Archive for the 'life' Category

(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.

Operational Transparency

I’ve had a couple of emails and facebook comments that asked, or at least inferred, was this a real email? Yes, it was. I do get questions like these from time to time, it’s unusual to get all them all in a single email. The final question in the email from my colleague was:

 How important do you think operational transparency is?

My response was again curt and to the point. I think. without context for the question, this was the best I can do.

Very. There are time when it is OK to be opaque there is never a time to be deceptive. Your manager should never tell you he/she will work on a promotion for you when they know they have no ability to deliver it. They should never tell you your position is solid, when they know it isn’t.

Austin Business Journal posted an article with a quote from a University of Texas (UT) expert on recent staff actions at Dell. I wrote a response/comment which I think nicely bookends this series of posts. Thanks for all the positive feedback.

Dealing with difficult people

Question 3. in the email, and my answer, is really why I ended up writing this short series of blog posts. Having read back what I’d written, I realized that that after a couple of good answers, I’d been pretty superficial with my 3rd. The question posed was:

How do you go about dealing with difficult people and company politics?

My response was:

See my answer to 1. And 2. above. Got a family? It’s not different. If you shout at kids, yours, nieces, nephews, how productive is that really? Sometimes you can bully people to change, it is almost always better to show them a better way.

This is indeed over simplistic, without context. Of course, it’s what you should do. The more you get embroiled in office politics, the more it is likely to distract you from your real value, being great at what you do. If being great at what you do is being difficult and company politics, well good luck with that, we all know people that have to some degree “made it” because they’ve been good at using system, for everyone of those though, there are 5 who made it because they are good at what they do.

Failing organizations and companies are ripe with people trying to control the system to their advantage; trying to cheat or deceive on their contributions, but my experience has always been that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Again, Nigel covers in the 3 Minute Mentor a goodr case where company politics come into play, where teams, departments are pitted against themselves, either deliberately or inadvertently, it’s worth watching or reading his show notes.

Still, I fall back on be good, have fun, do what you love and leave the politics to others.

Career goals and aspirations

Following on from yesterdays post, the 2nd question that came up in the email was:

What is the most effective way to build and achieve career goals?

Before I get to my answer, I’d like put in a plug for the 3 Minute Mentor website created, run and produced by long time friend, ex-colleague and fellow Brit’ ex-pat Nigel Dessau. Nigel and I worked together as far back as 1991, and he has produced a fine set of short, topic based video advice guides. I don’t agree with all of them, but they are a fantastic resource.

The very first 3 Minute Mentor episode was in fact, “How should I plan a career?” – My take of careers has been long documented in my now 15-year old, “Ways to measure progress” presentation, available in it’s original format on slideshare.net or in the 2012 format Technical and Professional careers I delivered at Texas A&M.

My approach has always been to set a long term goal, and then judge changes and opportunities against that goal. My email answer makes sense in that context.

This is a long term objective. As per the presentation(see above), you need to evaluate each and every job and assignment against a long term objective, depending on what you are aiming for long term, you may or may not decide to take a short term job. For example, I took an assignment in New York as a stepping stone to get here in Austin. I’d worked in NY before had had no desire to go back. However, equally it wasn’t clear how I would get assigned to Austin, so I took the NY job and worked on connections here[Austin] to create the opportunity to move to Austin

Next up, “How do you go about dealing with difficult people and company politics?”

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.

Good at PowerPoint?

Customer service – You’ve been Zappos’d

When I first ordered from Zappos.com and they screwed up with the packaging, craming a $200+ dollar jacket in a shoe box, so much so I had to have it professionally steamed to get the creases out, I was prepared to forgive them. After another order they put me on their VIP list, free shipping both ways[read shipping included in the price, since they are anything but cheap.] Zappos is an Amazon.com business.

My 3rd order was for some shoes, I ordered a 12, they shipped an 8. I returned them free, instead of a refund, I got a credit note. I’d have happily accepted the right size, but they didn’t have them. I did do at least one more order, but have backed off recently.

Then late last week I got an email telling me they’d been hacked, some of my data and my password had been compromised, they’d reset my password and I should logon and change it. So I tried. Their system responded “”We are so sorry, we are currently not accepting international traffic. If you have any questions please email us at help@zappos.com”.

Here is my summary email sent back to them today. What’s clear is that their customer service, average under normal circumstances, is less than what I’d expect, VIP or not.

“No wonder you got hacked. Let recap, please read carefully…

1. You got hacked
2. You write to me telling me to change my password
3. Your system won’t let me change my password because I’m overseas attending my father’s funeral.
4. I ask you to remove my account and ALL my data
5. You write back telling me to change my password
6. I write back telling you that wasn’t what I asked, and to delete my account and remove all my data
7. You write back telling me to deactivate my own account
8. I can’t. See #3
9. I write this email back pointing out how useless you are.”


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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