Ron Williams Pushes Distributed Systems

Kaiser Health Plan's IT strategic planner supports openness

By Don Dugdale

Name: Ronald B. Williams

Age: 39

Place of Birth: Lancaster, CA

Current Position: IT Strategic Planning Specialist, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan

Time in Current Position: Seven months

Years in the Industry: 7

Family: Married to Angelika; daughter Brianna (3) "an avid computer user"

What Else He Does: Landscape and architectural photography, rollerblading, skiing, long walks on the beach, chess

Car He Drives: 1986 Volkswagen Jetta

On UniForum's Role: "Currently, it should probably continue to support open systems in the large-scale enterprise environment and support knowledge and technologies that are interoperable across a broad array of platforms. The requirement to address Microsoft NT is certainly clear, but in dropping its historical Unix focus, UniForum has fallen prey to the media's bastardization of the term open. Truly open standards are available to anybody who needs to use them to provide interoperability across platforms. The term openness has less meaning in the current context than it originally did."

As IT strategic planning specialist for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan in Pasadena, CA, Ron Williams has helped bring distributed computing based on open systems standards to one of the world's largest healthcare organizations. He has been in a good position to see both the effect of open technologies on a large organization's IT environment and the benefits of the information and education spread by UniForum in its conferences, publications and seminars.

"UniForum's role in promoting open systems and vendor-neutral solutions has been key to my approach in taking technology to meet specific business needs," Williams says. "In events like the managers' technology conference [at the annual UniForum Conference and Trade Show] people with experience in different environments have presented a vendor-neutral view that's been helpful in planning projects that I've been responsible for." Now a member of UniForum's editorial board and a past session leader at the UniForum Conference, Williams hopes he can help to keep making that kind of information available for others in the industry.

"The technical side of the medical business was fascinating. It certainly seemed to be a really good use of technology."

Chose Healthcare Over Defense
Computing wasn't the first thought in Williams' mind after graduation from college, although as a physics major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he had certainly encountered and employed computing in various projects. After leaving UCSB in 1981--he received his degree officially in 1982--Williams considered a number of opportunities to put his education to work in the defense industry. "I made a conscious choice not to do that," he says. "That left very few avenues, but the technical side of the medical business was fascinating. It certainly seemed to be a really good use of technology."

So he took a job as director of biomedical engineering for a small hospital in Beverly Hills, CA, now called Beverly Hills Medical Center. There he took charge of providing support and maintenance of biomedical equipment, interfacing with clinical care departments in their use of Hewlett-Packard and other equipment used in patient care. He both tutored users in operating the machines and kept an interface with maintenance organizations. Williams helped the hospital in its pioneering use of videoscopes in arthroscopies, the less-invasive joint surgery that's now common. "I worked with the doctors in monitoring the use of videoscopes during surgery," Williams recalls. "My job was to determine if the images they were seeing on the TV screen were valid images of what was inside the knee, for example. Was there clouding in the fluid of the knee or was something wrong with the equipment? Anyone who has worked in surgery will tell you it's a different thing to do, and when you're 24 years old it's rather exciting."

After two years, Williams decided to put his experience to work for Youth With a Mission, a Christian organization running a hospital ship that sailed to various ports, mainly in third-world countries and disaster areas, providing primarily eye and orthopedic surgery in areas without those facilities. "It seemed like a good place to apply my skills and knowledge," he says. After more than a year working on the ship, he was given a chance to work with street kids and runaways in Hollywood, which he did for two more years. During that time he met people whose lives he could help change, and others that he felt would not change. "It was an interesting and at times difficult study in human psychology, and helped take off some of my idealistic gloss," he says. "That experience probably helped me formulate, at a human level, who people are and what they are about. It's really what they do and not what they say. People who appear very honest and forthright oftentimes can be exceedingly deceptive and untrustworthy. We saw other people who became productive members of society. I can think of a couple of individuals who are making real differences in people's lives today."

He designed an interface for laboratory data that currently transfers more than 300,000 transactions a day.

Embarks on Computing Career
For a while, Williams studied photography and was self-employed as a computer consultant. Then in 1989 he embarked full-time on his computing career as a systems analyst with St. Joseph Health System, a two-state hospital system based in Southern California. During 18 months there he worked on implementing a medical records package. Then in 1992 he joined Kaiser as a programmer, moving up to his current position last May. As a programmer, he designed an interface for laboratory data that currently transfers more than 300,000 transactions a day. Then he went to work on an electronic medical records project. It was as interface system lead on that project that Williams was able to help bring distributed computing to the organization's IT architecture.

"When I joined the organization, distributed computing was not highly thought of," Williams says. "We were for the most part a mainframe shop that had desktops with office-type support software. The Unix environment was fairly small and isolated to a number of small applications." Williams introduced clinical middleware into that system, allowing multiple systems to communicate clinical information with one another. The project thus became a proof-of-concept for middleware, leading eventually to adoption of middleware and distributed computing on a broad scale.

In his current role as strategic planning specialist, Williams focuses on application and security architecture. One of his projects centers on enterprise-wide applications security, partially involving a secure sign-on environment. "In that environment, we're bringing desktop applications, mainframe access and ancillary application access together under a single user sign-on," Williams says. The environment incorporates Windows NT, Novell, the Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) and others into one user interface. When completed, users will be able to use a single secure sign-on instead of the eight separate sign-ons they must use today.

Williams credits his association with UniForum for giving him the insights he needed to push for change at Kaiser.

Williams credits his association with UniForum for giving him the insights he needed to push for change at Kaiser: "UniForum was a great resource for obtaining information both strategic in nature as well as tactical in terms of where the industry was going. It gave me as much of an enterprise focus as anything I've been involved in. That's helped me both careerwise and in being able to implement change in the direction of both more open systems and supporting an enterprise view in a modern distributed environment."


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