|The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM|
|publisher||Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated|
|summary||How IBM came to be, and to succeed.|
At age 40, Watson was thrown a curve ball that, like that first sentence says, nearly ruined him. In fact, it sent him so low that this shaped his character more than anything that had happened to him earlier in his lifetime. It sent him to the lower depths and resulted in him being given the reigns of an equally down-in-the dumps loser business just to get rid of him. He was banished to a corporate Siberia. He was considered a loser, and given a loser's position in a loser's business.
It's at this point that he reshaped and remade that company into what is today known as IBM. The blue suits and white shirts that were the uniform of IBM men became so because he wore one every day. There was no written rule that employees had to wear them; they did it because he did it. That says something: he led by example and his employees admired him.
Just as an aside, it seems that Watson's big thing was that things didn't happen (or went wrong) because people didn't think hard enough. To encourage employees to think he had big "THINK" signs put all over the company. This evolved into "Think" buttons, and employees were even allowed and encouraged to kick back and think. Eventually, small notepads were emblazoned with "Think" and they were called "Thinkpads." Hence, the name of the laptop.
THINK, by the way, is the reason that the company created so many technological innovations.
Now, just because Watson started IBM and largely shaped it into one of the most successful companies in the world doesn't mean he was a saint. Some of the most interesting parts of the book have to do with his home life and how he treated his wife and kids. It seems that he was somewhat of a manipulator who knew how to shape people by breaking them and remaking them.
One story about his son (who would later become CEO of the company) shows Watson's mean streak. It seems that, early in the younger Watson's career, after dinner together at home, the elder asked him what his impression was of one of his executives.
The younger Watson dutifully answered, seeking to impress his father with his skill at observing people. The elder paused and then berated the young man for daring to form an opinion about a seasoned executive who had years of experience behind him. Who did the young man think he was to judge someone who had been in the business since before he was born?
While this isn't the stuff of Ward Cleaver, Watson was, all the same, a courageous and enterprising individual who took risks and (most of the time) succeeded. Especially engrossing is the episode during the depression when IBM was in danger of bankruptcy and shutting its doors. Watson, contrary to what most intelligent people would do, gave a rousing talk to his top executives, telling them that instead of cutting back on manufacturing and personnel, they should increase both.
Luckily (for Watson), a few months later, Pearl Harbor happened and, with the sharp increase in troops, materials and logistics, the U.S. government needed "calculating machines" and needed them fast. While major competitors like NCR and Burroughs had to ramp up production to meet demand, IBM, with its ready stockpile of machines won the contract and delivered, saving them from possible bankruptcy.
There is a lot more I could say about the book but because I don't want to spoil anything, I won't go into it here. However, if you're a Big Blue fan (and I am), you might want to follow up this read with Lou Gerstner, Jr.'s book, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance. It's a great read about how, for the second time in its history, the company was saved from becoming history.
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