One Techie’s Path to HR

How running a camera store and working for the defense industry led to organizational development…and a new show.
 By John Sumser 


With my degree firmly in hand, I entered the workforce in 1979. The jobs available to a middling liberal arts graduate were few and far between. I tended bar and took seasonal work as a Santa Claus. Then, I found the early keys to my future while running small camera stores in Washington, D.C.
To peddle cameras in that era, sellers had to help customers feel confident that they could master the operating instructions. Today’s photographers are comfortable with  technology making most of the operating decisions. Then, it was all manual. The trick was getting customers to the point that they felt comfortable with moment-to-moment decision making.
It was life changing.
In short order, I fell in love with technology and joined the defense industry. Over the years, I learned to code software (with punch cards at the beginning), taught introductory computing courses as the PC entered the workplace, became a certified engineer (in lieu of a degree) and began to run research and development projects.
I got my first PC in late 1981, the 68th machine off the IBM assembly line. I got my first email account in 1982 and was working in online communities around the defense industry by 1983. In those days, PCs were for business, and mainframes were for real technology.
In large-scale technology, I was involved with the first interactive video disc project (a hyper-linked training program for aircraft maintenance in 1984), high-density decision making display architecture, hardware-software integration, and the design of logistics systems for frigates. I organized, wrote the spec and managed the team that built the first multi-facility supply chain management tool in the mid 1980s.
In the early 1990s, I left corporate life to move to California to run a struggling nonprofit called the Point Foundation, home of the Whole Earth Catalog (the print precursor of the Web). Point was involved with the push to make the Internet (a defense industry initiative) into part of people’s daily existence. It was home to the WeLL, a pioneering online community. Point was a mecca for futurists, science writers, culture expanders, and explorers.
While at the Point Foundation, I saw the very first copy of X-Mosaic, the first Web browser. My reaction, embarrassingly, was to ask, “Who would ever want a graphic interface to the Internet?” A few months later, in an early conversation with the founders of Yahoo, I famously said, “You can’t possibly make money with a Web index.”
In my first project after the Point Foundation, I started to document the emerging job board market. My company, interbiznet, produced the first reports offering market and technology analysis of any form of HR on the net. We expanded rapidly into applicant tracking systems and the related data associated with the talent acquisition process.
During the intervening years, I’ve worked the bleeding edge of technology and data in the HR environment. From demographics and compensation databases to a variety of Peoplesoft projects, I’ve been monitoring the full spectrum of HR Tech.
I chose to focus in HR for a number of reasons. While in the defense industry, I spent many evenings in a master’s program in organizational development, dropping out at the thesis phase. It turns out that the real cost of technology is never the technology itself. The learning curve and relative fit of the solution to the organization are the primary drivers of technology cost.
That means that the companies producing the solutions are at least as important as the solutions themselves. Any competent analysis of solutions has to include an assessment of the fit between customer and supplier. To say that this is missing from the game today is to engage in dramatic understatement.
All this led to my decision to join SharedXpertise as the host of the HR Demo Show. Technology vendors are not the enemy. Given the way they are usually treated, you’d think that they were vile criminals intent on fraud. At most trade shows, they are corralled into a ghetto, prodded by the event hosts, straight-jacketed, and humiliated. They are forced to distribute small plastic objects to disinterested attendees who are focused on filling their shopping bags.
In the most egregious cases, the conference host forces vendors into unnatural positions and then hurls epithets at them. This odd form of amusement is passed off as “HR Technology Analysis.” Prizes and accolades are heaped on the team that is most willing to endure the hazing. Like a carnival freak show, the barker makes his living by being an abrasive self-promoter. Vendors vie for attention in the sideshow as a way of generating leads.
The result for the vendor, in retrospect, is insignificant. The audience, which rarely contains actual buyers, is no closer to a smart decision. The entertainment is shallow and leaves the audience with an unearned sense of mastery. The only winner in this bizarre carnival is the company that runs the trade show.
There is nothing particularly wrong with that approach. Trade shows, with their roots in an earlier time of energy surplus, are really a combination of circus and class reunion. Although the vendors foot the lion’s share of the bill, it’s more along the lines of a community service. Providing the platform and entertainment for a party is a good public relations move.
Circus acts, self-effacing entertainment, public service, and lots of chotchkes are a necessary part of the mix. But, they are not sufficient to make a coherent marketplace for HR Technology. In order for the market to improve, potential customers need a quieter more conversation-friendly place to encounter suppliers.
Technology and technology decisions are high-risk components of the HR ecosystem. A well-executed project can be the spearhead of an HR department’s transformation into a strategic weapon. A botched deal wreaks havoc on budgets, priorities, and organizational credibility.
I’ve joined forces with SharedXpertise to launch the HR Demo Show. We want to complement the existing system, not replace it. Like salt and pepper, both forms of event have their place and relevance.
At HR Demo, it will be all technology, all the time. Rather than treating vendors as errant juveniles in need of supervision, we will give them the opportunity to tell you their story on their terms.
We are offering slots for 48 vendors (four tracks of six sessions each day), giving them the opportunity to tell their story to an audience. The audience will have access to the demonstrations on the hotel’s specially beefed-up wireless network. Each session will last an hour and include detailed question-and-answer sessions.
We expect about 500 participants to join us in Las Vegas on December 8th and 9th. Each presentation room will be wired, as only Las Vegas can deliver, with enough bandwidth for participatory demos.
Our goal is to give serious purchasers an opportunity to compare the culture, products, and services of a number of suppliers in a compressed time frame. The idea is to condense your acquisition cycle by delivering dense information in a short time frame.
It’s a smart place to bring a team focused on buying technology next year.
We’re also inviting all of the industry’s major analysts. I’ll tell you more about the analyst function in the next installation.
John Sumser is a technology consultant, trade show producer, and webmaster of He can be reached at

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