Quite the achievement to have begun prior to the First World War remaining a well established brand in Barack Obama’s presidency. I believe that IBM is among our national treasures if not for its potential and if only for its heroic contributions to our country over the past ten decades. As with all champions, within its strength lies the seeds of its demise as it wrestles with the unsettling premonitions of the prevailing global economy. There is certainly much to admire in its people as there is much reason for concern as its own customers struggle mightily in adapting to and adopting the changes wrought by technology, particularly the speed at which markets gather information and make their own decisions. In my own professional lifetime, the corporation journeyed from market advantage by virtue of its access to business machines of various sizes and designs, typewriters to computers, office buildings and medical benefits, to the present where its seems that the average business enterprise struggles to understand the popular tools readily accessed by its customers, and even, employees, which are often superior to those provided at work.
The luncheon on the 100th recalled my first encounter with IBM. I was a customer in the Material Control Department of Bath Iron Works, circa 1984. We successfully upgraded our mainframe, from DOS to MVS as I recall, and implemented a suite of packaged software that was the rage of consultants at the time, MRPII. My role within the Department expanded to include traveling around talking to clients and partners, especially the Navy and Littons Industries, our construction partner, about the lessons-learned of our project. After a while, I thought that maybe I had a chance to apply for a position with IBM as wearing a nice suit seemed preferable to work boots and winters in the shipyard. I arranged for an interview with the Branch Manager in Portland, Maine (Branch Offices and their Managers were the fiefdoms and lords of its marketplace empire in those days. Today, nearly 50% of the 425,000 international employees work from home). I dressed-up, drove to Portland after hours. I remember the time of day because every single desk in the Branch was cleared and locked with numerous signs reminding employees to clear their desks and to lock the contents. Entered Wally’s office; we met a couple of times before. Look on his face told me that this was a courtesy interview and not an inspection of my potential contribution to his company. We chatted politely and briefly, very briefly. He began with the opener as I recall, ‘so it seems that you’re interested in working for IBM.’ ‘Yes!’ I nearly exclaimed as I seized the chance to describe how my MRPII experience might suit me well for a role in sales or systems engineering. He nodded and related a personal story of how competitive was the prevailing computer marketplace where customers sought the low-cost provider more than the very best solution. Loooong pause with head nodding; eye contact; staring; me nodding; me staring. ‘You know,” he continued, ‘I have a friend who makes $150,000.00 selling shoes to department stores around New England. There are lots of ways to make money.’ Me nodding, me staring in absolute bewilderment at that remark. Wally rose, offered a handshake and thanked me for coming over. ‘See you around the shipyard,’ he said.
I guess that is really the tale of how I ended-up in North Carolina and spent most of fifteen years in software start-ups of one type or another. Not finding a sales job in Maine gave my wife a chance to study landscape architecture in North Carolina where the move south suited us both.
As I looked around the cafeteria on Thursday’s Centennial after the multitudes side-stepped through the bbq chow-line, I wondered how many of those present, especially the 600+ retirees, sat in a Branch Office. Many, I surmised. Even though we were connected by the path of IBM’s 100 year journey, I recognized that in some curious and necessary way, IBM probably has changed more since 1984 than I have. At any rate, despite the very casual attire for the occasion, out of respect for the moment and my amazement at my inclusion (when I really think about it), I wore my best suit with my best pair of shoes, Wally.