Friday, November 29, 2013

Let's Build a Smarter Planet - Part II

This is the second part of the transcript of a lecture I recently gave at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
In Part I of this set of four posts I tried to give you a flavour of what IBM is and what it is trying to do to make our planet smarter. So I hear you ask, what do you actually do towards this effort? Well I’ll tell you what my job entails but first here's an apocryphal tale.

During my last year at this university (1979) I took a module in astrophysics. One day I was sitting with my tutor and he somewhat randomly asked me how much data I thought the world would ever need? Bear in mind that at this time the web, in the form that Tim Berners-Lee envisioned it, was still a good ten years away and Facebook, Twitter etc even further off than that. Rather randomly I thought that probably the most data you would expect to store would be the personal details about every person on the planet (so basic personal details plus financial details etc) and maybe the same again for companies, government departments and other institutions. Say 100 KB of data per person and 1 GB per institution.

So, by my reckoning assuming there were around about 5 billion people on the planet back in 1980 and 1 billion institutions that would equate to 1 billion x 1 GB plus 5 billion x 100 KB or 1.5 TB of storage and that would have been all we needed, ever!! How wrong can you be*?

Now, incredibly we create 2.5 quintillion (that's '1' followed by 18 zeroes) bytes of data every day. That’s 170 million times more data created every day than I thought would ever be needed back in 1980! There can be no doubt we live in a world that is awash with data.
Some commentators have said that data is the new oil and there to be exploited and commercialised in an endless number of ways. How do we make sense of this sea of data?

So why am I telling you all of this and what has it got to do with what I do? Here’s what I believe, as Nancy Duarte the American writer and entrepreneur says:  
“Technology is meaningless until you understand how humans use it and benefit from it.”
My mistake back in 1980 was not understanding how humans would embrace technology over the coming decades and use it in ways then completely unimaginable. I was only thinking in terms of my 1980's 'box' where data was largely text based and restricted to what computers were then doing with information, not what they could do with it.
And that’s the key thing about the role of a software architect, at least in IBM. It’s about helping people understand technology and help them use it in new and interesting ways that is beneficial to them, and hopefully the planet. It’s about how to connect people with information.

Here’s the formal definition of an architect from the Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers.
"[An architect is] the person, team or organisation responsible for systems architecture."
 No offence to them but pretty boring and unclear I’d say.

Here’s what Rob Daly thinks an architect is.
"ar-chi-tect  \är-ke-,tekt\  n. One who believes that conception comes before erection."
He is of course right. One of the things an architect needs to ensure is that you don’t rush to the wrong decision about how to build something. A great many projects have failed because they have been ill-conceived or planned. These can have disastrous consequences as seems to be the case with President Obamas new healthcare insurance web site.

So what do architects really do? A couple of years ago myself and a colleague from IBM wrote a book on this very subject and here is a list of the capabilities we believe architects need.
  • The architect is a technical leader: As well as having technical skills, the architect exhibits leadership qualities. Leadership can be characterized in terms of both position in the organization, and also in terms of the qualities that the architect exhibits.
  • The architect role may be fulfilled by a team: There is a difference between a role and a person. One person may fulfill many roles. Given the requirement for a very broad set of skills in an architect, it is often the case that the architect role is fulfilled by more than one person.
    The architect understands the software development process: Most architects will have been a developer at some point and should have a good appreciation of the need to define and endorse best practices used on the project. More specifically, the architect should have an appreciation of the software development process, since it is this process that ensures that all of the members of the team work in a coordinated manner.
  • The architect has knowledge of the business domain: As well as having a grasp of software development, it is also highly desirable (some would say essential) for the architect to have an understanding of the business domain so that they can act as an intermediary between stakeholders and users who understand the business, and the development team who may be more familiar with technology.
  • The architect has technology knowledge: Certain aspects of architecting clearly require a knowledge of technology and an architect should therefore have a certain level of technology skills. However, they do not need to be technology experts as such and need only be concerned with the significant elements of a technology, and not the detail.
  • The architect has design skills: Although architecting is not confined solely to design (as we have seen, the architect is also involved in requirements tasks, for example), it is clearly the core aspect of architecting. The architecture embodies key design decisions, so the architect should possess strong design skills.
  • The architect has programming skills: The developers on the project represent one of the most important groups that the architect must interact with. After all, it is their work products that ultimately deliver the working executable software. The communication between the architect and the developers can only be effective if the architect is appreciative of the developers’ work. Therefore, the architect should have a certain level of programming skills, even if they do not necessarily write code on the project, and those skills need to be kept up to date with the technologies being used.
    The architect is a good communicator: Of all of the “soft skills” associated with the architect, communication is the most important. There are a number of dimensions to effective communication, and the architect needs to be proficient in all of them. Specifically, the architect should have effective verbal, written and presentation skills. Also, the communication should be two-way. The architect should be a good listener and observer also.
  • The architect makes decisions: An architect that is unable to make decisions in an environment where much is unknown, where there is insufficient time to explore all alternatives, and where there is pressure to deliver, is unlikely to survive. Unfortunately, such environments are often the norm rather than the exception, and successful architects acknowledge the situation, rather than trying to change it. Even though the architect may consult others when making decisions and foster an environment where others are included in the decision-making, it is still their responsibility to make the appropriate decisions and these are not always proven to be right. 
  • The architect is aware of organizational politics: Successful architects are not only concerned with technology. They are also politically astute, and are conscious of where the power in an organization resides. This knowledge is used to ensure that the right people are communicated with, and that support for their project is aired in the right circles. To ignore organizational politics is, quite simply, naïve.
    The architect is a negotiator: Given the many dimensions of architecting, the architect interacts with many stakeholders. Some of these interactions require negotiation skills. For example, a particular focus for the architect is to minimize risk as early as possible in the project, since this has a direct correspondence to the time it takes to stabilize the architecture. 
One of the things I think you’ll notice from this list is that actually very few of them are to do with technology. Sure, you need to understand and keep up with technology but you also need these other attributes as well.

*As an interesting aside the cost of 1GB of storage in 1980 was $193,000, it's now around $0.05.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Let's Build a Smarter Planet - Part I

This is the abridged transcript of a talk I gave at the University of Birmingham earlier this month. The talk was aimed at graduates and tried to explain why working at a company like IBM is about more than just IT. Even though it's abridged, with imbedded videos and graphics it's still pretty long so I've split it into four parts corresponding to the sections of the talk which were:
  1. What is IBM (and why is it building a smarter planet)?
  2. What do I do at IBM?
  3. What might you do at IBM?
  4. Why does IBM need people like you?
Here's Part I.

Hello everyone, my name is Peter Cripps. I work for IBM as a software architect and I’m here today to talk to you about how IBM is building a smarter planet, the role we play as IBM’ers in doing that and what opportunities there are for people like you to become involved.

Before we get going let me ask you a few questions:
  • Who’s used any IBM software in the last week?
  • How about this year?
  • How about ever?
<No one puts their hand up for any of these questions>
Okay, that’s sort of what I expected the answer would be. I ask this question a lot when I speak to people like you and I always get a similar response. So why is it I wonder that a company like IBM, actually the fifth largest information technology company by revenue in 2012, ahead of Microsoft, Google and Dell and the second largest software company in the world, one behind Microsoft, makes products that no one thinks they use?

Well, let me tell you; I can almost guarantee that most, if not all of you, will have used some IBM software over the past month or so. If you have drawn money out from a bank, browsed and bought something from an internet store, bought a plane ticket or interacted with one of the many government departments which are now online you have unknowingly used some IBM software.

IBM software might not be the sexy stuff you use on you mobile phone or laptop (though we do some of that as well) but is actually part of the infrastructure of many of the worlds IT systems. It’s like the plumbing in your house, you don’t necessarily see it but you surely would miss it if it wasn’t there.
So, by the end of this talk, I hope you’ll understand a bit more about what IBM does and that I will have piqued your interest a little to maybe consider IBM when you are looking for a job. One area I’d particularly like to explore is how IBM has a “mission” to build a smarter planet.

So, let’s start with this...

Now, I don’t know if, while you were watching that video, you were reminded of the film Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the short story by Philip K Dick written in 1956?

The film's central theme is the question of free will versus determinism. It examines whether free will can exist if the future is set and known in advance. Other themes include the role of preventive government in protecting its citizenry, the role of media in a future state where electronic advancements make its presence nearly boundless.
There can be little doubt that computers, and more specifically software, is now so intertwined in our lives our planet could not exist in its present form without it. Here's a nice quote from Grady Booch, Chief Scientist and IBM Fellow, which I really like:
“Software is the invisible thread and hardware is the loom on which computing weaves its fabric, a fabric that we have now draped across all of life.”
This of course is for better or worse which is the fourth theme I’d like to cover with you today because I believe it’s an incredibly important one which will probably affect you more than me as you go through your working life.

I’d like to start by talking about what we mean by a smarter planet and how IBM is going about building one. First of all though let me give you a potted history of IBM just so you have a bit of background about how it has got to where it is today and why building a smarter planet is so important to it.

In 1911 the American entrepreneur Charles Flint who had interests in a number of companies including ship building, munitions and weighing machines bought out Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company and merged several of his companies together to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, or C-T-R, headquartered in New York. By 1914 the company was struggling so Flint hired Thomas Watson Sr (remember that name, it will turn up again a little later) to run the company. Over the following decade, Watson forged the disparate pieces of C-T-R into a unified company with a strong culture. He focused resources on the tabulating machine business, foreseeing that information technology had an ever-expanding future and literally creating the information industry. Watson also began expanding overseas—beyond the UK, Canada and Germany where its products were already sold—taking tiny C-T-R global. By 1924, he renamed C-T-R with the more expansive name of International Business Machines or IBM.

Fast forward to 2011, IBM’s 100th birthday and it is now a $100 billion turnover company with over 400,000 employees worldwide operating in over 170 countries. Today IBM UK has around 20,000 employees, bringing innovative solutions to a diverse client base to help solve some of their toughest business challenges.

In order to provide such innovation to its clients it invests a huge amount in research and development, $75 billion since the turn of the century. Notice that is ‘R’ and ‘D’, not just ‘D’ which is what many companies ascribe to this term. IBM has 12 research labs around the world including a smarter cities lab in Dublin, Ireland. 

Although IBM is currently the second largest software company in the world software actually makes up less than half of IBM’s revenue. Computer hardware, strangely enough what many people still think IBM as being all about, actually accounts for less than one sixth of IBM’s revenue. Services, a business that IBM didn’t even have when I joined the company in 1987, takes the second largest share!

As further proof of the way IBM seeks to drive innovation in the industry here’s another interesting statistic. It took IBM 53 years to receive it’s first 5000 US patents. It now regularly exceeds that number every year. The way it does that is through the innovation and creativity of its people.

Here are a few of the people you may have heard of and the innovations they introduced.
The above were all recipients of the Turing Prize (along with three other IBM’ers). In addition physicists Gerd K. Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer were awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) which was invented 1981. The invention permitted scientists to obtain previously unseen images of silicon, nickel, oxygen, carbon and other atoms. Shown here is IBM etched in single carbon atoms using the STM.

This is just one of five Nobel prizes IBM has been awarded. IBM Research has grown from a small lab on the campus of a major university to the largest industrial research organisation in the world. A global body of 3000 scientists now collaborates with academics in universities around the globe, at the boundaries of information technology.

Some of IBM’s achievements extend beyond it’s own boundaries. Here are two notable people who have built their own global enterprises based on ideas or innovations from within IBM.

After negotiations with Digital Research failed, IBM awarded a contract to Bill Gates fledgling Microsoft in November 1980 to provide a version of the CP/M OS, which was set to be used in the upcoming IBM Personal Computer (IBM PC).

Larry Ellison founded Oracle in 1977 on the back of the pioneering work done on relational databases by Ted Codd of IBM.

So, that’s a little bit about IBM the company what about the smarter planet it’s trying to build?

This is the famous picture of earth rising above the moons horizon taken in 1968 by the Apollo 10 astronauts on the last test mission to the moon before the first moon landing 7 months later. Imagine how frustrating that was, to have got so close but not to have actually set foot on the moon?

By the way, whilst talking about the moon and Apollo did you know that IBM was instrumental in getting a man to the moon? Not only in making the computers for the mission control engineers on the ground but also some of the on-board avionics hardware and software as well. But I digress, back to a smarter planet.

When considering what we mean by a smarter planet we talk about it in terms of the so called “three I’s”:
  • Instrumented: We have the ability to measure, sense and see the exact condition of everything. We now have computers and smart sensors pretty much everywhere. Its estimated there are 800 quintillion transistors on the planet (which is around 100 billion for every person alive).
  • Interconnected: People, systems and objects can communicate and interact with each other in entirely new ways.
  • Intelligent: We can respond to changes quickly and accurately, and get better results by predicting and optimizing for future events.

So how does this work in practice? Here’s an example from the field of healthcare. New born babies, some born before 26 weeks, are tethered to a host of medical devices that continuously measure heart rate, respiration and other vitals – that generate minute-by-minute readings of their fragile condition.  Data is coming out of those machines at a rate of a thousand readings per second and yet nurses typically take a single reading every 30 or 60 minutes! Not only that but the data is rarely stored for more than 24 hours meaning that insights into early detection of conditions like sepsis cannot be done. In 2009 IBM instigated a first of a kind (FOAK) system called ‘Artemis’ that  is capable of processing 1256 readings a second it currently receives per patient, and has the potential to provide real-time analysis to help clinicians to predict more quickly potential adverse changes in an infant’s condition.

Here’s another example of a great innovation from IBM which we are just beginning to exploit in new and powerful ways.

IBM’s computer, code-named “Watson” (remember him) leverages leading-edge Question-Answering technology, allowing the computer to process and understand natural language. It incorporates massively parallel analytical capabilities to emulate the human mind’s ability to understand the actual meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant content, and ultimately, demonstrate confidence to deliver precise final answers. In February of 2011, Watson made history by not only being the first computer to compete against humans on the US television quiz show, Jeopardy!, but by achieving a landslide win over prior champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The questions on this show are full of subtlety, puns and wordplay—the sorts of things that delight humans but choke computers. “What is The Black Death of a Salesman?” is the correct response to the Jeopardy! clue, “Colorful fourteenth century plague that became a hit play by Arthur Miller.”

So what is so clever about a computer winning a quiz show...?
We’re only just at the beginning of what we can do with exploiting all of the data that we are creating. A smarter planet is one that makes sense of all this data to improve all of our lives.