Friday, May 4, 2007

Be Nice

IBMers are nice. Very nice.

They are so nice it's almost ridicules. In fact, if they weren't so darn sincerely nice, it would be kind of scary – they’d be like Stepford Executives...

As a guest earlier in the week at IBM PartnerWorld. I was mindlessly ruminating on what it must take to hire, train and manage 375,000 people and convince them all to be so nice all the time, when I stumbled into a massive arena at the St. Louis City Center filled with nice people.

It was 8:30am, and a very nice band was playing live on a stage. They were dressed in picture perfect business casual, showed a little gray hair, and offered exceptionally nice renditions of 60's hits. My companion and I thought they might be the IBM house band - actual IBM execs playing for fun. There are a few of these bands in the storage industry, so it was plausible. But if so, we decided, they were the best darn house band in the industry.

It was a bit odd to be rocking to Van Morrison at 8:32am. And, I was suffering from total aural dissonance when they jumped into Earth, Wind, and Fire at 8:50am. The bass player (who looked a bit like me actually) did a very credible Bootsy Collins imitation and by the time the lights began to dim, I found myself fighting an urge to get down, get down...

Right on time, IBM Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano walked onstage, wearing a very nice sport coat, blue striped shirt, yellow tie, a pair of big round red/brown I-am-a-very-friendly-and-wicked-smart-guy glasses, and a big boyish smile. From the first words out of his mouth, he resonated 'nice'. He was calm, direct, clear and very convincing. If Sam Palmisano was running for President, the race would be over before it began. No politician running could hold a candle to him. You cannot help but like, and more importantly, trust this guy. He knows his business. He gets it. Understands the power and relentlessness of innovation. He is not afraid to eat some sacred cow burger. Five mins into the preso - after reminding us of the $15B buyback and a dozen other impressive IBM feats last year - he turned the meat grinder on everything that has come before. Centralized computing, client/server, everything...he did it in a very nice way, reminding us that Z series is still kicking butt, and the relationship with Lenovo is super...but the genie is out of the bottle. IBM is moving on. Global computing is the future. He understood SOA (seriously!), Web 2.0 (actually explained it), and the reality of virtualization (very clear on this). He gets it. He talked about the growth of SMB and focused his team to be #1 in that market in five years. He said the word ‘storage’ a dozen times. (and not to try and say that storage was just part of the system, either) He said the words ‘storage virtualization’ more than once - and even wrote ‘storage virtualization’ on his 'themes going forward' slides. He gets it.

He also did a few minutes on trust (which I finally realized is where the 'nice' comes from…). His argument is that in order for IBM to be successful, it must operate globally – manufacturing center of expertise in China, software engineering COE in India, finance COE in Malaysia – and to be able to operate in all these cultures, intermixed with all these governments, IBM must be trusted. This may seem obvious enough, but is actually incredibly visionary when you think about it more deeply. The ability to establish and maintain trust in any culture in any part of the world may actually be the defining corporate capital of the first half of this century - an invaluable and virtually inimitable asset. The ability to hire, train, and manage 375,000 people to be nice in order to be trusted – what a concept.

Given the tone and tenor of his competition in the storage industry lately, I’d say Sam may be on to something.

An old friend and colleague, Dick Search, was a long time IBMer. He was with IBM for decades before DEC enticed him to jump ship in the mid-80's. From DEC he went on to HDS, Dot Hill, and a few other storage companies...but at heart he'll always be an IBMer.

Dick loves movies - one of his favorites is the classic Patrick Swazye/Sam Eliot beat 'em to a pulper, Roadhouse. Dick's favorite quote from the movie comes from Swazye's character named Dalton, a newly hired "cooler" in a dive bar upon first meeting with his crew of bouncers.

(With apologies to the writers, producers, and Mr. Swazye, it goes something like..)

"All you have to do is follow three simple rules.

One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected.

Two, take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it's absolutely necessary.

And three, be nice.

If somebody gets in your face and calls you a XXXXsucker, I want you to be nice.

Ask him to walk.

But, be nice.

If he won't walk, walk him.

But, be nice.

If you can't walk him, one of the others will help you, and you'll both be nice.

I want you to be nice, until it's time to not be nice."

At this point, one of the bouncers numbly asks, "How will we know when its time not to be nice?"

Dalton says, "You won't. I'll tell you, and then…you will take it outside...”

I love that scene, too. Come to think of it this blog is pretty much "outside" isn't it?

Another great line from Roadhouse is “Take the biggest guy in the world, shatter his knee and he'll drop like a stone."

But I digress...

For more on Sam's speech see:

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