasn’t. Extravagant. Cocky. Dismissive. I had the opportunity to interview
Enron CEO Jeff Skilling at the company’s towering headquarters in Houston, at
the height of the dot-com bubble, and he was indeed an impressive man. Skilling
had you believing that Enron would take over the world! Enron’s business model
made intuitive sense: Owning the factors of production and distribution (like
refineries and pipelines) isn’t nearly as important in the Internet era as they
used to be, as trusted middlemen like Enron could make more money by bringing
buyers to sellers electronically and taking a piece of the action. The company
was moving aggressively beyond its energy roots into telecom bandwidth, metals,
pulp & paper—just about any commodity that could be traded. Enron had
entire floors of trading desks that rivaled anything on Wall Street. Of course,
we all know now what was happening behind the facade at Enron. Even the
constructive power of the Internet can’t overcome the destructive power of
Q: Describe the relationship
between “a content focus” as editor-in-chief to “an overall business focus”.
A: The publishing business is
somewhat unique in that we have two sets of customers with sometimes
conflicting interests. As editor-in-chief, my job is to serve Network
Computing’s reader customers. Our analysis of products, technologies and issues
isn’t influenced in any way by advertisers, our main business customers. Our
editors tell it like they see it, even if what they write is at odds with an
advertiser’s marketing message. In fact, most of our writers couldn’t even tell
you which companies advertise with the publication. The “separation of church
and state” is very real—not just at Network Computing but across the Enterprise
Architecture Group and CMP Media.
So my overall business focus
isn’t about appeasing advertisers. It’s about managing an editorial budget;
working with our marketing department to ensure that we’re presenting Network
Computing (and our other group publications) in a consistent way; and working
with the publisher to identify business opportunities outside the print and
Q: Describe your current work
and roles with your various brands?
A: As editor-in-chief of
Network Computing, I’m responsible for the overall editorial direction of the
magazine—in print, online, events, etc. In addition to having the “business”
duties I described previously, I work with the other editors to ensure we’re
doing the right kinds of stories in the right areas, that our stories are the
deepest, most thorough in the business, and that the end product is as
professionally written, edited and designed as it can be.
My role with the other brands
in our group is less hands on. Each of those publications has its own chief
editor. They’re in charge of their brands. My job is to offer editorial advice
and guidance, help them focus their coverage relative to the other publications
in the group, at times coordinate coverage (and avoid coverage overlap), and
serve as their bridge to upper management.
Q: Distinguish the media platforms
which engage your time.
A: Our main media platforms
are print, online and face-to-face events. The “legacy” is print—the biweekly
magazine still accounts for the bulk of our revenue. But online (our Web sites,
e-mail newsletters, Webcasts and the like) is the fastest-growing part of our
business. Our editors are doing more forums and blogs, for instance. And we use
online to extend the scope of our print cover packages, soliciting reader
advice on upcoming reviews, and sharing our product testing methodologies.
After select reviews, we’ll hold Web conferences with readers to discuss our
results. We’re trying to use the online medium to interact more with our
readers, not just to re-purpose traditional magazine content. Our face-to-face
content, like Reality Check seminars at trade shows, allows our technology
editors (who are former IT professionals) to present their product reviews and
technical expertise in an even more interactive environment. We don’t have
separate staffs for each medium. They are integrated.
Q: How are you
differentiated: CRN, VARBusiness; EETimes; Dr. Dobbs; Network Computing and
InformationWeek; Health-care publishing; Techweb?
A: Our various brands are
differentiated by their different readerships, and thus by the different
content aimed at those readerships. EETimes, for instance, is written for
electrical engineers and other builders and designers of IT systems. CRN and
VARBusiness are written for integrators, resellers, distributors and other
executive participants in the IT “channel.” Dr. Dobbs is aimed at software
programmers and application developers. Healthcare publishing falls within an
entirely different part of our company—their readers are healthcare
professionals, not IT people.
Both Network Computing and
InformationWeek are aimed at the heart of enterprise IT organizations—CIOs,
CTOs, IT directors, network managers and (in the case of Network Computing) IT
staffers. Network Computing’s content focus is more hands-on and technical than
InformationWeek’s—we’re more about product and technology evaluations and
reviews. Our technology editors test products in our own Real-World Labs.
They’re former IT pros, not traditional journalists.
Q: Where do you see yourself
and your company in the short, medium, and long term? Can you define these time-periods?
A: Short term, say a year
out, we’ll continue to shift more of our focus to the Web—as I mentioned
earlier, more forums, more blogging, more targeted Webcasts, more interaction
with our readers as we create content rather than just providing readers with
an end product, a story. We’ll also work more closely with real-world IT
organizations. For instance, for big comparative reviews we did in 2004 on
anti-spam software and Web analytics services, we worked closely with CMP
Media’s IT organization to line up vendors, set up the tests and do the actual
testing in a live environment. Network Computing evaluated the products just as
CMP’s IT organization was evaluating the products for purchase by the company.
We’ll do more of that in 2005, perhaps with other enterprise IT organizations.
Medium term, say one to four
years out, we’ll focus more on other avenues for our content. We’re already
dabbling in selling product testing services—we’ll go further. There may be
some opportunities in IT training, research and consulting kinds of services.
Along the way, we’ll look to derive revenue from new sources, not just from our
traditional advertisers. We won’t always launch new products by ourselves—we’ll
look to trusted partners as well.
The long run? All I can say
is, during the next 10 years our business will change far more than it changed
in the last 10 years. It should be an interesting ride.
Q: Please forecast how you
see people using different media formats.
A: In general, I see readers
using the print magazine for their broad edification and education. In one
accessible read, they can get stories on multiple technology areas, presented
in multiple formats. It’s their “kick back” read—what they read at the end of
the day or week, on the plane…on the john. The Web is more focused. Web search
allows readers to find exactly what they need when they need it. So the Web is
more about research on specific products and technologies. People GO to the Web
to find specific information that helps them solve specific problems (pull);
people RECEIVE print magazines and e-mail newsletters (push), letting the
editors define for them what’s important. Face-to-face and other live events
like Webcasts give readers more intimate access to subject matter experts while
letting them focus on specific topics.
Q: What is the impact of the
Web, RSS, and Blogs on your business?
A: For us, Web logs and syndication tools have had a very positive
impact on the way we generate content and how we structure our site.
the tools used to publish content required specialized knowledge, preventing
our broader pool of editors from creating and publishing content outside of the
established "print" channels. However, by adopting tools such as Movable
Type, we have given our editors the ability to publish short stories directly
to the Web. Now editors can comment directly and immediately upon what they see
in the industry and what they experience in the lab. The result is a much more
"complete" experience for readers, who are following the ongoing work
done by our technology editors.
alone would be pretty revolutionary. But when you couple this "open"
publishing tool with a powerful syndication tool such as RSS,
what you get
is a self-managed Web. For example, our group’s Network Magazine, which publishes in print only once
a month, has used blogs to generate daily content. Normally, this content would be trapped on
a separate "weblog" server (in a weblog). But by building a system within
our existing Web publishing system (ATG Dynamo) that interfaces with the RSS
feeds generated by Network Magazine's blog, we're able to automatically
populate content across six gateway pages and the Network Magazine home page,
on the fly. Without the machine-to-machine language of XML (in this case RSS),
it would take a Web producer hours to update these pages.
Q: Print and even Web sites
are really a broadcast form of information delivery. How will this change over
time to make it truly personalized and allow complete reader-interaction?
A: As I touched on earlier,
we’ll see more interactive blogging and forums, giving readers more
personalized exposure on the Web to our technology experts in seven core areas:
security, business applications, mobile & wireless, storage & servers,
digital convergence, network & system management and network
infrastructure. Other new information products we provide, like testing
services and training, will be tailored to specific customers. Our
readers/customers don’t just want information. They want ACTIONABLE
information, and the more we can refine and focus our content for their
specific needs, the more indispensable we’ll become. Content provided online,
in live events and in other formats can’t simply be the same content re-purposed
for different media. It must take full advantage of the unique attributes of
Q: What are the top ten
stories for 2005?
A: Let me mention 10 of the
biggest story packages we’re planning for 2005. Those include Managing Offshore
(where we’ll walk readers through our real-life engagement with an Indian
software outsourcing company); Wireless LAN Switching; Enterprise VoIP
Solutions; a Firewall Blowout written by our partners at consulting firm
Neohapsis; a special issue titled This Old Data Center (where our technology
editors will walk readers through the process of upgrading their data centers,
just as Bob Vila might bring in an expert on flooring or electrical wiring);
Business Process Management; Wireless Security; Server Virtualization; Supply
Chain Management; High-End Storage Systems.
Q: Forecast the winners and
losers for 2005 and beyond?
A: I won’t pick any specific
winners and losers, but I’ll cover some traits. In terms of technology vendors,
the winners will be those that solve their customers’ problems. Vendors that
constantly change and evolve. Vendors that make technology implementation,
integration and management easier for their customers. Vendors that make
technology usage easier. Vendors that are easy to do business with. Vendors
that make products that scale reliably. Vendors that make products that drive
tangible business value. The losers? Those vendors that give short shrift to
only one or two of those things.
Q: What are the major issues
and challenges before businesses and IT professionals?
A: I think the major issue
right now is the backlash from the tech boom. Bloated generalizations like “IT
Doesn’t Matter”—that information technology and the expertise required to
manage it are commodities—are rampant. Many IT organizations and professionals
are in the position of having to prove their value once again. IT, especially
to the un-enlightened, is once again another line item to be cut by the CFO
rather than something the CEO wants to invest in and nurture as a source of
competitive advantage. Many companies still “get” the value of IT, but those
that don’t will make life hard on their IT pros. And every company, whether
they get IT or not, will continue to demand that their IT professionals deliver
business value from their IT spending.
Q: From your dynamic career,
what are your top ten tips?
A: In no particular order,
here’s my stab at a Top 10:
(1) Treat your colleagues
(2) Treat your customers
(internal and external) with respect. Resist the temptation to be dismissive or
(3) Try to be humble and
modest, even while you’re being assertive.
(4) Embrace change. Those who
don’t are quickly marginalized.
(5) Always be learning. Read.
Take training. Consult colleagues (internally and at other companies). Be
(6) Take time to think beyond
the day-to-day rigors of your job. Think about what’s possible, not just what
you need to accomplish now.
(7) Tell the truth. Your
integrity is everything.
(8) Stay ambitious. Never be
completely comfortable or satisfied.
(9) Don’t give up. Career
setbacks are setbacks, not the end.
(10) Try to have fun/be
positive. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you’re wasting half of your
Q: Looking around both
internally and externally, what events continue to “amaze” you?
A: The rapid pace of
technological change. The fact that an industry giant like DEC or Compaq or
PeopleSoft or MCI (or a Comdex) can shrivel up or be marginalized almost
overnight. The sheer genius of technology innovations and innovators.
Q: With such a long and
varied career, you must have laughed at certain situations that arose. Please
share a few.
A: If you’re not laughing,
I laugh at how IT marketeers
continue to move as a herd, using the latest industry buzz phrases. Of late,
every vendor is helping you manage some “information lifecycle,” if they’re not
ensuring your “compliance” with every known regulation, “future proofing” your
IT investments with proven “ROI,” and helping you “securely” manage one thing
or another “24x7” and in “real time.”
I laugh when a vendor begs
Network Computing to add its product to a comparative product review, even
after we explain that its product isn’t a very good fit for the review; and
then the vendor complains after its product scores poorly in our review, mostly
because the product wasn’t a very good fit.
I laugh at myself when I make
dumb writing mistakes, like referring to Kansas in a recent column as the “Show
Me State”. Years ago, while working for an international telecom publication
whose readers were predominantly British, I wrote the headline “Italtel Picks
Its Spots Abroad,” about the Italian telephone company’s selective
international expansion. Little did I know that “spots” is a British-ism for
Q: What are your top ten tips
for our audience of IT professionals? Any pointers on the future job market?
A: I’m quite bullish on the IT profession. As I’ve written in past
IT hiring has been flat this year and Network Computing’s own reader survey
finds that most IT professionals don’t expect their organizations to do much
hiring next year, there is reason for IT pros to be optimistic about the future. For one thing, the long-term U.S. labor market trend is
toward increasing scarcity: By 2010, according to the Labor Department, the
U.S. economy will be able to fill only 157 million jobs but will support 167
million. People with hot technical skills, broad IT management
experience or both will be in the greatest demand. Hot skills include
information security, network and database administration, software
engineering, system analysis and business intelligence. Every IT job exported
or eliminated is NOT an IT job lost forever. Some geographic areas are more
promising than others, but the jobs—good jobs—will be out there.
I don’t have a Top 10 Tips, but some of
the points I made in the previous “tips” question apply here: embrace
change; always be learning new technical and management skills; think like a
business strategist, not just a technologist; stay positive.
Q: What are the five greatest
challenges facing businesses today? What are their solutions?
A: I’ll give you five
challenges, but I think the solutions are too complex and varied to be boiled
down in a Q&A.
(1) Competing in a global
economy—managing global suppliers and partners; tapping global labor markets;
competing with global rivals.
(2) Constantly staying a step
ahead of competitors and customer tastes/needs.
(3) In an environment where
you’re judged on your latest quarter, having the guts to invest in new
businesses/ideas and take short-term losses to reap long-term gains.
(4) Knowing when to pull the
plug on a business and move in a new direction—and again, having the guts to do
(5) Valuing honesty and
integrity when all around you are bending and breaking the rules.
Q: Any predictions about the
economy and future IT spending?
A: While we’ll never see a
late-‘90s-style tech boom again, I'm bullish about the economy and IT. As long
as the government regulates with a light, precise touch, there’s no limit to
what entrepreneurs and commercial visionaries can create. As Ronald Reagan once
said: "We who live in free market societies believe that growth, prosperity,
and ultimately human fulfillment are created from the bottom up, not the
government down.... Trust the people." I trust the people. And I
believe that companies will continue to recognize that IT professionals are the
drivers of much of their growth and prosperity.
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’ve done a pretty
thorough job. But here goes:
(1) Why did you get into the high-tech publishing business?
(2) What is the air-speed
velocity of an unladen swallow? (An African or a European swallow?)
(3) Are you related to the actor who played the Music Man?
(In spirit only.)
Q: Rob, thank you for sharing
your years of experiences and wisdom with our audience.
A: Thanks for putting up with