Mark Dean likes to build things. The director of IBM's Almaden Research Center is constructing a replica of a 1965 Cobra in his Morgan Hill...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Mark Dean likes to build things.

The director of IBM’s Almaden Research Center is constructing a replica of a 1965 Cobra in his Morgan Hill garage. Dean plans to outfit the hot rod with a video camera and a laptop to record a journey across the country.

While the project may sound ambitious, it’s not a big deal for Dean, who holds nearly 40 patents, including three for the IBM personal computer.

“I always loved building things,” says Dean, who speaks with a slow, Tennessee drawl. “I think I got that from my father. He built a tractor from scratch when I was growing up.”

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Famous within the world’s largest computer maker for inventing technologies that turn into profitable products, Dean, 48, was named last summer to head the Almaden Research Center. Big Blue’s hilltop research center in San Jose employs 500 people and is one of the biggest playgrounds for computer geeks. It is one of nine IBM research centers.

Now one of Dean’s many challenges is to steer IBM’s data-storage research to develop technologies that will help IBM regain its edge in a $20.9 billion industry that develops hard drives for devices ranging from mainframe computers to digital music players.

“This research center has a broad set of skills and disciplines and a broad set of objectives,” says Dean. “I have a lot of ideas and a lot of interest. Right now in our industry, it’s time for change in a lot of areas.”

Even though such mundane matters as market share are not typically the concern of Almaden scientists thinking big thoughts, behind every dollar being spent on research is the hope that a hot, profitable technology will emerge.

“Until recently, we haven’t had the world’s best storage products, but thanks to some of the work that Mark did in the storage systems area, we now have some of the world’s best products,” says Paul Horn, IBM’s senior vice president of research, who oversees all of IBM’s research. “I am counting on him to continue that leadership.”

When Dean worked in IBM’s storage business in Tucson before coming to Almaden, he oversaw teams developing a lower-cost, compact storage device that was as reliable as IBM’s most expensive storage systems for high-powered computers called servers.

“I like to think I maybe helped move them in the right direction,” says Dean.

Replacing hard drives

At Almaden, Dean is overseeing efforts to find new ways to build computer chips and develop technologies to replace hard drives. He’s also pondering how to make computer services — IBM’s biggest business — into an academic discipline.

One project, Dean says, explores using audio, video and sensors to record your daily life. IBM hopes to devise technology to tag and easily search such data to improve the way individuals work.

“I’d love to go back and find all the meetings where I talked about services,” Dean said in an interview in his office, where picture windows frame Loma Prieta and Mount Umunhum. “It would come up and give me a postage stamp of all of those occurrences, and I can go, ‘That’s the one.’ And to be honest, I think it would make me look so much smarter.”

Dean is a rare technology executive who can effortlessly traverse the worlds of product development and theoretical research. “There are people who ship product, and people who get lost in abstraction,” says Avery Lyford, an entrepreneur-in-residence at V-Spring Capital in Salt Lake City who worked with Dean in the early 1980s at IBM.

“That is the nature of research. You want them to go probe the edges, but you want them to come back to the core. If you were going swimming, you would probably swim farther out from the shore if you knew there was someone at the shore that can bring you back. Mark is going to be good at that.”

When Dean came to IBM straight out of the University of Tennessee in 1979, he joined a small group of engineers in Boca Raton, Fla., far from IBM’s Armonk, N.Y., headquarters.

Dean wound up working with the engineers who created the original IBM personal computer in 1981.

Justin “Jud” McCarthy recalls Dean’s manager at the time, John Gandour, telling him about a bright new engineer IBM had just hired.

“John came to me and said, ‘I have this young engineer who has to be challenged. You have to have this guy, he is really something,’ ” McCarthy remembers.

In one of his biggest contributions to the PC, Dean and his colleagues created an interface that allowed keyboards, displays, disk drives, networks and printers to be plugged into the computer. This invention spawned an industry of PC clone makers.

Laid-back guy

Though Dean was designing major IBM products at a young age, his colleagues and bosses say he always remained a friendly, laid-back guy.

“Behind the low-key exterior is a very bright guy and a knack for seeing the simple answer,” says Dennis Moeller, who co-invented the interface for the AT, the second-generation IBM PC, with Dean.

Dean’s mother, Barbara Dean, 70, is convinced that her son gets his laid-back manner from his father, James Dean.

James Dean, 75, is a soft-spoken man who worked as a hydroelectric plant supervisor at the Tennessee Valley Authority before retiring. Dean also inherited his love of gadgetry and building things from his father. Dean’s sister, Ophelia, also is an engineer.

Dean’s relaxed attitude also masks his fierce determination and competitive spirit. When he was growing up black in the segregated South, he didn’t let obstacles get in his way of achieving his goals, his mother says.

He was equally determined when he decided to attend Stanford University to get a doctorate so he could advance at IBM.

“He was a bit of an unusual student,” says David Dill, a professor of computer science and electrical engineering at Stanford, who was one of Dean’s thesis advisers. “He was already on the fast track at IBM. He had already done quite amazing work there. There was stuff I had read in the newspaper that he had done.”

Named an IBM Fellow

In 1995, three years after his return to IBM from Stanford, Dean was appointed an IBM Fellow, the first African American at the company to receive the prestigious honor. IBM fellows are given a broad mandate to identify and pursue projects in their area of expertise.

Then in 1997, Dean was named both the director of the Austin Research Laboratory and the director of advanced technology development. That same year he and Moeller were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for their work on the IBM PC/AT.

Since then, Dean has headed teams that created the first 1-gigahertz microprocessor and led the development of IBM’s “cellular” chip design, which influenced the development of the Blue Gene supercomputer, now one of the world’s fastest.

Encouraging minorities

As a rare high-ranking African American in the technology industry, Dean also tries to use his position as a pulpit to encourage minorities to pursue careers in science and engineering.

His “anything is possible” attitude fits right in at Almaden.

“There is nothing you can say that can shock people,” Dean says. “And we talk about some really strange, weird stuff. They say, ‘Oh yeah, I think we can do that. When are we going to start?’ It’s a neat environment. I can’t say enough about the fun I have being here.”