Let’s Build a Smarter Planet – Part III

This is the third part of the transcript of a lecture I recently gave at the University of Birmingham in the UK.In Part I of this set of four posts I tried to give you a flavour of what IBM is and what it is trying to do to make our planet smarter.

In Part II I looked at my role in IBM and here I look at what kind of attributes IBM looks for in its graduate entrants.When I found out I was going to be doing this lecture one of the things I realised was that there was a danger I would appear too remote and disconnected from where you are today. After all, it was nearly 35 years ago when I was sitting where you are and I suspect that the thought of listening to an old timer like me going on for an hour was not very enticing. This being the case I asked a few of my (much) younger colleagues, graduate entrants, what their thoughts were on IBM and why they had joined.

One person in particular, a young zoology graduate from Cardiff University, whom I work with at the moment said that as well as the good R&D record IBM had and it’s whole smarter planet agenda the reason she joined IBM was that she:

“Wanted to be part of an organisation that cared about the world and was making an effort to change things for the better. With a fast growing and aging population we need to prepare cities, towns, hospitals, transport systems etc to be able to cope with the change. IBM seemed to understand that and seemed to be involved in trying to work out what options there are.”

I hope this shows you that IBM’s smarter planet agenda is not just marketing hype but is also about genuinely trying to make a difference to the way the world works through the intelligent application of information technology.  In order to do that it needs people who can solve some of the wicked problems there are out in the world today as well as challenge conventional wisdom. Here’s another story to show this…

In the early 70’s stores needed a quick way of entering product data into their systems so they knew what they had in stock. There were a number of competing standards for what were referred to as Universal Product Codes or UPC’s. An IBM engineer was asked to write a technical paper in support of a spherical code from the company RCA to be presented to executives to get the go ahead to support that standard and develop scanning hardware. The engineer however investigated the feasibility of this and realised it would not work. The error rate on scanning this pattern was too high. He went against what his management  asked him to do and went for this format instead…c9055-barcode

Something very familiar to you all I’m sure. The point being that even then anybody in IBM could challenge their managers and be listened to provided they had the right evidence to back it up. Challenging conventional wisdom is something that is and always has been valued in this company.

Today we can challenge conventional wisdom and question things more easily than ever. Thanks to technology anyone can get to anyone.  There are no boundaries, no real hierarchies, in a world where we are all just a few Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections away from nearly everyone. You no longer have to worry about where you sit in a hierarchy, instead you just need to concentrate on what your contribution is going to be (how are you going to make that dent in the universe).

As the blogger Hugh MacLeod says:

“So your job title and job description is not what matters anymore.  A smart recruiter is not going to ask you what your title is.  They are going to ask you what have you actually done lately.  What have you accomplished? More importantly what do you want to do? Who and what will you challenge?”

87f10-stopworryingHere’s a set of characteristics that the most successful people in IBM share…
  • Adaptability. How do you cope with changing demands and stress? Are you flexible? Have you successfully completed several projects with competing deadlines?
  • Communication. Do you present information clearly, precisely and succinctly? Adapt the way you communicate to your audience? And listen to others?
  • Client focus. Can you see a situation from a client’s viewpoint, whether that’s colleagues or customers? Can you anticipate their needs?
  • Creative problem solving. Do you use ingenuity, supported by logical methods and analysis, to propose solutions? Can you anticipate problems? Do you put forward innovative ideas?
  • Drive. Will you proactively learn new skills – even if they’re beyond the scope of your current job? Will you put in the time and energy needed to achieve results?
  • Passion for IBM. Do you know what IBM does and what our most recent achievements are? Are you up to speed with the latest trends in our industry? What are the biggest challenges we face? You’ll need the facts at your fingertips and the enthusiasm to match.
  • Teamwork. How do you work with others to achieve shared goals? Do you easily build relationships with others? Are you a team player?
  • Taking ownership. Do you take responsibility for tasks/decisions? And implement decisions with speed? Can you show when you’ve worked to correct your mistakes?

You can find more detail on what IBM is looking for in its graduates and how to apply if you are interested by going here.

Part IV of this talk is here.

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