An Ode to BEA

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This ode is bittersweet.

BEA hq

I've worked for a number of companies over the past 11 years, but I didn't love a company the way I loved BEA. Perhaps it was the Orfali , Harkey & Edwards Blue Book, which convinced me to abandon data management & become a programmer back in 1997 (Jeri Edwards was a VP at BEA at the time), or it was the talk about unifying OLTP with CORBA, or the acquisition of WebLogic, I *wanted* to work for that company since I got out of college. There was something about the lure of middleware that I liked -- the idea of integrating, communicating, and enabling people to work faster. My best friend, Greg Peres (now a lead software presales architect at Sun Microsystems in Canada) took a photo of myself outside of BEA's new HQ when I first moved to the SF Bay Area, back in 1998 ... which I will post here if I could find it in my boxes of stuff!


In 2004, I got the chance to work for BEA in Toronto, Canada, as part of their Strategic Consulting Services practice, then under Fabrice Leb├ęgue (now at Boston Consulting Group). Mark Janzen, one of their top consulting architects, (now at IBM) brought me in while we worked together at Rogers. The idea was to bring executive-level consulting to the software pre & post sales process, which was deemed necessary for SOA initiatives. The group would try its best to do work independent of BEA products, though obviously the goal was to drive demand for BEA software through developing relationships. For a variety of reasons, the group was disbanded in 2005, and I wound up as something of a one-man department in Canada, the "technical lead" for the region - something of a hybrid SE, Consultant, and PR Representative, and continued in that capacity through 2007. It was a great ride. I learned a tremendous amount about the software business, consulting business, and vendor politics. I helped many organizations in Canada and forged great relationships across many sectors, and got to visit all of Canada's five time zones.

BEA WWC team

But, by late-2006 I felt BEA was losing its way. The initial AquaLogic push was good, but it spread our engineering resources thin. BEA's SOA vision, which started well, became something of an empty marketing slogan, like how '.NET' was destroyed within Microsoft. I tried to make changes from within, and joined Cliff Booth's Worldwide Enterprise Architecture group, setting consulting and SOA policy for the global consulting organization. We worked quite a bit on a modeling approach for service architectures. While I learned a lot about modeling, and architecture, the kind of work and style of long-distance collaboration was just not suited to me. I was the Data Management & REST advocate on the team, and often felt I had to spend an inordinate amount of energy to get my points across. Oracle's acquisition attempt in October didn't help matters. I was emotionally and mentally drained early into the job and found it difficult to stay motivated or productive, since I couldn't see how our efforts would save this company that I once loved.

It also didn't help that I had stopped believing that SOA would make anyone's life any easier, and reading some of the ITIL v2 material that was guiding our efforts also really just seemed to reinforce that we were following in the grand tradition of "smart people building skyscrapers to nowhere". I don't begrudge the team -- Cliff, Stephen Bennett, Wayne Boland, Mark Wilkins, Dave Chappelle, Bob Hensle, are some of the brightest guys I've had the pleasure of working and arguing with. Cliff is one of the best executives I've seen at fostering a creative, but accountable, environment. I'm sad to have let them down. But our team was just a microcosm of the larger problem with BEA: while we were doing many things right, we just weren't doing the right things, in my opinion. I announced my departure in early February, for the end of the month.

BEA's Canadian Offices

One could see Oracle's acquisition as the culmination of BEA's failure to emerge from the dot-com bubble burst. I don't entirely buy it -- Alfred managed to grow the company to $1.5b from $950m in 2001 when Coleman, then CEO, left. That's quite an accomplishment, if short of expectations. BEA was still performing, people were still buying its products, and a lot of the b.s. about JBoss or other competitors eating its lunch are rather exaggerated, in my opinion. I claim no real insider information, and am speaking for myself when I say, there is one primary, clear, reason for BEA's failure, in my opinion, and anyone "on the ground" in the company would likely agree with it: after the early-2000's recession, finance & legal -- the bean counters -- became the kings of the company. In other words, I believe BEA's wounds were self-inflicted.

Once the goal ceased being innovation & great software, it was about a pristine balance sheet, milking the support organization, and onerous following of extremely conservative accounting guidelines. There were still leaders -- Alfred Chuang still had fire in him, some product executives like Guy Churchward were bright spots, Paul Patrick in the architecture organization was also a great source of ideas (but given power far too late). Many in the sales organization knew how to make customers feel valued, and were rewarded righly. But all of them were beholden to the bean counters. Oh yeah, and there was an options scandal that one hoped would shake the power of the finance department. (It didn't.)

BEA has some great products that decayed under the product executive leadership over the past 2+ years. I don't know the complete reasons for this, I just know the results. WebLogic Server continues to be, in my opinion, the gold standard of J2EE application servers (and I've used most of them). Yet it's maddening that something as important as their management console -- arguably the defining feature of the product vs. open source alternatives! -- became dog slow. WebLogic Workshop was productive for specific products but made the transition to Eclipse years later than it should have. AquaLogic Service Bus was a visionary product, and has some great understated features for validating the dependencies amount service artifacts. But it's lack of support for RESTful services is also maddening, considering how little work would need to be done (for starters, just enable PUT and DELETE, folks!). AquaLogic DSP was another visionary product, but way too programmer-centric in a world where programmers don't give a crap about data. They needed to target the DBA or the RESTful crowd, but the small & dedicated team was too busy trying to improve the core engine with the resources they had. BEA WebLogic Integration v8.1 SP2+ was the swiss army knife of integration tools, and probably the best game in town circa 2003-2006. WLI could smoke Oracle BPEL on performance, usability, and complex transformations. But v9 was disastrous. WebLogic Portal had one of the most ambitious set of goals, and an extraordinarily bright team. But they too were plagued with quality issues, arguably due to a lack of bandwidth, and a need to compete with Plumtree internally. The Plumtree team got off to a great start with the PEP products, but I doubt if we'll ever see the fruition of that idea.

As of today, May 9, 2008, the BEA I loved is dead. A surprising number of people I knew there in Canada, and in San Jose, have either left over the past 2 months, or were sacked this week, as part of the transition. Some great products will be put out to pasture. In Oracle's defense, many of the "leaders" who oversaw the decay of this once great company were also a part of this culling. The field organization and deal support teams in particular were in dire need of a shakeup (expect Oracle to reap great benefits by -- finally! -- cutting BEA's cost of sales to reasonable levels!)

One could say that it's "the day that middleware died". Perhaps that's a good thing, in the long run. In many respects, we have a new approach to middleware that surrounds us, if only we'd take advantage of it.

I leave you with this photo stream, of some memories, and of my last operations meeting at BEA, held at Great Cooks in downtown Toronto, where we made our last meal together....

In Memory of BEA

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Jeri was inspirational and so was Bob Orfali. Great couple, great books, great teachers. I almost went out to work for BEA in 1999, enjoyed working with them as a partner for years before Sun became serious about app servers.
Good luck for whatever's next in your journey.

Hi Stu - we never met, but your reputation traveled far. Good luck at your new gig, I think the cloud space is very exciting so it should be a good ride.

I am staying on through the acqusition, so can't contribute publicly to the post-mortem analysis. I can confirm that BEA was an awesome place to work.


Very interesting! Having worked in BEA engineering for 7+ years, I have a somewhat different perspective. For me, BEA's strength has always been solid engineering, within small, but productive teams. From my vantage point, aqualogic, SOA, liquid computing, and other fancy powerpointy stuff that got generated over the last three years was a major distraction from shipping solid bulletproof products. What suffered due to this distraction was investment in engineering.

Middleware is not dead. It has become part and parcel of computing. Details will keep changing, of course. Is the webarch activity getting the "new" approach right? To me, it is just one more way of doing things, but does not necessarily replace everything else done before.

Good luck with your job.

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