Kevin Maney on how IBM's made the world work better

100 years ago, IBM took its first step into an unknown future

This year marks the 100th anniversary for IBM® as a company. To celebrate it and help put all that fascinating history into some perspective, three veteran journalists came together to write the book, Making the World Work Better: The Ideas that Shaped a Century and a Company. Kevin Maney [website] is one of the authors and discusses how IBM pioneered the science of information.


Scott Laningham (, Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.

17 June 2011

developerWorks: This is the developerWorks podcast. I'm Scott Laningham. This year marks the 100th anniversary for IBM® as a company. To celebrate it and help put all that fascinating history into some perspective, three veteran journalists came together to write Making the World Work Better: The Ideas that Shaped a Century and a Company. That book was released this week online and in book stores.

It's the sum of all the innovative parts

Listen to the podcast.

Kevin Maney is one of the authors and joins us now. Kevin is the author of Trade Off: Why Some Things Catch On and Others Don't; The Maverick and His Machine, Thomas Watson, Sr.; and The Making of IBM. And, Mega Media Shake Out.

He was a reporter, editor and columnist at USA Today for 22 years and a contributing editor at Conde Nast Portfolio. He's also been a contributor to Fortune and Wired magazines and The Atlantic, NPR, and ABC News. Kevin, thanks for being here.

Maney: Thanks, Scott. Thanks for having me.

developerWorks: It must be a very, very busy week for you, lots and lots of interviews.

Maney: Wall-to-wall interviews and events, and of course, the big event that happened at Yorktown Heights the other day, yesterday.

developerWorks: So let's look at the book. How did this project come about? How did you all come together to write it?

Maney: Yes, well, all three of us have written about IBM over the course of our careers. I wrote a book earlier in the 2000s about the biography of Thomas Watson, Sr., the guy who built IBM. And I've been covering IBM for two decades.

And Steve Hamm, who also co-wrote the book, used to work for Business Week, and he's been writing about technology and a lot of times IBM for a couple of decades. And Jeff O'Brien is a little bit younger than us, but he just came from Fortune where he wrote a big feature on A Smarter Planet, and that caught IBM's eye and they pulled him into the project, too.

And the idea was that IBM wanted to do a lot of content, possibly a book. This was early on — they didn't even know for sure they were going to do a book — to celebrate the 100th anniversary. So it was interesting because the folks like Jon Iwata and Sam Palmisano and the people who were thinking about this specifically did not want to do some like, you know, puffy coffee table book that, you know, nobody was really going to care about.

They wanted to do a real book, a real piece of thinking about IBM and its place in the world, and what it is, and what it does. And this is really a really unique animal that they decided to go basically commission some outside journalists and not tell us what to write.

You know, they brought it to us to come in and do this with our own ... you know, our own imprimatur and our own thinking and really do this thing the way we would do it as journalists. And I thought that was pretty brave and interesting of IBM to do it that way.

developerWorks: So, I'm looking at it, and this book is broken with the three authors into three distinct sections. And they are,

  • Pioneering the Science of Information.
  • Reinventing the Modern Corporation.

And then lastly,

  • Making the World Work Better.

Sam Palmisano, our Chairman and CEO, wrote the forward and explains in it how each of you take on one of these three topics. And Kevin, yours is Pioneering the Science of Information.

As I was looking at it, I would assume that maybe of the three this is the way that most people identify IBM right off the back, I would assume, as a pioneer and leader in computational science.

Maney: Well, sure, I think that's the way IBM is often thought of. And what my goal for that part of the book, was never to, you know, never to just try to tell the world that IBM's great at information science.

What I set out to do was actually to write the 100-year history or the evolution of information science and computing technology, how do we get from these clunky old tabulating machines in 1911 to a computer that could play on Jeopardy and beat the champions in 2011?

And if you trace that history and all the stories and all the inventions and the big changes in thinking about computing that happened over that 100 years, what you naturally end up finding out is that there's just one company that has played in every part of that space at every decade and been by far and away the biggest movers throughout that whole century, and that's IBM.

And you know, it's kind of a better way to end up coming to the conclusion that IBM has been this major player, rather than trying to just pump up what IBM did, look at the whole history and find out that what IBM did was just fantastically important.

developerWorks: So, looking at this 100 years of technical pioneering and what it's led to in terms of the evolution over that period; not just singling out some specific events, then.

Maney: That's right. And you know, probably in that 100 years there was one particular product, if you want to name a product that was an heroic, gigantic major blow-out effort and success, and that was the IBM 360 in the 1960s. But almost more impressively is that that 100-year history is not necessarily about any one product that just sustained a company for decades or anything, it's actually about just a constant march of things like Fortran and DRAM and silicon germanium chips, and then big things like the 1401 computer, that is just a constant march that has continued to push computing forward and continued to drive the company.

developerWorks: Kevin, I completely hear where you're coming from, and I had a great conversation last week at Innovate 2011, the IBM Rational Conference, with Grady Booch, who is chief scientist of software engineering at IBM Research and a celebrated IBM Fellow and rock star among software developers ... and he's been working as the software archeologist for the Watson Project, and he was saying the same thing, that Watson is not simply about what's been done in this amazing effort over the last few years, but it truly is a 100-year story.

Maney: And you know, and yesterday at the centennial event, one of the other panel discussions on stage was about research and technology, and Dave Ferrucci, the guy who drove the Watson Project, was on stage. And one of the things that he said was that the reason that IBM can do something like Watson is because it has invested so much R&D in all of these different areas — in software, in hardware, in natural language processing.

And then he was able to come in at this particular point in time and build on all of these breakthroughs that had happened in all of these different areas from all of these different researchers over the last decade or so. And without that ... no other company has anything like that, to be able to pull off something like Watson.

developerWorks: So then in the second section of the book, Kevin, Reinventing the Modern Corporation, when I saw that title of that section, I immediately thought about Lou Gerstner and what happened during the 90s, IBM's great reinvention of itself. And of course, the dawning of the Internet age and how that's changed the business in many ways. Is the second part largely about that; or again, is it about a 100-year sweep of IBM reinventing itself all along the way?

Maney: Well, very much. All of the parts are of a 100-year span, and Steve Hamm's part about reinventing the corporation is not only about IBM reinventing itself but also leading the way in a lot of instances as corporations have rethought what they are and what they should do and their place in the world.

And so that ranges from everything from the importance IBM has placed on its corporate culture over history and been ahead of the game with that; to things like Tom Watson, Jr., proclaiming that the company was not going to have any biases hiring just on race or any other factor a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. So, you know, it's about all of those factors that go into changing and creating the corporation as we see it today.

developerWorks: Yes. So now the last section of the book, Kevin, Making the World Work Better. Clearly we've seen elevated focus in these times around the ideas of more intelligent systems, of smarter, more efficient resource preserving technology.

You know, we're clearly living in a time that demands more of that, and I think it's got to be real interesting for you all having worked on this part of the book as well looking at both how IBM's work in this space already was evolving but how the needs and means of the times are almost game changing in this territory, right?

Maney: Yes. And Jeff really focused on, for that chapter, on the application of technology and how it's changed the way people do things and is changing the way people do things. And so you can imagine over 100 years' time that's really been pretty dramatic and you know, even more so now.

developerWorks: We've been speaking, again, with Kevin Maney, co-author along with Steve Hamm and Jeffrey O'Brien, of the new book that came out this week, Making the World Work Better: The Ideas that Shaped a Century and a Company, about IBM's history in this 100th anniversary year. Kevin, thanks again for your time today.

Maney: Great. Thanks, Scott.

developerWorks: This has been the developerWorks podcast. I'm Scott Laningham. Thanks for listening.

Search terms for these topics:
Kevin Maney | IBM centennial | Making The World Work Better | A Smarter Planet | Jon Iwata IBM | Sam Palmisano IBM | Watson Jeopardy IBM



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