CA makes the safe play with Swainson

Computer Associates needed to go out on a limb but instead made a safe play when handing over the company’s leadership reins.

In Canadian John Swainson, software giant CA hires someone who is apt to be seen as a known quantity and a sure thing. Swainson’s pedigree is that of a career IBMer who’s spent most of his time in various sales and marketing jobs. He is seemingly the sort of hire that won’t do things a whole lot differently at CA.

If that’s the case, then CA blew a major opportunity to bring on board someone with an entirely new perspective, who hasn’t been steeped in software tradition. A fresh approach is something that’s sorely needed at this company in order to chart a major course away from what is, in the eyes of many, a market perception of CA as a deeply troubled company.

CA has never been renowned for congeniality towards some of its users or partners. Founder Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar established a near obsessive direct sales driven culture and a penchant for pushing hard on that team. Likewise customers and channel partners were pushed aside by the often stringent rules applied by CA when it came to buying and selling its technology and products.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that CA would look to someone grounded in a rigid corporate culture, who has a strong sales orientation, and has established a career in enterprise software with a major vendor. The problem for CA is that major change is required and Swainson is an entrenched industry veteran. At least that appears to be the perception.

Let it be said up front that this is not a personal criticism of Swainson, but rather a comment on the perception his hiring may leave for many CA customers and prospective ones — a feeling that dynamic change is not forthcoming and things will essentially remain the same.

Sadly, in the current state of IT, vendors often believe they must give the appearance of being stable and predictable businesses, rather than out-of-the-box thinking visionaries. Risk is an uncomfortable four-letter word.

This makes Swainson something of a disappointing hire from the perspective of what could and arguably should have been. CA is a company that needs to quickly break far away from its current troubles and any perceived unfriendly legacy that’s been hanging over it for many years. CA hit bottom when in April it admitted to improper accounting practices in its 2000 fiscal year. Kumar took the bullet, so to speak, and stepped away from CA.

Being at a point in its history, where CA probably could not sink any lower, the timing certainly appeared to be right to do something truly dynamic and reinvigorating — to bring a fresh and new approach to what looks like a broken company.

Swainson is a solid and proven executive who’s learned everything he knows from the perspective and lap of Big Blue. In an established and large company, looking to pass along the reins of a successful business, such qualifications would be much more of an asset. For a company like CA, where sweeping cultural changes seem to be the order of the day, a resume like Swainson’s just doesn’t seem to be the right one.

Swainson is no doubt a good man and highly capable corporate executive, with a long and proven history in IT with a company whose brand is synonymous with computing. But perception may suggest he just is not the best man for this particular job.