Cool things IBM does! Find out from our Apprentices some of the cool things IBM does!

IBM works broadly on Nanotechnology in a wide range of areas, I find it incredibly interesting as we move into the future, consumers are wanting smaller and smaller tech to make life easier and nanotechnology is helping this. Find out more

~ Gus Parkhouse

One thing I find interesting, is just how much we all come in to contact with something IBM has done on a daily basis, without necessarily knowing. For example, if you use your debit card to buy lunch, the chances are there is an IBM Product or Service involved in that transaction somewhere (in most cases at least). It’s this behind the scenes contribution that I’ve found interesting since joining IBM, as it prompts you to consider things you’ve never thought about before and you suddenly start realising just how much IBM do! Find out more here

~William Spiers

IBM is collaborating with car makers BMW to explore the use of Watson, IBM’s Artificial Intelligence technology in future BMW vehicles. The aim of this partnership is to work together to see how to improve and embed artificial intelligence in cars of tomorrow to make the overall driver experience better. Prototypes are being worked on right now in Germany and include things like:

  • Drivers beginning to ask questions to the vehicle in natural language while they are driving, enabling them to safely focus on the road while they interact with the vehicle
  • Incorporating real-time weather and traffic data to make route recommendations to the driver as he/she is driving
  • Learning about the driver’s preferences, needs and driving habits and the car adapts to these things as they change over time
    IBM & BMW Video

~ Richard Cure

IBM has a huge ‘women in tech’ community, which supports and celebrates the achievements of women who have pursued a career in technology. The community hosts many events throughout the year to encourage networking and career development for all women across IBM. This is one small part of what makes IBM such an inclusive place to work. Find out more

~ Sarah Naylor

Internally there are a lot of interesting people you wouldn’t meet outside of the company, who do amazing things. We have master inventors who come up with ideas and quite literally invent things (obvious I know), that you wouldn’t see outside of IBM and I feel should be shown off a lot more than it is. There are a lot of people doing a lot of great work in this company and a lot of the time, it’s hidden behind the veil of business to the general public.

~ John Longworth

Most people that look into IBM know about WATSON; an AI that is IBM’s flagship product. However, people are surprised by how many different ways IBM have implemented Watson. A personal favourite is Chef Watson. Chef Watson analyses current recipes and uses this info to intelligently suggest new recipes and flavour combinations that will go well. As most of us are food lovers I am looking forward to what happens next! Link to Chef Watson

~Joe Barry


You wouldn’t believe what these IBM Apprentices have been up to this month…

We asked some of our apprentices to share some of their highlights from the last month. Here are there responses:

Being part of a team that successfully completed a complex 9 month long project where I had to rewrite 2 entire applications in the Java programming language and make them do the same thing as before with a few new features – quite a challenge! I also presented two “Lunch and Learn” sessions about “Agile” to my colleagues – Please see my blog post on agile here: A Point of View on Agile Vs Waterfall – Richard Cure

~ Richard Cure

The past month for me has been a roller-coaster of workloads. The workload in my current role goes through peaks and troughs and funnily enough, the past month has certainly been a peak. I feel that I’ve handled it well and been able to manage 2 team-mates and teach them the things they need to know, without drowning in work or doing silly amounts of hours. Which I believe is an achievement in itself!

~ John Longworth

My highlight of the past month is being a part of the 2017 Brathay Apprentice Team (If you want to know more, read my blog I posted earlier this year Brathay Apprentice Challenge 2017 – Sarah Naylor) and being given the opportunity to take ownership of approving increases/promotions for many business units across IBM and working with managers to ensure they give their employees meaningful increases.

~ Sarah Naylor

Over the past few months, I completed a project I had been working on for over a year. It was a great feeling to move off this project knowing that I’d taken ownership of everything I was required to do across this time, and finished it all within the defined time frame. Furthermore, it was great to see how my input contributed to the overall success of the wider account – in general, a very rewarding month! In addition to this, I also moved roles (given my previous project was finishing), which is a great opportunity to find something new and start a fresh challenge.

~ William Spiers

Over the past month I have had the opportunity to start infrastructure design work on two new projects. Although this doesn’t sound like much it’s helping them to develop massively and showing me the trust I have gained from the architecture team on the account. I have also just worked at the University of Manchester ‘Big Careers Fair’ promoting IBM, it was great to pass on my experiences of working at IBM and what can be achieved whilst working here.

~ Gus Parkhouse

In the past month I have had one big highlight where I dealt with issue of high importance for the client. The details of which are sensitive but my actions resulted in many of our contractors being able to stay on site and continue working. My manager and the client recognised that downtime was likely to become an issue if the Contractors were not able to work so I received great pieces of feedback from them that will help me out massively when I look to progress out of foundation. I appreciate the responsibility I have been given at IBM and the pride I feel when I work hard and become successful.

~ Joe Barry

Our Top Tips for succeeding in your Assessment Centre!

Assessment centres can be daunting no matter what company they are for, so we’ve combined our top 15 tips to help you prepare!

What does the IBM Assessment Centre consist of?

  • Group logic exercise (3 – 6 candidates)
  • Group discussion exercise (3 – 6 candidates)
  • Presentation/Interview (1 on 1)

#1 Enjoy the experience – the assessment centre was my favourite part of the recruitment process because I wasn’t stuck behind an application form or IPAT test. – Sarah Naylor.

#2 The key to giving yourself the best shot in assessment centres is preparation, prepare so that you’re not going in blind, attain some key facts that might prove useful, but don’t overload yourself with information – you still want your personality to come through. – John Longworth.

#3 In my experience you’re not necessarily expected to have tonnes of knowledge or experience, you are a school leaver after all! I think it’s a lot more important to demonstrate how keen, interested and willing you are. – Will Speirs.

#4 Make sure you introduce yourself to the other candidates – it is likely you will have to work with them at some point during the group exercises. – Sarah Naylor.

#5 Keep it simple, especially with the presentation! The first day I practiced mine I had 22 slides to go through in a 10-minute presentation, I was franticly rushing through trying to fit everything in before the timer ran out. After some practice, I had a 5-slide presentation and some key words memorised to keep the presentation flowing. – Joe Barry.

#6 In the group exercises, I think it’s important to demonstrate what you can offer, but be careful that you’re not over-powering. They’re group activities after all, one of the key elements is how well you work with people – completely taking over is unlikely to do you any favours! – Will Speirs.

#7 Being early and being ready is something that is so easy to do but not everyone does it. How hard is it to arrive 20 minutes early? Along with most people I always forget things when rushing around. Allowing time to practice beforehand and to make improvements is invaluable to any Interview/Assessment centre you attend in your career. – Joe Barry.

#8 I think being cool headed and not rushing things will help, remember it’s pretty much a full day and each of the tasks you get set are going to span 30 minutes, maybe even an hour, so make sure to give yourself time to think before acting. – John Longworth.

#9 Dress smartly! – Richard Cure.

#10 Remember that in a lot of scenarios, you’re not necessarily competing with the people around you for a place (at least in my experience, multiple people from my assessment centre were taken on). As such, I found it was important to not treat every scenario as a competition and instead focus on yourself and what you can offer. – Will Speirs.

#11 Be yourself, if you go in trying to be someone you’re not, it’s going to show and you want to be hired for who you are, otherwise you’ll end up putting on an act for the rest of your career. Which sounds like far too much effort with the amount of work you’ll end up doing! – John Longworth.

#12 The observers want to see you use the individual strengths of the group to get a task completed. I consider myself very comfortable leading a group however some of my colleagues had better technical knowledge. Therefore, I was able to bounce ideas around the group and ultimately, we were able to work well together and complete the task. If you are given people to work with, make sure their strengths are utilised! – Joe Barry.

#13 Make the most of your opportunity to ask questions! – Sarah Naylor.

#14 In the group exercises try to stand out with your ideas but be adaptable if the group choose to go with another candidates’ – it still shows your efforts to contribute. – Gus Parkhouse.

#15 Be confident in yourself – it’s noticeable to the assessors. – Richard Cure.

A Point of View on Agile Vs Waterfall – Richard Cure

Hello everyone, Richard here with another blog! In this post I’d like to talk about the changing landscape in the IT industry regarding the way development is done, which means looking at agile and waterfall as methodologies to run a development project. I’d also like to share my experiences of exploring agile on the projects I’ve worked on so far.

Firstly, the concept of agile revolves around small, cross functional teams – by cross functional I mean participants with different skills and expertise e.g. Project Management, Development, IT Architecture, Integration, Business Analysis etc.

In agile, the individuals in these teams trust and support each other and closely work together, sharing the responsibility to release increments of a product e.g. software. The team splits the delivery of the product into regular “sprints” of work normally 2 weeks in length, in which the product is refined and iterated on, with an emphasis on continuous development and testing.

This is in stark contrast to a waterfall approach to development which involves normally one release of the product at the very end of development which is tested thoroughly afterwards.

Waterfall development is a less “chaotic” approach and follows the traditional software development lifecycle of Requirements – Design – Development – Implementation – Test – Deployment – Maintenance. It generally involves these stages organised sequentially in the form of a project, which is how the IT industry has generally used for many years until recent times.

Working agile has some benefits – in my opinion, here are the 3 key benefits of agile:

  • Business and technology partner better – instead of working in isolated teams with minimal interaction, teams attempt to achieve shared understanding through:
  • Daily “standups”, where each member summarises what they did, what they are doing today, and if they are facing any blockers to progressing. These short meetings are normally time-boxed to 15 minutes max.
  • Regular “demos”, where working products are demonstrated to stakeholders and progress is reviewed.
  • Regular “retrospectives”, where team members look at how they worked during the previous sprint and come up with a short list of things to improve upon for the next one.

The effect of these 3 practices ensure the whole team – including business-oriented stakeholders and technical-oriented stakeholders – is aware of what is going on and how they can improve for the next iteration. Clients or sponsor users are also often involved throughout, allowing them to influence the development of the product earlier or direct the team to “course correct” if they don’t like a feature or the way the product is going.

  • The business value of working agile is in the visibility and flexibility of the agile processes:
  • Teams can adapt to change quicker and face less hurdles during changing business or technical requirements
  • Teams feel more empowered to get things done (therefore get things done quicker):
  • The iterative nature of agile development means the team is forced to deliver in smaller increments each sprint, and can lead to defects/errors in the product being spotted much earlier, giving developers more time to fix them.

Working waterfall also has its benefits – in my opinion, here are the 3 key benefits of waterfall:

  • The project is more predictable and controlled:
    There are clearly defined stages with hard deadlines for team members to adhere to, which is appealing to those in charge of delivery of products as they can be more sure when to expect the completion of a product
  • Tends to be documented more thoroughly:
    This is a benefit to newer team members who can get up to speed by reading existing documentation, although some may argue that the code itself is a form of documentation.
  • Less room for scope creep
    In waterfall, the client usually only sees the end product once at the end of the project, meaning they have little influence in between requirements and deployment to introduce change to the original project scope, whereas in agile the client can sometimes demand dramatic change during key points in development which can throw up risks and issues during key stages in development.

Personally, I think the industry is seeing agile as a potential way forward and especially in IBM there is definite movement towards adopting agile as a new way of working, but it’s not without its challenges and problems and it won’t happen overnight to completely change. And in reality, some projects aren’t suited to an agile project management method.

For example, one of the problems we’re facing right now are that we haven’t been able to change our infrastructure to sufficiently accommodate an agile environment – in fact we have just “migrated”, or switched over, to our client’s development and test systems meaning we have lost some control of the systems we are using.

DevOps, another hot topic (which deserves its own blog post) works hand in hand with agile techniques, and requires close control of development and test systems so this may be difficult for us to explore DevOps going forward.

Culture has been a difficult barrier to get over – some colleagues have been working waterfall for decades and are hesitant to accept work not completely finished.

Thirdly, our client contracts are not agile based – meaning ideally the client would pay for each release rather than for the finished product. This is not the case although we have been exploring agile practices through the development stage using things like sprints I talked about earlier, but also in the context of a project following the waterfall method, leading to a weird hybrid of “Agile-fall”. I guess perhaps this isn’t the best way to go about it – I think it does need to be one or the other.

However it’s still an interesting and valuable experience to work agile and maybe one day in the future this will become the norm for development in general.

Thanks for reading!

Richard Cure.

Goals achieved for 2016 – Joe Barry

2016 was a year full of ups and downs, for Business, Politics and Sports alike. For me I will remember this as the year IBM helped me to achieve all my goals. When I started the year, I had three things I needed to do for my career and anything less than all 3 would be disappointing. January 2016 I was in Swindon working as an Industry Tester and by December 2016 I was a Project Management Officer (PMO) in Hursley. Allow me to talk through my journey.

  1. Improve my Work/Life Balance.
  2. Make an effort to learn new skills that would help me in the future.
  3. Determine my next career steps and start the journey towards it

Why would I or anyone need to improve my work/life balance?

Well in my case I was living in Portsmouth but working in Swindon. Monday I would travel up, staying a hotel and at 6pm on Friday I traveled back home. I found that I was always tired and quickly got bored of the routine. My family were under the impression that I was living the sweet life. I would always get the same comment.

“Staying in hotels must be great, don’t have to tidy up, use the laundry service for your clothes, food gets brought to your door”

This was all true but once you have been in hotels for a year the novelty had worn off.  When I finished the work day I would get back and start thinking about the stuff I needed to do the next day. I never switched off.

So, to remedy this I spoke to my IBM manager and asked for some help in getting a role closer to home that would still test me and progress my career. I got my ideal roles narrowed down to Project Management or Test Specialist and I used my network to speak to a couple of managers in Hursley. By April I had found a test role that fitted all my criteria however I needed some specific skills in order to be most effective at the role.

Therefore, I needed to make an effort to learn new skills that would help me perform in my ideal role.

The problem I faced was that I have only ever worked with client systems. I was not versed in IBM software or hardware. In this situation to have all the educational tools IBM provides was extremely beneficial. I spoke to the test manager and found out all the skills needed and found most of them on Think foundation and Code Academy online courses.

Finally, I was ready to fill my new role but was informed that I was no longer needed. The role had already been filled by someone else. This was because the end date on my previous role was too late and the test manager needed someone ASAP. I was still wanted for a test role but in the meantime my test manager used her network to find me a PMO role in Hursley.

I was relieved that I was able to carry on working in Hursley but wasn’t too sure about filling a PMO role, within the first day I realised it was the perfect position to determine my next career steps.

The PMO works with the Business and Project Managers to deal with contractor admin tasks. This ranges from on-boarding to access requests to contractor agency queries. As PMO I can use my connections with Project Managers and Technical contractors to figure out what I want to do and how I can do it. To gain a better insight to the project management role I attended an IT Infrastructure Library course that covers all types of management from service to operations and many others. I loved the course and wished I’d done it earlier. I have a new-found appreciation for how the business works and how many mover parts are in play to drive value to customers. I had already done a lot of technical courses but I enjoyed seeing them work in real life and what a Software Developer does day to day.

From my experiences both in technical and management I am currently finding a technical role that I would be happy with. I have the foundation in place to do so and other options available if I change my mind.

Thanks to IBM, I was given a lot of role options that would help improve my work life balance. IBM’s Think academy meant I was able to gather the skills to fill any role I desire. I can now see the bigger picture when it comes to business and a view of day to day tasks of technical professions all of which has helped me craft a destination for my career.

Joe Barry.

2016 Review – Will Spiers

Since we’ve rocketed into 2017 and are somehow over three months in already, I thought I would write a piece reflecting upon my achievements and experiences last year – 2016 was my first full year in IBM – only just though, given I started in March 2015. However, I feel it proved to be a pivotal year for me, in terms of my personal development, career progression and my long term plan. So, where was I this time last year?

January/February 2016, I was in the process of finding a new role, still very up in the air about where I wanted to go next, what I wanted to do and what a new opportunity could entail. I feel I grew immensely as a person over the next few months, when looking for any job, you end up speaking to loads of new people and this one was no different. Certainly within IBM at least, it’s becoming clearer throughout my career – particularly over the first two quarters of 2016 – that the network you create is literally invaluable. Throughout my search, contacting people I knew from across the business was one of two main resources. Conveniently backing up this point, I found my next opportunity through an apprentice friend, who knew someone else, who knew someone looking for a replacement because they were moving on. If you can keep up with that, you’re doing better than me! Regardless, it highlights the point – never underestimate the reach of your network and its importance, especially given the whole 6 degrees of separation theory.

So April 2016, I up ship at my first role and move myself over to IBM Hursley. Lots of things changed over this time, as prior to the move, I’d never experienced another role or working on an IBM site, so my understanding/experiences were almost doubled in an incredibly short space of time! Alongside this, as Hursley would have been a serious commute for me on a daily basis, I also begun staying in hotels Mon-Thurs, just to chuck another new experience into the equation for good measure. So, how did being flung into a brand new role go? In hindsight, my answer is incredibly well – although at the time it didn’t always feel as though it was. Here’s the thing, I recognise now that it’s always going to be slightly overwhelming at times across the first few months of moving to most new roles – it’s a period of immense development, given the amount of information you’ll almost always need to take in over such a short period. For me, in reality this meant some scenarios where I didn’t feel 100% comfortable, but this without doubt was what made me develop and kept me motivated, driven and interested. If you never step out of your comfort zone, how can you expect to grow?

So post-handover period, I tried to take my consideration of stepping outside of my comfort zone forward, something which I feel I’ve done well. During my time in this role I’ve continued developing; from my time management to my communication skills, I’ve improved them all. That’s not to say that I didn’t develop in my first year at IBM, but I feel my second – and this role – have been pivotal in taking my learning’s from year one to the next level.

Finally, throughout 2016 I also took the approach to commit to learning as much as possible – we foundation students are lucky enough to be supported and encouraged to do this, so I felt I’d be silly not to take advantage of it! As such, I completed my ITIL foundation qualification, various Lunch n Learns and a PEL course (path way to entry level – a foundation course surrounding client conversations). As well as this, I also took steps to take this to the next level in 2017, registering my interest for various courses/certifications.

So that was my 2016, a year that was rounded off nicely with a Target awards apprentice of the year nomination – hard work pays off! I hope it will act as a stepping stone to take my new skills into 2017 and continue developing at a similar place.

Will Spiers.

Brathay Apprentice Challenge 2017 – Sarah Naylor

This year, eight other apprentices and I have been chosen to represent IBM in the 2017 Brathay Apprentice Challenge which will see our company up against employers from across England to be crowned apprentice team of the year 2017.

Our team ‘Brathay Blue’ ranges from business/technical apprentices across many business units, giving us the opportunity to collaborate with individuals we would not normally get the chance to work with.

Our team consists of:

  • Me, Sarah Naylor
  • Charlotte Moore
  • Wesley Manta
  • James Ginn
  • Ashleigh Denholm
  • Conor Champion
  • Dominic Day
  • Shuhui Xue
  • Sophia Kyriacou

This challenge enables us to give back to the local community where we will spend the regional heats gaining valuable skills working on a community project and engaging in a number of exciting awareness raising challenges. Our aim is to raise awareness of apprenticeships across the South East of England, with two of the team doing the same in Manchester, promoting the benefits of apprenticeships for young people and the positive impact they can have for businesses.

The team will find out if we have been successful on May 17th when the National Finalists are announced. If we are lucky enough to be successful, we will have the opportunity to visit Brathay Trust HQ for the week where we will compete in the logistical and team building finale for the title of Apprentice Team of the Year 2017.

We are planning lots of events with schools, colleges, businesses and the local community for the coming months. We are always looking for new opportunities to get involved in, please contact us via Twitter direct message (account below) if we can support any of your events by raising awareness of apprenticeships in the South East.

Please support us this year and see what we will be getting up to in the coming months by following @IBMBAC  on Twitter and Tweet using hashtags #IBMBAC17 #BAC17.

Sarah Naylor.

It’s all about the Goals! – Gus Parkhouse

Is anybody really 100% sure about their exact goals? I know I wasn’t – during 2016 a new goals measuring system was introduced at IBM. This new system showed the five areas we’d be measured against and it was up to me to decide what targets I would set. This was a new and more efficient way of having ever-evolving goals that are continually relevant to the work or tasks I’m doing.

My goals needed to be evaluated against 5 key pillars, and I used them as self-set targets or milestones which, in order to attain these goals, I had to meet. When setting any of these goals it gave the option to set a status message. The status options were closed, completed, on-going and on-track. These options helped to track the status of each target, and whether I needed to set new goals or develop the older ones to be relevant.

I wanted to have challenging goals that would stretch my knowledge and ability, and would put me out of my comfort zone. I will be using this method to set my goals for 2017 and in order to help me develop further. It also helped dramatically with my educational needs as it allowed me to forecast what education I might need to meet a set goal. For example “Complete ITIL foundation by the end of Q2”. This pushed me to complete the course and also had a specific time deadline. Once this goal was completed, I added a small explanation of what I had achieved as well as a copy of the certificate, and then updated the status to show my manager what I had achieved and to keep him up to date with my progress.

As it was a new system, my goals were very specific in the areas I was comfortable in but slightly more ambiguous in other areas. The new system did allow me to update my targets so that if they started off vague but then became more and more specific I could change them which helped me to tailor my targets in order to get the most out of my development and continue to push myself.

For 2017, I’ll be setting goals that range between my apprenticeship work and account work, as this will help me to track both of these, but will also provide my managers with an up to date view of my current progress. I’m sure you will all be happy to know that my targets will also be in the SMART format as I find this to be the most effective method.

I have found that having goals that are always evolving is a lot more beneficial compared to static targets that do not change over the course of the year. In the future I will be using this method as I feel that at times it has been challenging due to time constraints, but I have also reaped the benefits of this such as education, personal development and also helping me track my progress along the year with a visible trail to measure it against.

If you have any questions then please contact me on LinkedIn

Gus Parkhouse.

Networking, Is It All It’s Cracked Up To Be? – Gus Parkhouse

In my first few days at IBM it seemed to be one in every five words was “Networking”, now that I’m a year in I can see why this was emphasised so much. I know working for a tech company you’re probably thinking why is computer networking so important to IBM and why does everyone keep talking about it? Although computer networking is important as connects components and nodes this blog is all about social and workplace networking. I’ve started to really see the benefits from good networking and constantly growing my network, these benefits are;

–     Opportunities

  • Connections, Knowing people in different places
  • Advice
  • Positive Influence
  • Confidence
  • Friendship
  • Add feedback

Through speaking to my line manager I have found many opportunities such as moving from an account in London to one closer to my home in Manchester, allowing me to spend more time with friends and also allowing me to be more sociable outside of work without having to stay in rented accommodation. Without knowing who to approach this would have been a lot more of a strenuous and time consuming task. It also helped me to know who to approach with certain aspects of work, for example Cognitive computing, as I found that just knowing one person in this area was positive  as it helped to open up doors to other members of that team and eventually help progress an extremely tricky task.

Since starting as an apprentice in IBM and building a great network of apprentice architects in one base location, I have now moved to the other side of the country and don’t have the pleasure of seeing apprenticeship colleagues on a daily basis anymore. But this hasn’t stopped me from networking with them, it just changed the ways in which I do it. Face to face turned into instant messaging, phone call, text messages and e-mails. I still ask this network the questions that I feel would defy the quote “There’s no such thing as a stupid question” and they’re happy to help. I went from working in an office with distinguished engineers to working from home for 3 weeks, during this time I had to call upon my network for the majority of information needed. I found working remotely from home a very big challenge as I was getting minimal human interaction which is the opposite of what I had the week before. I also created some new connections in this period with the Chief Architect of the new account I was heading on too. My new network connections into the architects team came in incredibly handy when joining IBM and learning what was vital to learn and what could wait.

When I had settled into my new account and had started to settle in, I was advised that a new Deputy Chief Architect was joining the account. When he arrived on the account I took the time to sit down and have a chat with him that eventually turned in to going to grab some lunch to get know more about what he had previously done and what he was expecting of me, but also a less work-related chat about what he was interested in that turned into him becoming a mentor for me and helping me with architecture and learning.

On the new account I have been able to expand my network further in a very short amount of time as I now work with such a vast team, this networking has helped me to expand my knowledge and get involved in a lot more tasks. This ever expanding networking has been great for helping my confidence in meetings with both the client and senior members of the team as they are there to reinforce the information I’m putting forward. Not forgetting to mention the social benefits of being involved in a mixed team, and all of the networking I have taken part in has helped me to develop my LinkedIn profile and help create a strong virtual network.

At the beginning, I won’t lie, I was very skeptical of what the hype around “Networking” was but now after just a year I can see that this is and will always be a massively important tool throughout my career. I would now say I agree with the old proverb “It’s not what you know but who you know” and can see where it possibly came from.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, feel free to message me on LinkedIn for any questions. (

Gus Parkhouse.

A Point of View on Cognitive Computing – Richard Cure

If 2015 was the year of Cloud, Analytics, Mobile, Social and Security, 2016 was the year of Cognitive.

Cognitive is the big word at IBM right now so I thought it would be an appropriate time to share my understanding of cognitive computing and how I see it relates to business and technology.

Firstly I hear you asking, what does cognitive even mean?

Well, cognitive is the word which is used to describe systems which can understand, reason and learn. Like all IT systems, cognitive systems rely on data, which is exponentially increasing every year – in fact nowadays most businesses probably have too much data – and more importantly aren’t sure how to best go about creating value from it. Cognitive systems help to reveal patterns and relationships across data which could previously not be discovered by other means.

As the explosion of data gets ever bigger, consultancies such as IBM are helping their clients understand and refine their data better by building or integrating cognitive systems into their existing systems so they get better value from their data. And it’s not just IBM – Microsoft has Cortana, Facebook is developing chatbots, Amazon has its Echo product which comes with its own assistant Alexa, and in fact you could argue those of us with iPhones already have pocket cognitive assistants in the form of Siri, so Apple are in on it too. It’s safe to say cognitive is a competitive market already.

Those IBMers reading may well (and should!) know that Watson is IBM’s lead brand in cognitive. Watson (the question and answer based computer system) famously beat human contestants on the US game show Jeopardy in 2011 which gave way to its own dedicated business units shortly after. Today, thousands of people work on Watson and its various umbrella products such as Watson Analytics and Watson Developer Cloud at IBM across the world.

So how does it work?

At a high level, Watson is a mix of different systems and technologies – leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language capabilities. It understands questions asked from end-users – in a variety of different languages! – by using semantic parsing, which is fancy for breaking up the words in the question to understand what the question is asking. It then works off a “corpus” of knowledge, which is made up of structured data, such as tables and databases, and unstructured data, such as articles and audio. Watson then uses advanced computational techniques to very quickly extract information related to the question from its corpus.

Finally, it analyses what it understands it has been asked against what it knows to be correct and produces answers with a confidence level of accuracy – a bit like a super-powered search engine – but you don’t have to go through each result to find what you are looking for, Watson can do this for you which is what makes it so powerful.

However for this to work, firstly a given instance of Watson to be used must be “trained” using a variety of sources – human experts teaching it the right answers to questions, machine learning techniques, and feeding interactions between real life users and Watson into its corpus of knowledge. It also needs to hold data based on the questions it may receive. The advantage of this is that Watson can become very specialised in a certain areas, for example medicine or law. The disadvantage is that it requires a lot of time (and money!) to train it to answer questions and know what is actually correct because well, even Watson can’t know everything.

So overall, Watson is a system which runs analytics against a body of data to get insights from what it has been taught to be correct from experts, evidence, and real interaction, and can estimate a level of confidence to potential responses to its requests. The end goal of this technology is to inform experts to make better decisions, not to replace them, especially in data intensive industries.

The reason why these new-age systems are called cognitive is that they display very similar capabilities to the way the human brain responds to requests to do something. For example every time you must make a decision to do something you are making it based on from what you learnt from experts (teachers, education), from evidence (what you know to be correct, your values), and from interactions (your life experiences) and respond accordingly.

Already IBM has exploited Watson in almost every industry, notably in healthcare and automotive industries. At a recent conference in Las Vegas called “World of Watson”, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and a Japanese professor announced that by using Watson they discovered a patient was suffering from a different, rare form of leukemia by feeding the patient’s data into Watson. Ultimately they were able to treat the patient accordingly after doctors by themselves were unable to come to a diagnosis, therefore potentially saving the patient’s life. How cool is that!


It’s all very well having this cool technology, however to gain approval for projects involving cognitive, there must be a good business case. In my opinion, these are the main benefits to business:

Customers have better engagement experiences with cognitive systems. To illustrate, I’ll use an example of a situation that probably frustrates all of us. When dialling customer service to get a quote from an insurance company, instead of being put on hold for half an hour and losing a potential customer, we could access a cognitive chatbot who could handle the initial interaction and gather the simple details that every quote needs, speeding up the time taken to handle the quote. But if it got into any trouble or could not handle the interaction we could be put through to a human user.

Decision makers are better informed by cognitive systems. Business leaders can gain relevant insights, tailored to their industry, from cognitive systems helping them understand more about their customers, markets, and what people are saying about their products and services from different sources of data – and respond to this information, often in real time.

They help us to explore and discover about the world and ourselves even more. Cognitive systems are making their way into the healthcare industry, assisting doctors and nurses to keep us healthier, and travel companies are creating tailored experiences for each customer by pairing cognitive systems with the vast amount of data they hold about different countries, cities and travel options like flights and trains.


It’s obvious that these systems do have potential, however we must be careful in the way we use them. What they can’t do is analyse the risk that might not be represented in the data such as environments, people and cultures.

There are still limitations to these technologies – e.g. if a predictive model suggests to buy oil in the Middle East because it is likely to be cheaper than buying oil elsewhere in the world, but the country is in conflict and its leaders are in danger and is not represented in the model, then this must be factored into the decision – in the end you can’t hold machines accountable for bad decisions.

Furthermore, I would say that smart as computers may become, there will always be a humanity gap between humans and computers, as they will always lack fundamental human abilities such as consciousness and those intangibles things which make us human such as feelings and thoughts.

So there’s a way to go before we see the film “I, Robot” come to life.


Given the rapid pace of innovation in the tech industry, I also believe that cognitive systems will become more accessible to the public not too far in the future too, just in the same way that the smartphone did in the previous decade.

So overall, I see exciting times ahead in technology at IBM and at the cutting edge in this industry. Happy December to everyone and a very Merry Christmas to you all! See you in the new year,

Richard Cure.