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Virtualization: Article

HP, Mike Lynch & the Autonomy Whistleblower

Lynch, who categorically denies HP’s allegations, told the press late Tuesday that he was “ambushed” by HP’s charges

When Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman stunned practically everyone within earshot early Tuesday morning by accusing the company's year-old Autonomy acquisition of ripping off HP with phony financials, she said that after she bounced Autonomy's founder out of HP in late April a senior member of Autonomy's staff owned up to the fraud.

She didn't identify the informant, giving Autonomy founder Mike Lynch the opportunity to tell the press that he couldn't possibly imagine who she meant since he was the last senior manager to leave after HP ran everybody else off.

Apparently he didn't count noses all that well.

An informed source says the left-behind informant - and there may have actually been two - told HP that the bogeys Lynch set couldn't be met because they were based on a fiction.

Lynch himself was reportedly fired for missing his forecast by 20%, a sin Meg found insupportable. She supposedly dumped him to set an example. He blamed HP and its rules for it after he heroically tried to keep Autonomy away from HP's bureaucracy because its culture was "special," a device that worked with Meg initially.

Lynch, who categorically denies HP's allegations, told the press late Tuesday that he was "ambushed" by HP's charges, and had no details because he wasn't informed beforehand or contacted by any lawyers or regulators. All he knew was what was in the HP press release and didn't know what Whitman was talking about but was sure it could all be explained.

He ducked behind Deloitte, which he said audited Autonomy's results quarterly, and claimed his books were in line with international accounting standards, which, he said, may be different from US rules.

However, HP's investigators apparently questioned Lynch and the old Autonomy management team in July and found their answers vague and "unhelpful" so he must have known something,

Still Lynch claimed that HP had had hundreds of its people and three auditors doing due diligence before the acquisition closed and said they couldn't have missed an "elephant in the room" as big as HP alleges.

Ex-HP CEO Mark Hurd apparently spied the elephant right off when Autonomy tried to shop itself to Oracle, where Hurd was co-president. Sources say the roll-up was asking $4 billion-$6 billion and Hurd figured it was worth maybe $1.5 billion. Lynch denied trying to sell Autonomy to Oracle but Oracle put his presentation on its web site.

Rejected, Autonomy and the Frank Quattrone Qatalyst crew then breezed by HP - which had already bought 3PAR from Quattrone for a ludicrous $2.35 billion, a 200% premium. They talked to CTO Shane Robison, who convinced then-CEO Leo Apotheker it was worth spending over $12 billion including debt to buy. A year later HP is writing off an amazing $8.8 billion on the adventure.

Lynch blames the "internecine" politics inside HP, its rejection of Apotheker and Robinson's strategy of dumping PCs and focusing on software, and the "coup d'état" that unseated them for his current problem.

With them gone because of the wildly unpopular Autonomy acquisition and with Whitman in charge, he claims HP mismanaged the acquisition, imposing 30% mark-ups on Autonomy software, running off established accounts, and not paying commissions on Autonomy sales but instead paying its salesmen for the competitive software they sold.

He figures Autonomy's prospects deteriorated and that's why HP took the massive write-off - to cover up its mismanagement.

He forgets Autonomy's reputation, at least in England, in the years before HP entered the picture, when it was a public company and the press and analysts were suspicious of its numbers and its vapor-y Bayesian unstructured data IDOL search technology or Intelligent Data Operating Layer, citing pretty much the same kind of "not-as-good-as-it-looks" objections HP is now complaining about.

Forrester Research says Autonomy "didn't invest in R&D; they didn't have regular software releases; they weren't transparent with a roadmap of where they were going; they didn't seek customer feedback. Customers complained, but the promise of managing all their information and making better decisions was so attractive. They bought more."

Lynch must also be aware of the rumors that have circulated about Autonomy since the HP takeover and spreading tales of users throwing out the over-hyped software or getting it for nothing, which may explain why its sales plummeted.

Forbes captures best what reporters have been up against for the last year as reports on hard-to-prove shenanigans were dangled in front of them.

It said, "Here's what my source observed personally":

"Autonomy grew through acquisitions, buying everything from storage companies like Iron Mountain to enterprise software firms like Interwoven. They'd then go to customers and offer them a deal they couldn't refuse. Say a customer had $5 million and four years left on a data-storage contract, or ‘disk,' in the trade. Autonomy would offer them, say, the same amount of storage for $4 million but structure it as a $3 million purchase of IDOL software, paid for up front, and $1 million worth of disk. The software sales dropped to the bottom line and burnished Autonomy's reputation for being a fast-growing, cutting-edge software company a la Oracle, while the revenue actually came from the low-margin, commodity storage business.

"They would basically give them software for free but shift the costs around to make it look like they got $3 million in software sales," the Forbes source, who directly observed such deals, said.

"Lynch's management team was also practiced at the art of wringing attractive-looking growth out of a string of ho-hum acquisitions. The typical strategy was to bolt IDOL and other software onto a company's existing products and try and convince customers to pay more for the ‘new' products. If that failed, they'd milk the existing customer base by halting development and outsourcing support," its source said, "using the cash from the runoff business to fund more acquisitions."

"Mike Lynch was famous for saying Autonomy never put an end-of-life on any product. But the customers were screaming."

In sales meetings, Lynch reportedly "loved to do vague and theoretical academic-type presentations to show what a visionary he was." And the product "looked like a lot of vaporware wrapped up in fancy Cambridge talk and the kind of accounting tricks managers have engaged in since the dawn of publicly traded stock."

HP's admission of being snookered means its CEO and its board, which voted for the acquisition, have put their heads on the chopping block given HP's history of incompetent management.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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