The new 'T' skills

The new 'T' skills

IBM's Graham Spittle underscores the value of ICT chiefs who have strong technical domain knowledge (the vertical of the 'T') but are able to combine that with broader business and other skills (the horizontal of the 'T').

Outside IBM's large, grey, Stalinist complex on London's South Bank, the squally March weather is blowing umbrellas inside out, and sending discarded newspapers, food wrappers, and other detritus to the four winds. Tourists scurry into the nearby National Theatre, Hayward Gallery and other attractions, sprinting to escape the latest caprices of nature. Inside, Graham Spittle is reflecting on a different type of sudden change. After two decades working in software development at IBM's famed Hursley campus near Winchester, Hampshire, Spittle is taking up a new challenge, as IBM's Software Group vice president for the UK, Ireland and South Africa.

Leaving beautiful Hursley, IBM's software development lab set in 100 acres of South Downs countryside with a gorgeous manor house and providing access to thousands of IBM's finest developmental brains, might be considered a bit of wrench for most of us. If it is, Spittle is not showing the pain.

"Hursley is a fantastic resource," he says. "It's years ahead of what anyone else can muster. It was set up in 1958 and has grown every year since, and it's where CICS, MQ Series, Message Broker and IBM's storage networking products were developed. As IBM's business changes, and we're obviously more software and services than we were in the past, the fabulous thing is that I now have the opportunity to look at another side of the business. The timing couldn't be better."

Bearded and bespectacled, Spittle might have something of the look of an academic boffin but he is quick to laugh and he is too modest a man to mention the legions of influential positions he has held, many of which have focused on making information technology more accessible to non-techies. These include a news-making appointment in 2004 that made him the first chair of the Department of Trade and Industry's Technology Strategy Board, a £320 million attempt to discover what innovation can do for UK business.

More than an engineer

He is also a far cry from the archetypal "pure" researcher and engineer, showing a deep appreciation for the role of information chiefs and how they embody his notion of "T-shaped people". By Spittle's reckoning, these are people who have strong technical domain knowledge (the vertical of the 'T') but are able to combine that with broader business and other skills (the horizontal of the 'T').

"The new CIO role is about having depth but also breadth," Spittle suggests. "The old CIO was all about technological depth but today it's very much a business role so what you're seeing is the emergence of T-shaped people.

"CIOs that have business appreciation will get listened to a lot more in the boardroom. People today are asking different questions of vendors.

"Before it was 'I want the fastest box' and now it's 'I have rapid growth in my customer base, what can you do to help me with that?' It's not about the speeds or feeds of one particular product any longer."

Of course, ever since Lou Gerstner took over IBM in 1993, the company known fondly as Big Blue has switched focus from hardware to become a broader vendor that places equal emphasis on hardware, software and services. However, in software in particular, the firm's growth has been explosive, helped by a seemingly non-stop series of acquisitions -- over 40 since 2000 -- including Rational, Cognos, Micromuse, FileNet, Ascential, Candle and Informix. With such a broad range of tools in hand, is there not the risk of a return to the days of "fear, uncertainty and doubt" as former employee Gene Amdahl described it? In other words, lock-in to the company's wares and that old aphorism that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM"?

Perhaps predictably, Spittle plays a straight bat to suggestions that IBM's all-round mighty strength could make it a company from which it is nigh on impossible to detach.

"The IBM philosophy is built on open standards and incremental solutions," he says.

"You don't have to have a lock-in and you can enter the portfolio at any point. Companies today are very much clearer about capabilities vendors have. The buyer is much more mature."

Alright, but what about the argument, posited by IT Doesn't Matter author Nicholas G. Carr and others, that technology is becoming commoditized because standards-based hardware and software is interchangeable and available to all? Doesn't that situation leave IBM, with its huge spending on research and development, looking a bit of a relic?

Again, Spittle demurs. "Innovation is always welcomed and, in a world where people have real-time communications, differentiation is important," he says. "I try to find out what is the problem today and solve the customer's pain point."

Speaking of Carr and his suggestion that IT will become a utility-like resource, what does Spittle make of the trend towards software as a service? His answer is that sourcing is a matter of horses for courses.

"You have to choose the model that's right for your business," he says. "For many businesses, having someone to run the IT is very attractive. You don't worry about it and you can have a fixed-cost approach. For others, that's anathema and they believe that having IT in-house provides them with an edge. But for most companies it's the data that's the important thing. We see companies that have data trapped in old applications and they want to liberate that data. You have to decide which data gives you power and act accordingly. Business has a much more pragmatic view of things because they're in business to do X or Y. You're going to get the spectrum of concerns: how do businesses solve their problems today and how do they get more competitive."

But when a company like IBM or Oracle is buying up fellow software firms left, right and center, where does that leave the IT buyer seeking consistency and peace of mind in making software investments?

Spittle points to IBM's record in software development and its experience in providing middleware that can accommodate a number of architectural approaches.

"We're providing a path so nobody gets 'dead-ended'," he says. "The IBM path is ultimately coherent so you feel comfortable and you have access to that consistency."

Looking ahead, Spittle sees a few new opportunities in software.

"Virtual worlds are interesting because they might just be the next metaphor for dealing with masses of data -- they could be the next user interface," he suggests. "You could be a student with your notes and video, interacting with other students without the constraints of travel and having to be there."

Sensors and activators

Intelligent networks are another area in which Spittle believes that it is possible to transform business operations.

"It's a lot less sexy than virtual worlds but sensors and activators for handling, assembling, transmitting and routing information, in order to make sense of data, will be enormous," he enthuses.

Spittle anticipates automated networks that can report back on their status so that factory equipment can tell administrators when they need maintenance duties to be performed; silos can send alerts for their need to be refilled; or oil exploration systems can "squirt the bird", that is, relay status signals via satellite.

In line with IBM's recent deal to buy Cognos, Spittle is also keen on the possibilities of business intelligence.

"Being able to distinguish the signal from the noise is really key in business today, and business intelligence instrumentation, for example through dashboards, is a good example of how you do that," he says.

Also, going forward, Spittle is optimistic about the fabled promised alignment of business and technology, noting that young people coming into the workplace have a stronger understanding of technology than ever before.

"You have to understand the business processes in order to instantiate and we're in transition to a different form of understanding where we're getting technology DNA into everybody's system," he claims, adding that so-called Web 2.0 tagging, commenting, rating and other tools are helping fulfill the promise of collaboration.

Power to the user

"With Web 2.0 we're seeing that step change between the web as a passive repository and an active resource that supports collaboration and puts an enormous amount of power into the hands of the user. People are a lot less tolerant of bad user interfaces. They expect a button to go back and go forwards and these are the new table stakes that we all expect to see there."

So is it possible that Web 2.0 will equal Knowledge Management 2.0, with companies able to get over the usability and change process hurdles that have been so challenging in the past?

Spittle is optimistic, noting that "one of the problems with knowledge management was that it was monolithic and very technical and demanded skills that prevented others from joining in." Indeed, he is confident that the confluence of technologically-savvy people entering the workforce, Web 2.0 mash-ups, and improved matching of IT and lines of business will lead to a perfect storm of improvements.

"Let's not underestimate speed," he advises. "People still want to get first-mover advantage and it's all about the linkages between what is possible with technology and the problem that needs solving."

As for Spittle himself, he embodies the geographically diverse, flexible world of business today.

"This is my office today," he says, waving to the plain cubicle in IBM's concrete palace, "but really the network is my office." Pointing to an Ethernet port, he adds, "That's my connectivity and the people I work with."

Outside, the weather continues to torment tourists and office workers who are buffeted by high-speed winds and torrential rain. Inside IBM, a venerable stability presides and all is calm.

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