While culture is of the utmost importance to enable digital transformation, there are many other milestones in a successful DevOps journey. In this DevOps Chat, join Alan Shimel, Editor-in-Chief, DevOps.com, as he hosts Bryson Koehler, GM, Distinguished Engineer and CTO of IBM Watson and Cloud Platform, and Shelbee Smith-Eigenbrode, Senior Software Engineer/IT Architect at IBM.
Learn about challenges that The Weather Company (TWC) faced during the transition from TWC, to being TWC: an IBM company. Koehler is CTO of IBM’s newly formed Watson and Cloud Platform, as well as GM and distinguished engineer for IBM. Prior to this role, he served as executive vice president, distinguished engineer and CIO/CTO of TWC. He has an extraordinary record of leading significant business transformations and underlying cultural shifts. To do so successfully, Koehler maintains cultural change must first be incited in tech companies at the developer level. While at TWC, Koehler built a DevOps culture and practice that encourages transparency, accountability and collaboration. It is his mission to replicate this model in the transformation of IBM’s culture from a legacy IT enterprise to a true cloud platform company.
As usual the streaming audio of our conversation is below with the written transcript below that:
Alan Shimel: Hi, everyone. This is Alan Shimel, Editor-in-Chief of DevOps.com, here for another DevOps Chat. We have a special edition of DevOps Chat this time and we’re joined by two special guests. First of all, we have Bryson Koehler, GM and Distinguished Engineer and CTO of IBM Watson and Cloud Platform. Bryson, welcome.
Bryson Koehler: Thanks so much, great to be here.
Alan Shimel: Thank you. And we are lucky to be joined by a DevOps Dozen winner, Shelbee Smith-Eigenbrode of IBM, and also a DevOps.com columnist. Shelbee, thank you for joining us along with Bryson.
- Smith-Eigenbrode: Thank you for having us.
Alan Shimel: Of course when Shelbee is not writing for DevOps.com, Shelbee is a Senior Software Engineer/IT Architect at IBM.
Bryson, let’s turn to you first, if it’s okay. First of all, you’re involved with IBM Watson, and I think everyone kind of feels a little bit about Watson like I did about the space program when I was young, which is that’s cool. Everybody wants to be an astronaut and I think everyone can’t wait to see how Watson changes our lives. How did you come to be involved in the Watson program?
Bryson Koehler: Well, I was the CTO of the Weather Company prior to the acquisition by IBM. If you think about the Weather Company, the Weather Company really at its core was a decision company. We helped people in businesses make smarter decisions, and we used a lot of machine learning techniques in our weather forecasting and how we looked at creating those inputs into our decision applications, whether those were businesses or consumers. So we’ve been doing that kind of work for quite some time, and if you look at Watson, Watson is a very revolutionary way to look at cognitive learning, machine learning, and augmented intelligence capabilities. So they’re very similar and they go hand-in-hand.
So when you look at how do we take Watson forward, Watson becomes smarter every day as it ingests more data and it learns more. So the more we can teach Watson and the more we can help Watson learn and become educated, the smarter it will become. So it becomes a data scaling problem, and that was a problem that we had been solving at the Weather Company.
So I think there was just a very natural marriage between the work that the Weather Company team had been doing, the work that we wanted to do with Watson as we continued to evolve it and its capabilities. So I’ve been honored to have a role with helping Watson move forward now in kind of its next stage of evolution.
Alan Shimel: Sure. If you don’t mind, let’s just stay on that one for a while, Bryson, and Shelbee, if you want to add in. This is a fairly new kind of not department, but a fairly new grouping of IBM Watson and Cloud platform. What exactly – I mean it kind of says it for itself, but, Bryson, is there anything special about it that our audience should know about?
Bryson Koehler: Yeah. I think it is amazing and really only someone like IBM has the breadth of capabilities to do what we are doing. Bringing together all of the groups around IBM that have been working on cloud native capability, whether it’s in our video team and our storage team, the infrastructure group, Watson, our analytics team, the Weather Company itself, all of these groups were working in and around cloud native capabilities.
What we have set forth to do is to bring all of those groups together and make sure that as we journey forward that we are building a single unified platform. The view of the Watson and Cloud group together is around a unified platform that’s very developer-friendly, focused on cloud native capabilities, that really enables us to bring to life not just a bunch of piece parts. Right?
You can go to our competition and you can find ways to get individual services. We offer those, too. But how do we do it in a much richer way? How do we make data less of a conversation around, “Hey, I have some data. I need to store it somewhere,” and how do we bring data to life? How do we take that data and actually treat it as a living, breathing part of the organization, where as we ingest it and as we enrich, and as we use that to create better and smarter signals and capabilities for our applications to learn from, we need to treat all of this as a unified platform, not a set of bespoke capabilities or service offerings.
So it’s really exciting when you think about bringing together video, for example, as well as then the image and video recognition capabilities that Watson has. So plumbing in the ability to ingest a stream of video or content from images, having Watson natively there to be able to recognize and manipulate and do things, do metadata tagging or additional enrichment of that content as part of literally a pipeline versus it being, “Oh, I’ve got to now reach out over – I’ve ingested the data. Now I’ve got to store the data. Now I need to reach out over here and make another service call. I’ve got to create another application that manages that service call.”
We’re trying to make the life of the developer easier, and by providing a native platform that is pre-built, pre-plumbed and really focused at incredible data analytics and data management capabilities, I think we have a real differentiator on our hands, and we’re really excited about bringing these teams together to do that.
Alan Shimel: Very cool. Shelbee, let me turn a little bit away from the Watson stuff and talk about you recently did a DevOps blog on culture transformation. Interestingly enough, you interviewed Bryson about it. We haven’t really spoken about DevOps and cultural transformation here. I’m interested in why. What made you think Bryson was a cultural transformation kind of dude, for lack of a better word?
- Smith-Eigenbrode: First off, let me just say that at the time I reached out to Bryson he was not in my management chain. So it wasn’t a brown-nosing activity at all. I had the opportunity to work within the Weather Company and work with some of the Weather Company employees who are now of course IMB’ers, while working on a project to move an application to the Sun platform and utilize some of the Sun services.
During my time that I was there and able to work with some of the employees there, I was so impressed with the culture that they had. They had a great balance between agility and time to market, but also having that quality of operational readiness. Of course for me operational readiness has always been key, because I’ve always felt the pain of not having that included upfront.
Then this was a terrific collaboration with passionate people that were extremely skilled, one, but you could also tell that they actually enjoyed their jobs. They loved what they did. They were extremely willing to help others. It was always very quick to find who was the expert in this area, a very high degree of empowerment as well.
So being able to see that firsthand, I really wanted to reach out to Bryson, because I know he had led cultural change at the Weather Company, to get his views on how that transformation went, what he did to enable it, and then also how he’s planning to bring that forward into the broader IBM Watson today. He was very willing to help me and provide input. So that was why I reached out.
Alan Shimel: Excellent. So now, Bryson, Shelbee has put you on the spot. What are some of your secrets? What’s the secret sauce here? Because that’s probably the single biggest question we get from our audience, which is: how do you do this culture thing? How do you lead the transformation from a cultural perspective? What do you want to tell our audience?
Bryson Koehler: I would say, first of all, everybody that recognizes the cultural challenge, they’re definitely on the right track. All of the transformation that a company that I have had the privilege of leading over the years, they are not technical challenges. They’re all people challenges. They’re all cultural challenges. And fundamentally, at the end of the day, the technical success of your strategy, whilst you need a good architecture and you need a good plan, you more than anything need great people and great culture.
So first, you’ve got to focus on that and you’ve got to spend the time on it. It doesn’t just happen. Everybody spends a lot of time in front of a whiteboard working on their architecture. But how much time do the leaders really spend doing the same thing, but focusing on their people and culture?
So to me it starts with a very simple premise. I want people to love what they do. I want you to get out of your bed every morning and I want you to love what you do. I want you to be excited about coming into the office. And if you don’t love what you do, then I want to help you go find a different job. Life is too short for any of us not to love what we do.
We haven’t all won the lottery. We all have to get up and earn a living, so we might as well enjoy it. I think that it sounds simple, but you’ve got to create an environment where people are free to actually love what they do.
I think understanding the mission is important. Why are we building this? Why is this feature important? Why is this product important? You can find a great mission in just about any industry or any application or any part of the business as to why it’s critically important that the team excel at what they’re doing.
Then I think you have to allow decision making to be pushed down to people. You need to learn to make very fast decisions. I always tell my team, “If you walk into a meeting and you don’t know who’s making the decisions or what decisions need to be made, you should disband the meeting and just leave.” People get frustrated if there’s just too much time being spent discussing things and not enough action being taken.
So I look to create an environment where we have high velocity decision making, where we’re willing to take some risks together as a team, where we are passionate and love what we do. It starts with me, it starts with my leadership team, and it starts with the employees. Everybody has a piece and a role to play in bringing all of this together, and you have to work on it every day.
This is not a, “Hey, we had an offsite and we talked about culture. We had three PowerPoint slides and now we all feel loved.” This is something that every single day we have to lead by example. We have to reinforce the energy and the passion for what we’re doing. We have to enable our leaders to be able to make quick decisions. We have to have the courage to change, and the courage and the guts to admit mistakes and move on from that, and enable the team to feel like they’re in a safe place as long as they’re working hard and loving what they’re doing and passionate about their outcome, that they’re in a safe place.
I think it takes time to create that environment. It doesn’t happen overnight. I have to reinforce it every day. So you have to have the patience that you’re going through a technical transformation, have the patience to do the cultural transformation, too, realize you’re going to have to repeat the same message a thousand times, over and over again. Over time it begins to stick and over time, as the winds happen, it builds momentum and pretty soon you have a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the team kind of takes care of itself and now you’ve actually created a native culture, that as a new person joins the organization they’re converted to your way of working and they’re converted to a way that you’re proud of.
Startups have it easy because they start with employee one and then employee two, and the culture is kind of created organically over time. But when you start with large teams of people in a preexisting culture or workplace, or if you’ve brought two companies or teams together that each have their own cultures, you don’t have that luxury to start with a clean sheet of paper. So, honestly, there’s just no substitute to realizing that that is a key part of a leader’s job is to work at that every day.
Alan Shimel: Got it. Bryson, you described a situation and I guess your real-life situation is that to the umpteenth degree. Coming from a company like the Weather Company, I think that had under 1,000 employees, right?
Bryson Koehler: The Weather Company was just around 1,000 employees, yes.
Alan Shimel: And now working even just within a division of IBM, but nevertheless it’s IBM. I forgot – I think it’s 400,000 or some crazy number. How do you take that? How do you scale that? How do you take that philosophy, that cultural mantra and bring that to an organization the size of IBM?
Bryson Koehler: Ha. It takes time. There’s no substitute to that. I’m spending my time going around, meeting with as many teams as possible, and still hold to the town halls and still bring people together. Town halls are bigger now than they would have been at the Weather Company, but the Weather Company had offices in Atlanta and Boston and New York and San Francisco.
The town halls now, we still have them in different parts of the country and different parts of the world. They’re just bigger, but my style and my approach doesn’t change. It is continue to reinforce the journey we’re on, the vision that we have, the reason why our mission is so critically important, the role that each person plays, why we have to do this together as one team to create one platform, not an individual kind of bespoke set of capabilities that everybody has done independently, but how we have to do this together as one IBM Cloud approach.
I think it resonates with people, but I also don’t think for a second that just because I – last week I was in Germany, and I was in Ireland meeting with teams there. I can’t just check that off my list and say, “Okay, Ireland is good. Germany is good.” I have to continue to reinforce that, help and encourage the teams, get back out there, share the wins, showcase the challenges, and just be very visible and never disappear from those teams.
I look at is as kind of like a rollercoaster. As those cars are clickety-clacking up the track to get up to the top of the hill, if that chain that was pulling it up to the top broke before the car or the set of cars got enough over the top, it would just roll back down to the station. So if you’re thinking about the organizational change, you’ve got to get enough momentum over the top of the hill, so that if the chain broke the weight would actually carry it down the other side.
So my job is to continue to push and encourage that change every day, to ensure that, yeah, at the end I do want the momentum of the team to carry it forward on its own, but it doesn’t just happen because you went and had one meeting. This is an ongoing, every day, live this, breathe this and own this. It’s just going to be a constant reinforcement and encouragement to the team that we are serious. We are going to do what we said we were going to do. We are going to have fun and enjoy and love what we do.
People want to believe that, but I think a lot of times, “I’ve heard that. I’m not really sure if I believe it. Is he serious? Are we really actually going to do what we say we’re going to do? Are we going to follow through or will this too pass?” You have to stick with it, because you don’t want anybody ever doubting or believing that you’re not serious in the mission that you’re one.
Alan Shimel: Absolutely. You know, Bryson, you brought up another point earlier on in your last comment, which is I think fostering cultural change and change in general isn’t a hit and run exercise. You can’t stop in, in Ireland or Russia or wherever and say, “Okay. I talked to them and they’re good now. Let me move on. Maybe I’ll stop here next year or whenever.” It’s a constant tendering. It’s like a shepherd and their flock or a farmer and his crops. I think to do it right, these groups and so forth, they do need – not constant attention, but steady attention.
Bryson Koehler: I don’t view this as my employees. This is my family. It needs love and encouragement and coaching and guidance and feedback, positive or negative, every day.
Alan Shimel: Agreed.
Bryson Koehler: That’s why I was saying, to me, we spend so much time as technical leaders working on either architecture or budgets or contracts and all of these kind of gross behind closed doors things, although doing architecture is my fun. But do we spend the same amount of time being leaders to our people and encouraging and growing them? If we spent as much time doing that as we did all of the other things, I think more of our problems would take care of themselves.
Alan Shimel: Agreed. Guys, we went way over our 12 to 15 minute time allotment, so we’re going to need to wrap up. But before we do, Bryson, I wanted to ask you my famous closing question. That is: if you had to recommend one book for our audience to read that might help them in their careers or in their life in general, what book would that be?
Bryson Koehler: My answer to that might be a little bit old. The back out I think in 2003.
Alan Shimel: That’s not old.
Bryson Koehler: I’m just not the latest business book of the day. Bob Lutz, who was an executive at many of the auto companies over the years, wrote a book called Guts. It was around the guts and courage of leadership in transformational times in challenging business environments. I still to this day find that to be one of the best books around the type of culture I try to drive in the team. So I would recommend reading Guts by Bob Lutz.
Alan Shimel: Got it, excellent book. Well, Bryson Koehler, thank you so much for being this episode’s guest on DevOps Chat. Shelbee, always a pleasure to have you on here as well. We hope to have you both on again in the future.
You know, we didn’t even mention – Bryson, will you be at InterConnect, IBM InterConnect?
Bryson Koehler: I will absolutely be there and I hope that all of your podcast listeners sign up. It’s going to be a really great conference this year, a little bit different than we’ve done it in the past. You’re going to hear, I think, a lot of new messages from IBM and some really exciting positioning of where we’re headed, and how a lot of what we’ve been talking about here at the platform come to life. So you don’t want your audience to miss out on being there. Come to InterConnect in March; it’ll be great.
Alan Shimel: Absolutely. And I am doing a panel there on “DevOps: It Takes a Village,” which is very much in line with some of the concepts you’ve been talking about, Bryson.
Bryson Koehler: I will come and be in the room with you, and I’ll meet your fans and your audience there. It’ll be great.
Alan Shimel: All right. We may drag you onto the panel. Bryson, thanks very much for being with us here today on DevOps Chat. Shelbee, as I said, keep up the great work, and we look for more columns on DevOps.com from you as well.
But until next time, this is Alan Shimel of DevOps.com. Thanks for listening, everyone, and we’ll speak to you or listen to you all soon.