On April 11, IBM Labs in Toronto celebrates its 40th anniversary. The lab, which started out with 55 employees, boasts a considerable number of achievements over the years, ranging from the Maintenance Device — a computer in an attaché case used by IBM customer service representatives around the world — to its current work on service-oriented architecture.
Ike Goodfellow, the original director of the facility, recently spoke to ITBusiness.ca about the impetus for the lab and those early days in IT, when computing meant punch cards and giant mainframe computers.
Goodfellow, who spent 31 years with Big Blue, also talked about the transition from being limited by hardware to being limited only by one’s imagination.
ITBusiness.ca: What were you working on when the lab started up?
Ike Goodfellow: In the early 1960s it was punch cards, not computers. The federal government was a major customer of ours. They were looking at the market and saying you should have the three major components: development, manufacturing and sales. That was the background that set us in motion to say we should be looking at having a lab. The problem was, just at about that time the mentality of most of the people in government and our own company was a lab was white coats and hardware. But at that time the chips were starting to come in from (companies) like Intel and Texas Instruments and they’re very expensive to make; the equipment you need is extremely expensive, and people like Bill Gates hadn’t started to put software in the category of development. So one of my first jobs was to convince not only our own management, government management and employees that we were going to be doing R&D but it was going to be software, not hardware.
ITB: What were the early projects you worked on?
IG: There were three projects. These were not in a lab at the time. Two were hardware projects and one was a software project that was in a service bureau, so we brought these three pieces together. The first hardware project was modifying a standard terminal to meet some special requirements of the Department of Defence in Ottawa. The second was there was a feeling that off-track betting was going to become a major opportunity for us — and it hasn’t to that degree — so we were modifying a different terminal to act as an offline betting terminal. In other words, you marked your horse and the amount on a card, fed it into a machine and got a ticket out. The software project was one that we called ALIS — advanced life insurance system. The idea was all life insurance companies had different features to attract you to their product as opposed to others, but billing is all the same, dividends are all the same, things like that, so we were going to a number of life companies, finding those pieces they had in common and writing software we would sell to them to do the common functions.
ITB: What would you say were the most interesting projects you worked on?
IG: One of the most exciting projects was weather forecasting. The way you do it is you make a grid across Canada and at every intersection of the grid – they’re about 10 miles apart – you calculate the temperature and the pressure and if you do that continuously, it shows you how rain moves and air moves across the country. At the time we went to do that, it took us longer to calculate all that information for all of Canada than it took for the front to move across Canada. Today the equipment can turn out a new forecast in seconds.
ITB: Is that based on the work you did?
IG: We didn’t create anything. It mostly was weather bureau people who had the idea of how to do it.
ITB: The lab obviously grew an enormous amount since its inception – was Toronto a good source of talent in the early days or how has that changed?
IG: Absolutely. Waterloo was unique in North America in terms of what it offered for software training. There isn’t a comparable university or wasn’t for a long while in the U.S. whose prime focus was data processing. Once the whole corporation realized the future was in software, not hardware we were able to move ahead because we could bid on jobs and we could always get the talent, whereas some of the other labs that were bidding against us didn’t have the talent.
ITB: I understand you left the lab to go to New York. How did that come about?
IG: I went to World Trade in New York. We all at one time or another had assignments in a world trade company – it was just part of your professional development. What happened was IBM called a triple board meeting of IBM Canada, IBM World Trade and the corporate board. They all met in Canada at one time and the president of the Canadian company at the time called me and said he wanted to show the boards what the lab was doing. So I said we’re far enough along on the off-track betting terminal that if you want bring them down and show them, that would be great. So I told the guys in development and they all got enthused and went out and bought some plywood and made a little betting station. Sure enough, the boards all trooped down and I think we bet a quarter. We (had written) a little program to simulate a horse race, and knowing they were coming I was able to rig it so the president of world trade would win – that’s the upside. The downside is two days later, the president of IBM Canada told me the president of world trade wanted to see me in New York – I think he thought here’s a guy who came up with a novel idea.
ITB: How long did you stay in New York?
IG: I stayed five years and then came back to Ottawa, where I was director of operations for the next 10 years. Ottawa is a funny market. Everything gets bought by tenders and it gets boring, because every five years the same wording comes out, so I casually mentioned to the vice-president here in Toronto that I thought I had done enough time in Ottawa and I’m going to get flat if I stay here. Within a week he called me and said the dean of engineering at Ryerson wanted to go on an executive exchange, so he would go to work in our plant and I would go be dean of the centre for advanced technology. I said fine and went there for two years. I was really divorced from IBM at that point. I was their employee but you have to keep an arm’s length relationship. One of things that happens when you go on assignments is you tend to get forgotten. At that time a friend of mine who was with Nortel said Nortel knows voice very well but they were not very good on digital data so why don’t you come with us? So I finished my assignment at Ryerson and went to Northern Telecom.
ITB: What were you doing at Nortel?
IG:I was marketing to major accounts. At that time Nortel made a lot of telephone equipment but they didn’t sell to end users, only to Bell or AT&T and Telus, etc. and that left us without any control over the end user. The role I had was convincing large global or national customers like the Royal Bank that we had the best equipment, but then I had to rely on them to go to Bell to get it. So my role was to convince large customers we had best solution and then hope like hell they would go to one of our customers to get it.
ITB: What was it like in IT at that time?
IG: The thing I look back on is at that time almost everything you went to do you were limited by speed and size of the hardware. Memories were not infinite as they are today, so you had to be a lot more creative in terms of defining the system so it could be done on the hardware that was available. The subtle transformation that has taken place, and maybe it wasn’t so subtle, is today you’re only limited in what you can do by your imagination, you’re not limited by the equipment.