Problem Solving for Technical Innovation

For Tim Howes, problem-solving has always been the catalyst for technical innovation -- from the time he and a small group of Unix upstarts at the University of Michigan needed a better way to access the campus directory to tackling today's blurring of the line between business and technology decisions.

"There are people doing really innovative things, but all in response to problems: 'Here's some problem, let's think up a solution,' " he explains. "The Internet as a whole, the culture, the technology, was a very incremental approach to development: 'Let's start at the lowest-level problem, solve it; let's build on that problem, solve it; let's keep building up the stack as we go.' "Currently president of product operations and co-founder of Loudcloud and previously CTO of server products at Netscape Communications Corp., Howes is also one of the co-creators of LDAP, now used by many directory services, including those of Novell Inc., Microsoft Corp., and IBM Corp.

The impetus behind LDAP was simple. Howes and others at the University of Michigan were running the campus e-mail system and needed a campuswide directory, so they chose the X.500 directory model. Once deployed and populated with university data, however, a problem emerged -- how could the low-horsepower Macintoshes and PCs available on campus access the directory Howes and his team were now running on their higher-powered Unix boxes?

"I think all the best things start as somebody scratching a personal itch, filling a personal need," explains Howes. So rather than port the hefty X.500 to each small computer, they developed "a lighter method of access," a precursor to LDAP called DIXIE. Once they made DIXIE freely available, the X.500 community embraced the access protocol. With this in mind, Howes helped transform DIXIE into LDAP with Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) members Steve Kille and Wang Yeong in 1995.

Although the focus may have changed since the days when Howes was involved with LDAP, he believes the level of technical innovation has actually increased.

"The level of innovation going on back then was around some of the basic building blocks of the Internet's underlying protocols," he says. "Some of that work enabled the innovation of the Web and HTTP. People today are running their businesses on all this technology, and innovation continues to crawl up the stack. Today there's as much technological innovation as there is business innovation."

Because the fusion of business and technology is so vital to success, Howes notes that "more and more people are not going to think of them so much as separate entities." Companies do understand the value of technology, says Howes, and he believes more will make the business decision to outsource technical issues so they may focus on their core business more completely.

"There will always be new ways to use technology," he says. "But I think in terms of social impact, one thing that we haven't as a society done a great job of is making sure that our laws [and] regulations keep pace with the technologies in areas like data privacy [and] security of information."

Still, for someone who describes himself as "good at solving problems," plenty of innovating is left to be done.

"One of the keys to being able to actually solve problems and go on to the next one is that you have to keep in mind that a good solution today is worth far more than the perfect solution tomorrow," says Howes.

Tim Howes

Age: 37

Current position: President of product operations, co-founder, LoudcloudTechnology predictions: Expanded wireless access, automation technology and more scalable data management technologies

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