Code Talks at IBM

Senior VP Steve Mills discusses the origins and future of the IBM Software Group.

Steve Mills
Although the IBM Software Group was officially announced on Jan. 10, 1995, it was actually put in place in 1993. Now, 10 years later, it is the leading software developer in the world. eWEEK Senior Writer Darryl K. Taft sat down with Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive of the IBM Software Group, to get his take on the groups origins and future—particularly given its latest acquisition of Rational Software Corp. The interview spanned two conversations, including one at the companys recent developerWorks Live! Conference in New Orleans.

Where did the idea for an IBM software group come from?

The idea of creating a true software business within IBM predates the creation of the Software Group. We began to build out our portfolio in the early 90s when Janet Perna went off to build the DB2 workstation offering in 1991. We delivered in 1993. We delivered products like MQ and what had been our VisualAge tool set in the 1992, 1993 time frame. So there were some activities that had taken place prior to the creation of the software group, which occurred in 1995.

I think one of the important things that occurred was that Lou Gerstner came into the company, and although not a technologist, it was fairly obvious to him that if you wanted to have a software business you were going to have to have a lot of specialization in the marketplace beyond your developers to be successful. It was sort of an applied technology. You just dont buy it and plug it in; youve got to put it to use. It requires skill and expertise to sell it and implement it. So there was a real need for field structure in support of a growing software business. And Lou saw the economic benefits of a growing software business, so he bought into the idea of having one. He pushed the sales leaders in the company to begin to build up a software sales capability in 1994. That didnt go very quickly. He then tapped John Thompson to help form the Software Group in 1995.

So in 1995 we then collected up the field sales structure and we made it a part of the software group and we built a sales team that the software group managed and created the sales plans and incentives and career paths and everything else for. That began in 1995. And today we have 14,000 people in customer-facing field jobs. And that includes the classical sales reps, the technical support specialists, the IT architects, telesales and 2,500 laboratory services people that are part of my organization doing implementation work. So its the largest direct customer-facing sales team in the world that is dedicated entirely to software. Continuously weve built out the portfolio through combinations of build from within as well as acquisitions that weve made. So its taken quite a long time. In the early days it was getting the foundation in place.

How do you think your message has resonated with developers?

The developers just dont show up, they come to you because they see the market is buying your products, that your products are becoming popular and that youre a market maker. The core runtime offerings—WebSphere, DB2, MQ, Notes—are critical to build a large base around. Then you attract developers to that base. Developers are attracted to something. The something is not a tool; its a business thing. They choose the tools that match the nature of the application youre trying to build and the application youre trying to build it for.

The popularity of Linux is helping us greatly. Linux is taking the place of Solaris as the popular operating system in universities.

What do you make of Microsoft backing off on its .Net naming and branding scheme?

Its kind of obvious that they came up with this sort of architecture brand name. You cant buy .Net. Its kind of an umbrella thought. And whenever you launch those kinds of things, youre stuck with making it mean something. Customers want to know, "What do I buy?" And I think they struggled with the problem of what to tell customers to buy. They were calling everything such and such .Net, like SQL Server .Net, Windows Server .Net, which has been changed. So I think they struggled with some brand imagery and concluded that it was getting in the way of clear communication about what the customer should buy today. You dont want to launch one of these architecture brand names and have people wait years to get the products that conform to the architecture. And Microsoft is still a long way away from delivering all of the .Net services that make up the .Net vision.