IBM i Can Thrive Under New CEO, Arvind Krishna
April 8, 2020 Alex Woodie
Arvind Krishna took the reins as CEO of IBM on Monday, marking the changing of the guard at one of this country’s foremost tech firms. But this is no ordinary switch, as Krishna must immediately navigate IBM through an extraordinary crisis that combines technological and social upheaval along with a new business climate. If given the proper attention, the IBM i platform has the chance to shine.
A new IBM CEO is a momentous event in and of itself. Since Thomas Watson founded the company in 1914, there have been only nine other CEOs at the Armonk, New York, company (Krishna is the 10th). By contrast, there have been 17 U.S. presidents since Woodrow Wilson moved to the White House in 1913. With an average tenure of nearly 12 years, IBM CEOs have been bastions of stability, but that stability is about to be tested in a major way.
Krishna’s two immediate predecessors at IBM, Virginia Rometty (2012 to 2020) and Sam Palmisano (2002 to 2012), took over immediately following crises that shook the foundation of the U.S. — the Great Recession in the case of Rometty, and the 9/11 attack for Palmisano. What’s different about Krishna’s appointment to the CEO chair is that he’s taking over in the midst of a viral pandemic that threatens to kill millions of people around the globe and forever alter the course of commerce.
Krishna couldn’t have foreseen the COVID-19 crisis on January 30, when Rometty announced that she would step down and the board appointed Krishna to be the new CEO (Rometty will stay on as executive chairman for the remainder of the year, while former Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has been named president). The novel coronavirus that emerged in central China in November was just beginning to circulate globally, and the world’s governments had yet to take extensive measures against it.
Fast forward to the present, and the world looks nothing like it did just two months ago. Employees have been ordered to stay home and businesses have shut their doors, taking a third of the mighty American economy with it. Nobody knows how long the COVID-19 lockdown will last. We eventually will come out the other side, but nobody is quite certain what the post-coronavirus will look like.
According to Krishna, IBM’s position as a reputable, stable, and business-centered tech company could be bolstered in response to recent events.
“If there’s one thing that this public health crisis has brought to light it is the ever essential role of IBM in the world. We are the backbone of some of the most critical systems,” Krishna wrote in a letter to employees on Monday. “Today, more than ever, trust is our license to operate.”
There is often a flight to safety during crisis. You see that human response in the items that people choose to buy during a crisis (we’re looking at you, toilet paper). As we make our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s economy will almost certainly enter into a recession. That changes the math on all sorts of equations, including the investments that businesses make in technology and the technological bets that organizations make on the future.
With billions of people locked down in their homes, the Internet has become an indispensable tool for work and play. Aside from some security issues, Zoom has been a technological rock star as it keeps us connected to schoolmates, family members, and co-workers. E-commerce giant Amazon is trying to hire tens of thousands of workers to keep up with surging demand for goods. We are re-learning what’s essential and what is not essential, and these lessons will stick with us after the viral storm has ended.
Ninety-five percent of IBMers are working from home currently, according to Krishna, who said in a CNBC interview Monday that the company has held over 1 million hours of video conference sessions. IBM employees haven’t missed a beat and have proven resilient to the change. But that doesn’t mean there will be no impact to IBM, which just wrapped up its first quarter. While Krishna was limited in what he could say due about IBM’s finances until first quarter results are announced, he didn’t attempt to hide the potential for some bad numbers.
“If GDP goes south, and some of the predictions are dire, then obviously there will be some correlations. It’s hard to say how much,” he told CNBC. “The work we do though is quite essential. Consequently, we feel we are well-positioned to weather the crisis and the storm.”
So what does the post-COVID-19 world hold for IBM and IBM’s products? According to Krishna, the crises will accelerate the adoption of cloud and artificial intelligence, which are two areas that IBM’s strategy is focused on.
“When we look at the usage of AI and cloud, I think that it is especially going to accelerate, not just us but how our clients are going to go on their digital transformation, and this crisis is only going to accelerate that,” he said.
Digital transformation is a squishy term that means different things to different organizations. For some organizations, it means transitioning to being a “data-driven” operation and adopting the latest machine learning and AI techniques to automate and refine how they interact with clients. For an IBM i shop still using greenscreen applications, it could mean modernizing their interfaces to use the latest Web and mobile standards. Or maybe it means upgrading from fixed-format RPG to the free-format language, standardizing code management on Git, or adopting cloud computing.
Whatever digital transformation holds, there’s no denying that the IBM i server enjoys a unique kind of staying power in American business. It’s is not the flashiest platform, and it’s only beginning to be offered in public clouds, including Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud (Amazon Web Services, so far, has resisted efforts to stash Power Systems servers in its data centers). But its reliability, security, and ability to run with a small support staff are legendary.
As IT budgets shrink and tech priorities change, it will be interesting to watch how they impact customer’s plans to migrate off the platform. Organizations that had been plotting a retreat from IBM i to more “standards-based” platforms may put those plans on hold if the added risk of a migration scares the executives charged with making the decision. The ability to run applications reliably, within a known security envelope, could trump perceived long-term benefits of a push to newer platforms.
If that happens, there could be a push to explore what’s possible with IBM i, and a push to do more with the platform. With the addition of free-format RPG and an array of open source tools, the IBM i platform is practically as modern as you want to make it. What’s been lacking in the IBM i installed base is an appetite for moving out of known comfort zones into more unexplored territory. Maybe in the post COVID-19 world, the semi-dormant mass of IBM i shops will finally wake up.