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On code, purpose, meaning and poetry at IBM Impact

These days IBM’s Impact Conference is as much about sales as education, but one of the things it sells is ideas, and ideas can change the world. The first and last main tent keynotes contained two of the best, most-inspiring speeches I have ever seen in any context. TED-class.
The two talks that really nailed it for me came from Doctor Jeffrey Burns of Boston’s Childrens Hospital and Grady Booch – IBM Fellow and inventor of UML. Both talks deserve their own posts – hopefully the videos will be posted soon and I can recommend you. just. watch. them.
Burns is leading a revolution in healthcare that could see infant mortality rates around the world plummet – with a tool inspired by IBM’s web site for the 2009 Masters in golf. We hear a lot in enterprise tech about “business-IT alignment” – Burns never used any of that kind of language, but he spoke beautifully and eloquently at the interstice of business and IT.
Booch meanwhile gave us a poetry lesson.

“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.”

His presentation continued in that vein, but made it clear that every software development decision has an ethical dimension. Beautiful, or even workable, code just isn’t enough. Development decisions in the small, can have a large impact on the world. The history of IBM in its 100 years, tells us a lot about capability vs responsibility. I for one, am grateful to see the firm committing to a long term, mature view of sustainable development. If only its customers were so inspired.

In terms of main tent presentations IBM was mostly pitching its business process management tooling again this year, having made recent acquisitions in that regard, most notably Lombardi, which are now integrated with the mothership. I don’t think there were any main tent coding demos. Redmonk is more about code than modeling and drag and drop configuration but that’s not to say we can’t see the value of both approaches – modeling can certainly help, for example, with maintainability of otherwise brittle interfaces. RedMonk though generally has a code and data, rather than process-centric, view of the world. For those looking for code introspection at Impact the real action is in the sessions rather than the main tent keynotes. The comparison with Microsoft MIX, also in Vegas last week, was stunning. Demo after demo after demo, live coding, forgotten syntax, remembered syntax, rapid fire fingers making the change and hitting f5. Subject of a different post but the new, somewhat more humble Microsoft is kind of charming. Developers, developers, developers.

But back to the world of models and scenario-based tech purchasing and deployment. And if you’re going to understand BPM it might as well be from someone righteous like Phil Gilbert, Vice President, Business Process Management for IBM Software Group. He was the CTO and President of Lombardi Software at the time of its acquisition. As impressive a tech leader as I have come across lately, he has a laser focus on user experience and design which is rare at IBM and he brings a much needed front end focus to the business of BPM . Too often enterprise software users are faced with crappy interfaces but Phil brings a welcome touch of consumer-like tech thinking to the party. BPM has to be user, rather than IT-centric, to be valuable.

Finally- something that struck me clearly at Impact when thinking about its expanding portfolio is that IBM now blue washing it’s own products. Bluewashing is the term that IBM uses to describe the process whereby it absorbs an acquisition, getting its products ready to market as an IBM product.
Mike Rhodin, Senior Vice President, IBM Software Solutions Group, explained to me over cocktails that the rules were pretty simple. If a product contains elements from more than one IBM brand then it’s a “solution” and as such will be branded as an IBM, rather than a “legacy brand” product.

So now we’re seeing IBM corporate bluewashing of products previously branded as Websphere, Lotus or DB2. This repackaging makes sense, but also may orphan some practioners. I look at Lotus renaming here.

When it comes to sales, and company purpose however, IBM has no problems of alignment. It even has a little poetry going on.

disclosure: IBM is a client and paid my T&E for the trip to Vegas. Microsoft is also a client

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