Technology Innovation in the New Era
NICHOLAS M. DONOFRIO
Armonk, New York
I’m delighted to join you, and I’m grateful to Bill Wulf for thinking that, after 35 years at IBM, I still have it in me to stand among such accomplished engineering leaders. Not only that, but for his confidence that I can communicate with you in a coherent way! Of course, that remains to be seen. I’m even more delighted that he’s asked me to impart some words of wisdom that may actually be helpful to you. I must admit, though, that I’m a little nervous about dispensing advice. As you know, Socrates did a lot of that, and they poisoned him! So, it’s a good thing that dinner came before the speech!
The aim of this symposium is something I’m passionate about—exposure to thinking and ideas from a range of technically driven disciplines. If I’m remembered for anything when my time at IBM is through, I hope it will be for my commitment to an integrated technical community that is multidisciplinary and multicultural. The days of operating in isolation are history, and the day of the interdisciplinary engineer is here. This will be a fundamental requirement from now on.
For those of you who don’t know me, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m a technologist at heart, an electrical engineer educated at Rensselaer and Syracuse. I actually did honest work at IBM once upon a time, designing circuits and chips for almost half of my career. Today, I am very fortunate to be leading IBM’s technical strategy, as well as a technical community of some 170,000 people worldwide.
I’ve seen some amazing things over the course of my career at IBM. I’ve seen an improvement of more than six orders of magnitude in fundamental information technologies—semiconductors, storage technologies, and communications technologies—in size, speed, density, capacity, and price/performance.
This industry continues to find a way to make things faster, better, less expensive, and more productive.
When I started at IBM in 1967, I was convinced that technology innovation had reached its pinnacle. What could be more state-of-the-art than the vacuum tube? How could you ever improve on the 80-column punch card as the userfriendly input device? What could be more advanced than storing five megabytes of data by stacking 50 24-inch discs on top of each other? And what could possibly replace the thousands of tiny ceramic ferrite cores that were strung together to form a computer’s memory?
That was the way it was back then. That was the state of the art. Most people today—in fact, most engineers today—don’t even know what I’m talking about when I reminisce about those things. But ever since its birth, the information technology industry has been all about change, neverending change. And the changes I’ve seen—even helped create in some cases—have been mind boggling. I submit that if there’s any value to you in my being here tonight, that would be it. I’ve seen it all, I’ve worked through it all, I’ve managed through it all, I’ve led a number of teams who’ve done it all, and, if nothing else, I have a point of view!
The question I keep asking myself is this. Where have all of the incredible advancements and progress this industry has made gotten us? Are we on the right track? Especially as new business and computing models continue to evolve? In some ways, I think yes. In other ways, I’m convinced that those of us who create technologies for the IT industry need to rethink some assumptions.
Despite our advancements, the core of what we do is still called “computing,” and the basic approach hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. The processor takes input, performs mathematical functions, uses some memory and logic, and produces some form of output. Certainly, we’ve added storage to the mix, we can display output much more graphically, and we’ve sped up or increased the capacity of the fundamental components of the centralized computing machine. But the approach misses the boat in two big ways. First, it ignores the real needs of the users of IT who need IT for more than just “computing.” And second, it doesn’t take advantage of the amazing implications of today’s enabling technologies.
Information technology is supposed to be the great enabler helping us tackle scientific problems, run businesses, automate processes and enable the collection, spread, and creation of knowledge and unprecedented collaboration and teamwork. In many ways, IT is the great enabler, and it will continue to be. At the same time, we are suffering from information glut, outages and reboots, system administration nightmares, security issues, privacy issues. So-called natural interfaces and natural-language queries are not natural at all. And, IT requires far too much human intervention, management, and maintenance. Our world needs exactly the opposite. The industry is working hard—and I know
IBM is committed—to developing an autonomic computing approach. We’ll get there someday—but not without your help, regardless of your discipline.
What do I see as your crucial challenges and opportunities? And what wisdom can I impart to help you along the way? Here are a few suggestions.
First, information overload. The fact is, we’re all drowning in data, and much of it will continue to be unstructured in the form of databases, web pages, images, audio files, and the like. Unstructured information is useless from a real knowledge perspective. To create knowledge, information has to be managed, sifted, mined, and interpreted. The evolution, and eventual marriage, of the Internet and IT demand that this potential source of knowledge be tapped. We need your thinking, your talent, your intelligence to help us find ingenious ways of mining and personalizing data so it comes to the requester in a usable form. As engineering leaders, you must be at the forefront of new innovations. Success will require collaboration and teamwork across the computer sciences.
Third, the Moore’s Law challenge. You will face many of these challenges before your careers are over! Are you thinking about what’s next? You should. But I’m an optimist. I’m not worried about what lies beyond silicon because I’m convinced we’ve just begun a new 30-year period of rapid transformation. Engineers and researchers always have, and always will, come up with fascinating substitutions.
Fourth, computer modeling and simulation. Engineering today is a broad discipline with ill-defined boundaries. Traditional disciplines are being complemented by new ones, such as mathematical engineering, people skilled in mathematical techniques who use them the way engineers use a set of tools, not to prove a theory, but as techniques to achieve big results. We can now run a broad set of specifications and a broad range of scenarios to improve the design of just about anything. We can model things far more precisely than ever before, and thus meet the challenges of multiple-scale phenomena. Simulations of all kinds can now eliminate any assumptions and lead to incredible results. The tools available today will soon become standard tools for engineers. I urge you to get on board.
Finally, the next generation of engineers. You probably know this better than anyone else, but there won’t be one without your help. The apathy, even
antipathy, of young students toward science and engineering is alarming. Despite vast opportunities, our pipeline of engineers, scientists, and technically driven people is drying up. And the problem among young women and underrepresented minorities is acute.
How can we fill the pipeline? First, we must make a commitment to diversity, to tapping into underserved, underused, highly talented segments of our population. Diversity of thought is as important to the future of technical professions as diversity of composition.
Second, our nation needs role models, and our young people need mentors. No one is better qualified for that role than you. This issue must be taken personally. I urge you to inject yourselves into elementary and middle schools whenever you can to help young people become aware of the rewards of engineering and technology, to understand their options. More of us need to be involved in organizations like National Engineers Week and NACME (National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering). Like many of you, I firmly believe that engineers and scientists are the real wealth-generators of our world society. Everyone else lives off of what engineers produce!
Each of you is a leader, and the world looks to you for guidance and direction. As you assume and develop your mantle of leadership, I offer you some words of advice. At least I can tell you what has worked for me and the people I lead. First, expand your horizons. Being talented is not enough for true success or personal fulfillment. You must also be involved in outside endeavors and make contributions to enrich society. And be recognized for your contributions; communicate your innovations.
Next, take careful inventory of your skills. Build on your strengths, and work on your weaknesses. Make a difference! Third, embrace change. You must change as technology changes. During your careers, base technology will change by a factor of 10 million, and what you learn today will be irrelevant before you retire. A mentor of mine once told me that in the future people will be valued less for what they know than for their ability to deal with what they don’t know. Be flexible. Learn to lead, and learn to follow. Lots of people will depend on your ability to rise to any challenge. Being a team player is essential. It is far better to be a member of a championship team than to stand in the winner’s circle alone.
Finally, keep your senses. Keep your sense of history, who you are, where you came from, what you believe. Be proud of those things, and be proud of your achievements. Keep your sense of balance between work and family, school and life; these are tough juggling acts. And only you can strike the right balance. Keep your sense of humor. This is our best tiebreaker, the ultimate sanity check, the only thing that separates us from other mammals.