Memoirs of an HP 'lifer'
The software business is full of examples of innovative start-ups run by bright and enterprising people, who know just how to make customers excited about their latest idea. But start-ups are very bad at talking to each other, and large companies can end up littered with applications that have a lot of difficulty sharing data and control functions between them.
Agilent is hardly a start-up, which is maybe why it chose as the head of its life science software division someone who has seen the world from the other side of the fence. Big companies have different priorities from start-ups and, in reality, most of the market for life sciences software is larger companies.
Jim Miller is an 'HP Lifer', but part of that life was spent as chief information officer (CIO), and part was spent working directly with customers of Agilent's instruments, giving him a unique insight into the real issues of CIOs in large customer companies, as well as an understanding of what people actually want to do in the laboratory.
The entrepreneurial flair can always be bought in, and Agilent has done this with its recent acquisition of Scientific Software. But its priority is to make its software useful to large corporations with serious management issues to deal with. Miller has been given the task of making Agilent's software the enterprise platform of choice, irrespective of whether customers use its instruments or not. This means he has to communicate with customers and translate their issues into the software products it puts on the market.
During negotiations for the deal, Miller was the primary contact for Soheil Saadat, president and CEO of Scientific Software, which Agilent took over earlier this year.
He was impressed with Miller's ability to communicate and cut through the bureaucracy that is inevitable in a large company such as Agilent.
Saadat says: 'He is a very nice guy, very personable and professional at all times. Sometimes he might appear a bit low key. I found him to be a great facilitator. He understood very well the value Scientific Software could bring to Agilent and he did a good job of articulating that to the Agilent board. He can articulate things well to an audience and what impressed me most is his ability to understand what we did. He was also able to deal with a lot of the technical questions. He has a very clear understanding of the engineering requirements and the IT issues. That combination makes him a very suitable candidate for a position where he has high-level contact with customers and needs to articulate the benefits of the product offering.'
Miller was born in Pennsylvania, but moved to San José, California, when he was very young. His father was a chemist, and Miller picked up an interest in science. He tried to be an all-rounder by pursuing interests in various sports, such as basketball. His original ambition was to become a medical doctor so he enrolled into the pre-med course at UC Davis.
Miller says: 'They made you do a six-month stint in a hospital emergency ward to show you what a doctor's life was really like, so you got over any romantic notions. That did it for me; I decided it was not what I wanted to do. I started a research assignment in genetic engineering. After a year of that, I decided that being a research biochemist was not what I wanted to do either. I think my personality got in the way. I enjoyed being around people who were more well-rounded. I decided I wanted to get more into the business side of things and took some business management courses.'
When he graduated, the job market in Silicon Valley was very healthy and he accepted a job with Hewlett-Packard, where he has remained ever since. His first job was as a product specialist in UV spectrophotometry, helping to train sales reps and service engineers. He liked the combination of using his science background while also being involved in the business aspects of sales and marketing. He enjoyed talking to customers about how they were using the equipment. He also found it easy to blend into the culture of HP, which was very distinctive at the time and has been aped by many successful high-technology companies since. The HP culture liked Miller too and he made steady progress up the corporate ladder.
He says: 'Employees were given respect from day one and were given access in the company to whoever they needed to talk to. The whole culture of managing by objective is something I really enjoyed; it works very well for people who have initiative and are personally driven. It fits very well with my style. The culture works for a lot of people, which is why you get people like myself staying with the company for so long.'
At the tender age of 26 he was manager of the mass spectrometry product line. In 1987 he was offered the chance to manage the European mass spectrometry business, based in Germany, where he managed everything from a small manufacturing line to P&L responsibility.
He says: 'That was one of the most exciting things I have done in my whole career. An international assignment is one of the best things you can do both professionally and personally. There is nothing like learning about doing business in Europe while being there. It was quite a shock at the beginning - living in Europe - but I enjoyed it eventually.'
After three and a half years, he was ready to come home to a short assignment in manufacturing, based in California. He then moved to Delaware to take over the field marketing group for all of the life sciences activity in North America. Later, he started up a direct marketing operation to sell the lower end products through catalogues and call centres. The venture was very successful and brought Miller into contact with major IT systems, such as CRM, telephony, databases and so on, and he started to take more of an interest in IT management. When HP decided to implement a global ERP system, Miller was chosen to lead the project.
He says: 'They have come a long way since, but they were complex beasts to implement at the time. It was interesting; you had to re-engineer the process for every part of the company - from manufacturing through sales to finance.'
As he was completing the project, HP decided to make a split between the scientific instruments division and the computer and printer division. The scientific instrument division became Agilent. Although the cultures of the now separate companies did not change radically, the split did bring a new perspective for the Agilent management.
Miller was then chosen to become the IT director for the whole of Agilent life sciences business, after his success with the ERP implementation. Miller said that one of his early priorities was to get to grips with the IT budget.
He says: 'HP had historically spent a lot of money on IT. Computing hardware was almost seen as a free commodity and that became a bad habit once we split from HP. It was not a viable business proposition going forward and, with the technology downturn at the time, we really had to trim cost throughout the company. We had to manage IT through probably the most difficult period in the company's history. We had to downsize from 2,500 employees to fewer than 1,000. Also the different divisions of HP used their own software solutions and, at the time of the split, we had 2,500 different business applications running the company. That made it difficult to share information and business processes, and it was hugely expensive. We trimmed it down to fewer than 100 applications that were tightly integrated.
'That experience has been invaluable for the position I am in now, because if you look at the customers we are dealing with, it is the IT groups and CIOs. I know exactly what their issues are and the problems they are running into, because I have been on the other side of the fence.'
The top management was becoming aware that laboratory informatics was becoming increasingly important and had decided that it should set up a business unit focusing specifically on it. Miller's position had brought him into the upper tiers of Agilent's strategic management and, when the position came up, he was spotted as the ideal candidate, because of his experience both in the front line of instrument sales and in the management of enterprise IT systems. He was appointed director of software and informatics, with a brief to make Agilent the leading supplier of software systems - whether on Agilent hardware or anyone else's.
Miller says: 'What I really fancied was getting back into a marketing and sales environment. I missed the direct contact with customers and the sales force. We had been developing software for some time to control our instruments and output results. They were traditionally designed specifically around Agilent instruments. We gradually expanded into controlling other vendor's instruments and developed a laboratory information system. Instrument control is still proprietary. If we want to control Waters instruments, we have to go to them and get the control codes. We have had exchange agreements with other vendors, and this is driven by customers not wanting to be locked in to one vendor. It does make it hard for third parties to get into the market. One of the strategies we have now is to be more open in the way we design our instruments and software, so there is more of a free market dynamic. We want to be the leaders in open systems.
'When I took over, the software development was organised around the instrument development teams. Different groups will drive to their own objectives, so we tried to get everyone to work as a single team and take a much broader view of how we offer software to customers.
'My focus has been on identifying the right software solutions, developing them and bringing them to market. We had many different software products that were often overlapping. This confuses customers and is very inefficient, because it dilutes resources. Our competitors were more focused.
'I wanted to treat this like a software business, rather than as an extension to the instrument business. I have been a customer of IT solutions and I understand how difficult it is to get a mish-mash of IT solutions to talk to each other. We are on a mission, now, to have a single family of software products, tightly integrated to share data seamlessly. It should also be open enough to connect to other systems within the laboratory. We are working on an open framework that is really the Microsoft of the laboratory.
'There are always going to be shops that have a preference for Agilent, Thermo, or Waters, but the customers are now demanding that if they buy software from us that they have the freedom to buy instruments from other vendors. The software has to compete on its own merits and the instruments have to compete on their own merits.'
Earlier this year Agilent acquired Scientific Software, which was traditionally the 'neutral territory' between all the instrument and software vendors. It got Agilent into the game, because it provided software to control instruments from smaller vendors that did not have the resources to develop sophisticated solutions of their own. Many instrument makers have OEM agreements with Scientific Software. This gave the company something to trade with the larger vendors to get code exchange agreements.
This 'invasion of Switzerland' has given Agilent access to a huge installed base of customers in multi-vendor shops. Miller has put a lot of effort into reassuring its customers that it still intends to support their multi-vendor policies. He sees it as Agilent becoming the neutral party rather than a land-grab.
He says: 'I suppose we can never be the true Switzerland, because we are such a big presence in the analytical instrument field. But we are taking exactly the same approach with the software in that we are continuing that drive to offer the broadest range of instrument control. We are not relying on our software to sell our instruments.'
Miller accepts that spending his entire career with one company might not mark him out as one of the most adventurous business leaders in software. But he argues that it has other advantages, particularly when it comes to empathy with customers.
He says: 'In doing a job like this I think it is very useful and practical to have an understanding of the customers' applications and markets as well as an understanding of the instrument technology, and of IT itself.'
BS Biochemistry, University of California, Davis, 1979
Completed 75 per cent of an MBA program at Santa Clara
TQM Certification, Center for Quality Management, Cambridge, MA, 1994
1980-1984 Product then sales support Hewlett Packard Scientific Instruments Division
1984-1987 Sales development manager, HP Scientific Instruments Division
1987-1990 European marketing manager, Mass Spectrometry Products, HP European Analytical Field Operation, Waldbronn, Germany
1990 Manager, International Product Transfers, HP Scientific Instruments Division
1990-1992 Business development manager, HP Americas Analytical Field Operation
1992-1995 Direct marketing manager, HP Americas Analytical Field Operation
1995-2000 Global ERP programme manager, HP Chemical Analysis Group becoming Agilent in 1999
2000-2001 Enterprise Architecture & Business Integration Lead, Agilent ERP Programme
2001-2004 Director of information technology, Agilent
2004 - present Director of software and informatics, Agilent Technologies