When IBM acquired SoftLayer, I felt proud. I thought, “Now we can make a difference.” Why did I feel that way, and why didn’t I think we could make a difference where we were? What brought out these feelings about IBM?
As I expand my knowledge of programming, I often come across books that don’t really pertain strictly to software development—but they pique my interest. The most recent of those is Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek, suggested in a recent talk by Mary Poppendiek about leading development. Start with Why is a book about product development, leadership, and life in general. It explains why we feel the way we do about certain companies and how we should move forward to generate that feeling about ourselves and the companies we believe in.
Who cares why?
In Start with Why, Sinek talks about several different big companies, including Apple, Harley-Davidson, and Walmart. He writes that one thing that is very important when developing a product or even working in a company is to understand that company’s “why.” What makes the company tick? He says Apple has a clear message about this: “to start a revolution.” He claims Apple is clear as to why they do what they do and it has formed a culture of people around it that cares more about that message than any one product they sell. The products, in turn, embody that message, as do Apple employees. This is why, when Apple decided to move into the phone, tablet, and music industry, rather than focus only computers and hardware, their customers moved with them. Although the differences between an Apple iPad and a Dell tablet might be small, Apple consumers like feeling that they are part of the Apple society, so they choose what they know and love, based on their gut instinct.
Think now about Harley-Davidson. Many of its customers have tattoos with the Harley-Davidson logo, because those customers identify with the lifestyle that Harley-Davison projects—a statement more about the person than the company. It says, “I am a Harley-Davison type of person.” Mitsubishi or Kawasaki could have similar bikes—of even better quality and cheaper prices—but that customer is choosing Harley-Davidson. They have made a lifetime commitment to a brand because they identify with the iconography and want to be a part of the society that is Harley-Davidson.
What is IBM’s “why”?
I applied the idea of “why” to my work and my company, bringing up the question, “What is IBM’s ‘why’?” In pursuit of this question, I searched “Why IBM?” on the IBM intranet. Luckily, there was a document meant for sales reps to help define IBM for new customers with the following on the first slide:
“IBM is a global information technology services company operating in over 170 countries. We bring innovative solutions to a diverse client base to help solve some of their toughest business challenges. In addition to being the world’s largest information technology and consulting services company, IBM is a global business and technology leader, innovating in research and development to shape the future of society at large.”
I dissected this blurb, pulling out the parts which describe IBM. I ended up with this:
- IBM is large (the world’s largest)
- IBM is global (diverse, international, in more than 170 countries)
- IBM is business-oriented (solves business challenges)
- IBM is a technology leader (innovative, focus on research and development)
- IBM is shaping the future of society at large
Then I put it together into a single sentence:
“IBM is a large, global, business-oriented technology leader, shaping the future of society at large.”
That is when I realized that I was too focused on IBM’s “what,” so I removed everything that focused too heavily on the subject of the sentence (IBM) and focused my attention instead on the predicate. This left me with a single, easy sentence answering the questions: “Why is IBM?”, “What is its function?”, and “What are we trying to do?”.
“IBM is shaping the future of society at large.”
This is why IBMers get up in the morning. This is why we work hard. This is what we are hoping to accomplish in our own lives.
Simon Sinek states, “The 'why' comes from looking back.” Every person or company’s achievement should prove the “why”—so how do we prove IBM’s “why”? Let’s take a look at some of our victories in the past and present and compare.
In 1937, IBM’s tabulating equipment helped maintain employment records for 26 million people in support of the Social Security Act. In 1973-1974, IBM developed the Universal Product Code and released systems to support bar code scanning and automatic inventory maintenance. In a recent employee webcast, IBM’s senior vice president of Global Technology Services Martin Jetter communicated the idea, “We are the backbone of he world’s economy.” His supporting comments included our footprint in the airline industry, stating, “We manage the systems that support 25 percent of the total paid-passenger miles flown globally.” He also said, “Our services support 60 percent of daily card transactions in banking, 53 percent of mobile connections worldwide in telecom, and 61 percent of passenger vehicles produced in the auto industry.”
Lately, IBM brought attention to its revolutionary AI, better known as Watson, and is ushering in the idea of cognitive business analytics. In my opinion, these things prove that we are invested in shaping the future of a global society.
What does this mean about IBM? What does this mean about me?
I can’t speak for IBM as a whole, but I can talk about myself. I want to be a part of something bigger than myself; I want to contribute in a meaningful way, and understand what that contribution meant. I believe in a global society; we are all in this world together and I feel like there are more important issues that we can deal with other than our differences. I want to lead, or be a part of a team that leads; I strive to be successful. I am not OK with the status quo; I believe there is a better way. I have hope for the future. I don’t want to start a revolution. I want to be a part of something more pervasive, an underlying foundation that helps society thrive—not just changing society for the sake of change. I want to help lay a foundation that allows it to thrive and grow into something better. I believe that IBM identifies these goals, and projects this same message—a message that resonates with me at a very basic level. It sums up why I am proud to be an IBMer.
What about you?
“I am an IBMer” is not a sentiment that only employees need. In fact, it should go well beyond being employed at IBM. Our customers should feel the sentiment as well. Even people completely unaffiliated with IBM should be able to say, “I am an IBMer,” meaning that they believe in the same dream—the dream of a global society, working together to meet global goals; a dream about the future of society at-large.
What does IBM mean to you? Are you an IBMer too?