For the past 30 years, Citrix has made a successful habit of challenging the status quo. That includes:
Delivering applications as streaming services to multiple users
Making the entire PC desktop into a secure service
Enhancing networks that optimize applications delivery
Pioneering infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) now known as public cloud, and
Supplying a way to take enterprise applications and data to the mobile edge.
Now, Citrix is at it again, by creating digital workspaces and redefining the very nature of applications and business intelligence. How has one company been able to not only reinvent itself again and again, but make major and correct bets on the future direction of global information technology?
To find out, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, recently sat down to simultaneously interview three of Citrix’s chief executives from the past 30 years, Roger Roberts, Citrix CEO and Chairman from 1990 to 2002; Mark Templeton, CEO of Citrix from 2001 to 2015, and David Henshall, who became the company’s CEO in July of 2017.
Here are some excerpts:
Dana Gardner: So much has changed across the worker productivity environment over the past 30 years. The technology certainly has changed. What hasn’t changed as fast is the human factor, the people.
How do we keep moving the needle forward with technology and also try to attain productivity growth when we have this lump of clay that’s often hard to manage, hard to change?
Mark Templeton: The human factor “lump of clay” is changing as rapidly as technology because of the changing demographics of the workforce. Today’s baby boomers are being followed by generations of millennials, Gen Y, Gen X and then Gen Z will be making important decisions 20 years from now.
So the human factor clay is changing rapidly and providing great opportunity for innovation and invention of new technology in the workplace.
Gardner: The trick is to be able to create technology that the human factor will adopt. It’s difficult to solve a chicken and egg relationship when you don’t know what’s going to drive the other.
What about the past 30 years at Citrix gives you an edge in finding the right formula?
David Henshall: Citrix has always had an amazing ability to stay focused on connecting people and information — and doing it in a way that it’s secure, managed, and available so that we can abstract away a lot of the complexity that’s inherent with technology.
Because, at the end of the day, all we are really focused on is driving those outcomes and allowing people to be as productive, successful, and engaged as humanly possible by giving them the tools to — as we frame it up — work in a way that’s most effective for them. That’s really about creating the future of work and allowing people to be unleashed so that they can do their best working.
Gardner: Roger, when you started, so much of the IT world was focused on platforms and applications and how one drives the other. You seem to have elevated yourself above that and focused on services, on delivery of productivity – because, after all, they are supposed to be productivity applications. How were you able to see above and beyond the 1980s platform-application relationship?
Roger Roberts: We grew up when the personal computer (PC) and local area networks (LANs) like when Novell NetWare came on the scene. Everybody wanted to use their own PC, driven primarily by things such as the Lotus applications.
So [applications like] spreadsheets, WordPerfect, dBase were the tremendous bulk of the market demand at that time. However, with the background that I shared with [Citrix Co-Founder] Ed Iacobucci, we had been in the real world working from mainframes through minicomputers and then to the PCs, and so we knew there were applications out there, where the existing model – well, it really sucked.
The trick then was to take advantage of the increasing processing power we knew the PC was going to deliver and put it in a robust environment that would have stability so we could target specific customers with specific applications. Those customers were always intrigued with our story.
Our story was not formed to meet the mass market. Things like running ads or trying to search for leads would have been a waste of time and money. It made no sense in those days because the vast majority of the world had no idea of what we were talking about.
Gardner: What turned out to be the killer application for Citrix’s rise? What were the use cases you knew would pay off even before the PC went mainstream?
The personnel touch
Roberts: The easiest one to relate to is personnel systems. Brown and Root Construction out of Houston, Texas was a worldwide operation. Most of their offices were on construction sites and in temporary buildings. They had a great deal of difficulty managing their personnel files, including salaries, when someone was promoted, reviewed, or there was a new hire.
The only way you could do it in the client-server LAN world was to replicate the database. And let me tell you, nobody wants to replicate their human resources (HR) database across 9,000 or 10,000 sites.
The only way you could do it in the client-server-LAN world was to replicate the database. And let me tell you, nobody wants to replicate their HR database across 10,000 sites. We came in and said, “We can solve that problem for you.”
So we came in and said, “We can solve that problem for you, and you can keep all of your data secure at your corporate headquarters. It will always be synchronized because there is only one copy. And we can give you the same capabilities that the LAN-based PC user experiences even over fairly slow telecommunication circuits.”
That really resonated with the people who had those HR problems. I won’t say it was an easy sell. When you are a small company, you are vulnerable. They ask, “How can we trust you to put in a major application using your technology when you don’t have a lot of business?” It was never the technology or the ability to get the job done that they questioned. It was more like having the staying power. That turned out to be the biggest obstacle.
Gardner: David, does it sound a little bit familiar? Today, 30 years later, we’re still dealing with distance, the capability of the network, deciding where the data should reside, how to manage privacy, and secure regulatory compliance. When you listen to Citrix’s use cases and requirements from 30 years ago, does it ring a bell?
Organize, guide, and predict work
Henshall: It absolutely resonates because a lot of what we’re doing is still dealing with the inherent complexity of enterprise IT. Some of our largest customers today are dealing with thousands and thousands of underlying applications. Those can be everything from mainframe applications that Roger talked about through the different eras of client-server — the PC, web, and mobile. A lot of those applications are still in use today because they are adding value to the business, and they are really hard to pull out of the infrastructure.
We can now help them abstract away a lot of that complexity put in over the last 30 years. We start by helping organize IT, allowing them to manage all that complexity of the application tier, and present that out in a way that is easier to consume, easier to manage, and easier to secure.
Several years ago, we began bringing together all of these application types in a way that I would describe as helping to move from organizing IT to organizing work. That means bringing not only the apps but access to all the content and files — whether those reside in on-premises data repositories or in any cloud — including Citrix Cloud. We make that all accessible across universal endpoints management. Then you layer underneath that all kinds of platform capabilities such as security, access control, management, and analytics.
Where we’re taking the company in the future is one step beyond organizing work to helping to guide and predict work. That will drive more engagement and productivity by leveraging machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), and a lot of other capabilities to present work to people in real time and suggest and advise on what they need to be to be most productive.
That’s all just a natural evolution from back when the same fundamental concept was to connect people with the information they need to be productive in real time.
Gardner: One of the ways to improve on these tough problems, Mark, is being in the right place in an ecosystem. Citrix has continuously positioned itself between the data, the systems of record, and the end-user devices. You made a big bet on virtualization as a means to do that.
How do we understand the relationship between the technology and productivity? Is being in the right place and at the right time the secret sauce?
Customers first, innovation always
Templeton: Generically, right place and time is key in just about every aspect of life, but especially the timing of invention and innovation, how it’s introduced, and how to get it adopted.
Citrix adopted a philosophy from an ecosystem perspective from pretty early on. We thought of it as a Switzerland-type of mindset, where we’re willing to work with everyone in the ecosystem — devices, networks, applications, etc. – to interoperate, even as they evolved. So we were basically device-, network-, and application-independent around the kind of the value proposition that David and Roger talked about.
We made a great reputation for ourselves by being able to provide a demilitarized zone so that customers could manage and control their own destiny. When a customer is better off, we are better off. But it starts with making the customer better off.
That type of a cooperative mindset is always in style because it is customer-centered. It’s based upon value-drivers for customers, and my experience is that when there are religious wars in the industry — the biggest losers are customers. They pay for the fight, the incompatibilities, and obsolescence.
We made a great reputation for ourselves then by being able to provide a demilitarized zone (DMZ), or platform for détente, so that customers could manage and control their own destiny. The company has that culture and mindset and it’s always been that way. When a customer is better off, we are better off. But it starts with making the customer better off.
Gardner: Roger, we have often seen companies that had a great leap in innovation but then plateaued and got stuck in the innovator’s dilemma, as it’s been called. That hasn’t been the case with Citrix. You have been able to reinvent yourselves pretty frequently. How do you do that as a culture? How do you get people to stay innovative even when you have a very successful set of products? How do you not rest on your laurels?
Templeton: I think for the most part, people don’t change until they have to, and to actively disrupt yourself is a very unnatural act. Being aware of an innovator’s dilemma is the first step in being able to act on it. And we did have an innovator’s dilemma here on multiple occasions.
That we saw the cliff allowed us to make a turn – mostly ahead of necessity. We made a decision, we made a bet, and we made the innovator’s dilemma actually work for us. We used it as a catalyst for driving change. When you have a lot of smart engineers, if you help them see that innovator’s dilemma, they will fix it, they will innovate.
Gardner: The pace of business sure has ramped up in the last 30 years. You can go through that cycle in 9 or 10 months, never mind 9 or 10 years. David, is that something that keeps you up at night? How do you continue to be one step ahead of where the industry is going?
Embrace, empower change
Henshall: The sine waves of business cycles are getting much more compressed and with much higher volatility. Today we simply have devices that are absolutely transient. The ways to consume technology and information are coming and going at a pace that is extraordinary. The same thing is true for applications and infrastructure, which not that many years ago involved a major project to install and manage.
Today, it’s a collection of mesh services in so many different areas. By their very nature they become transient. Instead of trying to fight these forces, we look for ways to embrace them and make them part of what we do.
When we talk about the Citrix Workspace platform, it is absolutely device- and infrastructure-independent because we recognize our customers have different choices. It’s very much like the Switzerland approach that Mark talked about. The fact that those choices change over time — and being able to support that change — is critical for our own staying power and stickiness. It also gives customers the level of comfort that we are going to be with them wherever they are in their journey.
But it’s the sheer laws of physics that have taken these disruptions to a place where, not that many years ago, it was about how fast physical goods could transfer across state or national boundaries. Today’s market moves on a Tweet or a notification or a new service — something that was just not even possible a few years ago.
Roberts: At the time I retired from Citrix, we were roughly at $500 million [in annual revenue] and growing tremendously. I mean we grew a factor of 10 in four years, and that still amazes me.
Our piece of the market at that time was 100 percent Microsoft Windows-centric. At the same time, you could look at that and tell we could be a multibillion-dollar company just in that space. But then came the Internet, with web apps, web app servers, new technology, HTML, and Java and you knew the world we were in had a very lucrative and long run, but if we didn’t do something, inevitably it was going to die. I think it would have been a slow death, but it would have been death.
Gardner: The relationship with Microsoft that you brought up. It’s not out of the question to say that you were helping them avoid the innovator’s dilemma. In instances that I can recall, you were able to push Microsoft off of its safety block. You were an accelerant to Microsoft’s next future. Is that fair, Mark?
Templeton: Well, I don’t think we were an accelerant to Microsoft per se. We were helping Microsoft extend the reach of Windows into places and use cases that they weren’t providing a solution for. But the Windows brand has always been powerful, and it helped us certainly with our  initial public offering (IPO). In fact, the tagline on our IPO was that “Citrix extends the reach of Microsoft Windows,” in many ways, in terms of devices, different types of connectivity, over the Internet, over dial-up and on wireless networks.
Our value to Microsoft was always around being a value-added kind of partner, even though we had a little bit of a rough spot with them. I think most people didn’t really understand it, but I think Microsoft did, and we worked out a great deal that’s been fantastic for both companies for many, many years.
Gardner: David, as we look to the future and think about the role of AI and ML, having the right data is such an important part of that. How has Citrix found itself in the catbird seat when it comes to having access to broad data? How did your predecessors help out with that?
Data drives, digests, and directs the future
Henshall: Well, if I think about data and analytics right now, over the last couple of years we’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time building out what I call an analytics platform that sits underneath the Citrix Workspace platform.
We have enough places that we can instrument to capture information from everything, from looking backward across the network, into the application, the user, the location, the files, and all of those various attributes. We collect a rich dataset of many, many different things.
Taking it to a platform approach allows us to step back and begin introducing modules, if you will, that use this information not just in a reporting way, but in a way to actually drive enforcement across the platform. Those great data collection points are also places where we can enforce a policy.
Over the last couple of years we have spent an extraordinary amount of time building out what I call an analytics platform that sits underneath the Citrix Workspace platform.We collect a rich dataset of many, many different things.
Gardner: The metadata has become more important in many cases than the foundational database data. The metadata about what’s going on with the network, the relationship between the user and their devices, what’s going on between all the systems, and how the IT infrastructure beneath them is performing.
Did you have a clue, Mark, that the metadata about what’s going on across an IT environment would become so powerful one day?
Templeton: Absolutely. While I was at Citrix, we didn’t have the technical platform yet to handle big data the way you can handle it now. I am really thrilled to hear that under David’s leadership the company is diving into that because it’s behavioral data around how people are consuming systems — which systems, how they’re working, how available are they, and whether they’re performing. And there are many things that data can express around security, which is a great opportunity for Citrix.
Back in my time, in one of the imagination presentations, we would show IT customers how they eventually would have the equivalent of quarterly brokerage reports. You could see all the classes of investments — how much is invested in this type of app, that type of app, the data, where it’s residing, its performance and availability over time. Then you could make important decisions – even simple ones like when do we turn this application off. At that time, there was very little data to help IT make such hard decisions.
So that was always in the idea, but I’m really thrilled to see the company doing it now.
Gardner: So David, now that you have all of that metadata, and the big data systems to analyze it in real-time, what does that get for you?
Serving what you need, before you need it
Henshall: The applications are pretty broad, actually. If you think about our data platform right now, we’re able to do lots of closed-loop analytics across security, operations, and performance — and really drive all three of those different factors to improve overall performance. You can customize that in an infinite number of ways so customers can manage it in the way that’s right for their business.
But what’s really interesting now is, as you start developing a pattern of behaviors in the way people are going about work, we can predict and guide work in ways that were unavailable not that long ago. We can serve up the information before you need it based on the graph of other things that you’re doing at work.
A great example is mobile applications for airlines today. The smart ones are tied into the other things that you are doing. So an hour before your flight, it already gives you a notification that it’s time to leave for the airport. When you get to your car, you have your map of the fastest route to the airport already plotted out. As you check in, using biometrics or some other form of authentication, it simplifies these workflows in a very intuitive way.
We have amazing amounts of information that will take that example and allow us to drive it throughout a business context.
Gardner: Roger, in 30 years, we have gone from delivering a handful of applications to people in a way that’s acceptable — given the constraints of the environment and the infrastructure — to a point where the infrastructure data doesn’t have any constraints. We are able to refine work and tell people how they should be more productive.
Is that something you could have imagined back then?
Roberts: Quite frankly, as good as I am, no. It’s beyond my comprehension.
I have an example. I was recently in Texas, and we had an airplane that broke down. We had to get back, and using only my smartphone, I was able to charter a flight, sign a contract with DocuSign, pay for it with an automated clearing house (ACH) transfer, and track that flight on FlightAware to the nearest 15 seconds. I could determine how much time it would take us to get home, and then arrange an Uber ride. Imagine that? It still amazes me; it truly amazes me.
Gardner: You guys would know this better than I do, but it seems that you can run a multinational corporation on a device that fits in your palm. Is that an exaggeration?
Device in hand still needs hands-on help
Templeton: In many ways, it still is an exaggeration. You can accomplish a lot with the smart device in your hand, and to the degree that leadership is largely around communications and the device in your hand gives you information and the ability to communicate, you can do a lot. But it’s not a substitute entirely for other types of tasks and work that it takes to run a big business, including the human relationships.
Gardner: David, maybe when the Citrix vision for 2030 comes out, you will be able to — through cloud, AI, and that device — do almost anything?
Henshall: It will be more about having the right information on demand when you need it, and that’s a trend that we’ve seen for quite some time.
The amount of information is absolutely staggering. But turning that into something that is actually useful is nearly impossible. The businesses that are going to be successful are those that can put the right information at people’s fingertips at the right time to interact with different business opportunities.
If you look at the broader trends and technology, I mean, we are entering the yottabyte era now, which is one with 24 zeros after it. The amount of information is absolutely staggering. But turning that into something that is actually useful is nearly impossible.
That’s where AI and ML — and a lot of these other advancements — will allow you to parse through that all and give people the freedom of information that probably just never existed before. So the days of proprietary knowledge, of proprietary data, are quickly coming to an end. The businesses that are going to be successful are those that can put the right information at people’s fingertips at the right time to interact with different business opportunities.
That’s what the technology allows you to do. Advancements in network and compute are making that a very near-term reality. I think we are just on that continuum.
Goodbye digital, hello contextual era
Templeton: You don’t realize an era is over until you’re in a new one. For example, I think the digital era is now done. It ended when people woke up every day and started to recognize that they have too many devices, too many apps that do similar things, too many social things to manage, and blah, blah, blah. How do you keep track of all that stuff in a way where you know what to look at and when?
The technologies underlying AI and ML are defining a new era that I call the “contextual era.” A contextual era works exactly how David just described it. It senses and predicts. It makes the right information available in true context. Just like Roger was saying, it brings all those the things he needs together for him, situationally. And, obviously, it could even be easier than the experience that he described.
We are in the contextual era now because the amount of data, the number of apps, and the plethora of devices that we all have access to is beyond human comprehension.
Gardner: David, how do you characterize this next era? Imagine us having a conversation in 30 years with Citrix, talking about how it was able to keep up with the times.
Henshall: Mark put it absolutely the way I would, in terms of being able to be contextual in such a way that it brings purpose through the chaos, or the volume of data, or the information that exists out there. What we are really trying to do in many dimensions is think about our technology platform as a way that creates space. Space for people to be successful, space for them to really do their best work. And you do that by removing a lot of the clutter.
You remove a lot of the extraneous things that bog people down. When we talk about it with our customers, the statistics behind-the-scenes are amazing. We are interrupted every two minutes in this world right now; a Tweet, a text, an email, a notification. And science shows that humans are not very good at multitasking. Our brains just haven’t evolved that way.
Gardner: It goes back to that lump of clay we talked about at the beginning. Some things don’t change.
Henshall: When you are interrupted, it takes you 20 minutes on average to get back to the task at hand. That’s one of the fundamental reasons why the statistics around engagement around the world are horrible.
For the average company, 85 percent of their employee base is disengaged — 85 percent! Gallup even put a number on that — they say it’s a $7 trillion annual problem. It’s enormous. We believe that part of that is a technology problem. We have created technologies that are no longer enhancing people’s ability to be productive and to be engaged.
If we can simplify those interactions, allow workers to engage in a way that’s more intuitive, more focused on the task at hand versus the possibility of interruption, it just helps the entire ecosystem move forward. That’s the way I think about it.
CEO staying-power strategies
Gardner: On the subject of keeping time on your side, it’s not very often I get together with 30 years’ worth of CEOs to talk about things. For those in our audience who are leaders of companies, small or large, what advice can you give them on how to keep their companies thriving for 30 years?
Roberts: Whenever you are running a company — you are running the company. It puts a lot of pressure on you to think about the future, when technology is going to change, and how you get ahead of the power curve before it’s too late.
There is a hell of an operational component. How do you keep the wheel turning and the current moving? How do you keep it functioning, how do you grow staff, and how do you put in systems and infrastructure?
The challenge of managing as the company grows is enormously more complicated. There is the complexity of the technology, the people, the market, and what’s going on in the ecosystem. But never lose sight of the execution component, because it can kill you quicker than losing sight of the strategy.
The challenge of managing as the company grows is enormously more complicated. But never lose sight of the execution component, because it can kill you quicker than losing sight of the strategy.
One thing I tried to do was instill a process in the company where seemingly hard questions were easy, because it was part of the fabric of how people measured and kept up with their jobs, what they were doing, and what they were forecasting. Things as simple as, “Jennifer, how many support calls are we going to get in the second quarter next year or the fourth quarter of the following year?” It’s how do you think about what you need, to be able to answer questions like those.
“How much are we going to sell?” Remember, we were selling packaged product, through a two-step distribution channel. There was no backlog. Backlog was a foreign concept, so every 30 days we had to get up and do it all over again.
It takes a lot of thought, depending on how big you want to be. If you are a CEO, the most important thing to figure out is how big you want to be. If you want to be a lifestyle, small company, then hats off; I admire you. There is nothing wrong with that.
If you want to be a big company, you need to be putting in process, systems, infrastructure, strategy, and marketing now — even though you might not think you need it. And then the other side of that is, if you go overboard in that direction, process will kill you. Where everybody is so ingrained in the process, nobody is questioning, nobody is thinking, they are just going through the process, that is as deadly as not having one.
So process is necessary, process is not sufficient. Process will help you, and it will also kill you.
Gardner: Mark, same question, advice to keep a company 30 years’ young?
Templeton: Going after Roger is the toughest thing in the world. I’ll share where I focused at Citrix. Number one is making sure you have an opinion about the future, that you believe strongly enough to bet your career and business on it. And number two, to make sure that you are doing the things that make your business model, your products, and your services more relevant over time. That allows you to execute some of the great advice that Roger just gave, so the wind’s at your back, so you are using the normal forces of change and evolution in the world to work for you, because it’s already too hard and you need all the help you can get.
A simple example is the whole idea of consumerization of IT. Pretty early on, we had an opinion about that, so, at Citrix, we created a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy and an experimental program. I think we were among the first and we certainly evangelized it. We developed a lot of technology to help support it, to make it work and make it better. That BYOD idea became more and more relevant over time as the workforce got younger and younger and began bringing their own devices to the office, and Citrix had a solution.
So that’s an example. We had that opinion and we made a bet on it. And it put some wind at our back.
Gardner: David, you are going to be able to get tools that these guys couldn’t get. You are going to have AI and ML on your side. You are going to be able to get rid of some of those distractions. You are going to take advantage of the intelligence embedded in the network — but you are still going to also have to get the best of what the human form factor, that lump of clay, that wetware, can do.
So what’s the CEO of the future going to do in terms of getting the right balance between what companies like Citrix are providing them as tools — but not losing track of what’s the best thing that a human brain can do?
IT’s not to do and die, but to reason why
Henshall: It’s an interesting question. In a lot of ways, technology and the pace of evolution right now are breaking down the historical hierarchy that has existed in a lot of organizations. It has created the concept of a liquid enterprise, similar what we’ve talked about with those who can respond and react in different ways.
But what that doesn’t ever replace is what Roger and Mark were talking about — the need to have a future-back methodology, one that I subscribe to a lot, where we help people understand where we’re going, but more importantly, why.
And then you operationalize that in a way that people have context, so everybody understands clarity in terms of roles and responsibilities, operational outcomes, milestones, metrics, and how we are going to measure that along the way. Then that becomes a continuous process.
There is no such thing as, “Set it and forget it.” Without a perspective and a point of view, everything else doesn’t have enough purpose. And so you have to marry those going forward. Make sure you’re empowering your teams with culture and clarity — and then turn them loose and let them go.
Gardner: Productivity in itself isn’t necessarily a high enough motivator.
Henshall: No, productivity by itself is just a metric, and it’s going to be measured in 100 different ways. Productivity should be based on understanding clarity in terms of what the outcomes need to be and empowering that, so people can do their best work in a very individual and unique way.
The days of measuring tasks are mostly in the past. Measuring outcomes, which can be somewhat loosely defined, are really where we are going. And so, how do we enable that? That’s how I think about it.