Mr. Chen, who hails from a modest upbringing in Hong Kong, and lived in New England for several years, where he attended the Northfield Mount Herman school on the banks of the Connecticut River, and graduated with a EE from Brown University in 1978. He then headed West to receive his masters in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology the following year.
John Chen began his career at Unisys, (the merger of mainframe computer companies Burroughs and Sperry) as a hardware engineer, and later became president and COO at age 38 of Pyramid Technology Corporation, a fast-growing computer company, based in San Jose, California, started by former HP engineers, and a pioneer in Reduced Instruction Set Computing. After Siemens acquired Pyramid and merged it into Siemens Nixdorf, Chen became president and CEO of Siemens Nixdorf’s Open Enterprise Computing Division in 1996.
A year later he joined Sybase, as president and CEO. Sybase, at one time, was the youngest and fastest growing database software company in the world, and a perceived challenger to Oracle for technology leadership. A series of management missteps pertaining to its products and technology, misleading financial statements, and ultimately lost investor credibility, led to a multi-year phase of purgatory—not unlike that experienced by BlackBerry.
This set the stage for a turnaround, which was led by John Chen, after he assumed leadership of the company in 1997. Under his leadership Sybase reemerged as a provider of data warehouse and other analytics software, mobile data management, messaging and virtualization technology. And the company recorded 55 consecutive quarters of profitability. In May of 2010 SAP AG the German enterprise applications software giant acquired Sybase for $5.8 billion, thus filling a gaping hole in its own product line, and better positioning itself as an Oracle competitor.
Among the myriad challenges facing John Chen and the management of Blackberry is what to do with the company’s smart phone and tablet business, which has steadily lost market share to long-standing competitors and up-starts. The company’s software challenges are no less daunting, although the company possesses solid mobile and security assets. Blackberry also benefits from several thousand patents relating to mobile devices, software, and security, and these are sure to be powerful assets in the future.
All in all, John Chen’s challenges exceed those that he faced upon joining Sybase some thirteen years ago. It will be interesting to see whether his interim position is followed by a more permanent one in which he can reestablish the leadership once held by the venerable Canadian company.