Article - Issue 40, September 2009

Professor Mandy Chessell FREng

Prolific Inventor

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Professor Mandy Chessell FREng

Professor Mandy Chessell FREng

Software engineers have to work harder than most to keep up with their rapidly evolving technology. With a reputation for being an innovator, Mandy Chessell’s career as a software engineer has relied on developing as quickly as her subject. She has also become an expert in innovation and how it happens. Michael Kenward interviewed her at Europe’s largest Software Development Lab, IBM Hursley, near Winchester.

As both a ‘Master Inventor’ and a ‘Distinguished Engineer’ with IBM, Mandy Chessell clearly knows a lot about software engineering. Within IBM, her work falls under the banner of information management. Mostly, she explains, this means developing products for websites through which companies can run their businesses. She is also responsible for software that is used in cash machines. “This ensures that the ATM computer and the one in your bank talk to each other.”

Before the internet

This wasn’t the career that Mandy Chessell anticipated when she started to study O-level computing and information technology. The subject had entered the school system, just about, and computers were beginning to escape from computer rooms into places where people could see them but there was no internet to manage. Computing certainly was not the all pervasive and dominant subject that it has since become.

Chessell chose computing because it fitted in with her interest in making things. “As a child,” she says, “I used to make soft toys and furniture for my dolls.” At school, she enjoyed using her hands – woodwork was a favourite subject. She was also good at maths and the science subjects that often presage a career in engineering. There were, though, limits to what she actually enjoyed cutting up. “In biology there was a lot of dissecting little creatures. I just didn’t like it.”

To get out of this, Chessell decided to study computing, first at O-level and then at A-level. This turned out to be a wise career move. She went on to become one of the youngest engineers, at the age of 37, to be elected a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering, in 2002. This recognition of her engineering prowess came a year after she was the first woman to receive a Silver Medal from the Academy.

Chessell collected the award as WebSphere Architect with IBM for her “outstanding invention and engineering of Software Component Reusable Architecture, resulting in major improvements in reliability, time-to-market and cost of large IBM middleware products and customer e-application development”. Chessell describes the work as “managing and automating business processes.”

Productive degree

The complexities of software engineering did not daunt Chessell. At school, she explains, “I just found it interesting and easy.” So she decided to study computing for a degree at what is now Plymouth University. “It was the closest to home.” The choice of degree course – computing informatics rather than conventional computing or IT – turned out to be just right. “The course wasn’t just deep computer science; it was also a lot about the use of computers. I have gone on to use everything that I was taught at university, which a lot of people don’t get a chance to do.”

The degree required Chessell to spend her third year in the outside world, which is how she first encountered IBM. “It was the first company to turn up and offer me a job for the year in industry.” With her degree completed, Chessell did not have to look far for a job. IBM offered her that too.

Chessell joined the company’s UK R&D centre in Hursley Park as a junior programmer in 1987 and has worked there ever since. Some people, especially in the software business, might balk at the idea of staying with one company for so long. In reality, Chessell has been through more changes than many people who have hopped from company to company. “I have seen the company change, I have changed myself and have changed the technology I work on.”

It helps that engineers can climb the career ladder in IBM without being forced into management. The title of ‘Distinguished Engineer’ (Chessell is one of 400 or so Distinguished Engineers in a company that has a total worldwide workforce of nearly 400,000) is there to ensure that technical excellence does not get stuck at the bottom of the company’s hierarchy. As a Distinguished Engineer, Chessell explains, “Your responsibility mainly is maintaining forward progress in the technology for the business.”

First career move

As Chessell worked for an MSc, her studies focused on ‘object oriented development,’ an area that software development was moving towards. This led to her first job change and took Chessell into the area of technology that eventually led to that Silver Medal. It also set the pattern for her career. Move into a new area, get up to speed as quickly as possible and then move on to something new as soon as its starts to get routine.

Chessell says that she can’t stay still for long. “I could have stayed in that first job, but I chose to move to a different role. It was very hard to go back to knowing nothing,” she says. “But, of course, I got up to speed much quicker on the second job. It taught me how to move. Some people like the predictability of an established product. They can become real experts. Then there are those people who don’t like white space or very fuzzy definitions, whereas I’m happy with that.”

Chessell has moved jobs often since that first career move. She is now Chief Architect for no fewer than seven products in IBM. Once again we are into technical jargon. What is a Software Architect, let alone a Chief Architect? “A police officer,” Chessell jokes, adding quickly that her role “Is to make sure that things are coherent. So that when customers buy a collection of products they all work together and that the design is flexible enough for the future.”

Not only does this mean worrying about security – an essential requirement in products for the finance sector – it also entails managing a growing portfolio of software acquired when IBM buys up companies. “We do a lot of acquisitions of software companies,” Chessell explains. Over the past five years, IBM has acquired more than 60 companies. “So we spend a lot of time integrating new technology as it comes in, to make sure it fits in with the bigger picture.”

Global perspective

With a thousand or so people around the world working on products that need to be ‘policed,’ Chessell now finds herself as one of a small band of IBM engineers who travel the planet ensuring that these things happen. Chessell’s trips provide face-to-face opportunities with customers. “By working with customers who are ahead of the game, I have a feel for where things are going. A lot of our ideas in new technology come from talking to customers with very difficult problems, and working with them to come up with solutions. We learn about their business, they learn about our technology.”

One example of harnessing this knowledge was the internet. Ten years ago, she says, few companies were going on the web. “We picked that up and said: ‘Okay this looks like all businesses are going to want to do it, so let’s build products to allow businesses to put their systems onto the internet’. ” By the time IBM’s software engineers had come up with their first applications, the rest of the business world was climbing aboard the same bandwagon.

Resourcing innovation

While customers are a good early warning system and a great source of ideas for software engineers, Chessell believes that the best source of new ideas is much nearer to home, a company’s own employees.

“I have a reputation for innovation and I was asked to co-lead a study of IBM’s innovation ecosystem.” The study, by IBM’s prestigious Academy of Technology, an elected body of 300 or so of the company’s leading technologists, looked at the company’s best practices in innovation.

A team of some 70 people considered around 100 successful projects. “People like to learn from mistakes, and that is a good thing, but we focused on what went right rather than what went wrong. We only looked at successful projects and extracted the success factors.”

Among other things, the study looked at internal projects and how collaboration had worked between people in different parts of IBM, and between customers in business and government. The results of the study showed that: “The most significant sources of ideas cited were employees, business partners and customers, in that order.”

The idea that staff are a great source of ideas surprises some people, says Chessell. “Some other businesses don’t ask their employees. They will bring in consultants.” The reality is that if you have a vibrant and vital environment, and employees feel motivated, they can draw on their own experiences and can come up with plenty of useful ideas.

Master Inventor

It’s not easy to be appointed an IBM ‘Master Inventor’; you need a track record as an inventor. Chessell has filed over 40 patents, with about a third of them granted so far, an aspect of her track record that helped to convince the University of Sheffield that Chessell was a suitable person to become a visiting professor at the university. Her record as an inventor also won her the Building Capacity award from the British Female Innovator and Inventor Network.

Patents and intellectual property rights are an important part of IBM’s business. IBM has filed more patents that any other company in the US for the last 16 consecutive years. Patents not only protect the company’s technology, IBM also makes money out of licensing its patents. In addition, to help stimulate innovation and economic growth, IBM plans to increase by 50% -- to more than 3,000 -- the number of technical inventions it publishes annually instead of seeking patent protection. This will make these inventions freely available to others.

A Master Inventor is an in-house mentor, someone that others can turn to when they want to check out their own bright ideas. “You are recognised as expert, and also as a coach, in the preparation of inventions.” She helps people in ‘patent trawls’ and in evaluating and writing up inventions.

Enabling diversity

Chessell has also carried out other non technical roles in IBM. As you would expect from a successful woman engineer, she is often called upon to be the female voice for engineering, both within and outside of the company. She does not mind the task, indeed, personal experience at school showed her how important it can be. “A woman came and gave a careers talk to us about engineering. She did it so well and looked fantastic. I have always remembered that.”

So she has taken on various tasks within the company, as a founder member of the women’s leadership team in Hursley, for example. “It does add extra work because I am expected to support a lot of the women in technology-type activities. But they have helped me too and they have given me new experiences as much as it has taken time from me. So I consider the balance is even.”

Interestingly, while the women’s group still exists, it has, says Chessell, moved on to consider broader diversity issues. “Almost everything that we did in the women’s leadership team has benefited men as well. It was challenging the monoculture. ‘This is what a leader looks like, this is what an engineer looks like, this is what a manager looks like.’”

New attitudes to diversity are yet another factor in IBM’s constantly changing innovation ecology. Somehow, this ever-changing environment does not worry Chessell. What will she be doing five years from now? “No idea. Something different,” she says. “I would not have believed that I would be doing this job five years ago. In fact, if I look back just six months, I am amazed at what I am doing now.”

Professor MANDY CHESSELL – HONOURS and Distinctions

Finalist at the Cosmopolitan Women of Achievement Awards, 2000. Named as one of MIT Technology Review magazine’s TR100 group of 100 young innovators 2000. Elected Fellow of the British Computing Society (BCS) 2001. The Royal Academy of Engineering (UK) Silver Medal 2001. Elected to the IBM Academy of Technology 2001. Elected Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering 2002. Elected to the Technology Council of the IBM Academy of Technology 2004. Registered as a Chartered Engineer 2004. British Female Innovator and Inventor Network (BFIIN) Building Capacity Award 2006. BlackBerry, Best Woman in Technology – Corporate Sector 2006.

BIOGRAPHY – Michael Kenward OBE

Michael Kenward has been a freelance writer since 1990 and is a member of the Ingenia Editorial board. He is Editor-at-Large of Science| Business.

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