Black Enterprise — August 2012
Change Language:
Lessons In Mastery
Sonia Alleyne

THE FORECAST FOR KERRIE HOLLEY’S future could have been bleak—and one that is all too familiar for a young boy raised by his grandmother in a tough urban setting. But enrolling in Chicago’s Sue Duncan Children’s Center at age 7 made a difference. Young Holley excelled in math and science and quickly realized that he could change the direction of his life. “I learned at an early age that the only way I was going to escape poverty was through my own efforts,” says Holley, IBM Fellow and Global Business Services chief technology officer. “I knew very early that it was going to be fundamental to get an education. It was definitely a goal of mine to finish university.”

Holley, who holds a B.A. in math and a J.D., both from DePaul University, joined IBM 26 years ago because he “wanted to do something really special in the industry,” and he has. Numerous achievements burnish his résumé: He improved the technology that has become a function of how we use the ATM; he created the rst e-commerce site for a major retailer; and he advanced the technology for a system called Service-Oriented Architecture, or SOA, a process by which an application can serve a variety of functions for an organization, thereby improving its eciency. In 2006, Holley’s innovative contributions earned him the designation of IBM Fellow, the company’s highest technical leadership position. Here he examines how the industry has changed and what professionals need to consider to remain relevant in a competitive global environment.

What is Service-Oriented Architecture?

All companies have large investments in information technology to be more e..ective. But companies are nding over time that they’re spending more of their money maintaining existing systems and spending less on innovation. That was the genesis of SOA: How can we change that economic equation? How can we enable companies to spend more on innovation and less on maintenance? That’s where the value is going to be in the 21st century. So, we looked at some of the challenges of how we built soware in our marketplace [and learned that] we want to do the very same thing that kids do with LEGO bricks. We want to take these LEGO bricks as shapes and build new shapes.

Can you provide an example?

Let’s say I’m a bank with a payment application that enables you to use your mobile device or smartphone to do mobile payments, transfers, etc. We help build those applications. A company may say that’s a great feature function, but I need to use it in a new way. So what we do is take these services and treat them like LEGO bricks. We repackage and reassemble [them] to t to build new applications. It enables an application to be broken up into di. .erent pieces where each piece can be reassembled in any way a customer of the bank chooses. That’s powerful, because it allows the bank or any company to make its feature functions accessible to a variety of channels 10 years from now.

How have you seen the industry evolve?

When I rst entered the industry I would have never believed that computer programming would go the way of garment workers— that we would see computer programming become a commodity skill just as sewing has become a commodity skill. [And] we will continue to see skill sets commoditized as they become ubiquitous. So, we see in China, India, South America, Mexico, a number of college graduates with the ability to program really well. That’s great, but it’s not enough today. Having a programming skill is going to be like having writing skills, like having a basic knowledge of science. It’s going to be something that we’ll all have in our repertoire coming out of university. We’re seeing computer scientists evolve. They are no longer just computer scientists; they understand technology, they apply the scientic method, integrating two or more skills: computer skills with mathematics. We simply don’t see enough of those kinds of people coming out of university.

Will that be the formula for future success?

When you look at the folks who are successful, they all share one thing in common: They’re really good at what they do.

Nobody becomes successful as a leader without mastery. Each of us has to be really good at something. Those kids who look at the university not just as a place to get a degree but as a place to develop mastery, that’s where we’re seeing success. I don’t see a single kid who comes out of university who’s really good at their major who’s not nding an opportunity.

When you look at where the demand is for skill sets, there continues to be a demand for people who have deep knowledge of their industry with [some] computer background, such as those who are really good in retail—how to grow retail stores and what works in terms of merchandising or marketing. You cannot, in today’s marketplace, be generic. You can’t just be a project manager. You have to be a project manager who’s good at building retail applications.

There are 14-year-olds who can write software. You don’t want to compete against a 14-year-old, you want to do what a 14-year-old can’t do, and that is helping a business advance itself. And that’s where your experience will play a big role. When you complement that with these emerging technologies, pretty good opportunities are going to be out there.