IBM’s Leader Arvind Krishna is a Technologist First, Then a CEO

Wed, 12/02/2020 - 15:00


The preface of the book ’Father Son & Co. - My life at IBM and beyond, written in 1991 by Thomas J. Watson JR. during the last years of his distinguished life, begins with the following words,  “When my father died in 1956, six weeks after making me the head of IBM,  I was the most terrified man in America”. It is a very candid beginning to an autobiography of a man who transformed his father’s company from an electronic hardware company; to usher in the revolution of computers and software, and to set the stage for what was to become the digital revolution of the modern times.

For more than a hundred years, this phenomenal American company forged in the fire of the fierce American spirit of entrepreneurship and independence, and cast in the mold of a pioneer in the field of information technology, has contributed more than anybody else to the wide adoption of computers — both in the world of business and personal use. The business angle of IBM aside, their cutting-edge research into the field of computer science and engineering, which had its humble beginnings in Yorktown, New York state in the early 1950s, operates with the same intensity and curiosity but at a much larger scale till date.

IBM’s research centers now operate out of six continents, spread over twelve state-of-the-art laboratories, hosting 19 specialized facilities and employing over 3000 elite engineers and scientists. It still is an instrumental force behind some of the greatest digital innovations of the modern computing era. From semiconductors in the 1950s to memory chips in the 1970s to the chess-playing computer Deep Blue in 1990s to IBM Watson (a question-answering computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language) in the 2000s, IBM has been steadily and purposely investing in unraveling the complexity of informational systems and computing, not merely as means to stay ahead of competition, but more importantly, as a scientific contribution to society. Even today, when IBM is not one among the top league of IT companies, its presence and contribution still matter. The industry knows that IBM is resilient, and all it needs is the right impetus and direction.

After the retirement of Thomas Watson, Jr in 1970, There have been seven CEOs. All of them were elevated up the ranks after decades of service in IBM mainly for their business acumen, expertise and a deep understanding of the IBM vision.. When Ginni Rometty took over in 2012, she had already spent thirty years in the company. However, it was a particularly difficult time for IBM when she took over as CEO. The share prices were plummeting, bare-metal infrastructure was becoming superfluous, IBM Watson wasn’t really taking off as expected, the company’s cloud business was overshadowed by Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, and it’s computer and laptop manufacturing units weren’t competitive and becoming a financial burden.

All that IBM really had as their mainstay was the consulting work and the maintenance of numerous legacy systems deployed all over the globe. Rometty’s immediate task in 2012 was to stem the rot, and steady the ship. Over the next few years, she did exactly that. She siphoned of Lenovo, turned the core focus of the company towards AI riding on the wave of Watson’s success in the game of Jeopardy, emphasized the need to strengthen their Cloud Services, invested heavily in reskilling the workforce, and lastly recognized the need to acquire a software platform with to seamless deploy applications on the cloud.

The acquisition of Red Hat in 2018 was a consummation of this last vision. Ginni achieved all this quietly by pulling the right strings within and without the organization. At this distance, looking at the financial numbers alone over the last eight years, Rometty’s tenure would look pretty pedestrian and without flamboyance, but viewed through the right lens, the perspective will look different. What she essentially did was to refocus IBM, and bring it to a point when a technocrat CEO can firmly take it forward to a newer dimension.

It is in this light that the choice Arvind Krishna as the next CEO of IBM needs to be appreciated. Krishna, like Rometty, is a long-timer with IBM. For the first two decades of his career, he was part of IBM’s Research division, doing brilliant technical work, and also overseeing the innovations happening there. In 2008, he was moved to head the Cloud Services, and within few years assumed charge as the Senior Vice President of the Cloud and Cognitive Software vertical — one that was critical for IBM to survive and grow.

From 2012 to 2018, even when all other business within IBM wasn’t making too much money, or none in some cases, the silo that Arvind led showed remarkable growth. The Red Hat deal was a milestone for IBM. It filled a void in IBM’s tech stack and opened a world of opportunities in the cloud space. It was a 34 -billion dollar deal, a big investment for IBM and an irrevocable commitment from the leadership to steer the ship, towards smoother waters. It was Krishna who technically brokered the deal with Red Hat and facilitated its purchase. However, an acquisition is one thing, and putting the acquisition to good use is quite another thing. Only a CEO who understands technology well enough and can articulate it with conviction can take the company to the next step. Krishna’s elevation as CEO is a vindication of IBM’s faith that he is the right man with the right mix of technical expertise and business acumen.

For the last few years, Krishna has already been the face of IBM’s vision for the future. Of late, he has been IBM’s voice in all the notable conventions and technical events. When Krishna speaks, one immediately gets the impression that here is a man who knows his technology, not just superficially, but down to its bare bones. I distinctly remember watching a recording of a conversation on YouTube, that happened during the Red Hat Summit in Boston last year. Krishna was answering an impromptu question by a panelist on IBM’s vision of the future of cloud-based applications. Without pausing even for a second, Krishna in his response wonderfully condensed the origins, evolution, trends, and the future of distributed computing in less than three minutes. A sure proof of an intellect that knows its subject in and out.

Whenever I have heard Krishna speak, what has struck me with force is his understanding of what AI, ML means in the context of pressing problems to be solved, his wise perspectives on what tools are essential for IBM to increase value-add to end customers, and, more importantly, his intuitive feel for technology and the synergy between man and the machine. The listeners are left with no doubt that Krishna is a passionate technologist. There is also evidence of easy elegance to the way he speaks. The judicious choice of words, the disarming smile, and the twinkle in the eye especially when skirting around a particularly itchy question, gives Krishna the air of a man who is ripe to be the CEO of this IT giant.

Along with Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Sundar Pichai of Google, and Shantanu Narayen of Adobe Systems, Arvind becomes the fourth CEO of Indian origin to lead to a major global conglomerate. Except for Nadella, the other three are alumni of IITs. A little while ago, out of curiosity, I was adding up the total market capitalization of the companies these men lead. Between the four, they sit on close to two trillion dollars of market cap, and furthermore their products and services more or less shape the contours of the global market place.

What is impressive is that these men have gotten to where they belong based on their own merit, commitment, and passion for what they do. Even today, they are quintessentially Indian, even though they have remained out of India for a very long time. They speak as Indians do laced with a little bit of native accent, their leadership styles are known to reflect Indian values, and they definitely don't pretend to be anybody other than who they really are. This is a visible testimony of America’s embracing culture. Merit is the defining characteristic of growth here.

Thomas Watson Jr would have been very happy about the choice of the new CEO. Unlike his father, Watson Jr believed that the right talent must be given the right job, and it is that vision that helped IBM exponentially grow in the 1970s and 80s. With the techno Manager Krishna at the helm, IBM is poised well to face new challenges.

Watson Jr's opening statement in his autobiography is not just about him alone. I am sure every CEO who walks to their chair for the first time feels an uneasy nervousness gripping them. It is inevitable, no matter how competent the incoming incumbent is. The gravity of running a company as rich in history as diverse as IBM is not an easy job. However, something tells me that Krishna may be the right man to bring IBM out of the woods.

We wish him all the best.


About the Author

Balasubramaniam N. has more than 25 years of experience in IT, with special emphasis on programming languages and databases. In the last decade Bala has focused on evangelizing the full stack development along with platforms, tools and techniques for Big Data and Data Analytics. Bala is passionate about training and has supported the training needs of customers across the globe in skilling their employees to work of specific projects, and in demonstrating Proof of concept (POC) in transforming business processes using refined technical toolsets. At NIIT, Bala heads the Center of excellence for technology for the Corporate learning business, and also leads the Tech Academy -  an internal initiative in skilling a qualified pool of mentors across domains. He continues to teach as much he can.


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