This is my IBM

This is John. Creating collaborative projects with universities

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Welcome to episode 7 in our interview series, This is my IBM.

This week, I chat to John McNamara, Master Inventor and currently UK University Program Lead. John provides an insight into his technical career to date, shares his passion for collaborative learning opportunities, innovation, and mentoring, as well as an enduring love of science fiction.

Hi John, great to speak to you today. Can you tell me a bit more about your current role at IBM?

Hi, I’m John McNamara and I look after the University programs in the UK. I’m also a Master Inventor and a professor at Sheffield Hallam University and UCL.

And how long have you been at IBM?

I always wanted to work for IBM. I remember my interview way back in the mid 1990s; I had done a dissertation around non-linear dynamics and the interviewer seemed keen to hire me because of that experience. Yet when I joined, I quickly found myself working with mainframes, I learnt COBOL and JCL and started my technical journey into consultancy and invention at IBM. And the rest, as they say, is history – I’m still here, and now help mentor both students and new IBM starters.

And how did your current role come about?

I became responsible for the technical team at the Innovation Centre at IBM Hursley – we worked with business partners to explore ideas and problem solving in a simple and collaborative way. I saw it as an opportunity to involve university students in the process; we combined the work with partners on solving their problems with providing university students with the opportunity to innovate and get involved in cutting-edge projects, learning about AI, Cloud and developing the skills they really needed if they want a career in the industry. Now one of my main goals is to bridge that gap between academia and industry, through industry Proof of Concepts, using IBM technology, developed by universities.

And how successful is the university program now?

We touch between 20,000 and 25,000 students a year with mentoring workshops and other courses. And these shared projects are the jewel in the crown – they are great learning opportunities for the students. To see the value that both students and partners get from it is really inspiring.

And is there anything that has surprised you about the role?

The mentoring element surprised me. When I started, I felt it would be all one way – sharing more about my career and experiences. But it’s two-way – and I end up making lots of contacts in the industry working on some interesting things. After working on a project as a student, someone will get back in touch later down the line now working in industry and suggest that they would like to do a project together to try and solve a different problem. We are seeing a lot of that now around ESG and sustainability. For example, we recently did a project with UCL for WaterAid using Watson. Now that student is working for WaterAid as a Strategic Technologist focusing on IBM Watson technology, and we are starting new projects together.

And have you learnt something about yourself in the role?

I’ve been able to really push and test myself in this role. I was never comfortable with large scale public speaking – for a long time, I didn’t like it at all. When I started doing lectures, I would ask for feedback and the students were always honest. By learning what was and wasn’t working, I was able to develop the skills needed for delivering lectures and workshops and it helped me a lot for my own personal eminence. Now I do large scale lectures frequently, and even had the honour of giving a lecture live at The Royal Institution.

Have you seen many students come through the program and become IBMers?

Yes, it is always great when those we have worked with at university choose to come and work for IBM. There are some talented people doing amazing things in IBM and I’m proud to know I played a small part in why they are here.

Throughout your career, you’ve worked with a quite a range of technologies and across many different industries. How important is it to you that you have that breadth of opportunity?

Having first-hand experience of different technologies and how to apply them in different situations is important to me. Recently, I did a talk to a group of clinical medical entrepreneurs about the applications of AI in health. Due to the collaborative projects with universities, I was able to give concrete examples of what we had achieved, and this allowed us to grow interest in IBM technology, as well as build our industry/academic network.

What do you think of how we learn at IBM?

I really like our learning system and the focus we have on gaining new skills, staying relevant and the fact we are all trusted to do that. I also like the rigour that goes with it, with accreditation and badges. I’ve always been into gaming, so I love getting badges!

Do you have an example of something new you learnt recently?

I was asked to give a presentation around AI’s role in the future of taxation. Perhaps when you hear the word taxation that doesn’t sound the most interesting of topics. But it is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever researched – because when you investigate taxation, you look at work, demographics, movement of people, new roles, and jobs. Effectively you look at society and where it’s going for the over the next twenty years.

You’ve had a long career at IBM. Is there anything that continues to surprise you about IBM?

The constant opportunities to experiment and be creative to improve what you do in your job. For example, when I was the information architect of our IBM Messaging product, to demonstrate how robust, flexible and inexpensive IBM Messaging is, we created a space probe, launched it into space and used IBM Messaging to connect the probe to the IBM Innovation Centre in Hursley for less than £500. We used the telemetry to change the lighting, floor movement etc in the IoT Lab in real-time to physically represent the sensor data being sent back to Earth with IBM Messaging. Even though I don’t think many of our customers are going into space, it became one of the most popular demonstrations in the IBM Innovation Centre, as it was a daring challenge that everyone could grasp. The questions our Partners would ask about the challenge naturally led to applications of IBM Messaging in an array of other industries. There are not many companies that will allow you the latitude and thought leadership to do that.

You mention being a visiting professor to several universities. What does that entail?

It means you are a trusted advisor to a university. I provide mentorship and teaching to their students on a variety of courses – from undergraduates studying computer science to people from industry studying for an executive MBA., to PhD students. I provide direction for the shape of their courses, particularly when it comes to industrial relevance. You help students cross that chasm between what they learn at university and applying that in a work environment.  And also you become a kind of door into IBM for people – IBM is so vast and people contact me to ask if IBM can advise on all manner of different topics.

And outside of work – is there anything you like spending your time doing?

My dad was a good amateur boxer, and although I eventually became competent, I never really enjoyed getting hit, so when I got the chance to switch, I took up judo and wrestling and I really enjoy that. Although I have to say that since COVID, it’s a passion I should reignite. I also love science fiction comics – as a child they were my route into reading, drawing and technology. I felt compelled by the stories to learn, and I still collect them now. In fact, I’ve got thousands of 2000ad comics at home – much to my wife’s dismay! And during COVID last year, I reignited my love of video games; I’m a big Call of Duty fan.

Learn more about IBM Global University Programs here >

And finally, join us again to hear from the next IBMer who goes under the spotlight and discover how they turn ideas into action. What inspires them. What has surprised them. And what they mean when they say This is my IBM.

IBMer Communications

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