Speaking of IBM i Innovation . . .
October 10, 2011 Dan Burger
A lot of people wouldn’t pay attention to innovation if it walked into the room and sat down next to them. Some recognize it and cross to the opposite side of the street if they see it coming their way. A few treat it like it’s their best friend. Who are these people and do you ever find them running an IT department in an IBM i shop?
Yes, you do. And the best known (kind of like being the best known mountain climber in Florida) is Roxanne Reynolds-Lair, the CIO at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles. Over the course of the past seven years, she and her IT staff at FIDM have received four IBM–COMMON Innovation Awards. The most recent was presented to her in May at the COMMON Annual Meeting and Exposition in Minneapolis.
Why aren’t there more innovative leaders in the IBM i community? For the love of Frank, there certainly are enough opportunities.
“I think there is a lot of innovation happening in the IBM i community,” Reynolds-Lair said in an interview with IT Jungle last week. “It’s lurking under the covers. There are more pockets of innovation happening than we realize.”
That’s probably true. But real innovation is rare. Not just in the IBM i community, but everywhere. A lot of things get labeled as innovation with a powerful marketing effort but little else to justify it. The definition of innovation has been broadly interpreted. Examples can be found in technology that has been available on the IBM i platform for many years that is being marketed as innovation on other platforms today. One problem with those examples is that relatively few IBM i shops have implemented the available capabilities.
“Not everyone realizes the potential for innovation that exists in running an IBM i platform,” Reynolds-Lair points out. “There’s huge potential there. Because the infrastructure is there to run a business with built-in security, database, system admin, as well as flexibility, scalability, LPARs, and capacity on demand. All these things allow the potential for innovation.”
“What I hear from talking with people is that many are content to run what they’ve always been running. If that’s an application that was developed in RPG III several years ago, that’s perceived as OK and meeting the needs of the business. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that an application can run for 20 years on the i, but it may not be the best choice for the business.”
Years before application modernization became a buzzword, the IT staff at FIDM was moving apps from green-screen to graphical interfaces. You can view that as innovation or you can chalk it up to paying attention to changes in the way people communicate that affect business. But the point is that FIDM was quick when too many companies were slow to react and, for the slow companies, it’s causing problems in relationships that are business-to-business, business-to-consumer, and employer-to-employee.
“The IBM i community has to pay attention to what the world is doing,” Reynolds-Lair says. “The world no longer accepts green screen in any way, shape, or form. Young people are coming into our world. These are young people that we want in the IBM i community. You hear all the time about the graying of the IBM i community. It doesn’t have to be that way. I have some grey-haired people on my staff, but I have all ages and a really diverse group on my team, which has 78 members.”
At FIDM, the IBM i is the central business computing system. It supports both the academic and administration functions of the college. Within IT there are various specialty teams that concentrate on areas such as e-learning, business intelligence, and project management. The two biggest teams are application development, where a substantial amount of custom development is done, and operations, which is mostly made up of people taking care of X86 servers. There are only two IBM i administrators/operators. They run the whole college on a Model 770 with 10 partitions.
Innovation does not check IDs at the door. And it offers no discounts for members of AARP. There is an admission price, however. It’s paid with individual initiative, which means moving outside of established comfort zones.
“You can’t force-feed innovation, but somebody has to step up as the champion of a great idea,” the CIO says. “They have to be passionate about an idea. They have to tell fellow developers and they have to tell the boss about it. They have to build on that idea and generate enthusiasm along the way.”
“It doesn’t make any difference how old that person is. They just have to have the passion. The IBM i community is very passionate. I’m just not sure they know how to channel that passion. Some do, but there needs to be a higher percentage of people who do innovative things.”
People talk about certain organizations having a culture of innovation and other organizations hugging the status quo, but that’s only a small part of the story, according to Reynolds-Lair. She believes it comes down to individuals who build a culture of innovation. There are people willing to take personal risks just as there are companies willing to take business risks. The key to both is being prepared. There will be risk assessments to hurdle and a need to clearly state the organizational benefits if you’re going to be successful.
“You need to be able to talk business in order to change perceptions,” says Reynolds-Lair. “If you are developer and you believe in something, you may have to get someone a little higher up in the organization to be an advocate to help share the risk.”
Innovation is synonymous with a certain amount of risk. It involves some degree of venturing into unknown territory. There’s always a good chance that things won’t work out as planned. You need to be prepared for that as well and expect some difficulty adapting to the new circumstances that pop up along the way.
One of the biggest failures at FIDM was a project to implement IT telephony. The CIO was fully behind it even though she understood it was a huge risk. She advocated the project, before the product even existed. IBM had announced its unified communications plans and had vigorously promoted it in meetings with the media. Although not yet available, Reynolds-Lair believed it would be a good thing.
A lot of effort was put into it, but in the end a key vendor, 3Com, was acquired by Hewlett-Packard and shortly thereafter the plug was pulled on the IP telephony product. The setback, however, did not derail the overall efforts toward innovation at FIDM, which the CIO describes as taking advantage of existing resources that represent a known quantity.
“Integration, for us, goes hand in hand with innovation,” Reynolds-Lair says. “We don’t start projects that are in left field. We look at skill sets, infrastructure, what do we have, and how can we maximize it?”
In every project there is something that is known and reliable and something that is unknown. In IP telephony, the known factor was the IBM i operating system. The 3Com product was known, too, but not for running on IBM i. It was the integration of the two was the risk. In any endeavor there is a risk that not everything is going to work, but you have to look at why doesn’t it work, what are our choices, what can we do . . . there are times when you will say ‘We gave it our best shot, but now we have to move on.'”
In more recent times, Reynolds-Lair has kept up the push for more innovation.
The school has successfully built on to its existing infrastructure of IBM i and WebSphere by paying attention to its audience–students–and finding an innovative way to engage with them using text messaging and launching LotusLive in the cloud for student emails. The main college website, FIDM.edu, was moved into a portal that uses WebSphere Content Management software.
And that’s not the end of it. It has also transitioned from using all internal disks to all external disks and iASP, while also moving from a software-based high availability system to a hardware-based PowerHA solution.
The cost of innovation, which some say is an impediment, has not been an obstacle for FIDM. That’s because the projects are part of integration, the CIO claims.
“The additional costs, in many cases, are incremental,” she says. “We are not asking the college to buy a new IBM i. We use partitions, so there may be an additional processor, but mostly we are maximizing the existing infrastructure. Rather than throwing out the existing system, we are adding capabilities and functionality for X amount of cost.”
The key to accomplishing so much is first of all being proactive and secondly being able to identify business goals and show how those goals can be met with a combination of new and existing investments in IT, but emphasizing the return on existing investments.
“We run almost everything on i,” Reynolds-Lair says. “There are some applications that don’t run on i, but I’m working to let people know the i is a great place to run apps.”
There’s a legitimate concern that inside the IBM i community there is–and has been for some time–a lack of proactive voices within user base, which leads to under utilization of the platform. Reynolds-Lair says what FIDM has done can be done elsewhere and she hopes to help get that message out.
On October 17, she’s the keynote speaker at the RPG & DB2 Summit in St. Louis, Missouri. She might be persuaded to publicly speak at more IBM i-related events, but she already warned me that she does have a day job that keeps her pretty busy.