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Also posted on: The Norfolk Punt
I was talking to an old friend recently, and he was telling me how his 7 year old daughter had discovered computing – with Excel, at school. And there’s a problem for IBM: at 7 this little girl, like many kids, already knows that “Microsoft makes computing”.
For some time now, I have been suggesting that IBM should rebrand its products for those that don’t automatically “think IBM”. IBM has a huge reputation in the enterprise – but small developer startups probably think “this isn’t for me”. It is, of course – IBM is well aware of the importance of capturing hearts and minds before they become part of the next big thing – and I was postulating a new brand without any of the old baggage – Bluemix, perhaps, and an ecosystem that helped developers monetise their code, not just build it.
Well, perhaps I didn’t think this through fully back then but it now seems that IBM has, as evidenced by the launch of Tech.London this week, complete with backing by Boris Johnson, our well-known Latin-speaking Mayor. I’m not sure I’d have all that much confidence in an app that was “built by Boris” – although I have seen serious suggestions that programming actually needs language skills rather than maths skills. As well as IBM (the Tech.London site is built on IBM cloud, including access to services from the Bluemix PaaS – Platform as a Service), and the London Mayor’s Office, other sponsors include the global SaaS funding platform Gust. And Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia (who says he lives in London, for the culture and the lifestyle, rather than Silicon Valley) gave some words of encouragement at the Launch.
So, just what is Tech.London? Well, according to Sandy Carter, (General Manager, IBM Cloud Ecosystem and Developers), it’s largely a matchmaker site for the digital ecosystem, putting innovative developers and start-ups in contact with sources of the VC and Angel funding, and other services, that they need to grow their businesses. She recognises, wisely, that VCs etc are likely to have a better track record than IBM at finding businesses worth investing in. IBM contributes free services on Bluemix – and serious stuff, including cognitive services from Watson, not just “development toys”. Sandy is also heavily involved in the Women in Tech working group and “girls that code” etc – the lack of women in high tech is probably one of the worst examples of waste in business today. One of the good things about IBM is the number of women engineers in positions of power (not just Sandy, but Gina Poole, VP Developer Outreach and developerWorks; Meg Divitto, VP Software; and others). We should always remember that Ada, Countess Lovelace was the first programmer and that business computing programming languages were just-about invented by Admiral Grace Hopper!
Sandy sees an initiative like Tech.London as part of something bigger, widening access to computing education, careers and platforms (she mentioned the MOOC, Massively Open Online Course, concept for example) and linking hubs in other centres-of-excellence (such as, in the UK, Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol and so on). It is about time we moved away from a London-centric view of the UK; although a lot of UK startups are actually in London, of course, even if they started elsewhere – thank God for Regus serviced offices 🙂 )
I met one successful startup at the launch (among many others) that I found particularly interesting: fedr8. This is an AI-assisted modernisation platform that promises to “analyze your business and your applications to enable a clear, fast and low risk journey to the right Cloud platform that fits you and your business”. This approach has promise – the AI (artificial intelligence) is in-house developed and somewhat limited for now, but the roadmap is for “full AI” – fedr8 can’t modernise COBOL, at the moment, for example, but if it develops the AI, it should be able to learn COBOL for itself. I wonder if fedr8 is thinking of incorporating any of IBM’s Watson cognitive capabilities, to modernise code as well as to help with business issues? Good to see the term AI back in fashion too – I think that AI could help modernise the mundane for legacy modernisation, just as IT has automated the mundane for the business.
Of course, anything called Tech.London is going to concern people who are developing technology very nicely, thank you very much, and don’t happen to live and work in London. This is a London initiative, of course, but it is perhaps a pity that the Mayor’s Office is partnering with two US organisations rather than local groups such as TechStars in London (although even this is part of a global organisation). However, I don’t think that IT can afford to be parochial about national boundaries – I can live near Bath and work in London – or New York – quite easily. London can aspire to be a communications hub for IT startups, but I don’t think that any aspirations to have all startups located in London make a lot of sense.
The bottom line, I think, is that Tech.London is a good thing – in the longer term, innovators need to find funds to develop their business. A bright idea and some clever code are necessary for an entrereneur, but they are not sufficient. As for IBM, I like its focus on the developer ecosystem rather than just developer tools. Bluemix is a good name too, but if I was a startup innovator, I’d need access to business services – Bluemix may start capturing hearts and minds early if it is seen as powering the sort of business services an ambitious 13 year old coding entrepreneur really needs!