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Steve Will on POWERUp, Merlin and His Promotion to Distinguished Engineer

As chief architect for IBM i, a significant part of Steve Will’s job is simply to talk about the platform, to inform and educate the user community. Last month’s COMMON POWERUp 2022 event, the first such in-person conference in three years, Will quickly realized how much he’d missed those conversations. Of the week’s many great moments, he says, getting back to that—not just the formal presentations but the stream of random, rolling, spontaneous face-to-face interactions—made for a special experience.

The Power of in-Person Networking

“I think there was an added amount of excitement, not just for the new IBM i release, but because we really wanted to connect again,” Will says. “We could get back to learning the way we want to learn and networking the way want to network.”

While virtual conferencing has helped us work through and stay connected during the pandemic, the technology has its limitations.

“More people can participate when we do a virtual or online event, but there’s not exactly the same depth of understanding,” he says. “And certainly as a speaker, you can’t see people’s faces, so there’s not quite the feeling that you’re getting all of the information across.”

However, it’s those informal discussions and connections that Will says he’s missed most. At POWERUp in New Orleans, an attendee asked a detailed question about Db2. Scott Forstie, IBM’s Db2 for i architect, was standing nearby, so Will pulled him into the conversation. Soon thereafter when another attendee posed another database question, he noticed Birgitta Hauser, an authority on Db2 for i database modernization, in the vicinity.

“For learning something technical or asking people to consider new ideas, often it takes several people getting involved in a discussion. If you’re doing a virtual event, you’re limited to those who are online,” Will says.

Beyond that, of course, having folks in the same room creates networking opportunities. “These conferences always have attendees who’ve never met, who don’t know one another, but they’re in similar businesses dealing with similar IT issues,” Will says. “They can help each other.”

He adds: “It’s all real time, it’s very organic and it just doesn’t happen if you can’t be face to face.”

IBM i 7.5 and Merlin

Another thing Will was happy to see for himself at POWERUp 2022 is the official support and attendee enthusiasm for recent IBM i developments, specifically the recently announced IBM i 7.5 and the newly unveiled Merlin suite of modernization tools.

Will says both the latest version of the OS and the Merlin product are designed to spur clients to modernize on the platform. As the first release is focused on code development, Merlin—officially known as the IBM i Modernization Engine for Lifecycle Integration—allows clients to set up a new or integrate an existing DevOps environment. The tools run in OpenShift containers and are accessible from a browser, which makes it simple to publish and consume function using services. IBM i 7.5 itself features a range of enhancements, in the areas of security and database function in particular.

“We’re focused on providing technology to help clients stay on IBM i and do amazing things on IBM i,” he says. “With this great technology and with partners who are focused on moving clients forward, the message is you’re better off staying on this platform. It will be much quicker and much safer to modernize your business, and you’ll save money, too.”

Among those amplifying that message were IBM executives Freddy Alves Vaquero, Gina King and Steve Sibley. Will believes their presence at the conference sends a clear statement about the company’s commitment to IBM i.

“Having them there, talking to our client base, was really impressive,” he adds. “These are executives who truly recognize the value of the platform and the community support of the platform.”

Steve Will: Distinguished Engineer

Will’s experience at POWERUp2022 was memorable for another reason. During the opening session, he was, for the first time, publicly recognized as a Distinguished Engineer.

The promotion occurred earlier this year, but at IBM, while Distinguished Engineer promotions are a big deal, they’re viewed as internal news and thus seldom publicized beyond the company’s walls. But Dave Nelson, Will’s IBM manager and long-time colleague, made sure attendees got the word during the opening session.

Will humbly but also accurately points out that his designation as a Distinguished Engineer is another sign of IBM’s recognition of and commitment to the IBM i platform. Of course, it’s also a career milestone. Will, who’s approaching 40 years with the company, offered this summation of the role and its responsibilities:

“A Distinguished Engineer in IBM doesn’t have personal or personnel management responsibilities, but is responsible for a technology area. For a technology company like IBM, I believe it’s important that the customers’ value for the technology be considered at all times.”

While most managers and executives manage people, folks in the Distinguished Engineer and IBM Fellow role are focused on the technology and how that technology can help clients. They are not as distracted by the personnel side of things, and of course, some people are more well-versed with technology than managing teams.

“It’s great that there is this pathway for people like me in the company,” Will adds. “I never had to become a first- or a second-line manager, overseeing 20 or 100 people, to get to this point. I could pay attention to IT and what the future would hold, and focus on working with my team to make sure what we’re doing is valuable for our clients. That’s the role of a Distinguished Engineer. That’s what they rely on us to do.”