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James Cortada, Emerson Pugh, & Louis Gerstner Jr.

It turns out that IBM has an internal policy forbidding employees to write books about the company while they are employed by it. This is the major common point among the three authors of this month’s Library article: they were all IBMers at some point, and they all wrote their books after leaving.

Numerous books have been written about IBM in the past 60 years; let us enumerate some I could find during my investigation, in chronological order of publication. Given that IBM has more than 100 years of existence, there is a high probability that I have missed some earlier titles.

  1. “A Business and Its Beliefs : The Ideas That Helped Build IBM” (1963) by Thomas Watson, Jr.
  2. “International Business Machines” (1976) by Saul Engelbourg.
  3. “IBM: Colossus in Transition” (1981, reprinted in paperback form in 2000 with the title “Thomas Watson, Sr.: IBM and the Computer Revolution”) and “IBM vs. Japan: The Struggle for the Future” (1986) by Robert Sobel.
  4. “The IBM Lesson” (1988) by D. Quinn Mills.
  5. “Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond” (1990) by Thomas Watson, Jr.
  6. “Big Blues” (1993) by Paul Carroll.
  7. “Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and Its Technology” (1995) by Emerson Pugh.
  8. “IBM and the Holocaust” (2001) by Edwin Black.
  9. “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround” (2003) by Louis Gerstner, Jr.
  10. “The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM” (2003) by Kevin Maney.
  11. “Making the World Work Better: The Ideas That Shaped a Century and a Company” (2011) by Kevin Maney, Steve Hamm, and Jeffrey O’Brien.
  12. “IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon” (2018) by James Cortada.

In this article, we will focus on the 7th, 9th, and 12th entries of the list above. (As this article hits the web, the author is reading the 11th, by Kevin Maney et al., commemorating the 100 years of IBM.)

James Cortada’s and Emerson Pugh’s books have lots in common: both are corporate biographies dissecting the most important events in IBM history, even if, for the obvious reason of their respective publication dates, they tend to cover slightly different time frames. They are both published by MIT Press, purveyor of legendary titles related to computer history, and both authors worked as engineers for IBM for more than 30 years (Pugh from 1957 to 1993, and Cortada from 1974 to 2012).

There is another sad similarity between Pugh’s and Cortada’s books, however; a general disdain for the subject of software and software engineers, constantly shadowed by the outstanding contributions of IBM in the world of hardware and electronics. This choice is certainly understandable, but unfortunate. For a company with such a massive legacy of software-related innovations, it would have been natural to expand on those subjects. Maybe their editors at MIT Press simply asked for those sections to be removed… or perhaps it is just my own passion for the subject that is playing me tricks right now. As an example: Ted Codd‘s major contributions, for both Pugh and Cortada, is not SQL, but rather their previous work with Backus in the creation of FORTRAN. Und so weiter.

In any case, this is where the similarities end.

Pugh’s book, published in 1995, has deeper coverage of the origins of IBM during the Victorian era, including some technical analysis of Hollerith’s machines and their impact on society at the beginning of the twentieth century. Because of its publication date, and given the turmoil into which IBM was thrown into during the early nineties, Pugh stops short the description of events around 1985, surprisingly only giving a short mention to the release of the IBM PC at the end of the last chapter.

This is where Cortada’s book becomes a much more interesting option. Published in 2018, right before IBM finished the acquisition of Red Hat, and omitting a longer description of the pre-CTR era (1880-1910, as provided by Pugh) it includes a substantial, and dare I say, highly controversial assessment of the most complicated times of IBM, that is, during the decade between 1985 and 1995. Cortada is critical of the attitudes and decisions adopted by the higher management of IBM during those years, and gives a thorough description of the financials of the company.

This is, precisely, one of the most important elements in James Cortada’s book: the amount of financial information, correlated to the internal events happening in the company, paints a vivid picture of the tribulations of a company that could not replicate the System/360 success story during the 1980s and 1990s. And yes, those issues almost caused the company to go bankrupt, an event that, given IBM’s size and gravitas, sent waves all over the industry. Corporations are meant to make more money than they spend; to make a long story short, the opposite was happening at IBM.

The third book in this analysis, by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., is precisely the story of how IBM avoided a cataclysm between 1993 and 1998. Gerstner was IBM’s CEO from 1993 to 2002. This book is a more business-oriented management guide than a corporate biography, even if it includes the description of important historical events. If you are in the market for business guidance, and enjoy good stories, you will love this one. In our industry, we hear plenty of entrepreneurs referring to the “second coming” of Steve Jobs to save Apple from bankruptcy in 1997, but very few remember that Gerstner pulled a similar feat with IBM just a decade prior, with a much larger payroll than Apple’s, and arguably, with much more at stake.

I could not help but see Gerstner’s book as a practical application of the 8-step change management teachings of John Kotter, enumerated in his 1996 classic “Leading Change”, one of the most important business books of the 20th century. Kotter’s is a highly recommended read to anyone interested in understanding how organizations should change to adapt to new, tough, and evolving business environments.

I would recommend the reader to start with James Cortada’s book, and to continue with Gerstner’s. The one by Emerson Pugh is particularly suitable for those interested in the very early years of the company, before CTR was formed, and before CTR became IBM.

Cover photo by the author.

Continue reading Issue 061: Databases or go back to Issue 062: IBM. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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