A tribute to Jim Johnson, celebrating 40 years of research in the computer industry

Delft, 28 september 2016. Jim Johnson.

As HPE users and IT professionals, you may not know it, but you have benefited from the life’s work of Jim Johnson, founder of The Standish Group.

Jim pioneered the study of success and especially the failure of IT projects. He developed the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) models that helped users understand the value of IT systems and the costs of downtime and associated failures.

From a recent interview that Hans Mulder did with Jim Johnson, Jim didn’t have to think long about what his life motto is: “You can’t learn to run without running.”

Doing by learning, trial and error: it all implies that you will fall horribly every now and then. But according to Jim, you shouldn’t be afraid of that. You shouldn’t be caught up in caution.

Jim grew up in a medium-sized town just a stone’s throw from Boston, Massachusetts. His father had a gas station ‘fix and repair’ shop there, and Jim was enlisted at a young age to help his father. “My wife would say I’m a workaholic, but I just enjoy working. I think I got that from my parents,” says, Johnson. “I was a very active child with a short attention span and an insatiable curiosity. My mother didn’t call me Fingers for nothing!”

Jim was running the gas station at thirteen, when it suited him. From that experience, he learned how to deal with people and how to sell. And in the process, he also fell in love with technology.

In 1985 Jim founded The Standish Group and, over the years, built a database of an overwhelming amount of data about the ups and downs of IT projects; especially about the woes. Approximately thirty master judicators examine five thousand cases a year, a random selection from all IT projects worldwide. They describe those projects in anonymized reports. Over a span of more than thirty-five years, about fifty thousand projects have been studied and reported on by The Standish Group.

“The bottom line of what I tell people is whether IT projects succeed or fail – success has almost nothing to do with technology. It’s all about how people work together. I believe that the success of a company stands or falls with what I call the emotional maturity of organizations.

By that, I mean a combination of soft skills: nurturing realistic expectations, accepting that sometimes things go wrong, not being afraid of stumbling and getting blisters, and – last but not least – openness. Failure is a badge of honor, not something to hide or brush away. The ones you win are the ones you’ll remember,” says Johnson.

According to Johnson, “Ken Olsen, one of the founders of Digital Equipment Corporation, is one of my heroes. An honest entrepreneur with strong empathy for both his own people and his customers. But by no means a honey bear, because he could really act very firmly and did not shy away from drastic measures. Ken had empathy, a certain hardness, and openness: the qualities that unite the best entrepreneurs and those around them. Today, incidentally, it is significantly more difficult not to be open as an entrepreneur than in the past. Lying is more difficult because there is so much information available from all angles that others will quickly catch you and punish you.”

In reflection on his life’s work, Johnson said, “The growing wealth of information is often a blessing, but frankly, our database has had the exact opposite effect on the quality of IT projects. Analysis of the data has produced standards, and I am actually quite hesitant about standards because they limit growth. All things considered, the reflex to start building structures actually increases the chance that an IT project will go wrong. Structures in the form of management tools, technical specifications, governance rules, well-defined professional requirements, you name it. We built structures with the best of intentions, but in the end, these made projects more cumbersome, slower, more expensive, and more time-consuming. Structures in which no one dares to make decisions anymore. Structures to which people owe their jobs. The probability of failure, in fact, actually got bigger. But I remain optimistic. My father always tried everything. If something didn’t go this way, he tried another way. I learned to dream from him about opportunities and possibilities. I’m still dreaming. My friends and colleagues say that I live in the future – so…a few years ago, I changed my title to Chief Dreamer! We’re still out to change the world.”

In recent years, The Standish Group and Antwerp Management School made The Standish Group’s database available to teachers, scientists, and students, creating an academic program to update and expand the database.

“I am not afraid of the future. We ain’t seen nothing yet! A lot is going to happen, especially in the area of prosperity and well-being. Technology has empowered ordinary people. Politicians have to reinvent themselves; they have to relate to people differently. We live in a very rich world, but the wealth is too concentrated. Technology can help distribute that wealth. Mark my words: technology is going to be THE power to the people.’

After 38 years of helping people and organizations to think broadly and boldly, Jim has decided to retire and will wind down operations at The Standish Group. For the HPE NonStop community who have relied on The Standish Group’s Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) models and project insights, this is the close of an era, but Jim has taught us well to continue learning, keep striving for improvements, and seek the truth.

On a personal note, The Standish Group played a role in the foundation of Carr Scott Software. In the fall of 1995, at the Standish Group’s annual CHAOS University think tank symposium, that year held at The Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod, Jim Gray – father of many databases, including NonStop SQL, weighed in on the idea of a database gateway for Tandem’s Enscribe. Jim agreed with Richard Carr, my co-founder, and declared that developing Escort SQL would be a ‘great idea.’ So, in the wee hours of the morning, on a porch overlooking Cape Cod Bay, several cocktails later – I was comfortable and knew we were on the right path!

So, whether you are trying to justify a system upgrade (using TCO) or trying to improve project success rates (by studying why projects fail), you might want to tip your hat to Jim and send him a note of thanks – I know we will! Even in retirement, Jim can be reached at [email protected]


  • Dr. Hans Mulder

    Hans Mulder is an entrepreneur and professor at Antwerp Management School (AMS), the Police Academy of the Netherlands and Nyenrode Business University. Hans holds a PhD. from Delft University of Technology, published over 100 articles and is author of several books. Hans is regularly engaged as an IT expert when conflicts between companies need to be resolved in or out of court, such as participating in arbitration, mediation and expert reports. Hans was European Research Director of the Standish Group (Boston, USA).

  • Harry Scott

    Harry co-founded Carr Scott Software in 1996 as a software spin-off company from Tandem Computers with Richard Carr. Prior to Carr Scott Software, Harry worked for Tandem from 1983 to 1996 in a number of positions, primarily in the Alliance Organization, overseeing Sales and Technical Support Management in the Eastern US.

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