Today's successes often originate in the seams of yesterday's unrelated events. The minutiae of seemingly disparate incidents stretch across the years and bind like molecules to form new elements. In the mid-1960s, for example, the Air Force unveiled its F4C jet fighter, the first to use onboard advanced computerization. Although history will not note it, that particular aircraft spawned a circuitous connection to the next generation of applications for the AS/400.
One man's exposure to airborne combat technology prompted a career choice that, three decades later, is paying dividends for IBM's global community of midrange Business Partners.
The link between aircraft and applications is James Kelly, currently manager of Partners in Development, AS/400 Division. "Our job," as he ingeniously characterizes it, "is to provide every one of our Business Partners with an unfair competitive advantage."
Back in 1964, Kelly grad-uated from the University of Portland (in Oregon, not Maine) with a degree in history (not computing) and an ROTC commission. He joined the Air Force and for four years buzzed the heavens, narrowly missed the hell of Vietnam, and landed in Phoenix with the thanks of a grateful nation, but without a job.
Fortunately for Kelly, these were the years before downsizing, merger mania, and the rush toward offshore manufacturing. More jobs were available then, and Kelly possessed two attractive qualifications: He had a college degree, and he was no longer draft-bait, having completed his military service.
Offers came pouring in, and Kelly, remembering all those computerized doodads in his F4C, astutely assessed that computers were the future and swapped the wild blue yonder for Big Blue hither.
He followed a marketing career track and, in 1973, ended up in Rochester, where he participated in the planning of many of IBM's midrange systems, from the S/32 to the AS/400.
"The notion of forming partnerships with application developers is not a new one," insists Kelly. The 1975 release of the S/32 was delayed for six months pending the completion of five application packages written by outside vendors especially for the S/32. "Back then, we spawned the idea of application-directed marketing," he recalled. "We marketed the system based on the applications it supported, and some of our partnerships with developers go back over 20 years." Then, as now, IBM provided technical support and an upgrade path that increased portability, and developers provided industry expertise and development resources.
But the mature Business Partner community, with primary responsibility for customer technical support, emerged with the AS/400. Prior to its announcement date, 1,500 applications had already been ported and tested, and if the AS/400 was the new vehicle, Business Partners had become the drivers. In a manner of speaking, IBM had deregulated applications and system support, and the sudden emancipation created challenges (initial customer confusion and unreliable technical support) and opportunities.
It was an idea that revolutionized IBM and fundamentally changed the relationship between the company and its customers. The official spin-doctored reason for the ascension of Business Partners and the accompanying support shift was the same used to deregulate the airlines and phone companies: the claim that it would improve service. But unlike those other customer-hostile enterprises, after a rocky start, this actually did.
As a single idea, the notion of having Business Partners solved at least three problems. It allowed IBM to stop the generous but costly practice of providing free technical support and expedited IBM's own downsizing. As software providers assumed system support functions, thousands of systems engineers were jettisoned, many of whom found refuge in the waiting arms of the technically strapped Business Partner community. It also provided a virtually endless selection of customized software for a system whose first name was Application-at least until the Advanced Series announcement in 1994-a fact that Kelly frequently hammers home to developers in Rochester.
The AS/400 made the shift possible largely because it was comparatively simple to operate, so that the complexity and support requirements of applications began to exceed the support needs of the computer.
Today, over 75 percent of the AS/400 user community is supported by Business Partners. But the IBM/Business Partner/customer triad became strained with the anticipated release of V3 of the operating system. The shift to client/server computing and graphic user interfaces (GUIs) required redesigning applications. No longer would portability be simple and assured. And with the impending release of the RISC box, object-oriented programming (OOP) loomed as another application bender. Overnight, the AS/400 became more powerful, but less friendly.
Customers and Business Partners were largely untrained and unprepared to renovate their applications. AS/400 innovations and fourth-generation tools were going unused. Meanwhile, secure in its relationship with software providers, IBM began to treat Business Partners "like a 20-year spouse," said Kelly. "We believed they would always be there." But competitors came a-courtin', and IBM responded with Partners in Development. Its mission was to provide advanced technical support to help those in the Business Partner community integrate new technologies into their applications. They, in turn, would be able to offer their customers leading-edge software that took full advantage of the innovations built into the AS/400.
With Kelly's ascendancy as manager of the group, the progression that started 30 years ago in a cockpit of an F4C was nearly complete.
In 1996, Kelly announced, Partners in Development will provide technical support in five principal areas: client/server computing; network-centric computing, including porting applications to the Internet; data mining and warehousing; groupware-the integration of Lotus Notes and other tools into applications; and changeable frameworks, which are high-level enterprise business objects for servers. Kelly, however, wants to be clear that his organization will be driven by the needs of Business Partners. "We're like Burger King," he quips. "We'll do it your way."
Support is available in a variety of flavors, including the highly regarded AS/400 Advantage Class (which SEs complained was providing Business Partners with technical training superior to their own), an online Q & A database, forums, bulletin boards, an Internet home page, and reliable telephone support. Additionally, Kelly's group compiles white papers and related technical information on CDs that are distributed every four months.
When the personal touch is required, Kelly provides a little TLC, "an acronym," he admits, "that we backed into." TLC stands for "technical liaison consultant," and the program makes lab developers available to Business Partners who are modernizing their applications. About 450 software producers are currently taking advantage of the program.
Globally, Kelly also supports 13 application centers in all the predictable countries plus Russia and Korea. Porting assistance, testing, and advanced functionality integration are provided.
There are now 8,000 software developers whose creative talents have produced over 25,000 applications for the AS/400. Each of the top 400 produces over $2 million in revenue annually for IBM. It's been a shared risk/shared profit relationship that Kelly believes has served the customer well: An investment in Business Partners is, by extension, an investment in the AS/400 customer. "In every case," he insists, "the AS/400 now has the solution that best meets customers' needs."
When James Kelly was flying jet fighters, he believed he would migrate to a position with an airline and continue flying. He did, in fact, apply. The airlines, however, were not interested in combat pilots. "Guess they figured I'd get bored and do a barrel roll with a couple hundred people," he mused. But an onboard computer brought Kelly to IBM-a minor footnote that would eventually leave a big footprint on the road traveled by IBM, its Business Partners, and their customers.
Victor Rozek has 17 years of experience in the data processing industry, including seven years with IBM in operations management and systems engineering.