John Chen spoke with Rich Karlgaard about BlackBerry’s turnaround. Chen said he turned down the CEO position three times before finally accepting the challenge. In a nutshell, BlackBerry (BBRY) lost its way when it did not open its API. Profitability was massive at the time, while Apple’s growth was in its infancy. In 2007-08, why change?


BlackBerry’s core competency is in security. From its roots in mobile phones, Chen is leading the company towards the privacy and security markets. Though falling, there are still 30 million subscribers on BlackBerry. The same microkernel, QNX, is used in around 60 million automobiles. Securely connecting things, or “IoT” (internet of things), end-to-end is an opportunity for BlackBerry.

BlackBerry is building its technology stack through acquisitions. It is aware the revenue potential is there, but few actually make money in this market. The company will make applications to capture the growth potential in the IoT market.

Carving Out a Niche

When Chen turned around Sybase, he made sure the company would not head towards manufacturing or retail. This meant avoiding IBM, Oracle (ORCL),  and Microsoft (MSFT) as competitors. By carving out its own space, Sybase’s sales flourished.

Chen’s background

When asked how engineers may move towards executive leadership, he said engineers had the advantage of logic. It also helps having strong communication skills, a comfort for management, and liking people. Having an engineering background also means know how technology works, so rational decisions are based on technical facts.

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BlackBerry stays in Devices businesses

The company’s strategy is providing an end-to-end solution, from the server to the end device, whether it’s a truck or a smart phone. Chen said getting out of smart phones is a possibility, if it is not profitable. However, the big BUT is that the company would stay in the software business for phones. This is a necessary move: IoT requires point to point messaging, end-to-end.

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