Archive for the 'ibm' Category

What makes a good technical manager?

Is it possible to engineer the perfect boss? Google was up to the task and found data that will forever change the keys to getting promoted.

A few people posted, quoted and retweeted this INC. Article on my social media streams. The “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers.” is a good list and set of checkpoints.

For me though, as longtime readers will know, I’ve long been a believer in the non-technical manager, most of my best managers and executives were managers first and technical second. On one post on Facebook it summed it up as:

A good company employs managers to manage the company for employees, and employees for the company.

If the company doesn’t have senior technical non-manager positions and technicians are becoming managers to get promoted, you and the managers are at the wrong company in the first place.

I’d tried being a teamlead very early on in my career, it wasn’t good for me or the team, but then I was just 25-years old. Later on, not being a manager became a source of pride, making it through the corporate ranks at IBM without ever being a manager. My mentoring/career presentation has it on slide-2 and slide-10.

These days I think I’d be a good manager, my patience has certainly improved, I’ve achieved everything and more, that I set out to do, and while I’m still technical, I know my boundaries and wouldn’t want to cross them.

Mainframe Assembler Language 2.0

Those that still follow my blog from my days working in the IBM mainframe arena might be interested in the following.

One of the stalwarts of software at IBM, and self described grand poobar of High Level Assembler, John R. Ehrman has a 1300-page 2.0 version of his book “Assembler Language Programming for IBM System z™ Servers ” and it’s available in PDF form here. There are a wealth of other assembler resources that John has contributed here on ibm.com

(My) Influential Women in Tech

Taking some time out of work in the technical, software, computer industry has been really helpful to give my brain time to sift through the required, the necessary, the nice, and the pointless things that I’ve been involved in over 41-years in technology.

international-womens-day-logo1[1]Given that today is International Women’s Day 2016 and numerous tweets have flown by celebrating women, and given the people I follow, many women in Technology. I thought I’d take a minute to note some of the great women in Tech I had the opportunity to work with.

I was fortunate in that I spent much of my career at IBM. There is no doubt that IBM was a progressive employer on all fronts, women, minorities, the physically challenged, and that continues today with their unrelenting endorsement of the LGBT community. I never personally met or worked with current IBM CEO, Ginni Rometty, she like many that I did have the opportunity to work with, started out in Systems Engineering and moved into management. Those that I worked with included Barbara McDuffie, Leslie Wilkes, Linda Sanford and many others.

Among those in management at IBM that were most influential, Anona Amis at IBM UK. Anona was my manager in 1989-1990, at a time when I was frustrated and lacking direction after joining IBM two years earlier, with high hopes of doing important things. Anona, in the period of a year, taught me both how to value my contributions, but also how to make more valuable contributions. She was one of what I grew to learn, was the backbone of IBM, professional managers.

My four women of tech, may at sometime or other, have been managers. That though wasn’t why I was inspired by them.

Susan Malika: Sue, I met Sue initially through the CICS Product group, when we were first looking at ways to interface a web server to the CICS Transaction Monitor. Sue and the team already had a prototype connector implemented as a CGI. Over the coming years, I was influenced by Sue in a number of fields, especially in data interchange and her work on XML. Sue is still active in tech.

Peggy Zagelow: I’d always been pretty dismissive of databases, apart from a brief period with SQL/DS; I’d always managed fine without one. Early on in the days of evangelizing Java, I was routed to the IBM Santa Teresa lab, on an ad hoc query from Peggy about using Java as a procedures language for DB2. Her enthusiasm, and dogma about the structured, relational database; as well as her ability to code eloquently in Assembler was an inspiration. We later wrote a paper together, still available online[here]. Peggy is also still active in the tech sector at IBM.

Donna Dillenberger: Sometime in 1999, Donna and the then President of the IBM Academy of Technology, Ian Brackenbury, came to the IBM Bedfont office to discuss some ideas I had on making the Java Virtual Machine viable on large scale mainframe servers. Donna, translated a group of unconnected ideas and concepts I sketched out on a white board, into the “Scalable JVM”. The evolution of the JVM was a key stepping stone in the IBM evolution of Java. I’m pleased to see Donna was appointed an IBM Fellow in 2015. The paper on the JVM is here.(1).

Gerry Hackett: Finally, but most importantly, Geraldine aka Gerry Hackett. Gerry and I  met when she was a first line development manager in the IBM Virtual Machine development laboratory in Endicott New York, sometime around 1985. While Gerry would normally fall in the category of management, she is most steadfastly still an amazing technologist. Some years later I had the [dubious] pleasure of “flipping slides” for her as Gerry presented IBM Strategy. Aside: “Todays generation will never understand the tension between a speaker and a slide turner.” Today, Gerry is a Vice President at Dell. She recruited me to work at Dell in 2009, and under her leadership the firmware and embedded management team have made steady progress, and implemented some great ideas. Gerry has been a longtime advocate for women in technology, a career mentor, and a fantastic roll model.

Importantly, what all these women demonstrated, by the “bucketload”, was quiet, technological confidence; the ability to see, deliver and celebrate great ideas and great people. They were quiet unlike their male peers, not in achievement, but in approach. This why we need more women in technology, not because they are women, but because technical companies, and their products will not be as good without them.

(1). Edited to link to correct Dillenberger et al paper.

Change is inevitable

There have been a number of actions at Dell in the last few days that have resulted in people leaving the company. One of my key team members left last Friday on a voluntary basis, when we discussed her request for voluntary separation, I told her I was disappointed but given her reasoning, I said I wouldn’t act to stop her. She’s going west…

Then yesterday the remainder of one of my former teams were let go through an involuntary program, a shift of business requirements, and technology changes. I’m disappointed to see him go, but since he was in a different division, I was pretty much powerless to do anything. I wouldn’t hesitate to hire him back if and when I can. Interestingly, one of my original Austin contacts, is back at Dell after being laid off a number of times.

There has been the usual “link-bait” style hysteria about the Dell layoffs, and today, they turned to IBM. Reading through the comments(I Know , I know), there are the usual “shock horror” comments. After reading the comments on IBM today, I decided it was worth posting in the hope to move the discussion on, really, you are surprised by these layoffs?

Here is the comment I posted [with only minor typographical corrections.]

It’s a massive challenge for the technology companies, just asserting it’s for this or that reason, looking for easy finger pointing to associate blame is just naive.We have to understand that all the former hardware behemoths are suffering from the innovators dilemma. As much as HP, IBM, Dell, Oracle et al. have been broadening their products and services, changing their business models, with differing degrees of success.

Unless y’all are prepared to pay the price for traditional hardware and software, and stop migrating to the “cloud”, these things are inevitable and you are part of the problem. Thats not blame, it’s fact, after all your business is also focused on EPS or expense/revenue ratio too.

IBM made a significant shift to being a software and services company almost 20-years ago, none of this should be unexpected. Shifting workloads, skills, people is hard enough much less in an economy where there are massive geographic shifts as whole continents stabilize,  and others shift in terms of how they consume and use technology, as well as their skills and employment practices.

Even simple things like the continued shift to home working has potential huge impact on employment trends, locations and skills.

If IBM, HP, Dell, Oracle were cities, governments etc. you might be right to hold them to a different standard. But I don’t see anyone voting Goverments out because they are paying too little tax?

It’s not simply about focusing on earnings per share. While there is an argument that for the whole western industrial economy that  the CEO, Executive pay has got out of proportion, it’s important to remember that at least IBM, HP, Oracle are still public companies. Unless you’ve been paying very close intention, their EPS and share price have more than likely a direct impact on you, even if you work for a competitor. They are both direct and indirect investment funds for pension funds, Government/Health/Insurance investments etc. If they all take a dive, you can be hurt anyway, even if you don’t work at those companies.

So lets stop pretending we are surprised this is happening. Understand that everyone in the “industry” from customers to design, R&D and the Execs are responsible for finding a ways to find new opportunities and help and support good employees both those where we are working, and also for those that have been, and are being let go. It’s also going to come over time to facebook, google et al eventually they won’t be able to buy and innovate their way into markets forever in just the same way the more traditional companies can now.

And yes, I’m an Executive at Dell.

HTML5 Demo code

For those of us that grew up using teletypes, in my case a 3215 IBM golfball typewriter, and later 3270 green on black IBM terminals, where GDDM and the IBM 3279 was a state of the art graphics terminal, the HTML5 demo app in the above tweet is indeed a reminder of how far computer graphics, and more importantly, the Internet has come.

If you start the link/demo, don’t just sit there, click! The irony is I don’t really know Andrew, I worked with his Dad on said IBM 327x terminals 😉

Moving to Dell Software Group

Yesterday was a big day for Dell Software Group under the direction of new Senior Vice President, John Swainson, as Dell announced the acquisition of Quest Software. And in other news, I’m moving from Enterprise Systems Group at Dell, to work for VP and CTO of Dell Software Group, Don Ferguson.

I previously worked with Don at IBM, we overlapped in a couple of roles, in my early work on the Java connector architecture, and later in IBMs corporate On Demand initiative. We also worked together in the IBM Academy of Technology and the Systems Group Advanced e-business Council. Another former IBM colleague also emailed me this morning to confirm he had resigned and would be coming to work with us. Exciting times.

More later.

Simplicity – It’s a confidence trick

My friend, foil and friendly adversary James Governor posted an blog entry today entitled “What if IBM Software Got Simple?

It’s an interesting and appealing topic. It was in some respects what got in our way last year, it was also what was behind the 1999 IBM Autonomic computing initiative, lets just make things that work. It’s simple to blame the architects and engineers for complexity, and James is bang-on when he says “When I have spoken to IBM Distinguished Engineers and senior managers in the past they have tended to believe that complexity could be abstracted”.

There are two things at play here, both apply equally to many companies, especially in the systems management space, but also in the established software marketplace. I’m sure James knows this, or at least had it explained. If not, let me have a go.

On Complexity

Yes, in the past software had to be complex. It was widely used and installed on hundreds of thousands of computers, often as much as ten years older than the current range of hardware. It was used by customers who had grown up over decades with specific needs, specific tools and specific ways of doing things. Software had to be upgraded pretty much non-disruptively, even at release and version boundaries you pretty much had to continue to support most if not all of the old interfaces, applications, internal data formats and API’s.

If you didn’t you had a revolt on your hands in your own customer base. I can cite a few outstanding examples of where the software provider misunderstood this and learn an important lesson both times, I would also go as far as far as to suggest, the product release marked the beginning of the end. VM/SP R5 where IBM introduced a new, non-compatible, non-customer lead UI; VM/XA Migration Aid, where IBM introduced a new, non-compatible CMS lightweight VM OS; and of course, from the X86 world, Microsoft Vista.

For those products a descision was taken at some point in the design to be non-compatible, drop old interfaces or deliberately break them to support the new function or architecture. This is one example where change brings complexity, the other is where you chose to remain compatible, and carry the old interfaces and API’s. This means that everything from the progamming interface, to the tools, compilers, debuggers etc. now has to support either two versions of the same thing, or one version that performs differently.

Either way, when asked to solve a problem introduced by these changes over a number of years, the only real option is to abstract. As I’ve said here many times, automating complexity doesn’t make things simple, it simply makes them more complex,.

On Simplicity

Simplicity is easy when you have nothing. Get two sticks, rub them together and you have a fire. It’s not so easy when you’ve spent 25-years designing and building a nuclear power station. What do I need to start a fire?

Simplicity is a confidence trick. Know your customers, know your market, ask for what it will take to satisfy both, and stick to this. The less confident your are about either, the more scope creep you’ll get, the less specific you’ll be about pretty much every phase of the architecture, the design and ultimately the product. In the cloud software business this is less of an issue, you don’t have releases per se. You roll out function and even if you are not in “google perpetual beta mode” you don’t really have customers on back releases of your product, and you are mostly not waiting for them to upgrade.

If you have a public API you have to protect and migrate that, but otherwise you take care of the customers data, and as you push out new function, they come with you. Since they don’t have to do anything, and for many of the web 2.0 sites we’ve all become used to, don’t have any choice or advance notice, it’s mostly no big deal. However, there is still a requirement that someone that has to know the customer, and know what they want. In the web 2.0 world that’s still the purview of a small cadre of top talent, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Williams, Page, Schmidt, Brin et al.

The same isn’t true for those old world companies, mine included. There are powerful groups and executives who have a vested interest in what and how products are designed, architected and delivered.  They know their customers, their markets and what it will takes to make them. This is how old school software was envisasaged, a legacy, a profit line, even a control point.

The alternative to complexity is to stop and either start over, or at least over multiple product cycles go back and take out all the complexity. This brings with-it a multi-year technical debt, and often a negative op-ex that ,most businesses and product managers are not prepared to carry. It’s simpler, easier and often quicker to acquire and abandon. In with the new, out with the old.

Happy New Year! I Need…


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'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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