30 Dec 2016 16:44 IST

‘There’s been a big shift to more
user-friendly software’

Democratisation through the cloud has made software accessible widely, says IBM India’s Mezjan Dallas

“The last 15 years have seen huge changes in the software ecosystem. We have transitioned from being focussed on big companies and enterprise-specific platforms to a far more wide-ranging set of clients,” says Mezjan Dallas, Country Head, University Relations, IBM India.

 

This reflects a significant shift in the industry, which has moved from various licensing models, such as on-premise licensing to software as a service (SaaS) and from customised packages to accessible, easy-to-consume software available on the cloud, says Dallas. He is excited by this democratisation, saying it is great, not just for the IT industry but for anyone wanting to start a business, and points out this is especially exemplified by mobile software development.

As head of University Relations at IBM, Dallas is enthusiastic about his company’s work with campuses across the country, its popular hackathons and the hands-on tech workshops it conducts.

Hackathons

“Perfecting the hackathon format down to a quick weekend contest has worked well for our immensely talented millennials (student community),” says Dallas, “as they get just over 24 hours to solve a problem we pose.”

Usually, the problem is given on a Friday night and the results announced on a Sunday afternoon. He is amazed at the speed with which the hacks and solutions are arrived at, with participants often coming up with workable solutions in just two days. At BITS Pilani, students developed an app in just 12 hours!

IBM has conducted several such contests on its cloud platform Bluemix across various campuses, including IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Bangalore, IIT Hyderabad and BITS Pilani. The company, which celebrated its centenary a few years ago, works with groups of volunteers, who are recent graduates from the campuses where the events are held, and are keen to retain a connection with their alma mater.

Says Dallas, “The workshops IBM conducts are fun, and more hands-on than plain lectures. We encourage the students to learn and be prepared before tackling the hackathons. We can’t expect them to jump in and compete, so we do a few preparatory tutorials in the run-up to the event.”

The tutorials focus on training that includes interactive workshops on Bluemix, which will enhance their practical skills. Following the sessions, students take part in a final hackathon, where they develop innovative apps using these emerging technologies.

At the end of the challenge, participants win prizes and stand a chance of having their resumes reviewed by IBM India’s recruitment team for potential placement interviews and internships.

Asked what kind of problems the students work on during these events, Dallas explains that the students’ goal is to develop pure working software. IBM conducted a drone hackathon in IIT Hyderabad, where, using IBM’s cloud platform and IoT, students had to program the drone to carry out various tasks, such as flying across industrial areas and pin-pointing which unit is the worst polluter of the atmosphere, or operating inside a factory to detect a gas leak, and so on. The winners, who completed the task in six hours, got to take home the drone.

Projects at IIMs

IBM has a tie-up with IIM Ahmedabad’s entrepreneurship cell, with students who are fundamentally interested in becoming entrepreneurs. IBM organises contests several times a year.

Dallas explains, “We have a separate track called Watson, for start-ups that are interested in using IBM’s cognitive solutions. We let them know what’s available to them from IBM on the cognitive side and what they can quickly leverage. Simple things like, say, a voice or tone recognition API (Application Programming Interface) that can assess if a person is angry or sad, and so on.

“These Watson APIs are our business differentiators. Our job is to make start-up enthusiasts aware of technology options from IBM. If they know about these advancements, they are more likely to launch start-ups around such ideas. At IIM Ahmedabad, it was a business model project. Entrepreneurs had to present business ideas, telling us how they would use cognitive as a differentiator in their start-up.”

IBM recently worked with IIM Bangalore on a similar project, where the students had to present a business plan and, like in IIM Ahmedabad, the response from the students was astounding. But, instead of the cognitive aspect, the project threw open the playing field on how they would leverage the Bluemix platform, on which IoT or Watson are available. At this event, IBM tied up with Kalaari Capital, “It was a good combination as a technology partner and VC were both present to listen and help entrepreneurs,” says Dallas.

Tech for start-ups

During the last decade, there has been a significant shift to more user-friendly software. Dallas explains, “We want start-ups to understand how quick and simple it is to access these platforms and the difference between developing software the traditional way versus using Bluemix. IIT Kharagpur’s entrepreneurship cell holds a competition called Empresario across several cities, and we encouraged participants to leverage Bluemix.”

App development, too, is now a transformed activity. Last year, IBM had projects on campuses that resulted in working apps. Using platforms such as Bluemix has shrunk the development time dramatically. As Dallas points out, “I started programming in Pascal, and marvel at the changes that have taken place. What would have taken a year to develop is almost readymade now.”

IBM offers an interesting feature along with Bluemix, which is a PaaS (programming as a service) platform. Using this, one can not only work with IBM tech, but on numerous languages. These services are charged on a ‘pay as you go’ model, depending on the number and extent of usage of services.

Connect with clients

Asked how IBM helps start-ups become viable and sustainable, Dallas says, “The core of what we provide is tech-related. But there are other ways we can help, chiefly with our connect to enterprise clients. Often, entrepreneurs want validation, or access to large customers, and we can provide that, across various fields. We are a channel to connect them with our bigger clients.”

IBM’s Global Entrepreneur Programme is designed to enable and help start-ups. There are filtering criteria, and the start-ups that get through have access to Bluemix for free for a while. The company also hosts IBM Smart Camp, a global pitch competition for early-stage start-ups; those that get to the finals can present their pitch to venture capitalists.

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