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January 2, 2008


The Jewish Federation’s Technology Affinity invites you to hear the insights of AOL Senior VP of Consumer Advocacy Jules Polonetsky on Monday, January 7 at 6:30 pm in Tysons Corner, VA.  For more information and to register:

Quick:  What comes to mind when you think of IBM?  Mainframe computers?  Stodgy guys in white short-sleeved shirts?  After blithely tossing around some stereotypes about Big Blue a few issues back, we thought we should find out what they’re actually up to these days.  Anne Altman (head of IBM’s US Federal business) and John Nyland (head of IBM’s Public Sector consulting group) set us straight:  they say Lou Gerstner shook up IBM in the early 90s and ever since it’s been on a mission to stay ahead of the curve—both technical and cultural. 

Anne and John got gussied up for our lunch at the Tysons Ritz the other day, but it turns out IBM went to business casual dress back in ‘92.  Who knew? Although they seem way too young for this to be true, the pair has 56 years of experience with the company.  John began as a buyer, purchasing integrated circuits, transistors, and diodes; Anne started as a systems engineer after interning at IBM in college days.    

Today, IBM has divested its PC business and now earns half its revenue from services, way up from 20 percent just ten years ago.  (Hardware and software each account for about a quarter of the gross.)  One of the hats John wears is that of “senior location executive,” and IBM is seriously into the telecommuting trend.  Of IBM’s 8,000 local employees, a mere 1,500 have traditional offices—the rest work at client sites, from home, or at local “collaboration centers,” which allow employees to telecommute in an office environment.  There are three centers in the D.C. area (Gaithersburg, Bethesda, and Fair Lakes); when workers check in, their phone calls automatically get forwarded to the cubicle they’re assigned for the day, and their personal file drawers are wheeled over.

John heads up IBM’s Global Business Services group focusing on public sector clients.  (Internally, IBM calls him the “Primus” of the group.  Hey, wouldn’t you like a title that makes you sound like a superhero?)  The job of Anne’s team is to find John’s group contracts with U.S. Federal government clients.  John tells us that “organization charts have never been less important” at IBM—if you go into a conference room, you can’t tell who comes from which group or has what title; everyone is united trying to win and keep engagements.

In the summer of 2006, the company held a live blogging session (being hip and all, IBM called it an “innovation jam”) for employees to brainstorm about big, current areas in which IBM could lead.  The company chose the 10 most promising—including “green computing,” speech recognition, and electronic medical records—and has invested $10 million in each.  John led a worldwide team of 40 working on one of them, intelligent transportation, and has implemented a pilot program in Stockholm that uses fancy IBM technology to charge drivers (without stopping) for making trips downtown.  City traffic and automotive emissions are down 20 percent, and citizens have voted to reauthorize the program.  IBM recently won a similar project in London, and is talking to U.S. officials about applying these techniques to high-traffic hubs like DC.

We’re thinking of starting a game called Six Degrees of Anne Altman and John Nyland.  Anne attended Arlington’s Yorktown High School with Katie Couric, and John went to high school in Birmingham, Michigan with comic Tim Allen.  John’s son is working for CBS News in LA and did some production work on the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Anne says that IBM CEO Sam Palmisano is “leading with his heart.”  As an example, she points to the company’s recent humanitarian donation to the U.S. government of speech translation technology for use in Iraq, which has become one of her team’s top prorities.  A sergeant injured in Iraq, who happens to be the son of an IBM employee, made the company aware of the potential usefulness of the product; Palmisano talked to him then personally delivered a contribution letter to President Bush.  IBM ended up donating 1,000 translation devices and 10,000 copies of the software (valued at $45 million).  The advanced, two-way speech systems recognize and translate a vocabulary of over 50,000 English and 100,000 Iraqi Arabic words, and are designed for civil application environments such as hospitals and education and administrative centers. 

For IBM, the most difficult aspect of the giving the gift was getting the government to accept it.  But, whadya’ know, the new IBM is a change agent and accomplished the task.  
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