11 years, 24 days ago

James Martin – A personal reflection

James Martin, technologist, methodologist, entrepreneur and philanthropist died Monday 24 June 2013 aged 79.
I first came across James Martin in the early 1970s. I went to a lecture he gave in London, and he captivated an audience of about 100 people for 2 hours on the topic of real time systems design.  Later on I attended his famous seminars in London and Johannesburg. It was extraordinary how he held huge audiences for multi day sessions, with minimal audience interaction as he drove through the thousands of slides, delivered on two overhead projectors. In those days he was the consummate technology seer and he filled a need in the days before industry analysts.
Yet he was so much more than just a showman. I bought his book on real time system design in 1971 and this was my bible. And down the years I relied on his books in data modeling, database design and  information engineering; they were detailed and useful to a practitioner.

I joined James Martin Associates (JMA) in 1986. I think I was employee number 30 and I had the privilege of working in what must have been one of the most extraordinary and innovative companies at that time. Even when I meet ex JMA colleagues today, we always recall how it was such a great place to be, where everyone was on the leading edge and contributing to the overall development of information engineering. We were taking his ideas and turning them into practical method and tools for many of the world’s largest companies and government agencies.
We didn’t see that much of James Martin. He would attend our annual JAM (sic) session, and if he was in town he might drop in, but that was rare. But he did get feedback. I was deeply involved at one stage, together with Richard Veryard and Mike Mills in developing ideas for Rapid Application Development (RAD) that we took to customer projects and of course appeared later in the James Martin book.

The core of his thinking was the idea that model driven systems were the future and at JMA and subsequently Texas Instruments Software (TI) we proved this by delivering the IEF based on James’ ideas, that became the leading mainframe and client server development tool in the early 1990s. Of course we knew even then that this tool was limited to a very narrow set of patterns, and history has taught us that there is a need for a much broader range of patterns, and varying levels of abstraction and intervention. And even as early as the mid-1990s we were working on componentization and service interfaces because we understood the monolithic architecture, however commercially successful for a short few years, was in reality a simplistic first attempt. Today the term CASE tool is widely disparaged. Yet I believe that James’ original vision will be realized, although the method of realization will be radically different, and by strange coincidence I blogged on this topic very recently
James Martin provided inspiration for technologists by identifying big ideas, but he went further by detailing the ideas in his books and teaching and “having the courage of his convictions” by investing in start-up businesses. Which of course made him very wealthy. I would be proud to say that in my work and in everything that CBDI has developed, we have been true to some of the core principles that we hammered out nearly thirty years ago including model driven (including meta model based) and structured with maximum automation. And these are equally applicable to today’s Agile, fast moving world. Of course we (Everware-CBDI) have added and evangelized the  principles of component and service oriented, but the original vision is intact. 
James Martin was an idealist. In several of his works he developed his thinking for a utopian society where technology and automation are used for the greater good in education, health and creating a better world. Sadly I myself came to see some of his works as out of touch with reality. He failed to see the shoddy reality of how politics and politicians are incapable of leveraging technology to deliver better models for society, how the giant Internet companies are creating worldwide networks based on old fashioned capitalistic principles while espousing such things as “do no evil” and practicing tax avoidance, and governments are increasingly using technology to track the every move of citizens without understanding how to govern the use of that data. 
I believe we will remember James Martin, but not necessarily for his big ideas like the early prediction of the Internet or his philanthropy. Rather we will come in time to reflect on his guidance that technology should be leveraged to improve society. Every time we destroy tens of thousands of jobs by introducing new technologies, we should be using the power of technology in education and resource mobilization to ensure that vast numbers of our young people do not remain out of work, or that older people can continue to contribute to society beyond conventional retirement age.