IBM programmer's hard work made new software easy to use

March 31, 1992|By Charles Lunan | Charles Lunan,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Senior IBM executives hitting the road to promote the company's upcoming release of a crucial software product like to talk most about its user-friendly features.

But it took a lot of hard work by a 28-year-old programmer in Boca Raton, Fla., to make the new OS/2 software easy to use. What started as one man against the system became part of International Business Machines Corp.'s efforts to become less bureaucratic.

"I spent a good year fighting with management, telling them we )) needed to do this," said Marc Bloomfield, who led development of WorkPlace Shell, which makes OS/2 easier to use. "Every time they said shelve it, I'd have to fight, but I fed off customers, and I would never let it die."

Workplace Shell is designed to mimic more closely how humans work. If you want to edit a letter, you simply click open a file containing your letters, click the letter you want and your letter appears on the screen with a word processor running in the background. You needn't find and call up the word processing program.

Mr. Bloomfield became committed to the approach in early 1990. But when he presented his idea to senior managers at the Boca Raton lab, they said they favored a more evolutionary approach to improving OS/2, whose graphical menu had been widely criticized widely as awkward.

Concerned with delays in OS/2 development at Microsoft Corp., lab managers would not give Mr. Bloomfield what he needed to accelerate his work. "I had trouble convincing the high-up people at first," he said. "It was a fairly radical idea, and they were not experts in graphics."

He spent much of the next few months learning what improvements IBM customers wanted to see in OS/2.

But the constant churning of low-level management at the lab interrupted Mr. Bloomfield's work. He got three assistants assigned to the project, only to have them taken away two months later by a new supervisor.

After months of working 80-hour weeks, often by himself, Mr. Bloomfield was able to craft crude demonstration software. He gave copies to IBM salespeople, who distributed them to major IBM customers.

By January 1991, a groundswell of support for his work was growing. Boeing, Citicorp and Ford Motor Co. asked for more copies.

But it was not until February 1991, when IBM's relations with Microsoft hit a low point over snags in OS/2 development, that senior managers at the lab committed to WorkPlace Shell.

IBM sales people and corporate customers from around the world also were bombarding the lab with requests, Mr. Bloomfield said.

Mr. Bloomfield was given three assistants and a secure lab.

IBM became so committed to WorkPlace Shell that in October the company delayed its introduction of OS/2 until March so that it could perfect the feature.

Mr. Bloomfield's successful quest shows that IBM is sincere about delegating more authority to employees so that it can get new products to market faster, said Tommy Steele, director of the programming lab.

The lab is leading the broader corporate restructuring that IBM announced last November, just weeks before reporting its first annual decline in sales ever, he said.

"We think we are out in front of the pack," he said.

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