Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Patterns of Success - Jim Isaak

Jim Isaak was the 2010 president of the IEEE Computer Society. I am the chair of our Eastern North Carolina Section  Computer Society. One day last year I was invited to participate in a virtual IEEE meeting held in Second Life and met Jim then. I had just started using Google Wave and Jim mentioned that he had been using it as well so I added him to my Wave contacts and participated in a few waves where he and I plus others participated.
Jim is currently involved in a number of ongoing activities with IEEE and publishes a blog of his own.

John - Jim, thanks for sharing your views in my Patterns of Success series. Before we get into the core questions tell me a bit more of what you will be doing in IEEE.

Jim - Well as past president, I still have a lot of responsibilities to support the office of the president. I am also working with the IEEE sales and marketing group to help plan out the future of the organization. We are working through some of the challenges of being a major publisher moving into an age of digital content. I will also likely get into the policy side of IEEE USA. Engineers... no. Let me rephrase that... Technologists are going to face challenges, particularly in the USA, if we don't build up the reputation of the profession to attract more participants.

John - Why shift the label from Engineer to Technologist?

Jim - Because many people work in the field without a degree in engineering from a university. And what we are seeing in the US, Europe, and even Japan is that the population and competitive skills of Technologists is dropping, while it is increasing in China and India.

John - Is this just a $/hr labor rate issue?

Jim - Its a public perception issue. And when I say that, I mean that the culture in China and India highly respects someone who goes into engineering. That is not the case in the United States. In the US the profession is not well understood or valued. The main concern I have is innovation. The ideas that get transformed into new businesses need the discipline of an engineering approach. I was reading an article in Computer Magazine called Computing a Better World where the author argued that things like the microprocessor, world wide web, mobile phone, and other technologies have transformed our world in ways the politicians could not imagine and the impact of these technologists on our life has been far greater then that of politicians or other professions. So what I am going to be doing over the next couple of years is helping to get that information out via the IEEE and help change the public perception of our profession. I am working with my local Computer Society Chapter to reach out to my community, and I am even teaching a class at our local community college on dealing with emerging technologies. No that is not the right word. I think we are in denial about some changes occurring around us. For example, China has become a technological steam roller. They have a huge population, they are becoming well educated, and have a competitive spirit to win in the global market. Over the next twenty years, I think the rest of the world will have to come to terms with that reality and figure out how to survive. I somewhat tongue-in-cheek say to people that they need to learn to speak Mandarin so that they can talk with management in the future.

John - I think we have found the topic area for our interview around Patterns of Success. What successful steps have been taken and could be taken to improve the population of technologists for a future world.

Jim - That's a great focus area.

John - OK. So what have you seen companies, universities, the IEEE do to  improve the profession of technologists?

Jim - The examples I have are almost always double bladed swords. I mean that there are winners and losers in each example area. There are two major root causes of both successes and failures. The first is knowing what you have, and the second is figuring out how to monetize it and turn it into a business. For example, I worked for Intel back in the early years and got a chance to speak with Bob Noyce about the computer business. Intel was making more computer chips then just about anyone in the world. I told Bob that if Intel wanted to be a computer company we needed to learn how to develop distributed software. At that time the focus of Intel was on memory. Bob said Intel is a memory company and we manufacture computer chips to drive the memory sales. So Intel missed out on the Operating System market. And if IBM had chosen Motorola over Intel for the PC (as they should have) then Intel would not even be in the CPU market.
That is another example of not know what you have. If IBM had chosen the 68000 chip instead of the 8080 and had maintained control of the operating system instead of giving that away to Microsoft, it would be a much different market today.
Another example is when I worked at Digital Equipment. They actually developed one of the first practical search engines, Alta Vista. The motivation to develop it was to demonstrate the power of the 64bit Alpha processor, which was a great product based on its technology, but unfortunately the demand for extended memory space was not in the market. But because of the 64bit address space, Alta Vista could do what no other search engine at the time could... it could index the entire world wide web. Frankly, Digital should have been the next Google. They had the technology but did not understand what they had and thought the mini computer business was the future.

John - At a more macro level, do you see overall patterns in how communities of technologists become successful? For example, there is the Silicon Valley phenomena.

Jim - Yes. The Silicon Valley startups introduced a new breed of entrepreneur. These individuals would come up with an idea for a technology based business and pursue it with a passion using VC funding. Often they would fail. What was revolutionary was that they immediately had another great idea and would pursue that one as well. I knew of entrepreneurs who would start and fail several times in just a few years. It drove the money men, the VCs crazy. The financial system was just not ready to absorb that much chaos.
Another phenomena occurred when Sputnik launched and we entered the space race with the Soviet Union. Our American leaders  motivated a generation of youth to pursue science and engineering as a career.

It was cool for someone to pursue science/math and get an engineering degree and go work at NASA.
Finally, I think that each county has its own technical culture. A different way of interacting, of pursuing a problem. For example, Paul MacCready built the Gossamer Condor and won the Kremer Prize for the first human powered flight. The design approach used by the Americans broke many traditional design philosophies. The British persisted in building an airframe from balsa wood even though the strength/weight  was not good enough. The Germans looked at the problem and felt it was impossible so did not pursue.
Americans tend to question authority, break rules, and while failing often, sometimes succeed where others don't try.
<Editor> - After the interview, in the State of the Union speech, President Obama used the phrase "Sputnik Moment" to explain investments in technologies.

John - So on the topic of Failures to Launch... have you seen specific practices or policies that have not helped improve our technologist profession?

Jim - I think Americans have a blind spot when it comes to technology. For example, there is still a debate in our country over evolution, with a minority of our population actually believing in the theory.

It is hard to imagine a scientifically driven culture where evolution is not an accepted fact. Since the Sputnik era our government has had a serious reduction in investment in science/math education. There is a public perception that professional athletes make more money then technologists.  But as Dean Kamen has pointed out, there are more millionaires in Microsoft then in the NFL/NBA/NHL combined. It is ironic that while technologists tend to make more money then some more popular professions, studies indicate that the money is not a key motivator for technologists. They pursue their profession to solve interesting problems. Most corporations do not give employees the opportunity to pursue these kinds of problems. One exception, is Google with its 20 Percent Program. They allow employees to work on whatever idea interests them up to 20 percent of the time. Many of their new innovations have come out of that program.

John - What do you think the NEXT BIG THING will be in three years?

Jim - I hate looking so short out. If it is not twenty years out then it is not worth looking.

John - OK. Give me something that is three years and then one that is twenty.

Jim - I think that the integration of GPS into mobile devices will have a profound impact on how we do things. We are starting to see that today in smartphones but we have not realized all the capabilities of the technology. Information based on your current location, the geology, the traffic, the weather, the history, all that is know about where you are. This will ultimately lead to augmented reality in twenty years. There was a great article in IEEE Spectrum called "Synthetic Serendipity" which is a story about an environment where people see the world always with an augmented virtual reality. You are interacting with people that are there and some who appear to be there but are not.
Another technology that is evolving is the whole eBook technology. The technology is neat but it is being used  as a straight substitute for ink on paper books. The business models are based on selling a book. My daughter got a Kindle. She wanted a physical keyboard because as an author she researches books and wants to take notes and enter bookmarks. But the Kindle does not have numbers on the keyboard so it is difficult to reference a bookmark with numbers.

John - I had read about another problem with the Kindle for people citing source materials in a reference paper. The common standard for a citation is to indicate the page number. But if you are reading on the Kindle it does not give a page number, only a location range.
This has been something that has fascinated me. I have talked with several people about what will be the book of the future. Information can be disseminated by paper books, e-book analogs, blogs, wikis,or tweets. What is the characteristic that makes a book a book? I often think it is the persistence of the authors intent. In a future book some facts may dynamically update (e.g. the Solar system losing Pluto as a ninth planet) but there will be a general longevity to the unit of knowledge packaged in that "book". However, the book might be a Physics text like the Feynman Lectures that I had in college but they would be presented on an iPad with the lecture on Newton's equation of motion including a dynamic widget that shows a pendulum swinging as the equations for the kinetic energy and potential energy change over time.

Jim - I think that the key is that we want to have a body of knowledge from an authoritative, trusted source that we can call a book no matter how it is physically packaged. The reason why the internet in general with Facebook or Twitter or Blogs will not replace the book is that we are not sure that we can trust the content.

John - And this is something that you are struggling with for the IEEE as it maintains an  authoritative body of knowledge and moves into the mobile age with digital content. It does tie back to our earlier conversation of how the technologist profession will become more capable. These technologies may allow an order of magnitude improved educational experience with collaborative, dynamic, interactive eBooks.

Jim - A lot of the pieces are in place for the IEEE to support this change. Tony Durniak, executive editor of IEEE publications hosted a workshop six months ago called the Future of Information with participants like Vint Cerf.

John - Did you have the conference up in Second Life?

Jim - No. We still thought that a face-to-face meeting was more productive. Second Life got a lot better when they added voice to the Avatars but in a real life meeting you get facial expressions and body language that conveys a lot more then you get in a virtual world.

John - If in the IEEE groups of professionals could come together virtually and collaborate on problems and most of these "meetings" might end with the just one event. But sometimes the people would recognize that the content captured during the meeting was important and needed to persist. Then someone could push a button and publish a bookish like thing that would persist and be refined over time by this collaborative group.

Jim - Oddly enough that was the advantage that Google Wave offered. I think that users of Wave struggled to figure out how to get real value from it. Perhaps Google should have just rolled Wave into Gmail as an optional extension.

John - Jim, thanks a lot for sharing your insights with us.

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