Why Steve Will’s Promotions Are A Big Deal For IBM i
June 6, 2022 Alex Woodie
As chief architect for IBM i, Steve Will has long been the recognizable face of the IBM i development team in Rochester, Minnesota. Recently, he added two more titles to his cv, including IBM i CTO and distinguished engineer. While the labels are certainly good for Will and an acknowledgment of his hard work, they’re also good for IBM i and bode well for the future of the platform.
A year after earning a master’s degree in computer science at Purdue University in 1984, Will joined IBM and immediately went to work on the IBM midrange line, first as a software developer and then as an architect and strategist. Will was promoted to chief architect of the platform in July 2007, back when the server was called System i and the operating system was i5/OS (you will recall that the Power Systems convergence and launch of IBM i occurred in April 2008).
As the new chief architect for the platform, Will had big shoes to fill, namely those worn by Frank Soltis, the legendary computer scientist who was instrumental in leading the teams that created the S/38 and AS/400. Soltis, who’s unofficial title was Grandfather of the AS/400, was officially the chief architect of the platform for many years, and held the title of chief scientist when he left IBM in December 2008. Unfortunately, Soltis never made it above that line, to be named distinguished engineer or even a Fellow, which is the ultimate recognition of technical competence at IBM. Which is a shame.
By all accounts, Will has done an admirable job as chief architect of the IBM i platform. He has shepherded the platform through a tough economic and competitive landscape, and helped it remain relevant in the cut-throat world of business computing. While its overall share has declined, IBM i has maintained a substantial portion of its installed base, and customer satisfaction remains high.
Will’s hard work and success paid off earlier this year when IBM corporate bosses gave him two promotions: being named the IBM i CTO and a distinguished engineer. Will also retains his title as chief architect, which means he works with the various business architects in Rochester, such as Scott Forstie (database), Tim Rowe (app dev), Tim Mullenbach (security), Kris Whitney (cloud), and others, to continue developing IBM i to meet the needs of customers.
How significant is Will’s promotion to DE and CTO for IBM i? “It’s huge. It’s huge!” Rowe said last week at the POWERUp conference. “He’s a technical executive, so he is now part of the executive community at IBM.”
The promotion gives Will a seat at a bigger table within IBM, one occupied by high-level technology executives within the company. It also gives Will a certain amount of freedom and autonomy to explore new potential avenues without first gaining the approval of IBM bosses. (For an interesting presentation on what it means to be a DE at IBM, check out this link.)
While Will is Rowe’s boss and has obvious social skills, Will isn’t a “people manager,” Rowe explained. “He never will be. He’s a technical manager,” he said. “I think [it’s] exciting that IBM has invested in additional leadership at that level.”
Rochester has had other distinguished engineers, including Mark Anderson, who was a business architect for Db2 for i prior to Forstie’s appointment, and worked in other areas in his 45-plus years at IBM. But after Anderson retired in August 2019, there were no more DEs at Rochester. Will’s appointment fills that gap.
Did IBM corporate need to give Rochester a DE following Anderson’s retirement? “No, but they thought we were important to the IBM business, and it made sense,” Rowe said. “You talk about where we are going into the future. If you are not designing and developing new things, you certainly don’t need to have senior architects.”
There are many other DEs in other IBM products. The System z mainframe team has lots of DEs, Rowe said. And now IBM i has one, too.
Asked about his promotions, Will was characteristically reluctant to heap praise upon himself. “It’s really great for the platform,” he said in New Orleans last week. “I appreciate the recognition myself, but it’s really great for the platform.”
Being named a CTO and a DE will give IBM i a greater say and greater sway in company decisions, Will said.
“I am invited to more meetings. I am asked my opinion by more parts of IBM as a recognition that we, the IBM i platform, are doing things the right way, the way that IBM wants to approach the whole market,” he said. “So I’ve gotten a lot more inquiries from other parts of the business.”
From client interaction to adoption of new technology, IBM i has been doing it the “right way,” according to Will. Will IBM i’s success in adhering to IBM directions result in more of “the IBM i way” being spread to other parts of the IBM business? That’s yet to be seen.
“Spreading the knowledge and experience that we’ve had at IBM to other part of IBM is going to be one of the biggest benefits,” Will said.
At the end of the day, the appointments show that IBM recognizes that IBM i continues as a valuable part of the company. That is great news for anybody who was concerned about Big Blue’s commitment to the platform first conceived and developed in that Southern Minnesota lab many years ago, which continues to help tens of thousands of organizations around the world to automate their business processes.
“It represents the fact that there are more resources coming. We have been growing. We’ll continue to grow,” he said. “It also represents IBM’s commitment to IBM i as a platform. Because they didn’t have to have a technical executive in this spot, but they do, because they’re committed to the platform.”
Being named a DE at IBM also puts Will in the conversation to potentially be named a fellow at some point down the line. That would be big for Will, but it would be even bigger for IBM i.