IBM Systems & Technology Group, Storage Systems Development
Distinguished Engineer, CTO and Chief Architect, Flash Systems
Hardware Architect: Storage Systems
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Want to become an IBM Fellow? Always listen to your mother.
That’s free advice, courtesy of Andy Walls, IBM Fellow, class of 2014.
“I was a pretty accomplished debater and public speaker in high school, and I was considering going into the law,” recalled Andy, who grew up in Bakersfield, California, “but my mom said, ‘Andy, you should go into engineering.’ I thought about it and decided to study electrical engineering. Mom knows best.”
Meet Mr. Storage
That turned out to be a fortuitous decision for IBM, where the even-keeled engineer has developed a reputation over three decades as Mr. Storage. Since 1987, the compulsive problem solver has been at the center of nearly every new advance in IBM’s storage technology—including the current strategy to drive Flash technology deep into the enterprise.
Flash—highly efficient, fast, re-writable memory technology—has long been popular in cell phones, laptops and consumer electronics. Now it’s rapidly gaining fans in the enterprise market as organizations look for economic ways to tackle Big Data.
The IBM FlashSystem line of storage appliances is based on technology developed by Texas Memory Systems, the Houston-based engineering firm that IBM acquired in 2012, with Andy’s strong endorsement. Since then, Andy has divided his time between Houston and his home base in San Jose.
“This is a team of very talented engineers, and we blue-washed their product last year and had a phenomenal growth year,” said Andy. “We’re working on the next generation of FlashSystem products and the integration of these products into the rest of the IBM platforms.”
A billion dollar bet on Flash
IBM is investing $1 billion in developing this new storage technology, noted Andy, chief technology officer and chief architect for IBM Flash Systems. “We’re on the cusp of explosive rapid growth of flash in the enterprise,” Andy predicted. “My dream is that IBM will become synonymous with this ubiquitous form of storage. Flash is a disruptive technology, and IBM can dominate this market.”
A master inventor with 71 patents filed or pending to his credit, the new Fellow owns an encyclopedic knowledge of not only IBM’s broad storage portfolio, but is also deeply versed in competitive storage systems. With all his expertise, Andy is often called upon as IBM’s ultimate secret weaon to solve enigmatic client “crit-sit” hardware/code interaction problems that nobody else can figure out.
“I’ve made a career out of doing the impossible,” allowed the can-do-spirited Californian. “People limit themselves sometimes. I love expanding the limitations.”
For the long-time IBMer, becoming a Fellow offers, as a lawyer might say, dispositive proof of maternal wisdom.
“I just wish my dear mother was around to see it,” mused Andy, “I think she would be very proud.”
Andy Walls in his own words
The tendency is to look for the highest grade point average. Some of the best engineers I’ve ever known have not had the highest GPA. I look for people who love challenges and are not put off by something being hard. It actually stimulates them. I’ve known brilliant people who have a hard time when something is hard. I look for people who don’t limit themselves. They have confidence in their abilities. They know they can do more than it appears. In my experience, there are the critics and there are the solvers. I don’t want to hire critics. I want people who look at tough problems and say, have you tried this? Have you looked at the problem another way? They make good engineers. There’s not much business value to IBM for solving what is simple. The opportunity is in those challenges that seem almost impossible.
Through your career, you have spent a lot of time in the field. Is that client contact important as a development engineer?
I don’t think hard boundaries like salespeople, marketing people or engineers benefit IBM. As an engineer, I’m going to go off and design that piece of equipment. It’s going to directly impact the client and the people selling it. I better understand the client’s problems and requirements. Secondly, our customers want to be able to interact with the people designing the equipment and software they use. They’re impressed when IBM technologists come out to clients and explain how it works. Our clients then know, it’s not just the sales person or marketing; it allows clients to have direct influence over the product and makes them feel IBM cares.
How do you like to spend time outside of work?
I’m an elder in my church and spend a lot of time helping people with the church. I love spending time with my kids and my wife. My kids, my wife, my church are everything. I like to play Scrabble. And I like to golf.
What’s the last book you read?
I like all kinds of non-fiction, especially history, and I also like to read mysteries like Aaron Elkins’ skeleton detective mysteries.
What’s on your playlist?
I like Christian music and classical music.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Dessert and finding the best vanilla ice cream in the world.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good father and husband. That will be enough.
What does it mean to be named an IBM Fellow?
It’s an honor beyond anything that’s happened to me in my career. It really speaks to being enabled by IBM and being able to work with a fantastic group of professionals over the years. Being named an IBM Fellow means I have developed a network of people who have really made this possible. I guess there are scientists and people in research who can invent and do things on their own. But my ability has been in leading people, helping them to see what’s possible and then making it happen. A lot of great people have helped me to become a Fellow.