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My Life in Tech: Q&A with IBM Distinguished Engineer Mandy Chessell

Mandy Chessell talks to InformIT about what's changed at IBM over the last quarter-century, how she was inspired to work at IBM at age 14, and advice for those interested in building a successful career in technology.
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InformIT: Your current role at IBM is the Chief Architect for InfoSphere Solutions in the IBM Information Management CTO office. Can you explain a little bit about what that means? What does a typical day look like for you?

Mandy Chessell: I work in Software Group, which is the part of IBM that develops software products. My role is to define new features and offerings for our next generation of products. I work with clients who are leaders in their industry to understand their future needs, define how much of these solutions can be met with our existing products and identify the gaps for the product teams to fill. During a typical day I meet people from clients and/or our strategy, research and product teams, discussing issues and options. I also spend a fair amount of time writing about different types of solutions and mentoring people, helping them develop their skills and careers.

InformIT: You’ve been with IBM since 1987. How has the company changed in the last 26 years? Was there anything that took you by surprise?

Mandy: IBM has changed repeatedly during the time I have worked for the company, both in terms of culture and technology. We are still focused on leading edge solutions, but the function of today’s solutions is completely different. The high-value technology I worked on 15 years ago is now commoditized. In the past we focused on building a single system; nowadays we are building systems of systems. The complexity of our solutions has grown beyond the understanding of a single subject matter expert.  Communication skills and team working are critical, so the culture of IBM has evolved to be much more collaborative.  

InformIT: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced since you’ve worked at IBM?

Mandy: My biggest challenge is to keep changing and growing my skills and role to keep myself relevant.

InformIT: You’ve written several books about information management, information architecture and analytics. How do you see the role of technology changing in these areas? What area needs more focus? How do see these things changing in the next decade or so?

Mandy: Big data and analytics are a major growth area in the IT industry.  Many of the principles of information architecture have not changed – it is still necessary to understand where data has come from, and to manage it through its lifecycle. However, technology has advanced to allow us to keep much more data and to process text and machine generated sensor data much more effectively so the potential impact of information management is expanding.  It is an exciting time to be in this field of IT.

InformIT: You have won several awards for your work on innovation. What is the role of innovation at a major corporation like IBM? Why and how should a tech company help to foster innovation?

Mandy: Innovation is a technology company’s long-term life assurance. Without it, a technology company can only be successful for a few years. However, it is a difficult process for all companies because it requires that it channel resources away from the successful products and profitable aspects of their business, in order to invest in riskier projects that “may” produce revenue in the future.

InformIT: What has been your most gratifying achievement in the time you’ve spent working at IBM?

Mandy: This is a hard question to answer, as I feel fortunate in the opportunities that I have had over the years. I suppose I am most proud of my external awards, particularly the MIT Technology Review TR100 award, my silver medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering and most recently, Plymouth University awarded me a Doctor of Science in recognition of my career achievements.

InformIT: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?

Mandy: A career is not built on one big break, nor is it destroyed by a failed project or a derogatory remark. It is built on the decisions you make every day to be excellent, to extend what you know and to reach out and help others. In this way you build a positive reputation and a support network that helps you through good times and bad.

InformIT: What is your favorite part of working at IBM?

Mandy: In two words, it is the people and the challenge. Our industry is constantly changing and to keep abreast of the latest advances takes an open mind and a willingness to learn. At IBM I work with many brilliant people and together we are pushing the boundaries of technical capability.  I cannot imagine a time when I will become bored with my job.

InformIT: Did you always want to work with technology? What made you want to pursue this career?

Mandy: My eyes were opened to the idea of a career in technology when I was about 14. Our school had a visitor from IBM who came to talk to us about careers. He laid out an exciting role with many technical challenges, opportunities to travel and work with different people all around the world. He described an environment where hard work and skill were appreciated. At the time, my view on the world of work was an office or factory job performing repetitive tasks. The technology industry sounded just what I was looking for and so I selected maths, science, design and computing subjects and looked for summer jobs in IT while I finished my education. IBM offered me an internship as part of my degree and a bursary for my final year. So it was an easy choice when IBM offered me a permanent role once I graduated.

InformIT: What are the most interesting developments happening right now in your field?

Mandy: Wow, where do I start?  We are at a point of great turmoil and change in our industry. Cloud services, mobile devices, the growth in sensors and monitoring devices (internet of things) and the resulting growth in available data for advanced processing is impacting how we work, buy goods and services and the way people and organizations collaborate. The impact is accelerating as smart people around the world exchange ideas and build on each other’s insights. I cannot begin to predict where it will end up, except to say it will definitely be different!

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