How my education in Paisley set me up for a career with IBM in development and systems integration
In the first of our alumni profiles in 2021 David Hammond, Technology Transformation Architect – Open Hybrid Cloud at IBM, reflects on his hugely successful career at IBM and his continuing relationship with Paisley and the University. From developing new software for deployment to HMS Ark Royal working for Ferranti, to developing a new En-route Air Traffic Control system for the UK Civil Aviation Authority with IBM. (Picture: Elles buildings 1980s J, L and H block)
It may seem rather a long time ago, but I realised early on that the entry into the workforce was not guaranteed, it took commitment and preparation. I grew up in Ferguslie Park in Paisley, Scotland, at a time when the major industries of the day were in rapid decline: Car Manufacture, Ship Building, Coal Mining, Steel Works. Many were in extended unemployment and living on state benefits.
At school my strongest subjects were mathematics and physics. Computing was not yet a formal part of the curriculum but in Physics I got work assignments on basic electronics and time on a BBC Micro! Computers became of great interest to me. I could not afford it as a “home hobby” but the central belt of Scotland from Glasgow to Edinburgh was an “electronics manufacturing” base for many British and International Companies, from Ferranti to IBM. I wanted to work for a Computing or Electronics company but to get the career I wanted I needed to make a plan and focus on it.
IBM had opened a Factory nearby in Greenock in 1954 and by 1981 was a key part of the IBM PC Manufacturing activity in Europe. At the peak of production IBM, HP, NCR and others in Scotland were building about 30% of all the PC’s built in Europe and nearly 70% of the cash registers. The so-called Silicon Glen, stretching from Inverclyde across the central belt to Edinburgh and north-east towards Dundee. For generations Shipbuilding had ruled Clyde-side, now Electronics and Computers were on the rise, different skills for a new generation.
So, in 1983 I completed my High School Education and chose Paisley College of Technology (now UWS) for a Bachelor of Science in Electrical & Electronic Engineering. Why Paisley and not somewhere else? For me, there were two main driving factors. First, Paisley College of Technology had a reputation for turning out graduates fit for work, the “sandwich” degree providing academic development and real work experience. Second, I was still young at 16, the decision was a big one, it was just too much to consider going far from home. Graduates from Paisley College of Technology were working all over the world in some of the Biggest Global companies. In fact, I would meet some of them later in my career. A Vice President in the largest IT Services Organisation in the world, the Chief Digital Officer of a Major European Bank, a Vice President within the largest retailer in the world (no not Amazon!) to name only three.
As the first generation of my family to start a degree level course I had a lot to work out. There were many lessons here for my career ahead at work.
So how was the experience? Well initially it was overwhelming. So many smart people, so many hard-working people and more than a few along for the ride. I was not far from home, but it felt like another world! The experience was great for me and as I look back now on the highs and lows, I see that it set me up for the years ahead in ways that I did not expect. I had the grades to have gone to some other well-known Universities, but I was glad I chose Paisley! It would be the case that both the college and I would transform ourselves more than once over the coming decades.
I should have paid more attention to the Latin Motto by the side of the main entrance “Accingere in Ardua”. Achieve through hard work! Doing something useful or making something useful takes effort as well as imagination.
I wanted to work, I had some knowledge and wanted to acquire more. But obstacles arose after my first year. I did reasonably well in the transition year from high school, but I did not get a work placement and that was to remain the case throughout the undergraduate journey. My problem, nobody else’s. I wanted specific work and had not yet grown up enough to realise that compromise is needed. It is better to have a long-term goal and look at how opportunities are steps on your journey to achieve it. I wanted to work for IBM designing Micro-electronics but that would not come for some years yet, and then only in part!
As the first generation of my family to start a degree level course I had a lot to work out. There were many lessons here for my career ahead at work. Resilience would be a key one but commitment to the task and the team another. If you can’t feel the pressure it will break you. If you can’t work in a team then you can’t lead it either!
After graduation I only applied to a small set of potential employers. I did research on them before I applied, and I wrote a very specific cover letter and CV. I was very deliberate completing application forms to tell my strengths, aspirations and willingness to learn. This led to a very high success rate proceeding to interview. I prepared for the interviews well and they converted to job offers.
I took my first job with Ferranti International in their Naval Systems Division. It was not to work on micro-electronics but in Software Development. So, I made my big move out of Scotland to their base on the edge of Portsmouth, England. It was immediately obvious that the things I had learned in my degree course, following a method, engineering discipline, research, validating, were equally valuable in work. I was writing software for communications systems, as well as weapons systems and errors could be the difference between success and failure, or even life and death. I found myself doing system trials and commissioning in dock and at sea aboard ships that had been designed and built on the Clyde. I did not enjoy the Force 9 gales in winter sea trials! Although a “cruise” in the Mediterranean is something I might look forward to now, it was quite a different prospect in 1991 when I took along new software for deployment to HMS Ark Royal in January 1991, just ahead of Operation Desert Storm.
My time at Ferranti was fantastic. I worked with great colleagues in hard working and dedicated teams and was given increasing responsibility for support to the Royal Navy on Operations. From developing systems to detect threats in the air on the surface or below water and respond I found myself moving from the role of a Designer and Developer to Support. Reviewing logs from defects experienced on operations, working through the logs and system dumps took me back to those engineering skills that had been developed at Paisley College of Technology. I had so much still to learn and many opportunities ahead, and Paisley College of Technology was also transforming in the early 90’s.
At the time Paisley, in common with other Central Institutions and the former Polytechnics, already offered a range of degrees under the CNAA (Council for National Academic Awards). With the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, Paisley College of Technology was granted the title University of Paisley and was established as a University with a Royal Charter and degree awarding powers.
In early 1994 I took on one of the most challenging projects in my life as an employee of IBM. The Challenge? A new En-route Air Traffic Control system for the UK Civil Aviation Authority.
The role I took was based in IBM Portsmouth, a large office complex for Software Development and Services. The challenge, to modernise the systems that managed hundreds of flights every day in and out of UK airspace including, at the time, the busiest international airport in the world. It was no small task, millions of lines of code, multiple companies developing different parts of the systems software and the underlying network and server technology. All was to be commissioned in a new purpose-built facility in the south coast of England.
Of the many jobs I have performed over the years this has to be one of my greatest. It went into operation at the beginning of 2002, but it was many years of specification, assessment, design, development, testing and commissioning. Where Safety Critical operation was vital, multiple fail-safe options we had to get it right, but part way through the UK project, the Federal Aviation Authority in the US shut down a similar project after years of delays and $10bn of investment. Our journey too was a challenging one but again, engineering focus, good discipline, hard work and some brilliant people we got there.
We may set out to design something with the ambition to ensure that it cannot fail. What I learned along the way is that introducing complexity to prevent failure often leads to an increased likelihood that the “complexity” will lead to failure AND problems. Complex systems can be very hard to debug, hard to fix and even harder to upgrade! As a team we realised that it was more important that we accepted that failures were possible, and upgrades would be needed. So, we engineered a system that paid healthy respect for the fact that problem could arise (the people, the process, the technology) but what mattered was how quickly we identified a problem and the speed of recovery.
It is no exaggeration to say that this project was a major career milestone for me. I worked with colleagues in IBM and with partners across the US, Europe and UK. Learning to work and be successful in a major technology challenge that is still in effective operation nearly 20 years later is something to be proud of, but the collaboration with so many brilliant engineers is something that I learned a lot from. In every case that I gave help, solved a problem, there were more cases where someone helped me or solved my problem.
Proud of the people that I know and work with, I am now giving something back to the University.
I am really happy with my career progress in IBM over the years. There are those who have gone further and faster, but I am proud of what I have done and thankful for the opportunities that my degree course opened up. Working with people across the globe, in some of the most memorable technology projects and events in the world, leading teams of hundreds of people from Malaysia, to India, across Europe and the US has been an inspiration. I was awarded Best of IBM in 2019 and a trip to Bali, Indonesia. Best of IBM recognises the positive impact of technical leaders in IBM (the top 1000 of around 392,000 professionals globally in 2019) on our clients.
Proud of the people that I know and work with, I am now giving something back to the University of the West of Scotland (UWS). I work in an office location just outside of Winchester, England where one of the first ATM’s in the world was made for Lloyds Bank. It is where the current CTO of IBM UK & Ireland developed the messaging product that underpins Facebook Messenger. It is also where some of the people who developed products and services that form the backbone of the world economy, whether Banks, Retailers, Utilities, Government Ministries or Shipping companies work.
So, I now enter my second year of supporting the UWS Mentor programme and continue with some other activities to help link UWS with the IBM Global Universities Programme. I can’t wait to see what we achieve working together in the years ahead.