Monday, March 9, 2020

Where are we headed: Looking back over half a century!


This past week marked a milestone; and what a trip it has been or as Jimmy Buffett once sang, “Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic. But I had a good life all of the way!”



During a recent road trip in Colorado, Margo and I were late in realizing that we were happily driving along “Richard’s Lake Rd.”. With as much talk as there is of late about Data Lakes, it’s hard not to think about how big a lake might be out there with information about any of us. Really, how big would “Richard’s Lake” turn out to be and just as importantly, should anyone even care? We all know that data is being accumulated at an enormous rate so I have to believe there is a lot of data on me, considering how active I am on social media.

This wasn’t always the case … there was a time, a long time ago, when just getting published in the newspaper meant something. This month it wasn’t just the road trip that had me late in realizing something important. With the arrival of March 2020 I am celebrating fifty years in IT. There are bound to be many who have diligently pursued a career in IT for longer than I have, but that really isn’t the point – it’s not a competition. However, as I look back through all that has transpired for nearly half a century I cannot help but muse, how did I get here?  

With my love of music and with my attraction to clever lyrics, this is perhaps an ideal time to reference the later part of the opening verse of the song, Once in a Lifetime –

And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Quite right; automobiles, houses and a beautiful wife have been featured in much of my writings and when I look at how I did get here then, in all honesty, it’s a mystery to me! I suspect no other NonStop professional has done more to derail their career over such a lengthy span of time as I have managed to do. Given how it is my anniversary and is such an important one, indulge me for just a paragraph or two before I return to the topic of lakes and in particular, data lakes.

While I was recruited in the Australian summer of ’69 by IBM and having passed tests and interviews, I showed up at the Steelworks in Wollongong, south of Sydney, on March 2, 1970. Yes, those who have been so kind to send me birthday greetings over the past couple of days, this was my birthday – in more than one sense, an ominous portent of what was to transpire. Two years in the Steelworks as an IT cadet was followed by stints as a programmer and then systems analyst at Overseas Containers Limited that included a transfer from Sydney to London. And then it was a couple of years with a Caterpillar distributor in Edmonton, Alberta.

However, after eight years working on the user side of the profession I jumped ship and joined the vendor community. In 1977 I returned to Sydney where I became the youngest Australian resident Managing Director (CEO, as it would be called today) of an American software company. In this instance, it was The Computer Software Company (TCSC) – what a name; imagine calling yourself that these days, but in the late ‘70s there weren’t too many software vendors so why not! But this is where the roller-coaster ride really began.

My area of expertise in 1977? Well it was database and in particular, relational database management systems and my product of choice, Datacom/DB. Fair enough, but it was only a few years later that Nixdorf Computers acquired TCSC, launched a plug compatible mainframe where I managed to secure the position of National Manager, Australasia Compatible Information Systems. Start-up and a Managing Director role followed by an acquisition and a senior manager role continued through to 2010 – forty years. Who would have planned such a path or at least, who would have openly admitted that this was their game plan all along.

TCSC to Nixdorf Computer; Systems Technology / Netlink to Tandem Computers; Insession to ACI Worldwide; GoldenGate to Oracle! Except, with this last acquisition, my roller-coaster ride came to an end! There was no room for me at Oracle and in almost every way I consider this to be a bullet well dodged!

While still back in Australia, I was coming to the attention of the media and for a while, Australian Computerworld identified me in articles as a “voice close to the industry”. A moniker that took decades to shake however the upside was that by the time I joined Tandem in Cupertino, I was a regular guest columnist in the Australian Computerworld newspaper. I had even written a couple of feature articles including a four page feature on the arrival of the Tandem Cyclone.

Little did I know that meeting a deadline and dreaming up story lines all those years ago would prove to be every bit as important a cadetship as when I showed up at the Steelworks five decade ago. This was a cadetship too that benefited from the many times I moved country – in all eight international moves – Sydney to London, then to Edmonton, Canada, to Dallas, TX, back to Sydney then of to Raleigh, NC, back to to Sydney again and then to Cupertino, CA. It took me three attempts to finally get the right visas to live full time in the US and for that, I have to thank my managers at Tandem.

Fifty years have passed by and it’s almost as if I can hear familiar lines from a Jimmy Buffett song; I did go to Paris after all. Many times! In fact, I proposed to Margo in Paris. On one occasion I even took an Air France Concorde flight from New York to Paris and it’s really a pity that you can no longer do that. Given I was a non-smoker, I had the whole back section of the Concorde – all 48 seats – to myself which led to much speculation among those seated forward. Bringing this to a close, there is no doubt that the data that could be accumulated about me would probably fill a disk drive. Or, a thumb drive! However, my only response to this would be “good luck” – when you figure it all out, let me know. Perhaps there is a story line after all.

In my conversations of late with HPE folks, there is nary an occasion when privacy and security don’t come up at some point. Writing about where I have worked as I have done here is pretty much acknowledgment that try as I might, I couldn’t have expected to keep it a secret. The message of NonStop has evolved over the past two decades to where it’s now very much about availability, security and scalability. When I first joined Tandem it was very much a message of availability, scalability and data integrity. But I digress – the important message is that now, security is right up there with only availability having a higher marketing priority.

And what have I learnt about security? It’s all really simple it turns out. Just as in the late ‘70s the issue was fallibility of hardware that in turn gave rise to Tandem that survived single points of failure, security needs to be addressed in the same way. Start with the real foreboding that any system any application will be penetrated and with this knowledge, build security solutions that are based on the premise that you will be compromised. Someone will get it – it’s as inevitable as a hardware failure was all that time ago.

Dig a moat, build a wall, disconnect from the internet, whatever – the bad guys will find a way. Fortunately, for NonStop it will be a little more difficult than most, but as the statistics of late highlight there is a marked increase in “insider penetration.” Clearly, while a NonStop system hasn’t suffered a hack to date it may very well happen at some point so moats, walls and isolation will only get you so far. The obvious solution? There are numerous NonStop vendors already all over this – make what you might find inside a NonStop totally useless. Nothing in the clear, whatsoever.

In the past this wasn’t always an option but with the speeds of processors these days, taking a few extra steps to make it all worthless to anyone other than those authorized to access the NonStop is a starting point. As for those accessing NonStop I continue to be a huge fan of two-step verification. I am no real expert in security, but fortunately there are those in the NonStop community who are and even so, sometimes we just make it too easy to get to our stuff!

I may be cavalier in my approach to protecting my own presence inside the ether and yes, I have been subject to malware and even ransomware attacks but in all cases, ignorance is bliss. And so far, nothing has materialized. However, when it comes to our NonStop systems, this simply doesn’t fly. Privacy isn’t my thing either. As a blogger I am fair game to anyone building a really bad profile of me through selective use of stories I have written. And yet, that data lake out there; that Richard’s Lake, just has to be full of data about me that I suspect can only be considered confusing at best. 
    
On the other hand there are those institutions and indeed countries where this is a big deal so again, take as many steps as you must to make information unreadable – sure, a Cray will crack the code eventually but who has a Cray these days? And I know multicore Intel chips can match a Cray in some instances on tasks like this, but again, I am simply not worth it! Just call me – I will fill you in on what you might want to know! And yes, that was me doing a U-Turn on the Sydney Harbor Bridge one night. Very late at night!

Five decades in IT and it has all passed by so quickly. Where are we headed? What five decades have taught me is that as soon as we see a dominant technology or solution on the horizon, just over the horizon is something completely different! And those data lakes? Water always wins and sooner or later, the need for lakes will evaporate – it’s all going to be a memory! The only good news for the NonStop community is that I will not be blogging for another fifty years. That ship has most definitely sailed. But to all of you who have joined me on in my topsy-turvy roller-coaster ride that has been fifty years of IT, many thanks. Simply put, I couldn’t do what I do today if it wasn’t for all the missteps I took along the way. And here I am, finally: The CEO of me!

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