Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Reflections from the Intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts

The death of Steve Jobs has put me in a reflective mood, thinking back over the years to my own journey with technology. Peering into the looking glass, there is much I am indebted to Steve Jobs for. It turns out that most of my time has been spent at this intersection that Steve really made possible.

My first computer was neither an Apple nor a Mac.  It was a TI-99/4A made by Texas Instruments. I was very fortunate to have my introduction to computers come from a man who volunteered time in the tiny town of Brillion, WI in 1980. He taught a handful of fourth-grade boys after school how to program in BASIC.  We created trivia games and had lots of fun, and saved our programs to audio cassette tapes on tape players whose dials we marked up with liquid paper so we kept them set in the right spots.

In high school, I was introduced to my first Apple IIs, and did my first work with a spreadsheet. I was once again fortunate as I was allowed to do independent study and learn PASCAL while being mentored by a high school teacher. As a senior, I fell in love with the Mac, and was able to convince my parents to purchase one.  I learned to program a great program called HyperCard.  In college, I used my Mac skills to land a job with the school paper, The Loyala Phoenix.  It was a great experience where I was able to bring together my love for writing and journalism, with my love for computers.  We used Adobe PageMaker to layout the paper, and Adobe Photoshop to handle the photographs.

In a genetics class, I used my HyperCard skills to develop my first multimedia presentation on experimental retroviral therapy, animating a virus inserting its genetic material into a diseased cell.  My science may not have been the best, but playing an audio file "whooopee" while the virus did its thing sure caught the attention of my classmates, and ultimately a good grade.  It also got me a great job creating computer-based learning programs at the Loyola University Center for Instructional Design (LUCID).

In graduate school, my computer skills continued to support my Philosophy habit until 1998, when I left my PhD program a year early to pursue my first professional job in instructional technology at the University of Wisconsin Learning Innovations.This was my first introduction to Lotus Notes as I used it to create learning programs for UW college courses, as well as for online training programs for places like the World Bank, American Express, BP and even IBM.

Those corporate training programs ultimately led to a job at a company called Berbee, where we  provided "cloud computing" services based on Lotus LearningSpace, Sametime and QuickPlace.  Of course, back then we were called an "Application Service Provider" or ASP.

My job role has changed over the years, and Berbee was ultimately acquired by CDW, but I have had the good fortune of staying near the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology. That is where Lotus software lives. It is where end-users are. It is where 'the rest of us' seek to leverage the power and promise of computing to make our everyday lives more productive.  It is not middleware, and I think that is why it has struggled at IBM in some respects.

After Steve Jobs passed, Terry Gross reran portions of an interview she did with him in 1996. I strongly encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to it.  You can find it at NPR's website. One part of the interview I'll quote below.

"Apple was a corporation — we were very conscious of that. We were driven to make money. I would say that Apple was a corporate lifestyle, but it had a few big differences from other corporate lifestyles I'd seen. The first one was a real belief that there wasn't a hierarchy of ideas that mapped into the hierarchy of the organization. In other words: great ideas could come from anywhere.

"Apple was a very bottom-up company when it came to a lot of its great ideas. We hired truly great people and gave them the room to do great work. A lot of companies — I know it sounds crazy — but a lot of companies don't do that. They hire people to tell them what to do. We hire people to tell us what to do. We figure we're paying them all this money; their job is to figure out what to do and tell us. That led to a very different corporate culture, and one that's really much more collegial than hierarchical."

This is exactly the type of organizational transformations we are trying to create through the use of social software like IBM Connections!  Isn't the wonderful example from Connections in use at Lowe's the very instantiation of great ideas coming from anywhere in an organization?

Thank you, Steve, for bending both the roads of liberal arts and technology so that they would indeed intersect. For technologists like me, we've had the good fortune of spending our professional lives there.

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