IBM at 100 – A Day of Nostalgia and Optimism

IBM LogoI was not exactly sure what to expect when I arrived at the world famous T. J. Watson Research Center at IBM last week. I have been there many times over the years but never to a birthday party. I walked in to the arrival tent where light refreshments were being served and the crowd of 350 invited guests began to build. One of the first people I saw was Allen Krowe. Allen had been CFO of IBM and then Vice Chairman of Texaco. I was his assistant back in 1981. I remember the day that he turned 50 years old and thinking that was very advanced. That was 30 years ago and NOW I am 15 years older than he was then. Then I saw Spike Beitzel. Spike had been a sales manager in Philadelphia for IBM’s insurance industry customers, the same position that I held some years later. Spike is a pilot, as was Allen, and many other senior IBM executives, including Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Spike is 83 and still flies his own airplane. It was nice to talk about aviation. It was a privilege to say hello to three IBM CEOs — John Akers, Lou Gerstner, and Sam Palmisano. There were four current and former heads of IBM Research there. One of them was Ralph Gomory. I am not sure how old Ralph is but he got his PhD in mathematics from Princeton in 1954. Whenb he retired from IBM in 1989 he became president of the Sloan Foundation. The pattern became clear — this was not just a birthday party for IBM; it was an alumni reunion for executives that worked for IBM over the past fifty years. Then I ran into the former heads of IBM Japn, IBM China, IBM Italy, IBM Brazil, and various other parts of IBM from around the world. Former Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Jr., said in 1957 that IBM “is a company of human beings, not machines; personalities, not products; people, not real estate.” That observation was true long before 1957 — and it remains so today. Although every IBMer makes a difference, there is a list of IBM Builders that were the pioneers who helped to fashion the IBM of the 21st century. Most of them were were among those in the tent; it was humbling to be in their midst and a thrill to shake their hands. Everyone had a smile on their face. It was a happy and nostalgic day that none of us will ever forget.
The main event took place in a really big tent. There were 2,000 members of IBM Research in attendance. During the opening ceremonies Sam Palmisano asked the thirty members of the Watson family in attendance to stand; everyone appreciated the heritage of the company. The family must have been proud to hear about Watson, the advanced Q&A system that triumphed at Jeopardy, and will surely change the way medicine is practiced as it transforms anecdotal medicine to personalized, evidence-based medicine. The program included some excellent videos about the past, present, and future of IBM. Senior VP Jon Iwata interviewed three journalists, Kevin Maney, Steve Hamm and Jeffrey O’Brien about the research they had done to write their new book about IBM called Making the World Work Better: The Ideas That Shaped a Century and a Company. I have known Kevin for quite a few years. When he quoted someone in his columns at USA Today, you always knew that he would not use information out of context. Steve Hamm wrote the story about my home when he was at BusinessWeek. He now works for IBM. It was an alumni event with journalists too! Another panel with Senior VP John Kelly focused on IBM research efforts around the world, in particular about IBM’s advanced work on environmental and healthcare initiatives. Sam and senior vice president and group executive for sales, marketing and strategy Ginni Rometty painted a rosy picture of IBM’s future.  IBM also cares about the future of others. As part of its Celebration of Service, 300,000 IBMers around the world — nearly three quarters of its global workforce — volunteeried in more than 5,000 projects in 120 countries, helping millions in need. Since the beginning of the year, IBMers, retirees and their families have donated more than 2.5 million hours of service to communities worldwide. A lot of conofidence was exuded that another 100 years of innovation and growth are underway.

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