Techland Interview: How IBM Is (Still) Changing the Way We Live

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Then think about doing that on a global scale, and how much of a difference you’d see in the economy and the ecology. Think how much fuel would be saved if you’re not sitting there idly staring at someone’s bumper.

Obviously, IBM’s ability to constantly reinvent itself and enjoy prolonged success is something other companies envy. What have you guys been able to do differently?

Honestly, it’s our culture for innovation. Cultures outlive individuals. Cultures outlive hardware. Cultures outlive software. If you have a culture where innovation is what’s going to drive the success of the company, and you defend it even in the face of the most disastrous economic results, it just sets a profoundly positive tone with your technical community. That culture’s existed here for literally a century.

But the thing is you can’t mess with it.

It can take 50 years to build that type of culture, but it can take only 50 hours to kill it.

You’ve said previously that innovation, especially during a downturn, is essential to a business’ survival. What did you mean?

I was interviewed on the fifth of March [in 2009], 2 days before the bottom of the crash. I was sitting there on the [trading] floor, watching everything come down, and people were asking, “What’s your position on this?”

The position was very simple: You have to innovate through downturns. If you stop innovating, you’re done. If you stop, you’re essentially committing yourself to the dust bin of history.

Take the Great Depression. It was realized that the United States absolutely needed some sort of social safety net. This led to the need, not the creation, of social security and the whole system behind it.

But at that time, the way you kept records was in a ledger. You took pencil and paper and wrote down something in a book. That is physically untenable as a way to handle something like the infrastructure of social security. It’s physically impossible.

IBM stepped up, and invented machines that were capable of tabulating and storing data on punch cards. All those mechanisms and machinery enabled social security. Without it, it couldn’t have happened. The ability to take data, sort that data, store that data, and use it for purposes that you intended, like discovering where people were and making sure you could access them – all of that was made possible by IBM’s inventions.

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