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Q&A with Mark Shearer, Common Spring 2006

System i users kicked off this year's COMMON conference by peppering executives with 'direct, candid feedback' Sunday night in Minneapolis. Bemoaning recent name changes (AS400, iSeries, i5, System i) and ambiguous advertising, techies did mix in praise to balance thrown tomatoes, but the criticism struck a chord. With a rotating cast of managers and strong but unstable revenues last year, the re-branded system i is looking for traction. sat down on Monday with Mark Shearer, General Manager for IBM System i .

The Town Hall meeting last night was pretty lively during the question-and-answer session, with a lot of attendees making suggestions about how to market the platform. What specifically needs to change? And is that issue as important as people make it out to be?

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Well, if you take away all the emotion that is evident -- first of all I love the emotion, I love the passion of our client base, and I really do welcome the constructive suggestions -- when you take all that away, everyone that spoke yesterday during the town hall, they really were speaking from the heart, they were speaking because they care, and I happen to agree with the essence of their message that we need to do a better job marketing this platform. You can't get upset when people tell you the truth. So I can deal with that completely. Which comments connected with you?
As a student of marketing, changing a brand name every two to four years is not in the text-book of things you want to do. So that resonated. The other thing that definitely resonated was the fact that we really need to clearly articulate what's unique about the System i environment, the differentiation. It's interesting, because a year ago when I came to COMMON it was: 'you gotta start advertising, you gotta show up.' Now they're complaining about the messaging on the TV ad. So, you have to step back and say 'ok, well, that's progress,' and when we fix that, there will be a point of view of some other area we could improve, so I think it's great, I embrace it. I can't even tell you how many emails I get every day, with the same kind of points. I just accept it for what's sort of behind it all, and try to learn from it, and try to adjust our plans accordingly. It's really unique about the iSeries -- most businesses don't have this kind of community. Ads aside, in terms of promotion, there's also your academic initiative. Could you talk about that a little bit? I saw the graphic during the presentation last night, which listed some schools you're working with. I didn't really recognize many schools. Are you aiming high in terms of larger schools? You guys are IBM -- where are the big universities?
It varies by market. That list we showed yesterday was just a list of people and schools that happen to be at COMMON, so that was not the list. We're actually in over 250 university curriculum programs today, but we're absolutely reaching out to big-name schools as well as smaller, specialized schools. What's really guiding us is the local market. One of the unique focuses of this year with the university program is working with clients that need new skills, and working with universities that have students that need jobs. The other thing I'm excited about is sharing curriculum and insight across the universities. I think that really could be powerful and is another thing that could really give the program legs this year. But we're doing it based on market need where I have clients that really need a lot of new skills, or we have universities that have interest in business-oriented IT curriculum. Where is there resistance?
Every university has a slightly different angle to how they would approach system i-related education. Some want to start from an RPG or Java programming angle, others start from: 'what is online transaction processing, what are basic business computing concepts and then how do you implement them.' Different schools have different angles, and that's fine. And our approach now leaves room for that. In the past we had sort of a rigid program. 'Here's the curriculum, if you implement it, we'll give you a machine.' So I think we're having a more practical approach. What other incentives are there?
I learned from a roundtable of 20 University of Berlin students what the ultimate incentive is, and that's jobs. When I asked these students why they took the course, the intellectual answer was they had studied how to design multi-processors, but never knew why you'd want one. They wanted to figure out what it was all about. The visceral answer was they wanted certification so they could get jobs. We need a more direct connection between that need, and hopefully that's what we can make happen.

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