By Rick Padinha
It takes a lot of systems integration to launch humans into space and bring them home safely. Think of all the science and engineering disciplines that come into play. But the expertise and technology required to build a large computing system for IBM’s global clients today can be just as daunting–especially as we take on the challenges of building a smarter planet. First you must deeply understand the client’s business and their place in the broader business ecosystem. You must gather and manage a tremendous amount of data. Then you must design a solution and bring together all of the technologies involved, from computers to storage to software. Complex systems integration is at the heart of what IBM does.
I should know. I not only got a view into the challenges of systems integration in the 1960s; I now head up the Delivery Excellence group within IBM’s Global Business Services–a “special forces” team that’s tasked with heading off problems in big, complex engagements before they happen and fixing things when something goes wrong.
When I was a kid growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1950s and early ’60s, I was fascinated with aircraft and flying. I dreamed of being a military pilot, but my goal of attending the US Naval Academy didn’t pan out. Instead, I studied aerospace engineering at Virginia Tech. The coolest part was I worked my way through college as a co-op student, mixing semesters in the classroom with real-life experience at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Marshall was headed by the legendary Wernher Von Braun, whose team established “rocket scientists” in popular culture as the brainiest of humans.
I was sort of a junior rocket scientist. My experiences at Marshall told me two things: 1) I didn’t want to work for a bureaucratic government agency and 2) I wanted to design information technology systems that would help vault the United States further into new realms of space exploration. So I joined IBM, which had a hand in many aspects of the space program.
That program was my professional home for the next 20 years. Those years were packed with learning, satisfactions and frustrations. I can still remember the worst day of my career. I was standing at a control center console watching a TV monitor when shuttle Challenger exploded on liftoff in 1986. I learned that day that so-called “mission critical” systems aren’t just about the success or failures of missions; they’re also about life and death.
It became clear to me over time that the key to building successful mission-critical systems is a relentless focus on quality–in knowledge, hardware design, software programming, systems integration and operations.
During the next phases of my career, I worked on integrating one major mission-critical system after another. Some of the bigger projects I headed up were the Amadeus airline reservation system and the US air traffic control system.
In the late 1980s, IBM’s leaders saw the huge potential in systems integration, and that insight helped lay the foundation for the company’s services business. Services, which came into their own in the 1990s, became a crucial factor as IBM clawed back from its near-death experience in 1993. They now provide more than half of IBM’s revenues.
I’ve lived through the long evolution of technology services. As a result, I never fell prey to the idea that products, per se, are the key to providing business value. Because of my experiences, I understand in my bones that the key to business success is viewing the world through the problem-solver lens–and then bringing to bear the right mix of computer hardware, software, business processes and services to get the job done. From working with NASA in the 1960s to working with many of IBM’s clients today, it’s clear to me that the skills and disciplines of systems integration are absolutely essential to making the world work better.