Books About IBM

IBM LogoThere have been many books written about IBM. I own and have read eight of them. The first one on the list is A Business and its Beliefs, by Thomas J. Watson, Jr. It was published forty years ago, in 1963. I read it in 1967, the year I joined IBM. The annual report for 1967 showed revenue of $5.3 billion — a 26% increase of $1.1 billion over 1966. Profit before tax was $1.3 Billion. There were many successes for IBM in 1967. NASA completed its first qualification flight for the Saturn V rocket. Inside of the Saturn was an instrumentation unit three-feet high and 68 feet in circumference which was assembled and programmed by IBM at Huntsville, Alabama. The IBM annual report said that “The Saturn V eventually will be used to propel American astronauts to the moon..”. The System/360 computer was being produced at a rate exceeding 1,000 systems per month and the annual report highlighted the fact that the computer industry had grown to the point where there were “thousands of computer installations throughout the world”. I was one of 23,000 new employees to join IBM in 1967 and I was convinced it was the best possible place anyone could work. I still am.

Many things changed over the three and a half decades that I was at IBM, but one thing which never changed is a set of core values. Some of the less complimentary books pointed out that IBM should have changed its culture more quickly in the 1980’s and I would certainly agree with that. Lou Gerstner talked about this in Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?. But Lou also recognized in his book how certain parts of the culture that will continue to give the company a unique place in history. The commitments to scientific research and development and customer service have been extremely important parts of the value system. However, the most important to me of all the cultural components is integrity. I saw many examples over the years of where extraordinary actions were taken on behalf of a customer, an employee, or a supplier — not because of the law or business requirements, but because it was the right thing to do. The "right things to do" are the legacy of IBM’s founder, Thomas J. Watson.

Until very recently, most of what I knew about T J Watson I learned from his son’s two books, A Business and its Beliefs, and then nearly fifteen years later from Father Son & Co. Thousands of employees and managers read A Business and its Beliefs and passed the beliefs down through the decades. Mr. Watson, Sr. died in 1956 so probably no one at IBM today ever met him. We got to know more about him than just his beliefs from Father Son & Co. In fact the book gave a very candid, not always complimentary, view of Mr. Watson’s idiosyncrasies. The first in depth understanding of Mr. Watson came from Kevin Maney in his recent book, The Maverick And His Machine. Kevin is a really good writer. If you read his technology column in the Money section of USA Today, you know what I mean. He takes very technical and often profound topics and renders them readable by the average, non-technical, reader. He always does his homework, seeks multiple opinions, sifts through the facts, and then spins an interesting story. Such was the case with The Maverick And His Machine.

Thomas J. Watson was born in Campbell, N. Y. in 1874. He earned $6 a week at first job was as a bookkeeper before moving on to sell sewing machines and musical instruments before joining the National Cash Register Company as a salesman in Buffalo. He eventually worked his way up to general sales manager. It was at NCR where Watson introduced the motto, "THINK", which later became well known to every IBMer and IBM customer. (When I was an IBM salesman 36 years ago, it was a proud moment to present a THINK desk sign or, better yet, a small leather tablet ("THINKpad") to a customer).

Kevin was given access to IBM’s extensive archives related to Mr. Watson. This included a huge number of crates and boxes of papers written by or about the issues of Mr. Watson’s time. Kevin also interviewed numerous Watson-era executives and employees, most of them in their late 80s or 90s. Kevin is a "people writer" and it certainly shows in this great biography. You get the feeling by the end of the book that Kevin had lived alongside of Mr. Watson and that he knew the family, the customers, the competitors, the supporters and the critics. His book reflects the views of them all. He clarified the origin of the company values and dispelled the myths that have been handed down. For example, it has been said that Watson fired women employees if he found that they were married. The truth, as Kevin explains it, is that during the depression, when there were huge numbers of unemployed workers, Mr. Watson did not hire spouses because he believed it was unfair for two people in one family to have incomes when so many families had no income.

Whatever relationship, if any, you may have had with IBM Corporation, you will find The Maverick And His Machine to be an extremely captivating book that you won’t want to put down. From cover to cover it tells a fascinating and revealing story about the character behind the man who was behind IBM. I highly recommend reading it.

Note 1: In April 1992 I became vice president for marketing at IBM’s Personal Systems Group. The company was about to announce it’s first tablet based computer. It utilized handwriting recognition software from a company called Go Corporation. The product was about the size of a laptop from five years ago — thick and heavy. The initial plan was for the product to have a typical numeric IBM name — something like the IBM 486SLC Model 1. Fortunately, a consultant came up with the name "ThinkPad". His creative idea sprung from the leather THINK pad tablets that IBM gave to customers.

Note 2: I met Thomas J Watson Jr. in 1981 outside the boardroom at IBM in Armonk, NY. He was a tall, distinguished, and impeccably dressed gentleman. I was all the more impressed knowing that he flew airplanes and rode motorcycles. Prior to that day, the only other person of that fame I had met was David Packard in 1970 while I was in the U.S. Army at the MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Florida. Packard was U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense in the first Nixon administration. He was taking a tour of our datacenter and I showed him the IBM 1403 printer. When Packard returned to California in 1971, he was re-elected chairman of the board of HP.