Executive Face Fears of Learning to Use Computers

Article excerpt

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. _ One would never guess that Ludovico L. de Carlo, who is 65 years old, is a tormented man as he stands on the terrace at sunset, nibbling hors d'oeuvres, laughing with a group of international business tycoons, being serenaded by two violinists and caressed by warm ocean breezes.

But his wife, Sara, reveals his dark secret.

"He's so angry," she confided to a visitor. "He has complete control over everything else in his office, except for that little box. He's determined to master it, but he's frustrated that he can't do it in one day."

De Carlo, president and chief executive officer of the Marine Corps West Federal Credit Union, was unwinding at the end of another grueling day at the CEO Technology Retreat.

The gathering was a three-day boot camp for chairmen, chief executives, presidents and the like who share a common frustration _ computers _ and a common desire to learn about them.

The recent retreat _ held Sept. 21-24 _ was co-sponsored by the seminars company CEO Institutes of New York and Computer Associates, a software company based on Long Island. It was the fifth of its type.

Since 1992, the retreats have attracted more than 250 top executives who rose to power in the computer age without ever needing to find the power switch.

The boot camps, which require heads of companies to give up three work days and several thousand dollars, bespeak a technological fault line running through corporate America.

As computers and information networks have become crucial to virtually all types of businesses, the heads of many companies are virtually clueless about the technology that keeps them in business.

All 50 of the executives who assembled in Santa Barbara were the types who exude confidence and steely resolve to their underlings, but most of them would panic at the sight of a mouse.

They were men and woman who have collectively authorized the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars on information technology for their companies, often without really understanding the difference between a mainframe and a modem.

These were among the tech-novitiates at the retreat: Peter N.T. Widdrington, chairman of Laidlaw Inc. and the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club, who secretly envied the way Blue Jays coaches used their laptops. Marie L. Knowles, president of Arco Transportation Co., directs marine and pipeline operations for Arco, but she felt at sea when it came to computer networking. Gerry Briels, chairman of the North American division of Loctite Corp., speaks fluent French, German, English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, but said he found computer manuals incomprehensible. Steve Duce, president of Mitsui Machinery Distribution Inc., hated computers so much that his employees placed bets that he would give up and come home early.

"They get to ask the basic questions that they're too ashamed to ask their own technologists," said Charles B. Wang, chairman of Computer Associates International Inc. The goal of the retreats is to facilitate better communications and closer relationships between the technologists and the business executives. "For them it's just one little step, so they can say, `Hey, it's not so intimidating after all.' "

The conference is an ideal opportunity for Computer Associates, Electronic Data Systems Inc. and various sponsors who have contributed software and equipment to the retreat; they forge relationships with the leaders of dozens of companies that are potential customers.

Wang (pronounced wong), whose company dominates the global market for mainframe software, also exploits the opportunity to warn the executives to be wary of technologists who urge them to abandon their trusted mainframes in favor of expensive, untested networks of personal computers.

But usually, Wang's advice is delightfully candid and nontechnical. …