Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

There are two takeaways from the tenure of Meg Whitman, the longtime technology executive who said Tuesday that she plans to step down as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co.

One, Whitman doesn't seem to have been entirely forthcoming about her willingness to stay in her job. And two, she was dealt a bad hand at a company destined for the scrap heap and did as well as anyone could in preventing that outcome.

First, a little more about Whitman's lack of candor. Over the summer, she repeatedly discussed why she wasn't really in the running for the CEO job at Uber Technologies Inc., even though she totally was. She made it sound as if she happened to wander by an Uber board meeting with a PowerPoint presentation detailing how she would run the company. Her declaration that she interviewed for the post as a courtesy to the Uber board seemed fishy at best. 

Even before the summer, there was speculation Whitman wouldn't stick around Hewlett Packard Enterprise for much longer. When she took over as CEO in 2011, she declared the company a five-year reclamation project. As the five-year window passed, she continued to say she had more work to do there.

She said that to the company's investors at a meeting in June. She said that after she apparently didn't/did try to become CEO at Uber. And she said it in September. "I'm here to help make this company successful. ... Lots more work to do, and I actually am not going anywhere," Whitman told stock analysts. 

Maybe circumstances changed drastically since September and made Whitman reconsider. But there is still more work to do at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Whitman is going. On Tuesday, she told stock analysts that the company needs a more seasoned technologist at the helm and that it's the right time to turn to a new generation of executives.

Big Shrink
As Meg Whitman sold off pieces of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the company's revenue fell
Source: Bloomberg

Despite the odd way Whitman kept denying she would leave her job, she has done a more credible rescue job than anyone could have imagined at a company that was in shambles when she arrived. And Whitman deserves credit for removing the company from the list of Silicon Valley's buffoons.

It might be hard to remember now with the public stumbles of companies like Uber and Facebook, but when Whitman became CEO six years ago, the company then known as Hewlett-Packard Co. was the most bumbling technology company of the time. The company had ricocheted from scandal to scandal for years. It cycled through multiple CEOs, been caught spying on journalists and board members and alienated investors for doing an inexplicable acquisition and sorta-kinda-maybe declaring it would spin off its personal computer business. 

Whitman picked up the pieces. She set low expectations from the outset by saying it would take years to fix the company. She cleaned up a disastrous balance sheet and wiped the slate clean of bad acquisitions. Controversially, she backtracked on her initial decision not to cast off the PC business. In 2015, two companies -- the printer-and-PC company HP Inc. and the business-technology provider Hewlett Packard Enterprise -- were carved out from one.

Whitman put herself in charge of the second company, expected to be the growth engine. Instead, HP Inc. has done well while Hewlett Packard Enterprise has struggled to grow with a collection of mostly middling assets, from computer servers to substandard software.

Whitman is essentially selling the company in pieces, first by selling its lagging outsourcing business and then by choosing to spin off Hewlett Packard Enterprise's software business. The company got smaller, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise said that the resulting share repurchases and dividends helped deliver total shareholder return of 89 percent since Hewlett-Packard split in two. Whitman didn't solve the core problem, though: The company's technology remains far from the cutting edge. 

That means the future of Whitman's company remains in doubt. Despite acquisitions she's done to give Hewlett Packard Enterprise some fresh technology, it's hard to imagine the company can stand on its own as corporate technology shifts away from the company's DNA in computer hardware.

Whitman's final report card depends on how well Hewlett Packard Enterprise does without her. But it's important to remember the company she led didn't stand a chance without her. With Whitman, it did the best it could. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net