Q&A: IBM Visionary Retires, Part II

In Part II of a two-part interview, Irving Wladawsky-Berger speaks with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft to share his thoughts on his career, the future of the industry and other issues including healthcare, energy and the war on terror.

In Part II of a two-part interview, Irving Wladawsky-Berger speaks with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft to share his thoughts on his career, the future of the industry and other issues including healthcare, energy and the war on terror.

Along the way, what do you think has been the biggest obstacle that you or IBM has had to overcome?

In IBM innovating in a complex business is really difficult. A complex business has a lot of inertia. And its particularly difficult when youve been doing very well. When youve been doing very well, people say why change? Its a pain in the ass to change.

Thats the reason IBM got into so much trouble in the late 80s and early 90s. Wed had such a fabulous run with the then mainframe systems, why change a good thing? The answer, and this is a huge lesson weve taken to heart, is it doesnt matter whether you want to change or not. If the marketplace changes, you better go along with the marketplace. And you better adapt to the realities of the new marketplace, otherwise youre in trouble.

IBM now has much more embraced the lessons. But how do you mobilize a company with [more than] 300,000 people? And every quarter you have to make your numbers. And if you dont make your numbers, woe is you. So not only do you have to innovate by looking into the future, but you have to innovate while at the same time making your numbers.

And remember, a lot of the new ideas in the future arent going to help you in the present. Its more likely that investment in new technology for the future will take away from things youre doing in the present.

So this balancing act of being very good operationally and making your numbers and also looking at the future and doing so in a large distributed company like IBM is a hell of a contact sport. And youre doing that while you have all these other people coming at you trying to kill you.

Im convinced that its very difficult to just stay alive. One of the things that Im fascinated about when I look at my career is the number of companies that used to be here that are gone. From Digital to Compaq to Cray to Wang. One after another after another. Its so easy if youre a business to get into serious trouble.

I view it as like playing in the Major Leagues. And to play in the Major Leagues you better work out, you better have your regime and you better take care of yourself.

Are there any technologies or ideas of yours that you were keen on but that didnt pan out?

Sure. In research especially toward 83-84 we had really good ideas for building a multi-tasking PC operating system based on DOS. And we could never convince IBM to embrace that. We did prototypes, we had it working, it was totally DOS compatible, and it was a multi-tasking operating system. And I always have wondered how the PC world would have gone and our encounters with Microsoft and Windows versus OS/2, if we had been successful with this PC multi-tasking operating system. So I always wonder about that.

Im sure thereve been a number of other things that didnt quite pan out the way I wish they had.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read the first part of this interview.

There are two items Ive seen you blog about or youve been vocal about: healthcare IT and green IT. Can you share your thoughts about these issues?

Green I havent done quite as much. Ive done more about energy.

But I think of healthcare in two different ways. One of them is the incredible advances in information-based medicine and personalized medicine, which is really primarily based on IT such as the use of genomics to better understand for each particular person, based on their particular symptoms, what is the most likely cause of those symptoms for that person because today we do it more on the average. But we know theres a very strong correlation with genomics. Depending on your genes you have more predispositions to certain illnesses than others. And depending on your genes, some prescription drugs will do better than others. So there is a whole revolution coming on very personalized medicine based on that.

And also on being able to analyze a lot more information such as with MRIs and being able to attack things like psychiatric problems we barely understand today like autism and Alzheimers and bipolar disorders, by really better understanding the structure of the brain through this incredibly sophisticated analysis.

So thats one set of information-based medicine that has this incredible promise. But the other part of healthcare is the engineering systems side of things, which is to make everything work well as a system and apply six sigma kinds of quality and lean production kinds of quality.

Compared to most private sector businesses, healthcare is in the middle ages in its use of the kinds of well-established systems practices that people take for granted in most other businesses.

Like decreasing the error rate in giving prescriptions to patients in the hospital – something that simple. There are techniques for scanning the vials with the medicines that are similar to techniques used in manufacturing to make sure you put the right part in the right piece of equipment. Thats barely been introduced in hospitals. So healthcare has this incredible need and the potential to apply well-understood techniques that have worked elsewhere. Of course one of its problems is its so fragmented. It has so many constituents and different people want to do different things.

In energy there are a lot of interesting questions about things like biofuels. How do we find the genomics of plants that would grow very fast, produce alcohol very quickly and produce very little carbon?

Remember, what we use today to produce biofuels are plants that were grown for food to taste good. The probability that something you grew to taste good is going to also give you the best fuels is very low.

But you can imagine plants you would never go near to eat them, but that are just perfect for this. And that requires research. Thats just one example of some of the things we can do. Like simulating nuclear reactors so we can build them much safer. There are a lot of projects around energy such as building far more efficient engines for cars to decrease the use of gasoline. There are lots of interesting possibilities here.

What would you say is or could be the next big thing in computing?

The two that Im most excited about personally right now is this whole issue of bringing together technology and business more, and applying more systems and engineering principles to the world of business.

And then the continuing evolution of the Internet into a platform thats much more collaborative, intelligent and visual. I think those are two potentially huge things because of their potential impact on business and society. That includes Web 2.0 and virtual worlds and semantics to make the Internet an even better overall platform for all kinds of new things.

What do you think the impact of open source has been?

I think its been wonderful. I think that were all realizing that there is a certain layer of the infrastructure where having everybody have access to the same protocols is more important than having anyone be the best. Apache has played a key role there. XML protocols, ODF for the open document format. Theres a whole layer that should be open-sourced so that everybody has the identical things so that it facilitates operations and there is still tremendous opportunity to innovate on top of it with proprietary technologies.

I think industries and business needs to develop more and more standard protocols that are available to everybody that lets them interoperate at the business level.

What will you be doing after you retire?

Well, Ill stay involved with IBM at least part time, doing whatever makes sense. Ive been involved with universities and Ill be doing more. Im planning to teach at MIT this fall. And Ill see what else comes along.

So in IBM youll be pretty much doing what have been, but just part time?

Yes, thats my expectation. Ill play a similar role part time.

What do you mean by the long cultural war? Thats something youve talked about.

I attended this meeting of an organization called the Highlands Forum that was sponsored by the Department of Defense. And we talked a lot about the fact that if you look at conflicts, most of the conflicts that the armed forces have focused on have been between nations. Even when you had conflicts that were more symmetric, like guerillas and like Vietnam, it was a conflict with the Vietnamese not wanting us there and once we left we left and we didnt hear from them. There were conflicts with a concrete purpose.

We seem to be entering this era where the conflicts are with enemies that are unseen. You dont even know where they are. Theyve integrated into the civilian population. There is no nation, there is no army or forces like the South Vietnamese or other liberation forces in Africa or Latin America. There is none of that. You cannot identify these forces. They are integrated. And what theyre objecting to is a culture. Its like the way they see the world versus the way we see the world.

So its not enough to say that if we go away it is over. People have called that the war on terror, but I found that the long war, which is what DOD has been calling this, a much better name.

The reason I call it a long soft war is that in a war like that if somebody says you need an F-16, what the heck am I going to do with an F-16 when you dont even know where the enemy is and theyre integrated into the civilian population?

So I was taken with this Highlands Forum because we need to think in a very systematic way what you do in such a long war. I think in a war like that, sometimes you say if you are not absolutely with me youre my enemy. I think in a war like this you dont want to do that at all. In a war like this, you want to say if you have the potential to even like me a little bit I want you in the tent. You have to take a very catholic, with lower-case C, approach. You have to take a very open tent approach, because you want as many people around the world to be good guys. And if you want to attract good guys, you dont want to go around saying youre a bad guy. You want to start out by trying to view everybody as a potential good guy and then try to understand how to make them even better. There are always going to be really bad guys, but youd like them as isolated as possible as opposed to you taking actions that make it easier for them to come in.

And a lot of the principles that weve had for the Web of being open, of sharing information, of collaboration – maybe we want to do more of that. In a war like this, the satellites can only tell you so much. You want the people where the bad guys are hiding to realize its in their best interest to be your friend as opposed to the bad guys friend. You want intelligence from them.

So thats when I started thinking this is a big challenge. But we have to be out there in a very community-like way to the world. We need the humility to say that no matter how many F-whatevers that we have, we cannot win this long war by ourselves. I think a war like that is a war of who has more friends. And you want to attract people to your side.

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