Dell has a unique position in the technology world; they are arguably the most powerful infrastructure technology company in the world. However, in terms of total power, they are still eclipsed by firms like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. But 3 of those companies are under antitrust review, and Dell isn’t even at risk. Sometimes it is far safer not to appear more powerful than a government.
Michael had done some fantastic things, from creating Dell, to taking it private, to taking EMC private, to realizing he made a mistake when he first retired, fixing the mistake, and—with Jeff Clarke—not remaking it. Michael’s insights tend to be practical. He isn’t one of those CEOs that appear to think they are gods, and I’ve looked back at my interactions with the guy as beneficial learning experiences.
Here are some of the highlights from his keynote at Dell Technology World this year.
I’m a big believer in leaders recognizing the folks that do the work. One of the most memorable parts of the Windows 95 launch was when Bill Gates opened the stage to the Windows developers and had them stand for well-deserved applause. One of Michael Dell’s first things was bringing up the teams that worked on major accounts and helped those accounts pivot to the new pandemic world. These people busted their hump to put these customers on solid footing, and many, if not all, had to work incredibly long hours while they were personally being disrupted as well. They deserved the recognition and recognizing them set a powerful initial tone for the keynote.
Technology’s Role In Pandemic Survival
Often I see top executives overstating their impact on the world, and Michael Dell pointing out technology kept the world running had that feel initially. But technology was at the center of this pivot. The world had to—often, over a weekend—shift where their employees worked without damaging productivity. And technology stepped up with companies, including Dell, reporting increases in productivity rather than the more likely downturn due to the massive disruptions in the workforce. Technology did keep the world running from large enterprises to the barista making coffee and delivering it through Uber Eats.
A good keynote at a vendor show always has key customers on stage talking about how well the vendor treated them. In this case, it was the CEO of American Express. They spoke to how Dell helped them rapidly pivot to the COVID-19 pandemic and how Dell’s teams stayed with American Express throughout the event, helping them deal with the new normal. And that new normal had tons of businesses, particularly small businesses, also pivoting hard to online sales, which both Dell and American Express facilitated. It was fascinating that Dell, the company, was an integral part of American Express’s operational team. It is pretty rare to have any customer refer to a vendor as part of their family.
Anticipating The Future
A significant part of any good keynote is vision, and here Michael Dell pointed out that there are significant changes ahead. One of the changes he is anticipating is a massive 65% change in where data will be processed in five years. Currently, only 10% of data is processed outside of IT; by 2025, that percentage will jump to 75%, changing the entire IT ecosystem dramatically to address the massive increase in IoT devices and sensors. IT is not anywhere close to where they need to be regarding automation for this change, and scaling automated command and control for that new standard will be critical to success mid-decade.
Michael introduced Project APEX, a massive rebranding and restructuring effort that pivots all of Dell towards the “as-a-Service” model. APEX is an impressive offering that Dell’s CMO (CMOs rarely present at events like this because they own the event) Allison Dew covered in depth. It shifts the focus of both Dell and IT from purchasing hardware to provisioning employees and projects. It more tightly weds Dell to its customers and embeds Dell more deeply in their customers’ infrastructure and operations.
APEX is also the most vigorous response I’ve yet seen by an IT product company against the threat that the move to the cloud creates.
There was a fascinating segment talking about how Dell plans to transform one billion lives by 2030. Examples included the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, which uses VR (virtual reality) to demonstrate future surgeries to patients and for doctors to practice operations in simulation before opening up the patient. He also showed how Dell was helping with space and ocean exploration and how they used technology better to protect Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
One recurring problem with big companies and CEOs is that they generally do a poor job with succession, and, initially, Michell Dell was no exception. But he learned from his mistake, and Jeff Clarke demonstrated during the keynote that he understands the business, can execute at a CEO level and is ready, willing, and able to step in if Michael Dell again steps down. I wish more companies would actively select, train, and promote the next in line so that if anything happens to their CEO, the firm isn’t damaged.
Clarke also spoke to the importance of infrastructure, how the globe learned to pivot to the new remote normal for work and school, and how Digital Transformation has recently massively accelerated. He reiterated the importance of PCs as a critical tool and how Dell benefited from the pivot to working from home (60% of Dell Employees will remain working from home permanently). He also shared how important empathy was in a company and why diversity was critical to Dell’s success.
The important things I look for in a significant vendor event are how grounded the leadership is, how they take care of their people, any sign of succession, and whether their vision dovetails with my own. At Dell Technology World this year, Dell hit on every point. With APEX, they showed they were ready to respond to the new cloud normal with an offering that should assure Dell remains a power to be reckoned with well into the next decade and has the depth of leadership to assure that outcome.
A nice balance of humility, power, performance proof points, empathy, diversity, and vision makes for an impressive keynote. And while there were a few things I’d have done differently, generally, this was an impressive showcase of the company, its leadership, its products, and its employees. Nicely done!