Founder of Interex Discusses Its Demise

Interview by Patrick Thibodeau

JULY 19, 2005 (COMPUTERWORLD) - A longtime IT veteran, Doug Mecham founded the Interex user group 31 years ago when he was a systems coordinator at the former Hughes Aircraft Co. It was born in an effort to bring together HP 3000 users to address technical issues. Just over two dozen users attended the group's first meeting. From there the organization grew to include more than 100,000 members.

Yesterday, Interex stunned users by announcing that it was closing up shop and canceling this year's HP World user conference, which was set to take place Aug. 14-18. Mecham, now retired and living in Waldport, Ore., after working the past 20 years as an IT consultant, talked about the demise of Interex and the future of user groups in general, with Computerworld late yesterday.

How did Interex get started? I started to work for Hughes Aircraft Co. in the early 1970s. They were buying HP 3000 computers [which weren't] even on the market yet. Realizing that, and being an organizing kind of guy, I started interfacing with other users. And at the urging of some people, [I] formed a computer users group -- at that time called the HP 3000 users group. That eventually turned into Interex. Our first meeting was in December 1974, in Palo Alto, Rickey's Hyatt House. There were 28 of us that came, two from Canada, one from Brazil and [the rest] from across the U.S. It was interesting because the 3000 was crashing about every half-hour. But we worked through those issues, and almost everybody was positive about the machine. HP pulled it off the market and put it back on after making a lot of corrections. Today, I think it stands as one of the most stable business machines on the face of the earth.

How did Interex get up to more than 100,000 members? The users group began to grow. We published newsletters; we had a conference every year, at least one big one, and very often two, one in Europe, one small conference in Australia and a number of international conferences. People became very much involved in supporting it. It just started growing. At one time the users group met with [HP Labs] to work out problems. The lab was very open to solutions. I think that was part of the driving factor. HP would bring prospective customers to the conference to demonstrate that there was a set of users that were successful and in the early days, of course, that meant a great deal to Hewlett-Packard. So I think we helped facilitate probably several billion dollars' worth of business over the 31 years.

What was your reaction to HP's decision to hold its own technical conference? I think it's just typical of many vendors who want to manage things on their own. I thought it was unfortunate that they couldn't be more collaborative. What happened is somebody had to go; there wasn't enough room or money for both, I suspect. I think it's unfortunate. The conference was a primary money generator for Interex and drove it.

What did you see as Interex's and HP World's value? It added a lot. We became the primary conduit for users, users forums and for all the HP computer systems. It sort of tied users together independently. Interex has always been an independent organization; it gave a balanced perspective to what HP wanted. HP really relished the questionnaires that were sent out and the results that came out and the forums that were held at the conferences. They were great feedback for HP in terms of what users and customers wanted and were willing to pay for.

Do you think user groups are becoming dinosaurs? User groups are not as relevant today as they were before. The technology has polished off and leveled off. It's good enough so that you no longer have to dig deep into the software and a lot of the technical things that we dealt with in the early days. However, on the application side I think they are very relevant, because you are looking for different solutions to different processing problems, different methods of processing. From that standpoint, they are of great value.

Do you think a vendor-sponsored conference like the HP Technical Forum planned in September are good alternatives to a user conference? No. That's what made Interex stand out. We were independent yet we were very close to HP, from top to bottom. I remember meeting with David Packard personally, a one-to-one for a half-hour. He thoroughly supported the user group. I think he recognized the value of users working in close collaboration with the vendor. We were unique and certainly, in my view, second to none in being a [group] that didn't beat the vendor up. We worked in collaboration with them.

What do you think it's going to mean for HP not to have Interex? I guess that remains to be seen. I think it's a loss for them. I think the HP 3000 was a loss. It's not going to provide as much input as they would like, and the input they get -- it's a vendor-sponsored thing, so they'll be the drivers, right? If the vendors are drivers you're going to see one kind of conference. If the users are drivers, I think you're going to see another kind of profile of the conference.

 Doug Mecham