Graduation, end of an era, legends?

Babe Ruth and Willie Mays of IBM?

Babe Ruth and Willie Mays of IBM?

I was in New York last week as one of the organisers, and a speaker for the IBM Academy of Technology conference on Virtualization. A great coincidence then, that when the invitation came to attend IBM Senior Vice President, Nick Donoforio’s “Graduation” party, I was able to accept as it was the same week.

I took a slow drive over from Hawthorne Research, across the Tapan Zee bridge and down to IBM Palisades. I’d been there many times before, to attend class and also to present to customers. However, this was possibly the most significant. I knew it wouldn’t bet the last time I’d see Nick. I for one wouldn’t be on him NOT showing up at the IBM Academy of Technology meeting next month. A fact which was later confirmed by current Academy president, Joanne Martin.

No, it was significant because it was the last time I’d get to talk to Nick while we were both employees of IBM. While I owe much of my IBM career to IBM UK employees, most especially Adrian Walmsley and Mike Cowlishaw, also one Larry Hirst, who went out on a limb and hired me in the dark days of 1987. I owe my continued employment, my elevated status, and to some degree my current position to Nick Donofrio.

I first met Nick, as far as I can recall, back in 1990. I still have the video upstairs, but it’s in UK PAL VHS format, and I don’t any of those technologies anymore. Nick was head of I think DSD, or the mainframe division. We had the chance to put him on the spot about the unholy mess that had been the release schedules for VM/XA and VM/ESA. Nick was as good as his word, things got substantially better for the next few years, some of it no doubt at his making, and some not. However, he was the most straight talking Senior IBM Executive I’d dealt with, and left with the words that later came to characterize Nick, “I’m here to help if you need me”. Which later became, “be careful what you ask for”.

A few years later I was working in the Fishkill office on a project for Linda Sanford, to try to give some meaning and structure to the mainframe divisions Client/Server strategy, on my way into the office one morning, when a helicopter landed across the parking lot in front of me. I asked when I got to the building, “oh that was Nick Donofrio”. So it should have come as no surprise then, when I arrived at IBM Palisades, started a slow walk to the building, paused to wait for Linda Sanford and Charles Lickel who came in behind me, when the air was filled with the sound of a helicopter, it was Nick.

I can’t recall what I asked him when I spoke to him at the graduation, I can recall he called me “big fella” as usual when asking how I was, harking back to my size of the late 1990’s. Later Nick revealed he too was once >200lbs, we briefly discussed his time in Burlington. What was clear though was that the legend of Helicopter Nick would always be with me. Back in early 2002, Nick and I spoke about my future career direction. A month or so later I ended up working for George Walsh, my second line manager was Irving, and I wrote an initial analysis of a little known company called ThinkDynamics and the topic of provisioning. I do know that I asked for that job, and so, as Nick would say, “be careful what you ask for”, I couldn’t and haven’t complained. It has though, been a tough six years.

Nick and Irving opened up the Academy of Technology so that non-development type engineers could flourish and be elected as full members, I was one of the early ones in 1999. Nick was also behind the whole Distinguished Engineer recognition and appointment program, and the drive to get the technical community at IBM the recognition it so much needs, all 195,000 of us.

So, farewell Nick, enjoy the family, enjoy the retirement. Is Nick the best technician ever at IBM? I doubt it. There is no doubt in my mind though that Nick is one, if not the most, enthusiastic, inspirational leaders ever in the tech industry, that most people will have never heard of.

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About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I am a Fellow of the British Computer Society ( I'm an information technology optimist.

I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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