Dieter Jaepel retires from IBM
Dr. Dieter Jaepel, computer scientist and executive briefer at the Industry Solutions Lab, which is part of the IBM Forum Center organization in Europe, looks back on a rich and varied career.
Q. What brought you to the IBM Research – Zurich lab?
DJ: When I joined IBM in 1986, the idea was to strengthen the software work at the Zurich Lab. For me that was quite a change of pace. I had been doing research work to build sorting machines for the post office, with my contribution being the logic that captures the address field on an envelope and computes the control signals for the sorter.
Q. How did you approach the task of strengthening the software work?
DJ: It required coming up with a solution design—in today’s parlance—and, once you had that, to make a conscious decision about how to implement the various parts with a set of performance characteristics in mind.
Those parts that had a rather fixed design were clearly candidates for hardware implementations; the ones that required a high level of flexibility needed to be implemented in a “softer” way.
Q. So there was already a clear separation between hardware and software at that time?
DJ: As a matter of fact, I arrived at the Zurich Lab with two basic convictions with regard to my work: Not to separate IT systems a priori into hardware and software. Secondly—but equally important—that the greatest source of interesting research topics is in the area of applications.
So, if you will, my entire career at the Zurich Lab has been guided by these two principles.
Q. What were some of your first research interests?
DJ: In the beginning, I worked on telecommunications. That was the time in which LANs and MANs started to emerge, and it was obvious that these networks had to be entirely digital because multimedia applications were considered to be the driver of broadband technology. At that time, IBM thought communications solutions were a good business to be in. But the markets had different ideas.
Q. So you had to change fields?
DJ: The big opportunity for me to take a different approach came somewhere around 1993. We had just finished a piece of research work with Nokia about the new GSM networks. That work had resulted in a live prototype showing the integration of different categories of data communications such as interactive host access, fax, and text messages into the GSM architecture.
Q. What effect did that have within IBM overall?
DJ: More or less coincidently, two major things happened at the same time: Lou Gerstner became CEO of IBM, and the insurance market became deregulated. Gerstner wanted IBM Research to add a focus on industry solutions.
The insurance industry was concerned about the implications of deregulation. In a way, this was a perfect match in the sense of my two guiding principles: there was an industry issue, and it was obvious that we needed to approach it without differentiating up front between software and hardware.
On the surface, the insurance industry felt that the one element they had to consider as part of any approach was mobile computing, exploiting GSM and the new laptops.
Q. In your opinion, who at the Zurich Lab had the greatest influence on you and your work?
DJ: That would be Karl Kuemmerle, director of the IBM Zurich Lab at that time, who simply launched me into this new direction by introducing me to the client. I never learned what his exact motivation was, but I liked the idea from day one.
The interactions with the customer led to a pilot project to demonstrate how mobile systems can be integrated into the existing core systems. Luckily, the customer was willing and prepared to discuss how to restructure their whole solution architecture, and the project was extremely successful.
That customer still uses the architecture today, and I just recently learned that the last part of their application portfolio has now been integrated—after more than 15 years.
Q. How did this customer-focused approach change IBM’s business?
DJ: Lou Gerstner created an organization called IBM Industries, one of which was the Insurance Industry. These groups supported the so-called Insurance Research Center (IRC), with Dan Yellin heading up the group in Hawthorne, and me leading the team in Zurich.
At that time, the Industry Research Center was charged with studying the industry context in detail, and mapping it to study the impact of IT on the business architecture.
The validity of the findings were to be demonstrated by pilot projects, known today as FoaKs (First-of-a-Kind projects). Bottom line: we were looking for a combination of business research and technology research.
Q. How did the insurance industry react to the new products you developed?
DJ: I’ll never forget attending Insurance Directors Conferences in Venice, Prague, and other places, always with a couple of brand-new prototypes in my luggage. Conference participants were extremely keen to have a look at every new development.
Q. Is this what led to the establishment of IBM’s Industry Solutions Lab, the executive briefing facility to connect researchers with the market?
DJ: The creation of the Industry Solutions Lab emerged more or less as a logical extension of that.
Today it’s different of course. The Institute for Business Value now produces the studies. Pilot projects are now generally part of the FoaK program, which is still under the umbrella of ISL.
Q. Apart from a long and extremely productive career within IBM, you are also a very accomplished musician. I understand you play the viola professionally. Is this something you plan to pursue more actively after your retirement?
DJ: Now that I’m retiring, I’m not only looking back but also forward to the next phase of my life. With the Swiss Alps at my doorstep, I'll certainly do a lot of hiking. Beyond that, I’ve already received several requests to help out in various musical groups—yes, I’m a trained viola player.
Model railroading, another passion of mine, will give me a chance to tackle some engineering challenges. I'll see how I can fit all of that in with the various activities and interests of my family.