Behind the scenes with tech trailblazers: Meet Martin Keen

By | 6 minute read | September 15, 2020

“If I’m passionate about something, I’m always eager to see if that can be applied to my career.”

IBM Master Inventor Martin Keen has surpassed 200 patents (putting him among the top 200 most prolific inventors of all time), overseen the production of countless technical publications, helped launch a popular open source project, co-created Coursera training and much more. With expertise in mainframe and enterprise computing, among other subjects, Martin has led an inspiring career combining his personal interests and work. And it doesn’t stop there: outside of work, he’s an avid beer brewer currently engaged in a homebrew challenge that involves brewing 99 beers in 99 weeks.

I had a chance to ask Martin about his work, including how he got involved with invention and what tech he’s most excited about today. Here’s what he had to say:

Tell me a bit about your tech background. What technologies do you consider areas of expertise?

Having started my career in the Hursley Laboratory in the UK, I was brought up on a diet of mainframes, enterprise computing and CICS. I started as an enterprise consultant helping clients around the world modernize their CICS workloads. Many were in the US, which gave me a taste for life stateside and, eventually, the chance to relocate permanently. I’ve stayed current with enterprise computing and CICS, but I’ve also been involved with business process management, data management and many broad skills across multiple disciplines.

How did you develop such a knack for helping technical folks create great content?

This past 15 years, I’ve been in a content development role with the IBM Redbooks team. That started with bringing together subject matter experts and leading them in the development of deeply technical Redbooks publications. The way we present technical information has changed significantly over those 15 years, with a much stronger emphasis on smaller, more consumable pieces of technical content now: papers, blog posts and online video education. Working with technical experts to tell a technical narrative is my favorite part of my job.

As a Master Inventor, you’ve surpassed 200 patents. How did you get started with invention, and where do new ideas come from?

I was introduced to the world of patents through a friend who’s an IBM Master Inventor. I wanted to know how he comes up with inventions that nobody else had ever thought of. That seemed like an immensely daunting proposition. And he told me — a little tongue in cheek — that the way to build novelty was to combine three things: predictive analytics, social media and … anything else. I was telling this to a colleague one day on our way to lunch and we decided right then that we would combine predictive analytics, social media and … napkins! We’d use predictive analytics to analyze social feeds to determine how many people would come to the office on a given day versus working from home, and then use that prediction to figure out how many napkins to put out at the cafeteria that day. Sounds silly but it turns out we were on to something. We replaced “napkins” with “VPN connections” and invented a VPN workload balancing system, which became my very first patent. Since then, I’ve gone on to receive many more. Every single one has been in collaboration with multiple co-inventors. And much like my day job where I’m collaborating with subject matter experts, the best part about inventing is combining the diverse expertise and experiences of my colleagues to come up with something unique.

What are a few of your favorite inventions to date?

I’ve invented in the area of mobile devices, big data analytics and enterprise modernization. There are some really cool ones in there, like the cognitive rendering of physical movements in virtual reality, which came about after meeting the developers of a Star Trek VR game at an IBM event. But the most tangible is the microfluidic shoe, which is a shoe with a sole filled with microfluidic channels that raise and lower to provide walking directions through haptic feedback. If you need to turn left in 30 feet, you’ll feel that direction on the sole of your foot. Steep incline coming up? Cross walk ahead? You’ll feel it before you see it. I’ve worked on a lot of analytical, algorithm-based inventions, but when family and friends ask me about my inventions, I tell them about the shoe!

Earlier this year, you helped launch some COBOL training for beginners that quickly turned into a popular open source project. What are the biggest takeaways from that experience?

Sometimes things just come together in ways you could never predict. I was asked to lead the development of a “COBOL for beginners” deliverable which we’d publish as a book and online video course. Our expectations were not sky high; would we really find an audience of eager beginner COBOL programmers? We ran a residency in Sacramento, California, with a few IBM employees and participants from a government client and a local university. One week in, we were unexpectedly sent home due to the coronavirus. As we continued the project remotely, COBOL began hitting the news. There was an urgent need for COBOL programmers to work on existing applications, things like the unemployment benefit system, which was now overrun with workload. We took our book to the Open Mainframe Project, which proposed that we turn it into an open source project. The week we published the project on Github, our repository received 130,000 views. Since then our book has gone through multiple revisions with entirely new books proposed and written by the community. And the video course has proven immensely popular too.

As producer of the Expert Speaker Series, I imagine you get the opportunity to work with experts across IBM Systems technologies: hybrid cloud, z/OS, storage, SAP HANA and more. What tech trends are you most excited about?

I’m met an incredibly diverse group of experts working on this video series — from developers of autonomous yachts to people assisting in the fight against COVID-19. The overall trend of abstraction has me excited, be that through Docker containerization, hybrid cloud or virtualization. We’re no longer limited to the underlying machines and technologies that we’re versed in. These days, an application developer can write enterprise-grade code and deploy it to a mainframe without knowing the first thing about the underlying mainframe technology. As we abstract underlying hardware, programming language, operating system and physical location, we open up a much broader range of possibilities of who can develop what.

Finally, what’s your advice for people who want to integrate personal passions with their tech careers?

You’re good at the stuff you enjoy doing. My passions truly have shaped my career. I love tech gadgets like VR headsets and drones, and they’ve provided inspiration for patent disclosures. I’m an avid YouTube creator, and I’ve taken the knowledge I’ve learned about videography and video editing and brought it into my day job to become the video lead for my organization. If I’m passionate about something, I’m always eager to see if that can be applied to my career, and it’s helped push me into working with the things that I most enjoy. Now if there was only some way to combine my day job with brewing beer….

This blog post is part of the “Behind the scenes with tech trailblazers” series, where we interview leading IT specialists and architects, distinguished engineers, and experts in AI, hybrid cloud, security and more, providing a glimpse into how they’re helping business around the world succeed with IBM IT infrastructure. A “tech trailblazer” is a demonstrated leader who brings innovation, collaboration and creative thinking to their work, who has an endless thirst for knowledge and is a role model to peers. Stay tuned for more.

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