Careers: Interviews
Widely Regarded IT and Information Storage Specialist shares his extensive business expertise

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Ron Durbin, Director of Industry Relations for the Information Storage Center (ISIC) at UCSD.

Ron Durbin has been working in the technology field since 1986. After graduating with a degree in English and Journalism from California Lutheran University, he worked initially as a sportswriter before landing a technical writing position with a defense contractor. After one year of defense work, he moved with his wife to her hometown of San Diego to begin work in the "private sector."

Successful writing stints with General Instrument and Pacific Recorders & Engineering Corporation led him to an upstart communications company called QUALCOMM in the Spring of 1990. Starting as a technical writer for QUALCOMM's OmniTRACS Division, Ron was soon attracted to a new startup opportunity within QUALCOMM having to do with something called the "Internet." That opportunity was the Eudora email software application, where, as one of eight individuals starting the group, he was exposed to all aspects of the business and quickly became the group's marketing communications manager.

Within three years, and thanks to a very robust freeware version of the application, Eudora became the most popular email application on the Internet. As the program's popularity grew, so did Ron's responsibilities within what became QUALCOMM's Eudora Division. After three years in marketing, he changed disciplines and became the division's manager of information systems, where for three more years he was responsible for all business applications--many of which were developed internally. He also directed the business systems, technical support, technical publications, and web development teams.

All good things eventually must end, however, and when the Eudora Division was absorbed into another QUALCOMM division Ron became part of the highly mobile workforce, first consulting for dot-com startups and eventually starting one of his own. WritingTree.com was a labor of love that survived for two great years and provided Ron with “an incredible” learning experience. That experience has proved valuable for Ron, in his current position as director of Industry Relations for the Information Storage Industry Center (ISIC) at UCSD. With ISIC since 2001, Ron now manages ISIC's StorageNetworking.org Initiative, which seeks to address the educational needs of the users of data storage technology.

Discussion: 

Q: With your demanding schedule, Ron, thank you for taking the time to speak with us!

A: You are very welcome. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.

Q: You are now working in information storage, and your career path includes, technical writing, communications and marketing of Eudora E-mail products, founder and president of WritingTree. Please provide details about your career choices, and how they have impacted what you do today.

A:  You could say that my career has included a little bit of everything. What’s the saying – “jack of all trades, master of none.” While much of this has been by choice, it really hasn’t been according to any well thought out career planning. Most often it has been more a case of getting an opportunity to do something different and being comfortable with change.

In retrospect, I think that by putting forward an honest effort I’ve gotten the opportunity to make choices in my career that, on the surface, may not always seem connected, but have always led to opportunities for learning and growth. That’s one of the things I like most about my current position at UCSD. The university has an educational mission. As someone who loves to learn, I enjoy being around others who have made it a driving force in their lives, such as professors, as well as those that are being driven to learn for one reason or another, such as the student body. Through StorageNetworking.org, I’ve also seen this thirst for learning in the storage community, which is (and needs to be) one of the driving characteristics of IT professionals.

Q: Describe your current work as Director of Industry Relations, Information Storage Industry Center (ISIC).  Tell us more about the StorageNetworking.org Initiative. What are your greatest current challenges and what gives you the greatest satisfaction?

A: Let me begin with part two of that question. The great thing about my current position is that it enables both professional and personal satisfaction—which for me are invariably connected. On a professional level, I get the greatest fulfillment out of bringing pieces together to form a meaningful whole. Whether that’s the bits of text and illustrations in a user manual or the people and alliances necessary to solve a big problem, I greatly enjoy building things. On a personal level, to get fulfillment I really need to interact with other people in a positive way. I enjoy building and maintaining professional relationships, and the best way to do that is to dedicate yourself to a philosophy of service.

It’s actually exciting to have people leave your office with the feeling that they are better off than when they first walked in—even if, as most IT pros will bear witness, you may not always get credit for it. Part of that “attitude of service” that really is strong within the IT community is an ability to recognize in yourself when you’ve solved a difficult problem even when those around you may not. I appreciate and respect that type of dedication, and the more data management professionals I come in contact with the more I see it and draw on it for my own reinforcement.

In a great sense my job as ISIC’s industry relations person is to connect our research program with the industry in a way that addresses industry needs and/or solves industry problems. And by industry, I mean everyone involved in this space. To do that, you need to spend some time learning about the needs of the industry, and there are a couple of needs we deal with on a daily basis. The first is the need for unbiased information, which is what academic research programs are all about. The second is the need to educate, which brings us to our StorageNetworking.org Initiative.

Very early on we recognized that there could be a need for end users with storage responsibilities to network and have greater opportunities for learning, particularly at the local level. This is a very fast-paced industry, and common among fast-paced industries is a gap between new solutions and the people who might need them but are too busy solving their own daily problems to learn about them. So, in partnership with some pretty outstanding groups of individuals that make up our advisory boards, and a great number of selfless storage pros who have become our user group founders, we developed a model for supporting local Storage Networking User Groups (or SNUGs). This model is in place today and seems to be working quite well. In concert with that, we’ve also tried to create online opportunities for learning through our new web portal at www.StorageNetworking.org.

Q: In what ways do you see a collaboration between the NPA and Storage Networking benefiting both parties?

A: The membership bases of the NPA and StorageNetworking.org share many characteristics. One is the attitude I mentioned regarding supporting others by solving complex problems. The other is that they are essentially part of the same infrastructure, and the ultimate success of that infrastructure is becoming more and more dependent on each of these respective disciplines—networking and storage—becoming more cognizant of what the other needs to accomplish to be successful. If we can bring these groups together, even in a small way, we will be facilitating a dialogue that can help both groups become better at adding value to their companies and advancing their own careers.

Q:  Data and information storage is a dynamic and continuously evolving industry worldwide. What do you consider to be the most important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?

That’s a tough one. Since I’m more businessperson than technologist, I’d like to plead ignorance when it comes making any technology recommendations. That said, there are a couple of trends that seem very interesting right now.

The first is the trend toward storage system interoperability. This is partly driven by the release of the Storage Networking Industry Association’s SMI-S standard. But in a greater sense, it is being driven by storage consumers who are tired of complexity in their storage systems and are seeking simpler solutions. I am asked all the time about the importance of SMI-S. Not being a technologist, I don’t fully understand its nuts and bolts. But I do understand the need to create a simpler management environment for information. Inasmuch as SMI-S even stimulates discussion in this area, I can very easily recognize it as important to this industry.

The second trend we find very interesting is the convergence between policy questions and technological solutions. You see this with information lifecycle management (ILM). Questions about the value of the data, which are essentially business policy questions, are now converging with questions about how information can be stored in the most effective manner to support those value decisions. These questions are going to require a lot of organizational man hours to address, and they are interesting to us because we study management science, and we’re naturally curious about how these discussions within organizations are going to occur and how they can produce positive results.

These aren’t the only significant trends in the industry. But they are a couple of the ones that the ISIC is working to understand.

Q:  A self-confessed  “labour of love” ..... tell us more about WritingTree.com.  Share your most valuable lessons from WritingTree.com.

A: As an English major and poetry hobbyist, I have always had a love of literature. So, when the dot-com bubble was inflating, I had the opportunity to start an effort that played to that passion. WritingTree.com was essentially a free online workshop for writing hobbyists, which would be paid for by providing back office software to publishing companies—for example, web-based submission forums for publications that solicit and need to manage large volumes of freelance writing. And the model drew aspiring authors from all over the world. At one time, we had more than 7,500 people posting their writings on the site and asking for feedback, which is a very exciting thing.

Because we started WritingTree in 1999 and finally closed up shop in 2001, I got to see first hand both the inflation and deflation of the dot-com frenzy—and “frenzy” is probably the best description. I can honestly say that the deflation part was more personally rewarding than the inflation part. For one thing, there was so much crap spread about by so-called Internet gurus, business “experts,” angel investors, and VCs, that it was refreshing to see the “scam” part of the thing finally exposed. I found it liberating to actually tell people what we were doing, instead of trying to fit the message to some so-called formula for going public (a formula that soaked an awful lot of investors). So the greatest lesson I learned is that being true to yourself is more rewarding, even when the advice and expectations of others seem to be pulling you in all kinds of different directions that will supposedly lead to greater riches.

Q: As one of the eight founding members of the Eudora Division at QUALCOMM in the early 1990’s, you were actively involved in documenting, marketing, coordinating and managing what was to become one of the most recognized brands on the Internet. The past ten years has seen a tremendous growth in the ease of global communications.  What was your most memorable experience? What do you see on the horizon?

A:  I think my most memorable experiences have to do with the early days of Eudora, circa 1992, when the Internet was much more simple and we were all pitching in and making things up as we went along. For example, I remember talking with my boss Jeff Jacobs about the idea that people might one day buy things over the Internet through some type of Internet mall. What a far out concept that was. Selling our very first box (in those days there was no online fulfillment for software). Hitting our first $10k revenue month. Hiring our first tech support person. Those are the things that are most memorable looking back.

As for future trends, this isn’t my area of expertise. But I do think the advent of wireless networks and “go anywhere” communication has changed things in ways we don’t fully understand. For example, as any technology professional can tell you, the line between work time and off time is becoming ever more blurry. I’m not sure how this whole thing is going to work out, but I do know that this trend is going to have to change the way people think about balancing work life and family life. Sure, we’re becoming more productive as a society, but that’s because of this blurriness and the idea than none of us is ever “off the clock.” I sometimes wonder what the cost of these productivity gains will eventually be. Please excuse me while I answer my cell phone…

Q: Your career path would have included many interesting experiences resulting in numerous stories including humorous ones. Can you share one with us?

A: One of my favorite stories has to do with an early technical writing job. I was new to a company and had just produced my first draft of a user manual for a tape recording machine. So the lead engineer cruises into my cube one day, plops the manual on my desk, and declares it a “piece of crap.” Then he leaves.

Now this is funny because, after the initial shock wore off, I asked him to point out the “crappy” parts of the manual. He showed me that in the introduction I had used the wrong term to describe a function. Once I wisely corrected the term, he judged the manual decent and I was on my way. From that time forward I have tried not to worry about the critics’ delivery, but instead have tried to focus on the substance. That has served me well in all of my activities.

Q: What are the most compelling issues facing technology professionals today and in the future? How can they be resolved?

A: I would have to say that keeping a work/life balance is the most critical issue facing technology professionals today. I know I can’t be the only person who looks around and says, “Well, if I can just work 24 hour days for the next two years I might have some idea of what I’m really doing here.” I think it’s true that 100 years from now, the only thing that we do today that will be of importance is trying to shape a better society by preparing our kids to be contributing members of it. I just hope that we’re not having that need prioritized down the list by being on call 7/24. So let’s call that my most compelling issue, which, by the way, I don’t have a good answer to yet.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: I use a Macintosh running system 9.2. Although my boss is insisting I upgrade to system 10, which means there’s some new hardware in my future. By the way, on the road the Mac is a dead giveaway that I work for a university. And yes, I do use a PC at home. I just have a harder time locating where I put things on it.

Q: If you were doing this interview, what five questions would you ask of someone in your position and what would be your answers?

Q1: If you had your career to do over again what would you choose?
A1: I think I’d like to have been a chef. I enjoy the risks taken in the kitchen and the teamwork involved. Or, I’m sometimes told I would be a good game show host, but I seem to have a better face for radio.

Q2: What brings you the most joy?
A2: My family. I have a wonderful wife, twin 10-year old boys, and a six-year old daughter. A man couldn’t ask for more.

Q3: What is your greatest challenge?
A3: Getting enough sleep.

Q4: Will you ever return to the private sector and leave academia?
A4: Since I didn’t get rich on QUALCOMM stock, that’s a move I’ll probably have to consider some day. After all, the family has got to eat. But I’m having a great time with the ISIC and StorageNetworking.org, so I don’t plan on leaving any time soon.

Q5: What type of music do you like?
A5: I love music and listen to all kinds. But I particularly like to look back at bands that may have been popular when I was young but I didn’t really get into at the time. For example, Led Zeppelin was popular when I was young, but I didn’t really get interested in them until a few years ago. Same for the Doors. What’s great is that now all these old rock bands have books and DVDs out, so that I can kind of come to know them at the same time as my kids are learning about them. But with the kids, we try to focus on the music and not all the extracurricular stuff.

Q: Ron, thank you again for your time, and consideration in doing this interview.

A: You are sincerely welcome.

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