Suddenly, it’s personal

Information that comes through the social network isn’t always welcome. At my desk last evening, I received a call (in the UK!) from a New York Times reporter working on a Hurricane Sandy story. And so I learned that a former colleague, with whom I was still spasmodically in touch, had died alongside her husband in the storm in New Jersey when a tree fell on their truck. Their two younger sons were with them in the car, but are safe.

The reporter had been searching for her contacts through, among other places, LinkedIn and called me. Watching coverage of President Obama’s visit to NJ, an hour later, he was talking about people I knew better than he did. Suddenly, it’s personal.

I joined SmithKline Beecham, as it then was, in 1993 to do emerging technology monitoring. A reorganisation a few years later gave me a brief which was global, across the whole international company. Then, much more than now, there was a gulf between the pharmaceutical R&D arm of the company and the rest of us (R&D lumped us all together as “Corporate”). But Beth Everett had been carrying a similar brief to mine, in R&D IT, for longer than I had. She and her boss had knowledge, experience, contacts and processes and with her boss’s active encouragement she and I worked together for several years.

R&D had different business perspectives. Short term, experimental and tactical IT solutions were often embraced. Six months taken off the lead time for a new drug was well worth while. “Corporate” wanted a vendor with an established market record. But R&D would adopt, adapt and leverage experimental technologies from vendors, startups, and academic research. So my previous collaborative work with academic researchers in the UK paid off in credibility with Beth’s network. Our different contacts and perspectives combined to great benefit. And some of the awareness, risk appetite and external collaborations began to transfer to the wider corporation. Many years later, after the merger which formed GlaxoSmithKline, I was still benefitting from this with the willingness of senior IT managers to know about things going on in leading edge IT, and to see potential in at least some of the technologies we monitored.

Beth encouraged me to attend, alongside the R&D people, meetings of the Object Management Group (OMG): SB R&D held membership, and were leaders of its work in the late 1990s in the healthcare domain. (Incidentally, that enabled me to reconnect with Andrew Watson, OMG Technical Director, who previously I’d known in a European distributed systems architecture project. His colleague Andrew Herbert later became head of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England.) Beth and I shared attendance at OMG meetings: one in Manchester, England, was remarkable for a presentation by Tom Kilburn of his work on the “Baby” computer and the first ever stored computer program. We participated in projects. And I learned about how consensual standards-making works. All these things are my mix of personal and professional memories of Beth.

It was at an OMG meeting in Philadelphia, hosted by SB, that I first met Beth’s family: her husband Rich, and their (then three, now four) children. They welcomed me into their home on a visit too. At a devastating time for them all, thoughts and prayers are with them.

• Couple From Randolph, N.J., Are Killed in Storm, New York Times online, 31 Oct 2012 (by Alison Cowan; find the timestamp 7.54 p.m.) [This post no longer appears online]
• Hurricane Sandy: Police ID couple killed in Mendham Township crash …,, 30 Oct 2012/update 31 Oct 2012
• Object Management Group (go to Search and look for Corbamed or find the Healthcare Domain Task Force)
• ANSA (Advanced Networked Systems Architecture): The official record of the ANSA project, 1985-1998
• Microsoft Research Cambridge
• Blue Crest Riding Center, Rich and Beth’s business, also on Facebook
• Tom Kilburn, 1921-2001, obituary, Computer50

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