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Book Review "The IBM Way"

Joseph Mack

jmack (at) wm7d (dot) net

Oct 2015

Table of Contents

1. The IBM Way

1. The IBM Way

The IBM Way
(Insights into the World's Most Successful Marketing Organisation)
Buck Rodgers with Robert Shook
Harper and Row, Pub 1986
ISBN 0-06-091417-3 (pbk)

I picked up this book at a used book store. Although a little old, it was interesting for me as a programmer.

The author, Buck Rodgers was the VP for Marketing for IBM for 10yrs, till he took early retirement in 1984.

For me, the foundation of the GNU revolution was laid by IBM in the '60's and '70's. Although nominally you might own the computers, IBM told you what you could and could not do with them, and you were really just the custodian. If IBM wanted to change the hardware and software from underneath you, they did it and told you to pay for it. You smiled while you rewrote your 100,000 lines of (application) code for the new machines. When IBM said "bend over!" you bent over.

The lesson learned by anyone who came through that era, was that they would never write another line of platform dependant code and risk being caught out ever again by changes in the computer infrastructure. After that, Richard Stallman's step of making all the code portable and having you (rather than the vendor) owning it, was but a small one [1].

The microcomputer (PC) revolution was everyone's escape from IBM-owned computing and the people who didn't heed the lesson of IBM, fell into the waiting arms of Microsoft.

The words in the book are carefully crafted. Here's an example from the back cover

Buck Rodgers ... saw and led through IBM's growth from $250 million to $50 billion.

What he means is "saw OR led". I read this as Rogers "oversaw and led" a 200-fold increase in IBM's revenue. Why wasn't he a household word like Lee Iacocca? On looking further, this statement covers the whole 24 year period of Rodger's employment at IBM, only the last 10 of which he was a VP. Presumably he started as some low order flunky, where he was a spectactor on IBM's fortunes. The increase in IBM's revenue for the 10yrs of Roger's VP-ship is not disclosed.

Every sentence in this book is a similar landmine. No statement is made that can be tested against reality. If your world is one where things either work or don't work and you're held accountable for the outcome, then you'll have to suspend your urge to check each statement, or you won't get through the book or hear his message. I was hoping to see how he thinks or how he works. There's none of that - only what he wants you to think.

OK, what does Buck Rodger's want you to think IBM is about?

  • helping the customer with their business and solving their problems
  • being a partner with the business

IBM is all about mother's milk (220 pages of it) - and the customers value every drop.

I wasn't surprised to find that his view of IBM was different to mine, this, after all is why I bought the book. What I was surprised was how it was different. First off, I thought IBM was a computer company. I couldn't have been more wrong. There are pages and pages of service and partnering, but if you hadn't heard that IBM sold computers too, you won't find out here. Buck Rodgers, in his 24yrs at IBM, never came across a computer or a person who thought of IBM in connection with computers. Oh sure, a magneto optical disk in mentioned in one sentence and there are two pages on the deployment of the IBMPC, but they're peripheral to the real stuff - service and partnering. Buck never used a computer for his work either; a spreadsheet, inventory or a financial simulation. For those of us who've completely missed the point - IBM is not about computers, never was and never will be.

If IBM isn't selling computers, who then are IBM's customers? Having spent a lifetime punching cards, carrying fan-fold paper and looking at rooms full of computers, I thought the customers were the people who needed the computers. Wrong again.

You're the technical lead on a large purchase, you've been doing this for 25rs, you know the stuff cold, the staff have the skills and experience to handle anything and have a 100 man-yrs invested in the company, you've spent what could have been your only productive time for the last 6 months explaining it all to a bunch of suits who don't know the back of a computer from the front, and you've finally convinced them that they need the hardware from a particular vendor. Then (p155-6) they go to talk to IBM, who hasn't figured in any of the discussions so far.

The (customer's) president was very impressed with the technological aspects of the competitor's presentation. He was obviously caught up in the bits and bytes, and I would have antagonised him had I debated their relative value.

...when he was finished I responded "I have only one thing to ask, and nothing more," I said. "Do you want to do business with a hardware vendor or do you want a partner?"

I truly believed we had something very special to offer this account... - our sincere interest in their well being.

"I want a partner," he said, after considering the question for a few moments. Then he walked over to me, extended his hand and said, "Buck, shake hands with your new partner."

IBM's customers are people who want partners and solutions, not people who want computers. Guess what? You aren't getting your hardware - you're getting a partner.

This tells you that management has no idea of the skills of its technical people, and has no interest in finding out. IBM isn't selling computers; it's selling assurance and hand holding to timid managers. The fact that when it arrives, the hardware isn't fit for use, isn't a concern for management. They won't be asking the engineers.

After the Challenger disaster, we should all know that no-one listens to the engineers [2]. I always feel a bit of a fool after one of these events, realising that you've been involved in a 6 month charade, when you could have spent the time in productive work. However if you'd called anyone on it, you wouldn't have been a team player and possibly lost your job. (Update: in 2013, after 12yrs, I did loose my job, for telling managers the truth. From what I can tell, in 2015, still nothing is working.) You wonder about the vendor you had worked with so diligently, to make sure that you'd get exactly what the company needed. They know the rules too, and they know that the people with the money aren't buying computers.

One thing that Buck Rodgers wants you to know is that he's a marketer and not a sales person. I didn't realise the difference was important to anyone, but he spared no effort to straighten me out. Here's the difference

  • The marketer decides what the customer will be buying sometime in the future
  • When the future arrives, the salespeople make sure the customer buys it.

[1] We are fortunate that he took this small step. No-one else offered to step into the void and without Stallmans's efforts and his determination to uphold his clear vision, we all still would be beholden to vendors.

[2] The managers aren't accountable either. In a newspaper article on the 10th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, the wife of the shuttle commander expressed her anger that no-one had gone to jail or was even fired for the explosion.

She was wrong of course. The engineer who spoke up was fired, and then run out of the Morton-Thiokol company town by the good citizens for sullying the name of their company. (Here's the NYT obituary of the engineer Roger Boisjoly . A slightly more detailed obit is at Roger Boisjoly, L.A. Times,0,2248999.story)

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