An Optimist at the Helm of IBM

In a tech industry dominated by Apple, Alphabet, Meta and Microsoft, it can be easy to forget that much of the humdrum work that makes screens flicker, servers hum and businesses run is performed by companies that rarely make the headlines, companies that have been gradually shaping the computer business for decades, companies like IBM.

Over the past 30 years, IBM has changed drastically, becoming a major player in cloud computing and artificial intelligence. And during those decades, Arvind Krishna was rising through the ranks of Big Blue, becoming chief executive in January 2020.

Mr. Krishna, who grew up in India before coming to the United States to get his Ph.D., has spent most of his career at IBM, and recently led the company’s acquisition of Red Hat.

Yet running a company as large as IBM requires more than just good business chops these days. The pandemic hit just as Mr. Krishna took over, forcing him to grapple with remote work, a splintered corporate culture and market turbulence. And IBM — which has been engaging with diversity, equity and inclusion issues for decades — is being forced to contend with a social and political landscape that demands companies take a stand on hot-button topics.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me a bit about your life growing up in India.

My father was a reasonably senior officer in the Indian Army. Consequently, we grew up all over the country, moving every couple of years. He was always very, very focused on what is the outcome of what you’re doing, which is good, given his profession to defend the country. He had to make sure that the troops performed and all the equipment worked.

How did you get involved in the tech business?

In school I actually enjoyed history. I enjoyed math, enjoyed physics, enjoyed a lot of things. But somewhere along the way, I really became interested in figuring out how things work. I began to think about that and say: How do you make a career at the intersection of physics, math and the real world? And that’s engineering.

And then you came to the United States for your Ph.D.?

When I finished my graduate work, I got to work with an amazing professor, Bruce Hajek of the University of Illinois, who really encouraged me to find my way. I will never be as engineering smart as he was — it was simply amazing. He was a full professor by the age of 29, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, all kinds of government advisory boards, and he was winner of the Math Olympiad.

He taught me humility. Because when somebody like that is asking you to work with him on your thesis, you realize anything you’re doing, he can do twice as fast, and he’s got such a clear brain that he gets that instantly right. But he walks with you because he wants to teach. He wants you to learn how to do it, as opposed to him doing it for you. That really teaches you a lot about how you have to interact with people.

Through the ’80s, IBM was one of the last companies really clinging to this sort of cradle-to-the-grave mentality when it came to employment. That changed very abruptly when Lou Gerstner came in and fired hundreds of thousands of people. You were there around this time, and I wonder if you can talk to me about the culture change as you saw it, and to what extent you believe it was necessary and to what extent perhaps there was an overcorrection.

He took 200,000 people out in the first two years. Moments like that are catastrophic. So I don’t think that should be a useful tool unless you’re in that kind of circumstance. But I really do believe there should be a performance culture. And I believe it was absolutely essential. No company in the public markets can survive by losing money. And I don’t think there was an overcorrection at that time.

You were named C.E.O. just as Covid hit. How have you managed the company in these first couple years?

I was named C.E.O. on Jan. 30, 2020. In hindsight, we should have known Covid was around the corner and actually spent the prior week preparing. It was pretty obvious something major was going to happen.

We could have just hunkered down, battened down the hatches and hoped for the best. But we knew we needed to make some changes. We knew that we should go make the company much more straightforward in some areas, because I had a very clear view that the technologies are going to transform our clients’ experience. It’s going to be cloud and A.I., and we should focus the company around those.

How do you recruit young engineers when companies like Amazon and Meta and Google and Microsoft are flying very, very high right now?

This has not changed since I finished graduate school. I remember back in ’99, the highfliers were Cisco and Sun. Now they’re not. So this stuff comes and goes.

Our answer has been always very different. No. 1, we like to go to where the talent is. So we have a global footprint on talent. We’re not confined to any one country and only one campus.

We also attract people who want to work on really hard problems. This requires people with the patience to spend two, three, five years to make it successful. So do we get our fair share? I’d say so.

We always have to worry about it. And if it’s not a cradle to grave, they have to feel that they’ve become more marketable, that they learned something while they’re here.

Are you having a hard time getting the talent you need right now?

Not really, no. We have a few thousand openings. We have tens of thousands of new hires.

How is IBM handling the return-to-work situation, and what do you expect the future of the office to look like?

I was in the U.K. recently and we had a few hundred people in the building not wearing masks and being together. The buzz was incredible. In India, we just reopened our offices and people are trickling in. Germany has people in the offices. Amsterdam has people in the offices. Spain has people in the offices.

I think people are getting a little bit hungry for more work interaction, not just social interaction. There’s a group that really enjoys being in the workplace. They’re more productive. They enjoy the environment.

IBM has a history of involving itself in difficult social and political issues, including being among the first companies to offer benefits to same-sex partners of employees in 1996. How do you decide what a company should take a stand on?

You can’t comment on every single thing, otherwise it’s just noise. So you go back to your values. The first value we focus on is that we want to be an inclusive workplace.

That was way before the ’90s. That goes back to the 1930s, when Thomas Watson Sr. put the first women in executive ranks. It goes back to the 1940s, when Watson Jr. began to put the first Black people in management ranks. The same-sex benefits was a continuation of that.

So when it comes to issues like bathroom bills in North Carolina or transgender laws in Texas, we’re willing to speak up and really get very vocal with state government.

But IBM is one of the few companies that stops short of donating money to politicians. Why is that?

It’s a slippery slope. If you pay money to somebody, are you just trying to buy your way into something by doing that? What happens if your candidate doesn’t win?

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