Dirk Nicol on developerWorks at 10

developerWorks is 10 years old — join Scott Laningham as he talks with Dirk Nicol, IBM® Program Director for Emerging Technology and Web 2.0 Evangelism.


Scott Laningham (scottla@us.ibm.com), developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.

28 September 2009

developerWorks: This is a developerWorks podcast. I'm Scott Laningham, here with Dirk Nicol, IBM Program Director for Emerging Technology and Web 2.0 Evangelism. Dirk was instrumental in the launch and formative years of developerWorks. He joins us to share a few thoughts on the 10th anniversary of developerWorks. Hi, Dirk.

Nicol: Hey, Scott. It's great to talk to you.

developerWorks: We have a number of conversations this week with key people in this developerWorks story, and you're certainly one of the very key people right there at the beginning. What do you remember most about that experience, of making the case for developerWorks with IBM and getting it launched?

Dirk Nicol says open standards is what's made dW successful


Nicol: I think there's kind of two dimensions to this that are interesting. One is kind of the strategic dimension of, you know, "why developerWorks." And then, kind of the personal sequence of events for me and how that led to developerWorks.

So, from a strategic standpoint, if you think about IBM's software strategy, it's really based on open standards and open technologies. That is the basis of really what customers are asking for. I mean, they want choice and flexibility when they build applications for their business. And because IBM is focused on meeting those customer needs, we try to keep our technology open.

So in a sense, open technologies and open standards are a platform. And more precisely, the open Web. So at the time developerWorks was getting starting or the concept was getting further on at IBM, there really wasn't any meaningful developer resource for open Web technologies.

Guest: Dirk Nicol

IBM Program Director for Emerging Technology and Web 2.0 Evangelism, Dirk Nicol started IBM's first Java™ Web site more than a decade ago — fresh from that triumph, he then hatched the plan for developerWorks. Nicols advocates moving away from traditional marketing to the more agnostic embrace of developer education and open standards.

You know, there was MSDN for Microsoft, but there was no comparable developer resource for open technologies. So, you know, we felt that providing a resource to help build skills around open standards, open source, and so forth, was critical to help developers be more productive in building applications for the open Web.

So in doing so, we attract more developers, build more skills in open technologies, therefore it helps IBM products and so our products are build on open standards.

So that's kind of the strategic angle to that.

developerWorks: Now, what about your personal experience, Dirk? What was going on there?

Nicol: So, when the Internet was really starting out and Java™ was coming on the scene, IBM was making a big investment in promoting Java — again, keeping with our strategy around open technologies. So I was ... we needed an IBM Java Web site effort with some very talented Web developers and content developers here in Raleigh, North Carolina. And the www.ibm.com/java site was one of the first developer sites in IBM and in the industry focused on Java.

So our goal was to educate and build Java skills. So I took the approach of keeping the content vendor agnostic, really focused on the developers' needs and wants. And that became really successful. And there was a lot of participation, and the notion of creating content that was somewhat vendor agnostic was somewhat ... you know, it was a new thought in IBM, somewhat controversial. But the success of the Java site was undeniable.

And so from that success, I had the idea of creating versions of a Java site for XML, Linux®, open source and all the different open technologies, and then put that under an umbrella and integrate them. And that was kind of the idea of developerWorks.

So it was kind of like a startup in IBM. We got internal kind of, quote-unquote, VC investment from some of the executives. We built a team and launched it. And Gina Poole, who you've talked to, was a key part of that, sort of working through the concepts and helping getting it funded, and then working with her to lead the effort.

And of course, Steve Mills, who you've talked to, was instrumental in being an advocate and supporter of this idea. I think you'll talk to Michael O'Connell, who was key, is one of the key players in helping to build the editorial side of this. So, lots of key people involved.

But I think the idea here I wanted to leave the audience with is that IBM is a great place to work in that you can come up with a good idea, shop it around, and if you can prove the value of it, you know, it's almost like starting a ... creating a startup. They'll get support and be able to take it to market.

So that was a great experience and still look fondly to that experience and draw a lot from that.

developerWorks: So, I'm assuming that you feel the same as many that it's supported in a big way IBM goals to date over these last 10 years and had a significant impact on the software development community at large, too, right?

Nicol: Oh, yes. Yes. So, open standards and open technologies are critical to the industry. You know the Web is built on open standards and that's really what's made it successful. And developers are the people who really make applications and solutions happen on the Web.

So having a resource like developerWorks that helps developers build the skills on the Web is really important for the industry. You know, I truly believe that if it was not for developerWorks, the Web would be a very different place.

Make no mistake, there are forces and companies working hard to make the Web proprietary in their own way. You know, they invest heavily to make that happen. And having a resource that's constantly drumming out very valuable content and skill-building resources to help people build their skills in open technologies, you know I think it's a key catalyst that's empowered developers to build open Web technologies. And I think it's been critical to the industry.

And also just from an IBM corporate perspective, the developerWorks Web site kind of led the way in many respects around how to deliver and connect to an audience over the Web. So the developerWorks team took on some very innovative approaches to engaging customers.

  • You know, we built an internal editorial team by bringing in top-notch journalists from around the industry. That was kind of unheard of, to actually bring those types of people and those skills inside of a company. And you'll talk to Michael O'Connell and he was instrumental in helping to make that happen.
  • And also, we built an internal user design team that worked on building very innovative techniques to helping the community build the Web site in a sense by working with them interactively and constantly updating the site to meet their needs.
  • We had the first Java code search engine, so that one of the first search engines to find code out on the Internet.
  • We incubated technologies from IBM Research through alphaWorks to help move technologies from Research and into products and to customers more quickly.
  • We led the way in delivering a corporate blog. We were one of the first companies and first Web site in IBM to deliver a blog and built the best practices and policies that many corporations borrow today.

So developerWorks helped pave the way not only in helping to keep the Web open, I think, but also spearheaded some innovative thoughts around delivery of Web interfaces and Web communities to market.

developerWorks: What do you think is the future for developerWorks, Dirk, in light of trends in software development right now and IBM's discussion of [A] Smarter Planet goals and that type of thing?

Nicol: Sure. You know, I think social networking is critical here. I think one of the new trends that has occurred relatively recently that was in the formative stages when developerWorks was first starting is this notion of social networking.

So keeping with the theme of open technologies, you know, the next natural step for development and developers is to harness the power of social networks. And so you know, I think this goes beyond open source and code development — which has been going on for a while — but takes it to the next level where you're encouraging open communities to interact with each other sort of spontaneously.

And this allows developers to help developers. They share new ideas, insights, and skills and so forth. So, I know the developerWorks team has invested in the My developerWorks effort which I think is a great idea. And I think, again, the more you can connect and help your community like developers be successful, the more you're going to build your reputation and it will serve you well as you take your products to market.

Another area I think is going to be important for developers is cloud computing which is really part of the [A] Smarter Planet story. This is an area that I think will be an important new technology trend for the industry and particularly for developers. This is where, you know, I spend a lot of my time nowadays in the part of IBM that I'm working in, but you know, developers are going to play a big role here.

And once again, there are companies and forces out there trying to create vendor lock-in within a new and emerging technology like cloud computing. So this will be an important role for developers to play in educating developers around open cloud computing — not only how to build applications for the crowd, but how do you do it in an open way?

And in fact, Scott, I think by the time this podcast comes out, there will be an announcement that I've been working on with developerWorks team around a new technology that we've partnered with a company called Zend. Zend is the PHP company, it's the P in LAMP, I guess. So we've been working with them on delivering a universal API for the cloud or a common API for the cloud. And so what this will do — and it will be called the Simple Cloud API [simplecloud.org], so you'll watch for that, but ...

Which means that for a PHP programmer, developer, they can essentially write once and then switch to any cloud provider they want within their config file. So, you write once and then you can switch to Amazon, or Nirvanix, Azure, what have you. And so that really essentially eliminates vendor lock-in.

So the way the cloud is, that sort of has made it a lot easier to make building applications open. But you need to have some enabling technologies like we're going to announce soon, so, I wanted to make you aware of that. And I think it's an important example of just the beginning of things that are going to have to happen around cloud computing to keep it open, particularly for developers.

Which I think points to the fact that there's more work to be done, more opportunity for developerWorks to lead the way in building developers skills around open technologies. I think social networking and cloud computing are just examples of areas where developerWorks is going to play a big role.

developerWorks: Dirk Nicol, IBM Program Director for Emerging Technology and Web 2.0 Evangelism, and one of the founders of developerWorks. Dirk, thanks for taking time to share all this with us. We appreciate it very much.

Nicol: Thanks, Scott. It's been great.

developerWorks: Hear more podcasts on the subject of the 10th anniversary of developerWorks, as well as on other subjects, at ibm.com/developerworks. You can also find us on iTunes and other popular podcast portals. I'm Scott Laningham. Talk to you next time.



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