Meet John Cohn, IBM Fellow and IoT chief agitator

By | 8 minute read | December 22, 2016

Software engineer

Let’s start by finding out about who you are and what you do at IBM?

I’m an IBM fellow, I’ve been in IBM for 35 years, I joined the Watson Internet of Things (IoT) group in July 2015 shortly after it was created and in February of this year, I began working directly for Harriet Green with the main goal of working on the Munich lab, where I’m the chief scientist… and the chief agitator.

You’ve been at IBM for 35 years and you have over 70 patents – in your opinion, is IBM’s third transformation its most challenging?

I think we’re always transforming, between myself, my wife and my late father-in-law, we have over 79 years at this company and it has been transforming since I knew it. Sometimes I think we choose to view the present through a very dramatic lens, but we are always transforming and yes, we face great challenges now. I just think sometimes we do ourselves a disservice by telling ourselves that we’ll be through with this transformation and then we’ll be done. I think that’s a utopian view because beyond this hill there’s another hill – we should be used to all that constant reinvention. What’s important is how we react as a company and as individuals. I’m proud of how IBM has reinvented itself many times over its  105 years, it a story of constant reinvention. I can’t name companies that have been around that long, yet remain as current as we have.

What excites you most about being a Software Engineer working in the Internet of Things?

That’s a funny question since I am actually a Hardware Engineer, but that’s what makes it fun for me. IoT is not just a software enterprise, it is an integrated hardware and software thing. My history is making chips – before taking this job, I didn’t even know how to spell IoT – my best credentials for taking this job is that I love chips. My best instincts about IoT come from what I make in my own shop. I spend my free time making IoT stuff, I always have, long before it was called IoT.

I’m a hardware nerd, and love trying to understand physical devices. I would say I understand chips pretty well having designed them for 30 years. I understand embedded software pretty well, after at least as many years as doing embedded software as doing chips. The fun challenge for me is understanding how embedded code relates to clouds processing, etc. I often think we focus too much on moving everything to the cloud. In my own mind I think that the magic comes from the blending of the device and the cloud. If you come at it too much as a software person, you may incorrectly assume that cloud can do everything, and that just simply isn’t true. I think refining how we use both the cloud and the edge is very exciting.

When I started in this business, doing computers back in the early 80s, you had to really think about how the constraints of the hardware. E.g. How much memory, how many registers, that sort of thing.  Now with IoT, there are many things on the edge, like door locks and switches and car controllers that are such simple devices, It feels like ‘Back to the Future’ It’s like being back in the early days on computing, where you have to account for how much you can do with low powered devices. I love that challenge.

What are key things you keep in mind when researching and inventing IoT technology?

Good question. I think the big thing I have to keep in mind is that technology alone has its limits.  I’m about the nerdiest technologist you’ll ever meet. I come from a device physics background, I love the way electrons move around and I love materials, and the physics of devices. As much as I love the technology, I have to keep reminding myself that most things we invent are not linked to technology breakthroughs alone. It happens, but it is rarely because you can do something with technology that someone else can’t.

The real value is in solving some problem that someone actually  has. Most big innovations – think web search , AirBnB or Uber – work not because there was a new piece of chip or software technology, they work because they invented a new business model. It’s even more important for a technology nerd like myself to remind themselves that it is very important to think big picture.

You often must anticipate what someone will need and not just what they think they need.

You are heavily involved in ‘IoTising’ the new IoT HQ in Munich, what is the bigger picture here and how will this positively impact IBM?

I love my role in Munich. I’m actually walking around in our Munich Building as we’re talking. We have to be able to show how this building can come alive using IBM’s IoT.

There are several things we want to do here. First, we need to show how IoT can make a difference in the world. We need to be able to show real commercial use cases, we have to be able to show the value of IoT, both in a utilitarian kind of way, but also in an engaging way. We must be able to show why our IoT platform enables things that others can’t. We also want to show people how IoT can ‘enchant’ things.  We have these really cool demonstrations of enchanted technology here. For example, right now I’m using a device that can take  my blood pressure and pulse by me just by looking at a camera.

Another beauty of this building is that it isn’t just our Watson IoT Division, we have Commerce, Cognitive Services, Cloud Services, and people from our Research division.  One of the things we’re doing here is to bring people together from across the Company to work on projects. One of the other great things about this place is that we’re co-located with partners and clients. It was very recently announced that one of the floors here will be one of our big partners, BMW. I have a meeting today with another partner who is an incubator, a small business startup, which is going to be on one of these floors. Having that tight interaction with clients and people, this building gets us all in one place. There aren’t very many places where we have all bases covered in this way – and that is why I think IoTising the building is how we show it is real.

What must Software and Hardware Engineers do to ensure IoT can thrive in an era where technology is ever changing?

Interesting question… I think we sometimes frame IoT as a technology unto itself and I think that does the industry an disservice. IoT is a way of getting something done, it’s a source of data, a way of interacting with the planet. Relatively few people start out with the idea that I’m going to go out and do an ‘IoT thing’. We may think that way, but the world goes out and thinks I want to out and solve a manufacturing / automation / car driving problem. IoT is an application of existing technologies like  – connectivity, security, storage, sensing in new ways.

I would say, like any technology, you’ve got to keep learning as things evolve so quickly. Standards models, communications models, usage modes – think about how cellular activity has changed. How things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have revolutionized the way that things connect. They change what it means to be connected to something. We have to keep nimble and open. You have to continuously replenish your toolbox because if you get stuck in your favorite way of doing something, you miss the next thing. You can discard patterns easily, and try new things. I started at this company using punch card, and now I do most of my work in Java Script. Being Nimble is a lot of fun.

Where do you think the next big IoT ‘thing’ will come from and what will it be?

There is so much innovation happening in IoT right now… I’m a huge believer in the power of Open Source– our ability to share and build on other people’s ideas is a huge enabler for innovation. I think the next big thing will come from a mix of big companies, universities and kids in their garage. I think it will be new businesses enabled by new un-thought of stuff.  I am particularly interested in the fusion of IoT and artificial intelligence like we’re doing in Watson IoT… Imagine what it will be like when you can bring the power of Watson to billions of devices and have Watson learn from billions of people. And have millions of developers using Watson, that will be huge.

You’re listed as a ‘Distinguished Agitator’, with this in mind, what would you say your biggest contributions to IoT are?

I keep agitator as a reminder to what I just said, as a reminder to think differently. I think one of the biggest things that I try to bring to the organization, is a strong sense of play. The idea that things are very hands on and maybe a little ad hoc, it’s important to try and demonstrate stuff to engage people and get them passionate about what we’re doing. I think that’s something I do, and it is very close to my heart. That playful part of experimentation, creative risk taking, imagination – there are certainly lots of people in the organization who are smarter than I am, lots of people who are more thorough, more accomplished engineers, but I have to say the agitator role is something I take to heart and it’s super important to be creative, take risks and play also prevents you from getting too proprietary over who started the idea. It’s a great way to deal with what other people do.

To find out more about John Cohn’s attitude to play, see his TEDxDelft talk, or visit our website for more on IoT.