Ten Learnings from Five Years of Intrapreneurial Success in the IBM Cloud Garage

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Looking back at the beginning of the IBM Cloud Garage

On April 28, 2014, I sat in the front row as our SVP, Robert LeBlanc, announced IBM’s new Platform-as-a-Service Bluemix and the opening of the first IBM Cloud Garage (then IBM Bluemix Garage) located in San Francisco. Next to me was my co-founder and the executive sponsor of the Garage, Steve Robinson. Steve leaned over to me and said, “Enjoy this moment . . . and go make it real.” That moment was the first of many proud moments as the CTO and Founder of the IBM Cloud Garage.

The Garage approach I defined (in this blog) to design, develop, and deploy innovative Minimal Viable Products (MVPs) has successfully delivered value to hundreds of clients and has significantly expanded over the past five years. Placing Garages into startup communities is a compelling aspect of the Garage client experience—Steve’s brilliant idea. We have grown to have 15 dedicated Cloud Garages across the world, with IBM Studios also providing Garage experiences. Plus, we bring the Garage experience to our clients’ locations and can help them build their own Garages. You can learn more about the Garage experience here.

The Garage has grown from just Steve and I when it was announced to hundreds of talented designers, developers, architects, engagement managers, practice managers, and executives who work directly for the Garage—and many more trained on the IBM Garage Method throughout IBM and our business partners.

On the technology side, the Garage has grown with the expansion of the IBM Cloud. We supported public cloud, then IBM Cloud Private, hybrid cloud, and multicloud.  We have expertise on our IBM Cloud Services from mobile to IoT to analytics to AI and beyond. We now apply the Garage Method to all types of cloud adoption including modernization, management, and migration.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot from Steve, our talented Garage consultants, other parts of IBM, our clients, and particularly IBM Fellow Kyle Brown and Distinguished Engineer Roland Barcia, who have been my partners in leading the IBM Garage technical community from day 1.

Here are ten lessons of I’ve learned about driving successful intrapreneurial

1. Friends are invaluable.

I’ve always valued strong relationships with my colleagues, but never more than when I started the Garage. Friends from around the company pitched in and helped, from volunteering to run the workshops, interviewing people, planning our first events, and even opening up new Garages (such as London in Nov 2014).

2. Take risks and don’t take “no” for an answer. Be bold.

Steve and I are strong believers that you can do anything at IBM. The Garage didn’t fit a pattern or process that had been done before. Don’t take “no” for an answer. When you are doing something new, you will hear it quite a bit. You have to sell your idea, then sell it again, and when you are ready to give up, keep selling. Turn your message into a compelling story people can relate to. You win by making people believers. Answering the negativity with a simple “come experience it.”

Be bold. With talented volunteers, we ran the first Garage workshop in July 2014 with Manulife before we even had a permanent space. Counting on us moving into our permanent space on time (which we did the day before the project started), we boldly said yes to starting our first MVP. The bigger risk we took was assembling that first Garage squad through our first hires, friends, and some good luck. The project was successful, and Manulife shared how transformational their Garage experience was at the IBM Interconnect conference in 2015. It was critical to our success that we quickly prove we could deliver real value, delight clients, and get paid for doing it.

3. Create a unique, compelling client experience.

A key to the Garage’s success has been delivering rapid value to clients and having them truly experience a new way of working. The experiences we deliver to our clients are built upon a prescriptive formula for using best practices—agile, DevOps, Site Reliability Engineering, lean, Enterprise Design Thinking, Spotify squads—combined with a deep understanding of enterprise clients. The Garage experience is a combination of our collaborative places, our practices/method, accelerated delivery through use of IBM Cloud services, and, most of all, our talent. Hear from Bendigo and Adelaide Bank about their Garage experience.

4. Be strategic in what you share publicly.

To significantly amplify the impact of the Garage, we decided to create a public site for the Garage method in 2015 and invested heavily in capturing and publishing proven cloud architectures with technical implementations and detailed guidance in our Cloud Architecture Center. The reach and impact of the Garage expanded exponentially through the method site, reaching over 55,000 unique visitors a month.

5. Hire for talent and culture fit. Embrace diversity.

Our top criteria for hiring potential candidates was and is (1) their desire to learn and (2) being a  cultural fit with the Garage. We seek diversity in all dimensions—different backgrounds, ethnicities, gender, and experience levels.  One of our designers has been a standup comedian, and one of our most impactful senior managers has a military background. And then we work to ensure that we are inclusive in providing opportunities equally across our worldwide team. We are always looking for diverse, talented designers, developers, and architects who are excited by the Garage culture and mission—apply here if you are one of them!

6. Focus on client value and relationships.

Our focus on every project is to drive value for our clients. Our recommended starting point is our two-day Garage MVP Design Thinking Workshop where we drive alignment amongst our clients, develop hypotheses to test, and define an MVP. We focus on building an MVP on the IBM Cloud that will deliver business value in six to eight weeks. If the better thing to do is to first do a non-technical MVP or user research, that is what we will recommend. When our clients see us embracing their perspective and working to make them successful, they view us as a partner. We are able to form enduring, trusting relationships with our clients that enable us both to be successful. A relationship built on trust is key to success when we go beyond one MVP to scaled adoption of and transformation using the Garage Method.

For me, having clients become active references and/or do repeat projects with us is one of the most satisfying and key measurements of success. The Garage, in partnership with other parts of IBM, has led American Airlines on a multi-year journey adopting the IBM Garage Method and IBM Cloud. This video of AA’s first MVP for dynamic rebooking and of the AA CIO presenting at IBM THINK 2018 describes their journey.

8. Balance consistency with exploration, individuality, and experimentation.

I recently tested our consistency with an impromptu quizzing of Garage consultants from five different Garage locations in front of our new VP, asking “what is our mission?”—and the answers were similar. At the core, we achieved consistency through our culture and a set of actions:

  • A defined, published, and continuously updated set of practices
  • Our rigorous hiring processes with a focus on cultural fit
  • Our training program by discipline, which consists of boot camps and pairing on projects (we bring this program to our clients)
  • Cross-pollination across Garage locations, including a “landing team” assembled from multiple Garages when launching new Garages
  • Project reviews
  • Accelerators/assets/architecture center used on projects
  • Continuously improved communications

Simultaneously, innovation, and experimentation are critical to our growth. We actively recognize and reward experimentation. Each Garage has some unique characteristics—even personalities—which reflect their regions and leaders. For example, the Singapore Garage is strongly connected to the FinTech community, and the Nice Garage does a lot of IoT projects.

8. Keep evolving your business model.

With IBM transforming to be a cloud and cognitive company, and as the Garage has grown, we have experienced a lot of change within the past five years. Aspects of our business model have changed every year. For example, we recently innovated having Garage services be purchasable in the IBM Cloud catalog. Also, be sure to hold on to what is working well. For example, operating as one worldwide team is critical to our business model and success.

9. Embrace change and avoid founder’s syndrome.

The early Garage team and I miss aspects of the early days. Through 2015,  many of us could name everyone in the Garage, regularly visited all the Garages, knew all the major projects, and we all gave input into our new practices, offerings, and processes. The Garage leaders wore many hats. To grow, we had to become more specialized; we had to divide responsibilities and add regional leaders. Personally, I had to accept not knowing everything that goes on in the Garage. The Garage leaders had to shift our roles, sometimes becoming narrower and sometimes becoming broader. It isn’t easy, but it is absolutely necessary to continuously assess what is working, what isn’t, and to embrace change. (Although, Steve still thinks I know everything about the Garage, so I hope he skips this lesson.)

10. Embrace growth, even when it is uncomfortable.

Of all the kinds of change, major growth is the hardest—ask any two-year-old, teenager, or new retiree. Most, maybe all, of our Garage leaders and longer-time consultants have experienced discomfort with aspects of our growth, including changing our organizational structure, more overhead of communication, deepening partnership with various teams across IBM, and changes to our branding. Critical for our growth in 2018 and going forward is scaling the Garage with our clients utilizing partnerships across IBM and with business partners. Leaders must set forth the vision and benefits of growth and lead the team in embracing the great possibilities that exist. To quote our IBM CEO, Ginni Rometty, “I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.”

What comes next

Number 10 naturally leads me to talk about where are we now and where are we going next—I’m proud to say the IBM Cloud Garage (formerly Bluemix Garage) and the Cloud Garage Method that we created five years ago have proven so successful that they are now being elevated, expanded, and adopted across IBM. All of my colleagues, friends, and clients who have been part of this journey should be proud as well—we truly have made an impact on how clients experience the new IBM and fulfilled our mission of making clients of all sizes successful on IBM Cloud.

We now have IBM Garage, which broadens what we have specialized in the IBM Cloud Garage, adding more business expertise, techniques for innovation, organizational change, scaling and operations best practices, and more from across IBM. We now partner with clients to set up their own Garages. We are also working on significantly expanding the Garage Method, adding more practices to the core practices of the Cloud Garage for other key cloud adoption entry points, including assessment, migration, modernization, and management—more coming on that soon. We now have Garage Solution Engineering, which brings the talent that has been developing our cloud architectures and executes the most technically challenging first-of-a-kind projects.

It has been an incredible five-year journey growing the Garage. More than anything, it has been the talented, collaborative people I’ve gotten to work with and the creation of value for our clients that have made it a great growth experience for me. I can’t wait to see what changes the next year and next five years bring to IBM Garage!

This blog is a part of a series celebrating the fifth anniversary of the IBM Cloud Garage. 

To learn more about the IBM Cloud Garage, find our story, resources, and method here. If you would like to see how the IBM Cloud Garage can help your business, schedule a cost-free, four-hour virtual visit with us. We’d love to help you turn that idea into a reality.

IBM Fellow | CTO and Founder, IBM Cloud Garage

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