My side of the story: Ed Brill on IBM Notes and Domino

Ed Brill, former head of IBM Notes/Domino and IBM Collaboration Solutions, gets to tell his side of the story.

Interview by Hogne Bø Pettersen

Photo by Hogne Bø Pettersen

– My contract with IBM has some limits on things I can say, but it doesn’t stop me from sticking to the facts! As was true when I wrote Opting In, transparency matters…

The words are those of Ed Brill. For many years the personification of IBM Collaboration Solutions, especially the Notes/Domino portfolio, for IBM customers and business partners. He was like a rock star at Lotusphere, the old Lotus software conference that held for over two decades in Orlando in January each year.

The scapegoat

For a few years he went away, but he came back, which gave a lot of people hope for the future for the Domino platform. With his initiative, where the mantra was mobile first, followed by cloud first, some people became skeptical. And because IBM decided not to release any new versions of IBM Notes and Domino but just “Feature Packs,“ some said flat out that IBM was killing the product.

Suddenly last year, it was announced that he was leaving IBM. This sent shockwaves through the community. But not everybody was sad to see him ago. In this business you are not allowed to rest on your laurels, and some didn’t like a lot of the decisions made by the IBM team dealing with collaborations. And Ed Brill was for many the scapegoat, a fact he is well aware of, he tells me in this interview.


I meet Ed in a good-old fashioned European-style bar in downtown Chicago on a busy Friday afternoon. It’s his hometown, which he is understandably proud of, and it’s where he has his new job. We order some local brew, and I start my tape recorder. This, I think, is going to be interesting.

– What are you doing these days?

– I’m still a product manager. I run a product management team for a healthcare analytics company here in Chicago. It was founded about 30 years ago and it was designed to address the question: How can we improve the experience for patients in a hospital or doctor setting, based on feedback? This is feedback from surveys taken after you’ve visited your doctor or hospital.

To help with this, Ed’s team runs a series of patient experience clinical and workforce engagement solutions that analyzes the data in a post-encounter environment, with doctors and hospital staff in the US.

Using Microsoft collaboration tools

– Most of the analytics are built inhouse. I have a great team, who in some cases have studied this area for decades. We have a variety of technology platforms, that mostly use the Microsoft stack. But some are being built on other platforms. There is even some DB2 in the mix, so I still have dealings with some IBM technology in house. But mostly it’s a Microsoft shop, with a lot of inhouse developed technologies.

– So, is it mostly email you use, or do you use any other collaboration tools?

– We are using Microsoft Teams and SharePoint, and we use Webex every day. We are right now deploying an intranet based on a product called Communifire. It looks suspiciously like IBM Connections, to me. It has all the features of Connections, even features I would never have stolen from Connections, because nobody uses them. Like Bookmarks.

– How was it to start using Outlook?

– Well, there are definitely things about Outlook I do not like. And I’m not just saying that to humour your audience. I think the calendar scheduling in IBM Verse and Notes is far superior. But email is email. I can get my job done, and it’s not all that different.

No to Boston

I decide to go for broke and ask him straight out: Why did he leave IBM?

– There were a couple of things. First of all, I had been in IBM almost my whole career. And I felt as I was approaching 50 that if I didn’t make a move at some point, I was only going to do IBM. And that was going to limit my ability to grow. Because after 24 years I had done so many things at IBM that I felt I was kind of out of things to do.

But Ed also saw what a lot of people have experienced in the past two or three years: IBM has changed its corporate culture completely. From being a company that promoted home offices and the possibility to work from anywhere, they are now demanding that people come into the office. And Ed’s office wasn’t at the IBM office in Chicago. It was in Boston…

– For 18 years I worked from home. I was on the road a lot, but I worked from home. And I had founded roots here that I just couldn’t move away from. And I knew at some point I was going to have to move to Boston, or leave the company.

– I really didn’t want to go to a big company again. I wanted to work in a place where I wouldn’t be second guessed all the time.

– What made you choose your new job?

– Now, that’s a much better question. I spent a lot of time thinking on where to go. And I interviewed a lot of different places, both at startups and companies like Salesforce and many more. I had to figure out what I wanted to do. And I really didn’t want to go to a big company again. I wanted to work in a place where I wouldn’t be second guessed all the time.

Like family

Since a lot of companies in Chicago deal with health technology, he felt that was an arena he wanted to try out.

– You know, hospitals in the US have gradually invested in technology. If they have any money to spare, they want to spend it on equipment that’s going to save lives. So, they’ve been slow to adopt new technologies. And if we can introduce them to technologies that they would like to invest in, that would really make a difference in patients’ lives. I find that very exciting.

He does admit it was also hard to leave IBM. He describes it like family.

– And as with families, there’s both good and bad. There are some people in your family that you never want to talk to, but they’re family. And then there are people in your family you love. I built some great teams. And a lot of the people I hired at IBM never left. They came in, they did other jobs, they moved on to more successful things, and I watched their careers and progression… so there was a lot of it I really liked. But at some point… I knew it was over.

The last sentence is said with a slight laugh.

Feature packs

During his time at IBM he was mostly within Lotus and ICS, but he is best known as a product manager and product sales leader. He eventually ended up in IBM’s internal IT organization to get IBM Verse, the new web mail and calendar interface for Domino, up and running. And then he came back to ICS.

– Let’s go back to 2013. IBM Notes 9 is released.

– Right.

– And a decision was made to not release any more versions from then on but only do Feature Packs. But with the release of version 10, this has obviously been reversed. What was the idea behind the Feature Pack plan?

– I actually left my job in ICS two months before Notes 9 shipped. And I was away from the brand for three years and didn’t’ return until 2016. So, the decision to move to Feature Packs happened while I was away.

Huge costs

This is the part where we touch upon subject matters that Ed couldn’t talk about before. But now he can tell me that budgetary reasons drove the decision.

– IBM decided to invest in other areas. As a result… You know, the act of building and developing a Notes release was very expensive. You had to make sure everything was current, that it was compatible, that it could support 25 different languages, that Java was contemporary and so on. All of this was imposed on the product. So, there was a lot of non-functional technical requirements that was the base cost of shipping a Notes release.

Ed explains that just increasing the version number incurred all these IBM taxes, as he describes them, which made the product too expensive.

– So, the strategy that Jeff Schick’s team, that was in place while I was away, made was that we should just keep the version number the same and do things that are not destructive to the core code. But it was really a way around not having as much money to spend.

IBM Watson Workspace stole funding

– Did you agree with this decision? Or was it something you had to agree with, publicly?

– Ha! I don’t think I even publicly agreed with. But in that situation, it was the best possible approach, given the financial situation. On the backend, I fought very hard against the financial situation. Funding Watson Workspace competed for resources in a tight budget. It’s an interesting set of technologies, and since I use Teams every day now, I understand the benefits of that kind of collaboration. But it drew funding away from Connections and Notes/Domino. A lot of funding! Watson Workspace might become a successful product, but it hurt the other products in the process.

– Several companies that moved away from Notes told me it was because of this move. They felt IBM was abandoning the product.

– Yeah, I heard that a lot. But we were at a point where we just had to look at the options we had on the table. That we managed to ship anything at all is amazing, considering all the constraints in the IBM system. So, if the only way to ship anything at all was through Feature Packs, I think it was actually quite clever. But it did send a message to the market that there was never going to be the right kind of investment to make another new major version in the future.

It hits the fan

– The Domino community is a very passionate community…

– Ha ha, I know! And let me add that without the community these products would have been dead a long time ago. In the mid 2000s when IBM was busy with Workplace and WebSphere, the Notes community came together in a way that was special and impactful. So, I really owe everything to this community!

– Still, I’m certain you got a lot of anger thrown at you.

– Yeah.

– How did you deal with that? Do you think it was unfair, or can you see their point?

– I totally understood it! I actually tweeted this the other day, that in January 2017, me, Inhi Cho Suh, who was leading ICS at the time, and a team of people attended a strategy session. Some very, very senior people in the company were there too. We talked through our options for the collaboration business. And at that time, we were trying to see if there was a partnership that could help us in terms of taking products forward.

Selling Notes/Domino

And if that wasn’t successful, Ed suggested selling Notes/Domino. He had no buyers in mind but thought maybe they could find a company that would spend the millions of dollars needed to take the product in a new direction.

The next four months were spent trying to make a partnership works, Ed explains. He can’t say who it was, but it didn’t work.

– So, in May of 2017, we started looking at how we could get this in another position. I was actually at the user group meeting Engage in Antwerp when this was going on. During the day I was at the conference, and during the night I was on the phone, trying to negotiate on how we could do this differently.

HCL to the rescue

The situation was therefore that Ed was literally standing in front of customers during the day, trying to explain what they were doing, though the path really wasn’t clear. And then at the hotel at night, he and IBM were trying to find the path they would take.

– It was a very, very difficult time.

In the end they decided to try to find a way to sell the asset. So, they spent the months up until September trying to get a deal in place, very much like the one that is in place with HCL right now. There were four or five different companies, but Ed explains that HCL was their favorite.

– We signed the deal September 30th 2017, and announced it a few weeks later. And the deal was that HCL had to ship new versions of the product. It wasn’t a deal where they could take it over and run it into the ground. They would have to invest in the product. And then I thought: “This is really what I recommended back in January.” It’s still going to be an IBM product, but It will be built by someone willing to invest in it. And that’s a win for the market.

– IBM did a lot of marketing for Notes and Domino.

– We did marketing!

– So, we covered the five last years of the product, but the complaints about the lack of marketing has been going on for at least a decade. Why wasn’t IBM out there battling all the Microsoft salespeople luring customers over to Exchange and SharePoint?

– Now, this is where I’m going to be a little bit more defensive. IBM did a lot more marketing for Notes and Domino, than it did for a lot of other products. But because the Notes community doesn’t interact with a lot of other product groups from IBM, there’s not that awareness. Collaboration is an end user front of technologies, which is very unique within IBM. Almost everything else IBM makes is for IT, backend and for building infrastructure solutions.

Ed takes me back to version five, which had a ton of marketing and significant investments, according to him.

– Especially when you think about the fact that it had to be spread out for a worldwide audience. Because of this, it looks smaller than it really is. But tens of millions of dollars were spent! But to raise it to a certain level of visibility, it takes even more money.

– Marketing is just one aspect. What really hurt Notes was when Microsoft started to bundle Outlook with Office and SharePoint in their Enterprise Agreements.

The enemy

He compares this to Microsoft’s portfolio.

– Microsoft had their operating system, Office, SQL Server and a couple of back office things. That’s it! So, it was much easier for them to market Office. Now, to do marketing against that is expensive.

Ed says with a wink that he might one day write a book called History of Notes. And in this book, he would mention that Notes has survived even to this day, because of marketing from IBM.

– We might not have been as visible as Microsoft, but we ran events, we had web contents, we had a community, we invested in bundling and so on. So, there was a lot of stuff we did that was pretty invisible, because it was a part of IBM’s broader message and product portfolio. And it wasn’t maybe targeted at the people who were passionate about the product. But the bottom line is, we spent more on marketing than what people perceive. However, it was never going to be enough.

Ed also points out that Google doesn’t really market G Suite, Gmail, or Google Docs.

– Marketing is just one aspect. What really hurt Notes was when Microsoft started to bundle Outlook with Office and SharePoint in their Enterprise Agreements. And the CFO in the customers’ company would say: “Well, we are paying for this already, why aren’t we using it?” There’s no way to market around that. But the sheer fact that we are still talking about Notes, which is used by tens of thousands of companies, is amazing to me! We survived, because the product has value!

Mobile and cloud last?

– How do you feel about the IBM–HCL partnership? Do you think it will work?

– Yeah, I’m very excited by it. HCL demonstrated to us, during the courtship phase, that they would invest in the product, they would take the people from IBM, and even hire more and that they would ship. And they have done everything that they said they would. Even HCL Places that they are working on right now, was part of their story. They said that they were going to take this technology and see what else they could do with it.

– IBM also changed their tune when it comes to mobile first and cloud first. Now it’s on premises first.

– Well, there are so many things on the Domino server that would never work as a cloud only solution. But from what I understand, IBM is now offering you the possibility to run your applications in a cloud hybrid environment. And I think that’s a great way to solve that. I also think that the take off we had expected for cloud when that policy was put into place, didn’t happen. Verse was late and not different enough to attract people away from Microsoft or Google. So HCL said they could ship on premise code, and the customers would be happy.

Taking the blame

Ed also points out that in big markets like Germany and Japan, the jump to the cloud hasn’t been happening in the same way as in the US.

– How about the community? Do you miss it, or are you glad you’re not having to take all that sh** anymore?

– No, I do miss it. I’m going to balance this a bit now. There is a sub thread in the community that I screwed it all up. In my opinion, I’m actually the guy who made it as good as it could be, under the circumstances! With the constraints we had, we figured out the least bad option, in my opinion. But I have heard many times since I left, that it was all my fault. However, the fact that we even got to the point where we could make such a deal with HCL, was because we managed to keep the product alive.

– An IBM colleague said, “Thank goodness you’re leaving, because you’ve ruined this brand!”

He admits that the accusations hurt.

– It’s a scar for me, because I invested my life in this product. It’s a bit hard for me to understand how people can think that about me. I was away for three years, and there were decisions made in that time that I couldn’t control. But when I came back, I tried to do what I could to deal with the situation in the best way possible.

Ed feels his hands were tied because of the people above him.

– Look, IBM is a big, big company. And the decisions that were made at certain times, basically said: “You can’t do anything!” You are told to try and get things running for as long as possible without doing any spending, for instance. And there’s a lot of constraints in the system. Often for a good reason.

Despite being depicted as the bad guy, Ed would like to stress that he still has a lot of friends in the community, some he even talks to every day.

– But there is an element of the community where I feel like they held me responsible by title, as opposed to person. This also happened at IBM, by the way. When I left, there was an IBM colleague who said, “Thank goodness your leaving, because you’ve ruined this brand!” And I thought: “this is interesting. Why have I ruined this brand?” And everything he came back at me with, were decisions made two levels above me in the command chain. Decisions I had no influence of or control over at all. Were they decisions I would have made? Of course not.

The story isn’t over

– So, what do you think of the future of Notes and Domino?

– I mentioned to you earlier, that I’ve talked about writing a book about the history of Notes. But I would only do that when the story was over. I think there will be Notes and Domino for many, many years. Because there are no other products like this. And I won’t say this about many of the other products that I worked on, like Connections. I was in touch with the inventor of Notes, Ray Ozzie, before I left. And to think that what he and that team built… they started in 1984. I was 15 years old! And here we are, and it’s still in use in tens of thousands of companies around the globe. It’s still making hundreds of millions of dollars in money. And now it’s being opened up to all these modern interfaces and technologies. How do you predict that future?

Ed feels that if HCL stays on this course, we will be talking about the platform ten years from now.

– It may not be called Notes, it may not have the Eclipse-built UI or whatever, but the product is still going to be there!

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