Paul Zikopoulos: Paving the Way with Multiple Learning Curves

Paul Zikopoulos

Do you remember the famous cartoon featuring Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, where the speedy bird is persistently chased by a hungry coyote who always came up with different ideas to catch the Road Runner?

Though the show brought smiles to millions of faces, what was most admirable was the sheer determination and grit of that coyote. Wile E. Coyote was never deterred by failure, he failed fast, was always learning, and continuously came up with unique ways to try and capture that bird. But what about the fact that he never caught his prey? It’s irrelevant because we all know that would have ended the show. But we all admire Wile E Coyote’s sheer grit and determination to keep learning; in short, this coyote’s learning curve was always up.

When CIO LOOK set on a voyage to find “The 10 Most Intelligent Leaders in Data Science & Analytics,” we were looking for leaders who have a similar learning curve — that’s when we found Paul Zikopoulos.

A journey with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge (it comes from his parents, he tells us) has taken Paul through all kinds of roles at IBM. Something that really caught us off guard when we looked into his story? He joined IBM from business school and had no formal training in technology.

Today, Paul is the VP of IBM’s Technology Sales Skills Vitality & Enablement group, where he oversees the strategic direction to develop deeper technical skills for IBM’s entire sales force. For almost 30 years, Paul has spent his professional life acquiring knowledge and satisfying his massive appetite for learning. He advises all who will listen, “If you’re not committed to being a lifelong learner, you’re going to get stale in a hurry” When you look at his accomplishments, you quickly realize Paul’s not interested in getting stale.

Paul credits IBM’s culture of learning as an essential part of his growth path that’s led him to write 21 technology books and hundreds of articles (remember, no formal training in technology). He was named a “Top 100 AI & Big Data Thought Leader” by Analytics Insight and to dozens of other “Thought Leader” and “People to Follow” lists, not to mention awards for his speaking and writing skills.

The Dog Years

Paul’s journey has stops in Development, Product Management, and Sales — going back and forth, all the while spawning deep roots into technical communities and clients. He showed us some calendar entries that were a decade old and some just weeks old, they all had one thing in common: large blocks of his calendar were reserved for learning.

Paul began his career writing installation manuals and in user design, which instilled in him a ‘teaching’ capability. He broke down the complex stuff so that anyone could not only understand what he was talking about but follow his directions and learn themselves. This turned out to be one of his greatest strengths. Later he began to write data-focused magazine articles, and when the stars aligned, he answered the calling to become a book author, leading to name recognition as an expert in the field of data, analytics, and AI.

Paul told us how one inflection point in his career was when he made the decision to start focusing on other database technologies; he worked to get certified in Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server to complement his database expertise in IBM Db2. With this knowledge, he began to teach clients about things beyond what he was selling, which he says was “The gamechanger when it came to connecting with them.” When the analytics market shifted, and suddenly everyone wanted to talk about Big Data and Hadoop, it raised Paul’s curiosity, so he learned all he could and wrote the book “Hadoop for Dummies.”

Paul would rinse and repeat this process many times in domains such as Data Science, AI, and Cloud, writing books on all of these topics. He shares, “See the pattern? My journey has had multiple jobs, but it’s all built on a foundation of non-stop learning about something I originally knew nothing about.” He jokes as he reflects on the irony of it all, “I was the dummy that I was writing all those “for Dummies” books for!”

The Hurdled Path

Paul faced several career challenges on this journey, but he courageously shared with us that learning to believe in himself was the biggest of them all. He mentions, “I have this picture I always look at: it has a blue chair in the middle and two yellow chairs on each side of the blue one. Over the blue chair is text with an arrow pointing to it — it says. “Here sat the leader that believed in me so much I started to believe in myself.”

Paul humbly reminisces about Bob Picciano, Alyse Dagehlian, Martin Wildberger, Rob Thomas, John Teltsch, Fred Gandolfi, Frank Luksic, and Mark Ryan, whom all shaped his journey, making a significant difference in his life.

One of Paul’s biggest challenges early on in his career was the label he got for not being “technical enough”. His hiring manager gave him an opportunity to prove himself to the brilliant and accomplished minds that surrounded him.

Sharing his experience, he says, “Talk about not fitting in or feeling I wasn’t good enough! It took time and grit, but I had lots of both. I remember the day I made a promise to myself to always be more technical than I was the day before. I still have this goal today! Remember this: compounding is the 8th wonder of the world; if you keep learning… you’ll amaze many, including yourself, where you end up.”

Another challenge had some poor managers at times, but he is quick to note that he had way more good ones than bad — but this is the reality of big places. He shares with us some great advice if you find yourself in a similar spot: “Remind yourself that you’re not a tree… you can move. I’ve been giving “Pick the boss, not the job” advice for years; trust me, it works.” he says confidently.

Early on, Paul knew that the technical mountain he was aiming to climb was steep, and when taking into account the sheer size of IBM (at the time, ~400,000 people), he knew it would be easy to get lost in a crowd. Paul made a bet that putting focus on building his career outside of IBM would really boost his career inside of IBM. We admit it sounds strange when you first hear it, but it makes total sense as you listen to him speak. He noted how all the writing, public speaking, and client work he did over the years created a large following of customers and communities that got him recognized within IBM, and the rest took care of itself. He notes, “One sure-fire way to impress your bosses is to impress the client base and the community where your solutions get sold.”

The Learning Never Stops

Paul asked us, “If a personal trainer told you to workout with their program for the next two months and you would never have to work out for the rest of your life, what would you think?” We answer, “They’re crazy.” He says, “Agreed. So why would anyone think work skills are any different?” If you want to be successful, the process of learning can never stop. The good news is that it’s never been easier to learn, well, anything. There is something online for almost anything you need to get done, he reminds us. Paul also let us in on his secret (which is really a Robert Heinlein quote): “When one teaches, two learn.” This is the reason Paul writes the books he does. He never starts as an expert in anything, but became knowledgeable by writing and teaching. He notes, “Everyone can take what they know really well and teach it in some way to someone else. I’ve made content creation a job… and that’s my secret to learning.”

To emphasize the importance of learning, Paul shares some entertaining trivia that really got us thinking. “Let me really hit home how critical learning never ends is to success with a fun fact. I saw a movie called ‘A Star is Born.’ It stars two famous people: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. The movie is about a drug and alcohol-addicted country singer (Cooper) and the discovery of a new star (Lady Gaga). As you can figure out by now, it’s about music, and of course, Lady Gaga is world-famous as one of the most successful recording artists in history. I found something interesting. Lady Gaga demanded that Bradley Cooper perform everything live! He had to play his own instruments and sing live, too… no lip-synching or autotuning allowed! Cooper took singing and piano lessons to prepare for his role. When all was said and done, he spent three years of effort preparing to film the ‘A Star is Born’ movie.”

He reacts to the amusement on our faces while telling this story by asking rhetorically, “Why am I telling you this story? If one of Hollywood’s leading actors spends three years preparing to film a movie remake, which has been done twice before, that took 42 days to film, how much time do you think you should be putting into learning for your own career?” He’s right. We can all learn something from this story.

Diversity at Core

Diversity is critical to any successful organization. Paul states that every person deserves equitable opportunities; it doesn’t matter your race, background, sexual orientation, or how you identify. In his opinion, the world hasn’t been doing as good a job as it should have been doing these last decades. He spends time being an ally to several different groups because it’s the right thing to do for a better world. There’s a nuance here that he’s insistent you ponder because everyone talks about being an ally these days. “When I say the word ‘ally,’ I’m talking about that word as a verb, not a noun,” explains Paul.

IBM has been a leader in diversity for decades; their lists of firsts are long and spread across many social justice issues the world is facing today (racial and religious lines, sexual discrimination, identity). Paul adds, “I’m so very proud I get to work for a company dedicated to something that means so much to me personally. Creating a culture of inclusion and voice is critical, and it’s in so much of what goes on at IBM. I really must credit our CHRO for that, Nickle LaMoreaux; she’s made it a personal mission to put actions behind announcements which has taken IBM in this space from the crowded domain of ‘cool to talk about to the less populated ‘get stuff done’ cohort.”

“I look across the teams I’ve assembled over the years; they’ve been so diverse. I’ve had representation across all age groups (into their 60s), races, religions, gender identification, educational backgrounds, sexual orientation, etc. It makes me so proud, and the culture at IBM helped me assemble those teams long before it was the discussion topic it has become today.”

Recognition and Beyond

Paul was the first-ever male to win the IBM Canada “Women in Technology Ally” award. He notes it as a “heart-touching experience in ways he never imagined.” He shares, “I’ve been working in this diversity and inclusion space for a while, not because it’s my direct job, because it’s my direct culture. While IBM has their programs, they support and help employees get involved outside of IBM, too. I love that.”

Paul’s work with Women in Technology began as an ally (verb) around an incident that went viral on social media, his words even made their way to “The View” TV show. Kate Brodock (CEO of Switch, formerly known as Women 2.0) took notice and approached Paul to join her advisory board. She insisted that the only way the world can move forward and overcome issues of gender representation, socialize mobilization, and change the digital activism landscape is to recruit #menasallies (and so the hashtag was born). From there, Paul became more and more involved by speaking at conferences, mentoring, and writing (he’s amassed over 1 million views of his opinions in this space). Eventually, word got out, and Paul ended up with this award.

“The super humbling part of this award is I have no idea who nominated me and who voted to give it to me… I think that’s what made it so special. The truth is, I don’t want to know. It’s not why I do the stuff I do… but it absolutely felt amazing to see that people noticed. But I thank you, whoever you all are!” says Paul.

The Impact of Artificial Intelligence

Paul often comes across questions asking for his take on AI and jobs… should we be scared? To which he answers, “In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beat Garry Kasparov in the now infamous man-versus-machine chess match. Kasparov decreed later that if he had had access to the corpus of chess game observations that Deep Blue had at its disposal during the match, and the ability to process the data as fast as a computer, he would have fared better. After all, if a computer could benefit from accessing a corpus of games played, why couldn’t he? Good point!”

“Today, freestyle chess matches dominate the competitive chess landscape. Freestyle chess is like the mixed martial arts (MMA) of chess. You choose your techniques. You can play just using your own brain, enter a computer to play on its own, or enter yourself with a computer by your side — referred to as a Centaur Chess player. Last I checked, the best chess players alive are groups of humans with machines. When I last looked at the winning stats at these tournaments, sometimes the machines won independently, but Centaur Chess players won the most often. Do you know who never won? A human on their own! This is exactly what Kasparov was trying to say after he lost; while most people took it as ‘sour grapes, it was a genius-level observation.”

Paul’s takeaway is that AI isn’t going to take all our jobs away; instead, he thinks AI will become a net job creator. However, some jobs will go away, but it’s really going to be about the ability to adapt to change. “Don’t get stale,” he reminds us. ‘Roughnecks’ on oil rigs will become ‘RoughTechs’ on oil rigs — but they will be the same people. He articulates this discussion so well when he says, “Look, I can’t tell you what jobs will be here and what won’t. I’m not a fortune teller. But I will make this promise to you: those who get comfortable using AI in their day-to-day jobs will replace those who don’t.” He adds, “We’re going to have to change our taxonomy for job classifications; it’s no longer going to be about white-collar or blue-collar jobs; they will all be new-collar jobs.”

Then he gets candid about that part of AI that truly worries him. “What am I scared about when it comes to AI? I’m afraid of the data we’re using to train our AI and a lack of algorithmic accountability and explainability. In a world where more and more AI can decide if you live, buy, die, or try, I’m more concerned about making automated decisions based on untrustworthy learnings that are not curated, than I am Ultron… that kind of AI is best left for the movies.” he says. (Ultron is the AI in the Avengers movie that was designed to keep peace in the world, but it quickly learned from the data that humans were the ones always disturbing the peace, so it concluded humans had to become extinct.)

His Head is in the Clouds

We ask Paul about cloud computing, and he reminisces about his time in IBM’s development labs and the struggles he’d endure getting a test database server up and running. “Things have changed… a lot. Today, as-aservice models are for everyone and everything. Heck, I can now run workloads that took me weeks to enable in minutes for less than the price of a bad cup of coffee!” he chuckles before telling us he doesn’t drink coffee, but he’s pretty sure about his proclamation.

Paul talks about the cloud’s future with more history, “If you’ve been around awhile, you remember people used to refer to the Internet, Intranet, and Extranet… but then communities rallied around a bunch of standards, and these domains converged. No one uses these words anymore; we just say Internet. Prefixes for the cloud? Private, Public, Hybrid, Multi, Distributed, Community… I’m sure there are more. But a bunch of technologies have come together (Linux, Kubernetes, and containers), and you’re just going to call it Cloud (and it will represent a hybrid one).”

He tells us that many are surprised to learn that cloud computing at most companies is still very much in its infancy. In fact, many companies who went all in on the cloud aren’t getting the value they should be getting out of their cloud initiatives. Paul gives us an easy tip to remember that he promises will help organizations get up to 2.5x more value out of their cloud investments: “Cloud is a capability, not a destination.” Paul details how critically important it is to realize how a cloud as a destination mindset is an anchor to any value vessel; he goes on to detail how he’s seen a number of customers repatriating some applications back to on-premises. He notes, “They didn’t see the cost savings they expected (public cloud can save you money, but can also be responsible for skyrocketing costs), for some… regulations got in the way, others faced data gravity issues, and more. These companies started out thinking that the cloud was simply a destination. When I worked with them and shifted their thinking to cloud as an operational model, their company’s (now) hybrid cloud initiatives suddenly were positioned to yield bigger and bigger returns. Think about it. Shouldn’t agility, elastic computing, and flattening the time to value curve be beneficial everywhere? Just because your application benefits from data gravity or is under regulatory compliance doesn’t mean it shouldn’t benefit from the cloud. Use cloud everywhere: on-premises, on edge, and yes, with established hyper scalers too!”

There’s another trap he’s seeing with the rush to cloudnative applications (no matter where they’re run). Most people don’t realize that while agile and distributed components made life amazing for developers, it has created enormous issues for Site Reliability Engineers (SREs). He notes that, “You don’t build applications today, you compose them. You stitch together discrete and distributed pieces of logic (microservices), and this approach gives you scale, availability, and agility.”

“These apps have components that leverage function-as-a-service (FaaS) calls that can run in under a second. How do you monitor this? How do you figure out where a problem is coming from when the code runs in a second, and its runtime is ephemeral, and it runs on one of many cloud providers you’re working with? It gets messier as more apps evolve into cloud native. Trying to figure out anything from a composed app’s reliability perspective has become a nightmare.” What Paul’s talking about has given rise to a higher order of application performance management (APM): observability.

As we close out our cloud conversation, he notes how the over-allocation of resources in the cloud (which skyrockets costs) is also a big issue getting in the way of companies getting the full value out of the cloud. “Quite simply, infrastructure resource starvation and mis-sized resource allocations are the most frequent cause of application performance issues, leading to complexity, SLA violations, over-spending, and more. Welcome to the space of application resource management (ARM),” explains Paul.

As we close out our cloud conversation, he notes how the over-allocation of resources in the cloud (which skyrockets costs) is also a big issue getting in the way of companies getting the full value out of the cloud. “Quite simply, infrastructure resource starvation and mis-sized resource allocations are the most frequent cause of application performance issues, leading to complexity, SLA violations, over-spending, and more. Welcome to the space of application resource management (ARM),” explains Paul.

Ready for the Next Chapter?

There are numerous lessons to be learned from Paul’s journey, the knowledge he gained, the ladder he climbed, the books he wrote, and the experiences he shared. Everything ties into a continuous thread of learning. He finishes with one last piece of great advice. He tells us, “So many people tell me it’s too late for them to start a transformation and upskill for today’s hot technology job market.” He tells them that “technology years are like dog years… it’s not about the head start. Society spends too much time recognizing the big moments and often misses the impact small daily improvements can make in your professional and personal lives. When it comes to technology, a newbie, in the long run, will far out skill the CompSci graduate who thought learning finished the day they got their degree.” CIO LOOK curiously awaits to see how Paul weaves this thread and carries on his journey beyond the horizon.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed


CIO Look is Global business authority platform where you can explore the perspective of Entrepreneurs, business owners, and innovators who drive business around the globe. CIOLook has unvaryingly been at the front line for its honesty and genuineness acquiring acknowledgment from Business pioneers universally. It features best business hones inferred by individuals, organizations, and industry divisions around the globe…. Read More

Follow us