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IBM developerWorks: An Interview w/ GM Jim Corgel

While at IBM’s annual analyst event in Stamford last month, I had the opportunity sit down with IBM’s Jim Corgel, whose title – general manager, ISV and Developer Relations – means that he has responsibility for the developerWorks property. As Wikipedia can tell you if you’re unfamiliar with the property, developerWorks is IBM’s web based developer resource. As it was launched in 1999, 2009 marks the site’s 10th birthday.

In the interview, Jim and I chat about a range of topics both specific to developerWorks and general trends. A couple of points in the discussion; Jim talks about the mission of developerWorks (:30), what’s changed over the 10 years (5:35), while I talk about where things are going in the industry (8:25), what social networking will look like (11:40), the emerging markets (13:35), and self-taught programming (15:15).

To expand on the above, a quick Q&A.

Q: Anything to disclose?
A: Yes indeed. IBM is a customer and sponsored the above interview, and they comped my hotel at the event in question.

Q: What’s developerWorks?
A: Well, it’s a bit unique. It’s long been a content and download rich site oriented towards, well, developers and in recent months they’ve begun adding in social networking elements. While the site is designed and built by IBM, which means that it’s a.) got the usual brand (Lotus, Rational, Websphere, etc) product lines front and center, b.) pretty corporate in its design and c.) has a LOT going on, the content is periodically but regularly outstanding.

For all of the branded content, a huge number of the developerWorks pieces have nothing to do, really, with IBM products, written as they are by non-employees. Here’s a piece on WebKit, Android and the iPhone, for example, another on data collection with Python and Beautiful Soup, and here’s one more on building a Twitter app w/ Django and jQuery. Nary an IBM product among them.

Q: How did you first encounter developerWorks?
A: As far as I can recall, it was 2002 or somewhere thereabouts, when I was first learning Linux and ran across Daniel Robbins pieces like this one. Robbins, who as some of you might know, founded the Gentoo project, described that process and in so doing, taught me quite a bit about Linux: how the distribution was built, how Linux worked, and so on.

Q: What do you think the challenges are for developerWorks now?
A: They’re multiple. First, and most obviously, they need to reconcile the different audiences. The developers coming to learn Lotus forms, say, are likely to be a different class of technologist than those using Beautiful Soup. Which means that the user experience challenge is significant.

More, they need to determine where they fit in relative to existing developer destinations such as Github or Google Code.

Q: Does developerWorks have its own forge?
A: Not really. While there are downloads of certain IBM products available, developerWorks is – in general – not a forge. The focus is on HowTo’s and content over hosted code.

Q: Will that approach work, over time?
A: It’s unclear. On the one hand, there are a lot of people in the code hosting business who do it really well at the moment, so the market need is not huge. On the other, it’s a natural extension to any site that caters to developers.

While I could build the case either way, however, I think the case for having the functionality is stronger than the one opposing it. Though IBM clearly disagrees, based on the lack of functionality at present.

Q: What could developerWorks be doing better, apart from items already mentioned such as the user experience or adding hosting facilities?
A: Well, adding cloud services would be a very interesting opportunity, but we’ll leave that discussion for another time. Until then, I think the most interesting immediate opportunity would be to more tightly integrate some of the work done at IBM’s Research Facilities. Whatever an individual developer might think of IBM’s product sets, the things going on at the research facilities all over the world are exceedingly interesting.

For all that, however, the research projects typically not surfaced well. developerWorks could be an interesting solution to that problem, and a win for everyone involved.

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Update: Additionally, we’re pleased to make available a transcript of the above video for your convenience:

Full Transcript
Stephen O’Grady: Hi! I am Stephen O’Grady. I am with RedMonk. We are here at the Software Analyst Connect Event for 2009, and I am here with Jim Corgel to talk about developerWorks. So Jim, why don’t you introduce yourself?

Jim Corgel: Hi! I am Jim Corgel, I am the General Manager of ISV and Developer Relations for IBM.

Stephen O’Grady: developerWorks is obviously an IBM property. It has been in service for ten years now to service the needs of developers all over the world. Jim, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what the mission is for developerWorks?

Jim Corgel: Well, the mission is to be relevant, number one, and that is the growing number of new entries into this vast world of IT worker. So whether it be traditional programming types, or IT architects, or even their managers, so how we maintain our relevance is to try to stay on top of really three things that are part of the mission. How do we let an individual feel like he or she can get far more productive on their own?

Well, I think people get very productive, number one, by finding things that they are interested in. So we have over 17,000 was I think the last number of how-to articles –

Stephen O’Grady: I have used many of them.

Jim Corgel: I have myself. So 17,000 of those, and growing, basically growing because the community is feeding it. We are driven by the community; we are not driven by just the IBMers. So getting productive, number one, on the how-to stuff, finding depth of any subject matter expertise that you are looking for.

I think the second thing we do really well, and increasingly in demand is, how do people get connected to one another? So who is more of an expert in communities than you? Nobody. I mean, you understand exactly what I am talking about when people say, alright, I think I need to commiserate or celebrate with one another. So a lot of different communities are coming, from either local city ecosystem teams, industry specific, IBM product specific.

We are also getting some great feedback from IT workers who say, this gives me a chance to demonstrate my skills. So I think it’s a resume builder, and I think it’s like a LinkedIn, and I think it could be as good some day.

For more and more of our people that say look, I can demonstrate to my peers what I am good at, and also use that to demonstrate capability within your own IT community, wherever you work or wherever you are studying.

Well, I think we are changing by trying to react to the need of what we call the localized communities. It dawned on me a couple of years ago that Brazilian Portuguese is not the same as Portugal Portuguese. So I learned that the hard way.

So if you look at the number of languages that we have invested in, whether it be Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, as we go more and more local around the world, there is some pressure to keep up and to use the local language wherever it makes sense.

Does it pay off? You bet it pays off. When you look at the emerging markets where we have made an investment in some local dialect, the growth, it rises in the first 12 months by over 40%, every single time.

I think the second thing is, I use to define the IT worker as a programmer plus, and now I find out there are eight or nine different and growing definitions of what you do. So you an IT worker are an architect, you are a manager, you are a tester, you are a traditional programmer. So that’s something we have to keep, because if you don’t find yourself in developerWorks, you won’t find the community you are looking for.

So that’s been a challenge that we have been racing to keep up with. We are still enormously relevant and popular to the traditional members. We think there are 14 million people who call themselves IT workers, and over 8 are permanent members of developerWorks, and well over half come back every month.

So whereas, perhaps developerWorks isn’t the first site that comes on your desktop every morning, it’s in the top three. So you have an ESPN first, and then — I am always the IBM homepage.

Stephen O’Grady: I am always looking too much at my screen.

Jim Corgel: So I would say that’s a trend we have to keep up with. There is a point of view of the first time an IT worker touches developerWorks. So we have to stay relevant to youth. We will open an innovation center later on this year in Manila, the texting capital of the world.

So when the dialog moves to, what are you doing for me individually, our Spanish speaking and our Filipino are dominated by English, so we should be relevant. But there is a lot of youth we are going to have to serve.

And then there are people my age, retraining themselves, and back to the core mission of wanting to make myself more productive, celebrate and commiserate with my community members, and then where can I demonstrate that I have actually been certified on things I wasn’t before. So the retraining of people that are mature workers, I think, is something that we are going to have to step up to and maintain that challenge.

Stephen O’Grady: I mentioned earlier, kind of off hand, that it was the 10th anniversary, and developerWorks is celebrating its 10th birthday. Obviously times have changed. We just talked a little bit about some of the trends that have impacted developers.

We have also seen developers, as you just mentioned, go through a maturity process, where they will need to sort of retrench and retrain themselves over time. How has the mission of developerWorks changed over those ten years, versus when it was started, to what it is today, to try to help continue meeting the needs of some of the longer term members, but also, as you say, going to some of the newer members?

Jim Corgel: Well, in the beginning you get simple advice from trusted advisors, and those are easy things to set up and say to a small group of people, can’t you see that we are doing what you thought was the right thing to do? Because number one, you cannot be in developerWorks totally vendor driven. Almost 70% of the content comes from the advisory groups who have now gone viral on us in the last decade, and are now feeding on one another.

Stephen O’Grady: I mean, that’s a great point to mention. A lot of my real experience with developerWorks was actually reading articles by the likes of Daniel Robbins, who was the original Founder of the Gentoo project, who was a columnist, and as you noted, wrote a number of the how-tos. So a lot of my real experience years ago was people who effectively had nothing to do with IBM, but were contributing to that platform.

Jim Corgel: Yes, yes. That door is still wide open, and again, when you go local, when you are in major market cities around the world, there are subject matter experts on college campuses, at local IT associations, local rock stars, if you will, amongst industry, who have grown dramatically in the way they served the public, those people are welcomed as well.

But again, the number one thing that we have invested in, in the last year is to take social networking under the banner of my developerWorks and drive it right through the front door of a traditional repository for IT information, and turn it over more than ever to the community.

So all the social networking capabilities you can think of, of tagging and blogging and profiling and all that; we are at over 100,000 profiles today, and growing. So I think that’s the number one thing we have done in the last few months. There are local languages you have to serve. So you have to stay tuned. There is still some more to be done.

Emerging Developer Trends
Jim Corgel: I mentioned a couple of times how hard it is to stay relevant, and how we wake up every morning wondering if we are still relevant to professionals like you, and people with even more experience or less. So when I think of our investments in the past around, name a topic, AJAX, Eclipse, Cloud, social networking, where do you see the heat going in the next three to five years?

Stephen O’Grady: I think developerWorks has done a really pretty credible job over the years of being early to some of the subjects that we at RedMonk have also similarly been kind of evangelizing pretty early. So you mentioned couple of them, things like AJAX, things like REST, all these development styles that were very popular initially early, but not necessarily in a commercial sense, developerWorks had some very, very useful how-tos and pieces covering the technologies.

So in terms of what we look at going forward, I think that there are a couple of areas that we could talk about and a couple of areas that we are seeing commensurate discussion around on developerWorks.

So the Cloud obviously is big on everybody’s mind. What with some of the innovations from some of the Cloud platform providers, conversations around the APIs that are being used, how-tos in terms of how to run certain pieces of software on top of the Cloud. For example, some of the things that –

Jim Corgel: So what’s easy and what’s hard.

Stephen O’Grady: Well, what’s easy, what’s hard. You take a piece of software like Hadoop, which IBM is investing pretty heavily in, it’s a piece of software that has tremendous capabilities, but you need multiple machines to run it on, that’s the nature of it. So it’s obviously something that if you are a developer and you have a single workstation you are working off of, it’s kind of difficult to work on Hadoop without the Cloud.

So in terms of how you run that piece of software in that environment, those are the kinds of conversations that we are seeing on top of developerWorks, to talk about how to use this software project in the context of this particular environment.

We have had a number of discussions here at the Analyst Connect Event on analytics. And analytics is something that I actually put in my 2010 predictions piece, because we are measuring more and more data, and we need to use that data to draw conclusions from, and to extrapolate essentially, meaningful insight to help us make better decisions.

So we do this everyday. A lot of us, for example, use things like Google Analytics or StatCounter, or all these other personal metrics to track things like web performance or feed performance, and we are going to see more and more of that over time.

So analytics certainly, I think, is an area that we will see a lot of discussion in developerWorks specifically, not least because IBM actually has significant assets not just in the development space, but also the IBM research folks have been doing interesting things in and around analytics for a long time. The Many Eyes project to me has been one of the more interesting things that IBM has released as a sort of alpha project in a while. And for the viewers that haven’t seen it, I recommend you check it out. It’s a way to really do some interesting automated visualizations of data that you can upload to the site.

Jim Corgel: Social networking?

Stephen O’Grady: Yes.

Jim Corgel: I need your opinion on where you think we are today, and is there a vision you have of whether these are the small or the large steps going forward? What will social networking look like?

Stephen O’Grady: Social networking I think will just continue to work its way into our everyday life. And we have seen that in any number of settings already.

So we have had a number of conversations here at the conference around things like Facebook. A tool that was originally designed for certain younger audience is now repurposing itself for an older generation of users to view pictures of kids and grandkids and things of that nature.

We had a person last night talking about their grandmother joining Facebook and is very active, not having ever done email, because she has the incentive, if she can use Facebook she can view pictures of her grandkids. So it’s going to become really just a fundamental part of the fabric of our everyday life.

Jim Corgel: It’s going to be the how we do things.

Stephen O’Grady: Exactly, it’s an enabler. One of the interesting things, I think, as it relates to developerWorks to me is how we are going to use it to market ourselves, how we are going to use it to demonstrate skills, how we are going to use it to find and identify resources. And that is, I think, a big part of where we will see things go. It’s a part of our lives now, and in the years ahead what we will see is new interesting ways to try to find out, okay, if this is an accurate representation of portions of our life, how do we use those in new context, be they professional or personal.

Jim Corgel: Let me ask you about my favorite crowd, the developers.

Stephen O’Grady: Yes.

Jim Corgel: Ten years ago we would have had a much more simpler definition, maybe even a little bit of a mystery around what they do all day. Today there is more and more clarity that we are seeing in the way our communities are coming together. I mentioned some. There is a difference between an IT architect and a basic programmer and a tester and the manager that has to bring all this in under time frames. What’s the emerging market? What’s the vision? What’s the outer age?

Stephen O’Grady: We are going to see development skills become more and more fabric of the everyday worker. So we already see this to some extent in, for example, the Excel crowd. The Excel crowd, to a certain extent, they are already programmers; when they are doing things with Macros, when they are doing things — sophisticated uses of spreadsheets, that to a certain extent is functional programming.

I think we are all becoming more comfortable with some of these concepts via things like social networking, via Software-as-a-Service, in terms of some of the reports that we can begin to build with analytics tools. So we are all going to become comfortable with essentially some of the basic presets of what it means to develop software.

Now, does that mean that we are all going to be developers, we are all going to be building software? It doesn’t. But in terms of the skills that are involved, they are going to become more commonplace certainly than they are today.

Jim Corgel: So what a young person develops and builds, what they would call a natural set of skills to advance themselves or their own curiosities, traditional senior programmers would turn and say, that’s pretty good skill that they have developed, almost subliminally in some cases, or as a way of life, as opposed to a decade ago, it was a very structured process and a celebrated end.

Stephen O’Grady: Yeah. And we see that today with some of the better developers out there. David Heinemeier Hansson, who was behind the Rails’ project, is self-taught. A lot of the people kind of just picked it up as they went along. I think a lot of the reason for that is that the barriers to entry for becoming developer have come way down. If we think back to — for example, I was originally trained at one point in Assembler, that’s very difficult to learn. It’s nothing — I actually had nightmares.

Jim Corgel: I tried and failed by the way. You are a bigger man than I will ever be.

Stephen O’Grady: Right. Not that I ever did anything with it, I was trained. But in other words, when we look at that versus some of the development environments that we have today, where it’s much, much easier to get up and running quickly, because the languages are more accessible, we have frameworks and tooling, all these other things to support the activity.

As I said, the barriers to entry to getting into the profession are much, much lower. It has to be this arcane science, where now with the tooling, as we said, but also all the information that’s available on the Internet, including developerWorks, in terms of how you learn, how you get going, and how you get up to speed, it’s just a lot easier.

Jim Corgel: Well, I think that’s an important point for anybody watching us, and that is, some time ago the community may have turned to you or I and said, what makes you think you can do what we do? And today what the community is doing is saying, hey, jump on board, there is plenty of room, and we are going to learn from you as much as you can learn from us.

Stephen O’Grady: Exactly right. So with that, I am Stephen O’Grady, this is Jim Corgel. We are here at Software Analyst Connect, and until next time.

Disclosure: IBM is a client, paid T&E to Connect 2009 (where this was filmed), and sponsored this video.

Categories: Interviews, Social Networking.