Meet Mike McCawley
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This week we spotlight another "behind the scenes" guy: Mike McCawley. Mike, in addition to being a 'wicked smaht guy', also has a propensity for verbosity as you'll find in his interview below (and a trait shared by your humble editor at times). But don't be scared by all the words, Mike has some outstanding insights and advice to share, and he has even provided a multitude of links to help! So read on and discover what Mike really thinks about gadgets, search, social media, and so much more!
Tell us a little about yourself: who are you, what is your role in Rational Client Support?
Hi, I'm Mike McCawley (yes, Beth McCawley's husband, you met her a few weeks ago) and I'm an IT Architect for eSupport applications. I work on IT projects that IBM Clients use to get help, answer questions, and communicate with IBM engineers, once they own IBM stuff.
My official title, however, is Wicked Smaht Guy. This was hung on me by my former manager Kelly Smith (thank you very much) and she put it on my business cards. No, this is not your father's IBM.
How long have you been working for IBM and Rational?
Since 2003 / 2002 respectively.
Have you had any other roles in Rational?
I was the manager of the Downloads and Upgrades department, and of the telephony systems for the Rational Support worldwide organization.
What are you currently working on?
IBM Search systems. I mean the big beastly Search applications that everyone uses at the Masthead of IBM.com, the one within the IBM Electronic Support Portal, and a variety of special purpose search applications we use internally. Additionally, I consult for the content management guys (who write all those Technotes and so forth) regarding Search Engine Optimization.
Describe a normal day for you.
First, I wake up and ask Beth if I'm the "early" or "late" IBMer parent. Since we are a two-IBMer marriage, we need to figure out how we stagger our schedules to care both for our agendas and our son.
Four days a week I commute the grueling 4.1 miles to the Littleton MA office, through one traffic light and beautiful New England scenery. Sometimes on a bike. One day a week I commute twenty feet to my home office.
My job is mostly bringing ideas together to solve a practical technical problem. I work on a few teams that have people from all over the planet. For instance, if I'm talking about Enterprise Search, my direct working team has IBMers from Haifa, Moscow, Paris, Toronto, Chicago, Boulder, Poughkeepsie, and Rochester MN. Scheduling meeting times is a chore!
I read email, arrange my schedule of meetings, get some fresh single-origin organic coffee, and get on the phone, which is still the primary collaboration tool. 10:30am every day is scrum, and we protect that time and always go, except when we don't. When I get a block of a couple of hours in a row, I open up my Thinkpad W500 and use Rational Team Concert, find a couple of tasks on my backlog, and start writing code in Rational Application Developer. If I don't find a lot of contiguous time, I work on conceptual plans for the next release or some new project vision, using Lotus Symphony.
I work until I run out of time, then I commute home, sometimes with a stop at the farm for fresh groceries, and plan dinner. We eat as a family every night and don't talk shop. Often one or both of us needs to cover an early or late meeting with IBMers in Europe or Asia, so we are pretty tightly scheduled.
What project are you the most proud of?
Well, this is hard. I've had the opportunity to do some really cool, and some really useful, and sometimes even stuff that is both cool and useful. I'm actually rather proud of something that was really simple, a robot (called Marvin <grin /> ) that would move files from one place to another within IBM, with the twist that the files were very sensitive (client support data) and everything had to be secure, encrypted, highly available, and bomb-proof. I built it very quickly using old technology (lftp, Perl) and it was expected to only run for a few weeks, but it had a two year run in production with a perfect track record. It never complained about aching diodes. Not once.
Do you have an "on the job" hero? If you could "follow" anyone for 24 hours, who would it be?
Well, absolutely, but it's so hard to choose. My position in IBM puts me in daily contact with some of the world's best and brightest people. Dare I name names and risk giving someone a big head? OK, I will, Matt Cutts at Google.
Are you a gadget person? What type of gadgets do you use?
"Gadgets" is so old skool. There is only one gadget: the Smartphone. I use an iPhone, myself. We don't talk about gadgets anymore, we talk about apps. (Can you tell I work in Software Development?) Have you seen PayPal's iPhone check cashing?
What's the coolest piece of tech news you've heard lately?
What's up with a 7" tablet and why does everyone need to make one? You got a 4" phone, and a "page-sized" tablet, why on earth do we need something in the middle? Cool? Not so sure, but a whole lot of folks seem to be betting they will be.
What is your favorite part of working for Rational Client Support?
Oh, now this is gonna be the part of this interview that raises eyebrows. And it's not just a Rational statement, but an IBM statement.
I love the peoples. Everyone says "the people" but I do mean "peoples," as in diversity. Here, in IBM Rational, I am surrounded by folks of every possible physical, ethnic, sexually-oriented, religious, national, economic, political, tattooed, and yes even blue-suited description you can imagine. (Some executives have tattoos and some engineers wear suits - whatever.) None of those labels matter here. The only thing that matters, once an IBMer walks in the building, is what they got in their heads, how they can contribute to solving a client's problem and making the planet a little smarter. I really mean it, the way we all inter-operate, work together, respect each other is, in my mind, a model of how the rest of the world should work. I'm surrounded by the best people, and people at their best. Sounds like a commercial, but it's real. Almost unreal. This is a very special place.
What inspires you in your work? What are you passionate about?
Oh, Search. I mean, the next kind of search engines, the linguistically aware ones. There is a problem with search as you know it now, and that is: you are a human and you need to ask a computer to find stuff for you. You, the human, need to understand something about computers to be successful. You need to know the right words to type into that little box. Authors need to know how to classify and publish data so it will be found. I want to reverse that. I want to teach computers how humans work. I want authors to do what they do, I want searchers to ask in plain language, and the machines have enough intelligence to understand not only what authors and searchers are saying, but what they mean, and connect the two.
Ultimately I want computers to know what you meant to say, not just what you said. Then give you what you need, not just what you asked for. Fortunately, we are very likely to see this happen, perhaps very soon, and I'm proud and pleased to be working on these technologies every day.
In your spare time, if you have any, what hobbies or activities interest you?
Well, my spare time profile has changed dramatically now that we're parents. However, in addition to being a professional nerd, I am a somewhat accomplished scuba diver, a private pilot, and a pretty good cyclist, however not so good as my wife. At one point I've had seven salt-water reef aquariums. I cook with passion using whatever ingredients show up from our CSA farm membership. I play drums, guitar, and now bass with more enthusiasm than talent. But not so much of that now; mostly I practice at being a good father.
When did you first become interested in computers?
Oh, interested ... around 1982 when I got my Commodore 64. When I went through college (the first time) at Penn State, I had joined a research team in the Physics department (electron optics and high vacuum) and was infected with a passion for computers. Ah, those were the days - late nights debugging FORTRAN with my punch cards spread out all over the floor .... When I got a PC/AT model 5170 in 1986, it very literally changed my life. I fell in love with my test equipment and stopped caring so much about the science I was exploring. I changed careers and never regretted it.
What tools / skills have you acquired that you feel are vital to your success in this field?
The ability to focus on something for hours/days at a time. Seriously, IT is about problem solving; and it's a deadline oriented business. As phenomenal as IBM is regarding work-life balance (and I mean it), there will be deadlines and promises you gotta keep. So, sometimes you grab a problem and don't let go until it's solved, however long it takes. Sometimes you do it because a client has a severity one issue, or sometimes because you simply can't move on until you have closure. To steal a line from another colleague, we reward RESULTS, not effort.
What message would you give to someone just starting out in the IT industry?
Learn another language, and let me suggest Chinese. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The planet is shrinking, and all this business of shoveling bits around is fundamentally about empowering people to do their thing. Always remember - science is science, but technology is a humanity, and if humans don't benefit, you're wasting your time.
What specifically drew your interest to become involved in the IT Architect field specifically?
Well, I finally found the career that best suits a "jack of all trades" such as myself. I am not the world's foremost authority on anything, despite trying, but I can command a 'B' average in a whole lot of different things. This is fundamental to good Architecture - you need to know something about everything, not everything about something. When I do need that deep skill, I reach out to my team - I can find an expert on any given topic in seconds via Sametime.
What is on your nightstand with regard to reading?
A stack of stuff. I mix up a bag of science fiction / fantasy (currently reading Patricia Briggs "Mercy" series) with self help (James Martin's "The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything") and classics (Hemmingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" -- again).
What has been your biggest surprise you have witnessed in the technology industry?
The Prell bottle. No question.
What, you ask, about MRIs, the Jarvic heart, the polio vaccine? Lemme ask you: if you drop an MRI machine down a flight of stairs, can you still use it? OK, Mel Brooks aside, I'm still simply stunned that film photography died so suddenly. I mean, I've got a great digital camera setup (I'm still a Nikon partisan) but film is art. Now, E-6 is dead, dead, dead. No one has enough business to keep the developer chemicals fresh. When Kodak stopped production of Kodachrome, Paul Simon and I cried all night.
Is there any technology that you think should get more respect and adoption but does not?
What does it take to get Linux on desktops? It's good enough. For anything. Really.
What is your favorite technology that fizzled or failed to live up to the hype?
Segues. Firewire. SCSI.
Any new technologies that you think are about to break into the big time?
Within a couple of years, every telephone will have bidirectional video. I'm not certain I'm ready for this. I mean, do I really want to see who's calling me? Will telemarketers now have to hire photogenic operators? Do I want them to see me? How do you turn your camera off socially? (No, honey, I'm not at the pub. My camera must be hosed again.) Will there be a mass market for software that alters your appearance with real-time CGI? What will my avatar be? If I'm not seeing the real you, what's the point? Makes my head hurt.
What future technology would make your life easier?
Professionally: Really good machine translation, or a cheap real-time translating machine. (er, app for your smartphone - gadgets are so old skool.) I mean, I want Douglas Adams' babel fish. And I expect he had it right (may he rest in peace), that something like that could be the greatest source of peace and prosperity in the history of the Universe. Imagine if we didn't misunderstand each other so much?
Personally: Putting technology in its place. I want things to take the drudge out of life. Eliminate the repetitive, moronic, soul-destroying tasks, and generally let me focus on activities of value. But, I have to say, I lead a rather privileged life already and I'm thankful for it. I'd rather that inventors use their brains figuring out cheap ways to purify drinking water, or grow food with less fertilizers, or get from point 'A' to point 'B' without using so much fossil fuel. I don't need a new gadget, thank you very much.
What are you doing to make the planet smarter?
I used to teach people how to work with computers. Now, I teach computers how to work with people.
How do you grow your technical skills?
My manager supports my addiction to O'Reilly Press ("Dojo, The Definitive Guide" is on my desk now.) and I take on-line classes at the University of Massachusetts. Additionally, I complete a few IBM Global Campus training modules every year, but mostly, I get involved in a project where I don't know all the answers, and I gotta figure it out on the job.
How do you prefer to find answers to your questions?
Oh, need I say it? Even a dude like me, who works on Search for a living, still uses Google routinely, but... additionally, I very frequently use my technology communities. Much of my work is confidential, so I cannot use what you commonly call social media, but we have team-based equivalents inside IBM and I can use them to connect with experts on practically any subject.
Are you a blogger in the blogosphere? ... Are you a YouTuber? ...Are you an Author? .... Do you Tweet? ...
I was. I would like to be, but you know, not so much anymore. First off, it was a time suck, and my spare time is at a premium. Second, as I was following along this curve, I decided the social media things (Facebook, Twitter, etc) were filling up with noise. The value of the whole thing seems to be declining now, since the signal to noise ratio is decreasing. I don't need to know what breakfast cereal you just discovered, thanks. I am interested in really only a small amount of this stuff, like the fact Ubuntu decided to pick a different default UI in the next release. I need some sort of way to filter all of the social noise out, so I can only see the stuff going on in my digital neighborhood I am interested in, without requiring me to slog through the useless (gratuitous, salacious, inflammatory) other stuff. Yeah, yeah, social media is wet and messy just like real life. Great, there is just so much of it, is my point. I expect this will work itself out presently - I know I'm not the only one who feels like this.
Oh, wait, last point: grammar matters, people. (Or, maybe that's my problem.)
What publications / websites do you read / visit?
Wired. Freshmeat. Slashdot. VeloNews. Bon Appitite. The Onion. Wine Spectator.