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IBM Bloggers, Who are we? – Bob Sutor

November 17, 2005


I am most privileged to be able to offer this blog interview of Bob Sutor. Bob was one of the first links I had when I set up my first RSS feed, still a neophyte to the blogosphere. He has graciously agreed to my interview series for which I am most grateful.

This is a very interesting read, with subjects ranging from guitar’s to calculus and polynomials. If you think that PhD’s aren’t witty, read the story about his son at the Gartner conference. Being a Trekkie, I’d like to teleport also.

I asked some questions with analyst’s and open standards in mind, and you will find the answers most revealing.

What is your job title (and what does that really mean as far as your job,)?
I’m the IBM VP for Standards and Open Source. Basically, this allows me to stick my nose into anything we’re doing on those topics. I work with my team to make sure that we have consistent management of these activities across all the business units in the company. I work closely with our intellectual property folks to ensure we are striking the right a balance between “open” and more traditional ways of doing things. Then I like to tell people about all this.

Some work experience that you want to tell?
I started work for IBM in 1982 when I was between my two stints in grad school. I spent 15 years in IBM Research working on “symbolic mathematical computation” (instead of thinking of a spreadsheet and what it does, think of a system that allows you to manipulate things like polynomials and matrices and do fancy calculus computations). My main job before working for IBM was a paper route. I was very involved in IBM’s early work on web servcies, particularly the standards bits and how we worked with other companies. Although I consider myself a technologist at heart, I spent almost two years as Director of Marketing for WebSphere.

Any hobbies or fun stuff you want to discuss?
After a 34 year hiatus, I started trying again to learn how to play the guitar last December. Progress is slow, but satisfying. I’m using it as an excuse to learn about music as well. I was always told that people who were good at mathematics were also good at music, but felt it didn’t apply to me. It still might not, but at least the evidence will be empirical rather than anecdotal. I do wish I had started a lot earlier.

How do you describe what you do in your work to your family and those who don’t work in our industry?
Last April I was on an Open Source panel at the Gartner conference in LA and I brought my (then) 7 year old son. He learned a fair bit about the ideas behind it but he really has no sense of, say, what enterprise software is. (He loves Firefox, by the way.) For people outside my immediate family, I tell them I help do things that make computer systems made by different people work together. By the way, the Gartner folks were really great to my son and gave him a badge with his name on it and the word “Companion” where the company name usually goes. He told me that when he grows up he is going to start a company called Companion so he can get into future conferences for free.

What are good things about your job?
I love the broad range of things I get to look at on an everyday basis. I also like working on things like the initiative we announced in October around use of our patents for healthcare and education standards. That is, when we get to do things that might change the direction of the industry, it’s really exciting.

What are things you would change?
Shorter, more efficient conference calls would be a good start. I like travelling and talking to customers, people in industry and government, but I wish that the actual travel time getting there and back wasn’t so consuming and tiring. I think often of Star Trek-like teleportation and wish we could have that today.

What are the biggest challenges at IBM?
Because of our size, there are so many things we do do and could possibly do. There is simply not enough time to do it all. Prioritization is therefore really important. I really value people who are good at that as well as being very efficient communicators. In the area in which I work, the world can change radically every six months. I also value people who accept if not thrive on that.

How did you get started as a blogger?
IBM developerWorks asked me to start a blog in August, 2004, when I was working in the WebSphere area on web services and SOA. I had written byliners for trades like CNet for a few years, so it was actually liberating to be able to say things on a more regular basis in more or fewer than 800 words. I also have a personal blog which is being sadly neglected, but I have big plans for it if I ever get some more free time.

How has that changed your job?
I’ve done probably 75% fewer press interviews but I get my views out more precisely and frequently. In addition to saying whatever I want to say to people outside IBM, I can also talk in a public way to people inside IBM via the blog. It gives me a chance to explain nuances of things to whomever might be interested. When I do meet new people in the industry or members of the media, I’ve often told that they’ve read my blog. That allows us to immediately jump in and discuss things at a deeper level without a lot of background explanation.

Since analysts read this, what would you like to say to them about Standards?
People need much more guidance on what the word “open” means. I think analysts need to start quantifying how open the various standards efforts are in areas like development, maintenance, accession, implementation, and ability to sub-or superset. That is, we need “openness report cards.” Not everyone will be on the honor role, but companies and governments are looking for this information today. As various people have said in business, it’s hard to change things if you can’t measure them.

What are you looking forward to in the upcoming years, either product or how you will work differently?
I’m looking for standards and open source to give me and other people a lot more options in how we get our work done.

Any thing else I missed you want to say?
I think it is really wonderful how something like the OASIS OpenDocument Format is breathing life into the office suite category of software. Standards and open source software themselves do not have to be immediately innovative in order to drive some really innovative and stimulating things downstream. In both of these areas, you must think of the work you do as being an investment in the future. If you take intelligent risks, you can reap big rewards. If you risk nothing or hang on to the status quo too long, others will move past you.

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