CA World 2011: Q&A: Don Ferguson, CTO

He doesn't give many interviews, but IT Pro managed to speak to CA Technologies' CTO - the man who created IBM's WebSphere among other things.

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You've been at CA since 2008, what are your main responsibilities as CTO?

I am the CTO. I also held similar jobs at IBM as the chief software architect for IBM and then the chief architect for the IBM software group. So I've had a lot of practice at this.

Over the years, I evolved to focus on five things: architecture governance, reviewing designs, setting design criteria, making sure we are moving in a direction that makes sense architecturally and product simplification - the mechanics of making sure you incrementally get better products.

When I communicate it tends to be to help not to sell. My view is if customers are successful we'll be successful. It's my job to help them with technology, not products.

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Governance is a heavy word. I like to think of it as a peer review. You can't worry about everything so I've got a set of things I tell the team I really care about. So user interface, data integration and so on. We do have reviews but I try and structure it as a peer review so they view it as their friends trying to help them not as going before the inquisition.

Companies do a very good job of business strategy but it's my job to bring the technology perspective in. If you try to adapt your business when the technical wave has hit, it's too late. For instance, we've been working on SaaS for a while. If you start working on SaaS once the SaaS wave has arrived it's too late. So part of it is looking at the way technology is evolving and preparing forwards for it for when the wave gets here. Then there's invention. If you were an illumination company in 1880, and you did the standard business model of customer wants and needs, you would get candles or [oil lamps]. You wouldn't get lightbulbs. It's my job to tell the company that there is a lightbulb.

Then there's communication. When I communicate I tend to not try and push what we are actually doing. When I communicate it tends to be to help not to sell. My view is if customers are successful we'll be successful. It's my job to help them with technology, not products.

There's a lot of communication internally. There's thousands of developers and engineers at CA, and I can't approve every decision they make. They are going to make dozens of decisions a day they need to know what we're doing, why we are doing it, where they fit into it. I can't tell them what to do, they're going to figure it out. They're smart so I need to give them a context for the framework.

Next it's community. I've always structured my job so that I have a very small organisation. I like to keep the engineers in with the product teams so they have management teams but I view myself as being the godfather for every engineer in the company so anyone can come to me at any time for any reason and I'll try and help them.

It's about being a trusted advisor. One of the things I observed a long time ago is there's a difference between intelligence and knowledge. Non technical executives are intelligent but they may not know technology. But they're intelligent so often they will ask me to come and explain things to them or advise them about technology.

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Those are the things I focus on in my job.

Preparing for the waves way in advance must be challenging, so how do you take this from theory to reality?

[I need to] stay connected outside of the company. If I talk to my peers and go to academic conferences somebody will say something and suddenly realise. It's kind of like the snowball, the avalanche as the way these waves happen is a small number of people get an idea, and they start. Being out, talking to people, listening, going to conferences, being with customers you'll hear these little things and suddenly you start to realise that there's something emerging.

Using the tipping point metaphor, it's about trying to be a connector and going and connecting. The people that are coming up with these innovations are people that are like me so I spend a fair bit of time saying "If I didn't work for CA what would I do next?" or I'll sit down and think for a couple of hours about "What does mobile really mean and what would I do with mobile?" It's that kind of if I weren't at CA and I were outside trying to change things and make the world a different place, what would I do?

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I work with a lot of good technical people. That's a way you figure out what might be coming.

When you think you've hit the end and you can't go on any further you're actually only half way to where you can go.

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How did you get into this industry? Was it the fast-moving pace or a particular individual that inspired you?

When I mentor people they ask me that question all the time and I have to tell them I wish I could tell you my life was planned but it was a series of accidents.

The person who was most formative in my career was my PhD thesis advisor. His name is Yechiam Yemini. When you go through a PhD there's always a lot of self doubt and his confidence in me was contagious. A lot of the confidence I have in myself is thanks to him.

I learned from him that most people do not fully appreciate what they're capable of doing. I do things that challenge me, like Krav Maga, which is a martial art. I got a black belt in Karate. The thing that limits most people is the belief in their limits. He taught me when you think you've hit the end and you can't go on any further you're actually only half way to where you can go.

He's 10/12 years older than me but he has an infectious, childlike love of technology and I picked that up from him. He was the major influence.

When I went to IBM it was a time when you either went to a university or to a research lab. I was in research when IBM had its near-death experience. My attitude was the boat is sinking, I could be a researcher or I could grab a bucket and bail so when I grabbed the bucket and bailed, we came up with some stuff.

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We had a meeting with a customer and he asked me a question about how I would solve a problem. The WebSphere platform was the result of that question. It's where I came from. So when I started working on that I transferred over to the product groups and grew up with WebSphere. I came to CA because John Swainson was the CEO. It wasn't like I planned this!

I cant walk into an environment and no try to reverse engineer and improve it. It's not good to stand in a supermarket line with me - I'm trying to figure out how the supermarket works and make it better. It's what I do but I love doing that kind of stuff.

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I love applying technology. There's nothing I like better than getting with a customer and helping them solve a problem.

I'm actually really good at explaining technology. I never asked to be the way it was a gift. I'm just very lucky. I have this eerie ability to explain technology to non technologists.

Do you think it's important to be able to speak the same language as the business and non-techies? Is that communication piece key?

I think it may be the most important thing I do. I spend a lot of time with Bill McCracken explaining technology. Bill was a physicist in college and was an IBM SC but he went into the business end.

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Like I said I learned a long time ago there's a difference between knowledge and intelligence. We are a technology company and when I have conversations with Bill or David Dobson, it helps them understand and allows them to transcend the standard things a CEO can see about what the service pipeline is. It's fun to be a CEO, it fun to be a CEO in a company that's changing the world. It's fun to work for a company where the CEO wants to change the world.

I can also be quite inspirational. When I get up on stage I inspire people. We went to the moon because Kennedy inspired us. In fact when we started the strategy people said this is a risky strategy. One of the quotes from Kennedy is we choose to go to the moon not because it's easy but because it's hard. You run this risk in the full view of the world but that will only enhance our stature when we succeed.

Another one is a scene from the movie from New York to the moon, the head of NASA says "Can we do this?" and the head of engineering says "We're going to have to invent things, we need thousands of people". He goes on and on about all this stuff and the head of NASA says "But can we do it?" And he says "Yes. Absolutely".

When we went out with the new strategy I would get asked every day can we do this? My answer was "Yes we can do this". It's part of my job to be inspirational but also to have confidence in what we can do.

This is my fifth chance to change the world. Most people dont even get one chance. I've just been so lucky.

What's your biggest success?

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My biggest success was definitely WebSphere, J2E, web services... that really changed the world.

I work for CA now but I was talking to the CTO of ITKO - the company we bought - and he said two thirds of his business was complementing WebSphere. This guy built the company that we bought because of something I started with six guys.

People have called me the father of WebSphere but I was never comfortable with that because victory has a thousand fathers and defeats are worth it. And a thousand people worked on this thing.

That I think was one of them. Some of them [successes] were less visible. When we started doing B2B software at IBM, it took 28 machines to build a system. After about three years we got that down to one.

Paradoxically, I tell people our goal isn't to have more software, it's to have less. That wasn't visible but I was very proud of that and part of the reason was that without the team coming together. I can't do that they have to want to do it.

WebSphere was a small group of people that were really motivated and innovative who made it and it spiralled.

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I also wrote some of the early Web Services apps. I tell people "Last time you went to the bank and you deposited a cheque did it appear in your account?" They say "Yes" and I say "You're welcome".

I'm very lucky. I don't think people fully appreciate it, but what CA does - if we pull it off - is going to change the world in the same way that web apps have done. The things we're doing... someone's going to do it and I hope it's us, but the world's never going to be the same when we're done.

When IBM went from mainframe to Parallel Sysplex I got to work on that. This is my fifth chance to change the world. Most people dont even get one chance. I've just been so lucky.

Conversely, what's the biggest mistake you've made/learned from?

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I'll have many conversations [where I'll say] "I have actually tried this before and let me tell you all the ways not to do it". A large part of it is I will tell people my value to CA is I have screwed this up spectacularly before so I can tell you how not to do it.

I tend to be pretty tolerant with my family and even with the architects. If they make a mistake I say you don't understand, if you had my job, you make a mistake it's hundreds of millions of dollars. You misplace paper clips compared to the mistakes I've made! I've made some doozies. When I die if they chisel on my tombstone he was right 51 per cent of the time, it was a good life! I've made some huge blunders. Despite most of my colleagues telling me I over-designed WebSphere and it was too complicated, that I should simplify I and make it robust, [I didn't]. I was wrong. We actually had to have a major release to clean up that mistake.

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Do you think it's important for CIOs, CTOs and leaders to be willing to take risks and make mistakes?

I don't think you can succeed without it. I was born in 1960 and grew up during the space race where if you were a boy you wanted to be an astronaut. When I was talking to the leadership team about what we are trying to do with CA I said "We're going to the moon and we're going to get there in stages". I also said we are all going to have to accept that there are going to be catastrophic failures - [during attempts to reach the moon] astronauts got killed, things blew up. You don't go to the moon without [problems]. Part of my job is to be the guide.

I don't care whether you buy our stuff or our competitors stuff, I'll listen and try and help.

The disaster is going to be the one you never see coming. When astronauts were killed on Apollo 8 there were three things that contributed to it. One of them was Velcro was flammable in 100 per cent oxygen. They tested Velcro, it doesn't burn. They never thought to test it in 100 per cent oxygen. They were running a test on the pad, it's not like they were in space - it was a standard test and it burst into flames. It's going to be the one you never see coming.

That's [disasters] happened a couple of times. I'm not the calmest person except when there's a crisis. You have to be calm. I've been through so many of these things you learn. Part of my job is to be that calming influence.

What advice would you give your former self or anyone wanting to become a CTO in the future?

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Listen and try and help. I listen to customers and I try and help. I go to customer briefings and say "I'm here to help you with technology. I don't care whether you buy our stuff or our competitors stuff, I'll listen and try and help".

I'm a Buddhist and one of the things you learn is the key to happiness is to make other people happy. Don't worry about your happiness - your goal in life is to make others happy. My role in life is to make other people succeed.

The second one is admit when you're wrong. When I as at IBM research, one of the guys I worked with was incredibly smart. I was his manager. He and I would start arguing in a room and I grabbed the marker saying "You don't understand!" and I started mapping this thing on the whiteboard. I then went "Oh sh*t, he's right!" Admit when you're wrong. I get a lot of practice.

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