Steve Will on the Role of the Chief Architect and Gaming Strategy

Paul Tuohy talks to IBM chief architect Steve Will about what exactly a chief architect does and how he does it. Could gaming strategy come into play anywhere?

Paul: Hi everybody and welcome to another iTalk with Tuohy. Delighted to be joined today once more by the Chief Architect for IBM i Steve Will. Hello, Steve.

Steve: Hello Paul. Nice to talk to you again.

Paul: And you. We were just talking briefly before we started here and we were saying it has been awhile since we chatted so we'll let everybody earwig in our conversation today. [Laughter] Steve: Absolutely.

Paul: So Steve, what I wanted to talk to you about is for a change I am not going to put you under pressure and say tell me about all the great things that are coming on the platform in the next year or anything like that. Okay?

Steve: Okay. Sounds good.

Paul: What I do want to talk to you about a little bit is about your work and about what exactly you do because as I was saying you earlier, I sort of have this picture in my head which I am sure you are about to dispel that you spend most of your time sitting in the bath coming up like with great ideas and going Eureka. Then you go forward through the snow in Rochester and go to your minions and say "Make it so.”

Steve: Not quite how it all works, no, that's true.

Paul: Okay. So do you want to tell us a little bit about how it does work? Steve: Sure I'd be happy to.

Paul: What does a chief architect do?

Steve: Sure. Yeah, and you know I've got the title chief architect largely to get me indoors places so I may not do that same thing as other chief architects do but for the i platform, I think the chief architect in my role I have kind of three responsibilities. One is-the overarching one is to help set the strategy. I basically create the strategy for how we are going to meet our platform goals from a technology point of view. Then I am responsible for executing the plan, generating the different things we are going to do to try to approach that strategy and then a big part of my job is spent communicating with clients not only explaining what the strategy is but gathering input that helps inform the next time we look at strategies so those are kind of the three big picture things that are part of my job. The how we do that is I imagine what you are getting at.

Paul: Yes, but actually just before we get to that because you just-one little thing there Steve with this. So you talk about the platform goals, so where do they come from?

Steve: Okay so it is interesting that you and I should talk about this in this context. We've discussed before at the end of these little podcasts that you and I are both gamers right and so I approach my job very much from the point of view of having learned a lot about how to do strategy, how to plan for things in games. The very first step in any strategic endeavor including playing games and including doing this job is to figure out what goals you are after and so there are goals that are set for us by the overall corporation. For example corporation needs from the IBM i business to attain a certain level of revenue, a certain level of profit and those are part of the goals that we as a business have to satisfy. In my technology job I have to figure out if the technologies that we are investing in are going to help us towards that goal, the goal of acquiring a certain amount of money or profit but one of the things I've learned in doing gaming for so long is that it is very rare that any significantly interesting gamer endeavor has just one ultimate set of goals. There is often a number of them and so I also have to consider things like what will make my customers happy, what will make this platform something that ISP's want to put their solutions on, how can we be prepared for a future that we cannot see but we know is coming ten years from now so there are a number of different sources for those goals. It is all sort of related to all the different things that we know or think are going to be important for the platform.

Paul: So I am assuming then that a lot of this is coming from obviously the third point you made there which is where you go out and you are dealing with clients. I know this from conversations that I've had with you before that you listen as much as you talk.

Steve: That's absolutely true. When I go and talk to the Common Europe Advisory Council, you are part of that and the Common Americans Advisory Council, which was just visiting us in December, I am listening for what kinds of things our customers are saying we need to have on this platform. Many times I hear the same things that we've been hearing for years, just the newest version of them but every once in awhile there is thread that starts appearing that maybe we hadn't given enough thought to but a number of different customers are asking for it and that will help to change slightly the direction of strategy and certainly the plan that we go through.

Paul: And then are there a lot of things of just people in Rochester coming up with cool ideas and going hey, I think this would a nice thing to put in the system.

Steve: There certainly are, yeah, especially across our development team. You know many of our developers have been on this platform in their specific jobs for five, ten sometimes 20 years and so they are experts at their specific technology family whether they are database folks or storage folks or web serving kind of folks; they are the experts I mean among the industry you know they're experts and so they come up with ideas. They say this would be a good thing. Then it is up to them to state their case for why that helps our strategy as we go into the future or why it helps solve customer problems. There is certainly a lot of that that goes on.

Paul: So and by the way just before I ask this question Steve, no comment is an acceptable answer okay? [Laughter] So that process of where somebody whether it is an idea that you know you bring back from one of the advisory councils or from meeting with a client or somebody comes up with an idea, how long is sort of the process between that point in time and us actually seeing it on the platform? Steve: Well I won't do a “no comment.” I'll do an “it depends” and then we'll talk for a bit.

Paul: Okay.

Steve: We are far more agile than we used to be when I first took over as chief architect eight years ago or nine years ago, whatever it has been now. In the old days, we had basically major releases when we could get new function out to someone and so if you brought us an idea and we thought for example we could get the idea developed in three months, it wasn't the case that we could get it to you in three months. We could develop it in three months and then we had to wait for the next big train, the next big release to come out. These days if you bring us an idea and we agree and it's going to take me three months, well probably, probably that idea can get into the next technology refresh we are doing or maybe it has to wait for the one after that so it could well be that something that you bring to us as an idea could be done within a half year. It is not likely that it is going to be done a lot more quickly than that because we don't have any developers just sitting around waiting for a new project to show up, right? [Laughter]

Paul: You're bursting my bubble here Steve.

Steve: We have to let some things finish before a new thing can start most of the time but as I said we are more agile and responsive in that way than we have been able to be in the past because of the approach that we take now and not just the fundamental ability to do technology refreshes but also a different kind of mindset that we want to try and get things out to clients faster. Nevertheless it does take some time because there are always people working on things and as a new idea comes in, it could take three months for us to get started on it, then it takes three months to get it done and then it has to be in the next technology refresh. It could have to wait behind several other good ideas that we've got and that is one of the challenges we have is balancing when do we get these things out. You had sort of asked about you know the process of how this happens and generally speaking what we do is during the springtime of the year, we reevaluate our strategy to see if there is anything new and fresh that has come up in the market place that says you know we probably should be investing less in this general big technology and more in this other one. Then during the fall time people bring all these ideas they've gotten from customers or from their own investigation and we have a big set of meetings where the technologist and I and customer councils feed in all of these various ideas for things and we balance them across the number of people we have to do things. Now that sounds like maybe we do this sort of thing only once a year but that's not the case. Things are constantly changing so we have biweekly meetings where new ideas are brought forward or an old idea is brought forward again and said we thought we were going to this but we think we can bell and whistle A, B and C to it and what do you think about doing that? So we examine the plan on biweekly basis to make sure that we can optimize the use of our resources towards the goals.

Paul: Just listening to you say that Steve, we are coming right back here on gaming theory aren't we?

Steve: Yes, we are. Yes, we are. Again I think about gaming a lot because I'm a gamer but also because so many of the little lessons we learn in gaming like figuring out how to respond to what the other players are doing and yet keeping your goals in mind, that's exactly the sort of thinking that we have to have as we are trying to decide which methods we are going to use to satisfy a requirement. You know many customers when they bring us a requirement-and this is not a criticism of anyone at all-when they bring us a requirement, they are often bringing what they believe is the solution to a problem and what we have to listen to is what is the real problem because the solution they provide i.e. give me a way to print this screen to a file and then I can read it with program. Okay? That might not be the actual problem they have. They need to get some information from us and maybe printing a screen is not the right way to do it. Maybe we need to give them a service or an API and so we have to listen to what the actual problem is. That is very much like in gaming. You can go straight forward or you could say well what is my real goal? Do I really whether I protect every piece on the chessboard or is it okay to ignore a few pawns if that distracts the other team-you know the other side.

Paul: So of all the games that you play and I've got to say that you play a lot more of them than I do Steve, I think my experience with first person shooters is not really that applicable-well in certain cases it might be but is there any sort of particular game or group of games that you think the mindset fits in very well with with this?

Steve: Well there are a couple of game types that I think a lot of people don't either know about or don't have experience with that are really important. The first is there is a whole class of games called cooperative games. This is very unusual for most people who don't play games but there is a class games called cooperative games where all of the people sitting around the table playing are on the same side and you are playing against the game. The games rules are built that if you don't cooperate well, the game will defeat you all so there is a game called Pandemic. It is pretty famous in gaming circles and the game is trying to spread a virus around the world and kill the world. You as the players are cooperating to try and get cures to places and do investigations and so on. That's actually a lot more like business is like than Monopoly where we are trying to wipe everybody out. You've got a lot of players and you are all trying to accomplish your goals against sort of nebulous opponent and that is really an important part of how I approach my job. I don't want to look at my clients or my partners or even my "opposition" as totally the people I have to beat or take money from. I want to work together. This is one of the reasons why I am so glad we've been focusing on open source for example, right? There is a lot of value in the world from a lot of this open source stuff and if I viewed the people who created that open source as competitors instead of somebody who is trying to accomplish sort of the same thing I am only with a different company-well if I looked at them as competitors only, I would not want to work them in any way but we can work together to advance technology, advance what customers are getting and so on so that is one of the styles of gaming that I think really has affected how I approach my job and I think it's relatively speaking unknown to most of the gaming world who has only ever played checkers or Monopoly or Risk or whatever.

Paul: Yeah so I think we've just had a hint there Steve have we of the next name of the platform? It will be iPandemic or something like that? [Laughter]

Steve: No, we're not going to go there. We're not going there.

Paul: No, I think we are safe with the name for a little while at least.

Steve: Yeah. Yeah and then I know that a lot of people have never tried a role playing game but one of things that makes role playing games very much like this is there is no end point and relationships are really important. In most games, you finish at some point. In business, at least unless you go bankrupt and we've never come even close right?

Paul: Yeah.

Steve: We're pretty successful. You are going to continue on. You are going to continue on and so you need to play the game realizing that the relationships that you are developing, the decisions you are making, the interactions that you are having are going to affect your future. So that is another way gaming, some kinds of gaming is similar but not the kind of gaming that people normally think of because it's important that we are going to continue to exist, continue to work with other people and so we can't just try to go for the one big win because there is no such thing. There is no such thing as one big win.

Paul: Yeah. I'm suddenly starting-okay the image I started with with you in the bath tub has now been replaced by everybody in Rochester playing Dungeons and Dragons based on that. [Laughter]

Steve: Well you know one of the funny things about the way you say that is that I have presented now on strategy for the last oh I suppose year and a half, two years because nobody really understood how I was approaching this and I would show this to my team of architects. I would get together with my business architects. We discuss where we are going to go as a platform. I presented it and they had no idea that this is how I approached my job so we don't sit around and do this stuff. It is just how I think about it as I look for the various aspect of strategy. I've got to consider all of my resources but that doesn't mean that they need to know and go about it the same way as I do. It's just the way I approach things and I imagine each of us who gets into these positions, we try to look at our job the way we look at whatever we care about so if I cared about something different, I imagine I would approach my job differently.

Paul: Yeah. Well that is cool. So maybe just to finish on since we are talking about gaming, what is your favorite game at the moment?

Steve: Well my favorite game at the moment, I do-you mentioned Dungeons and Dragons. I run a Dungeons and Dragons game with my children. All of my children are grown up so they are in the 20s and 30s and some of their friends of theirs so we have a great deal of fun doing that about once a month so in some ways that makes it my favorite because I get to be with my family playing games and that's fun but I have another game that I recently discovered called Splendor which is a very quick game to play. It is a competitive game so much more like normal people think about gaming but it requires a lot of quick thought and planning and there is very little randomness to it. I enjoy that.

Paul: Cool. Well I think that is a good note to leave it on Steve. Thank you once again for taking the time to chat with me.

Steve: Always happy to talk to you Paul so I'm glad we were able to arrange this.

Paul: Okay. I don't know why it is that the next time I'm going to meet somebody from Rochester the idea of looking at them and going which of them is the magician and which of them is the troll is going to be going through my head. [Laughter]. Okay. Thank you Steve.

Steve: You're welcome. Bye Paul.

Paul: Okay so that's it for this iTalk everybody. Tune in for the next one. Bye for now.

Paul Tuohy has specialized in application development and training on IBM midrange systems for more than 20 years.

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