July 14, 2014 | Written by: Kevin Allen
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In the year since IBM acquired SoftLayer, Lance Crosby has been in almost perpetual motion. He has circled the globe touting IBM’s lofty cloud ambitions, while overseeing SoftLayer’s expanding capabilities and integration with the rest of IBM’s cloud offerings.
But before the expansion could occur, there was a decision that had to be made, challenges to overcome, and growth toward a shared vision for the future of IBM Cloud.
In a recent interview, Crosby discussed that decision, the growth and SoftLayer’s future as the foundation of the IBM Cloud portfolio.
What do you remember from the initial acquisition meetings with IBM, and what was that process like for you?
When I decided to finally sell SoftLayer, the very first meeting I remember with IBM was in New York. I met Steve Mills, Jim Comfort and Danny Sabbah, and I didn’t know a lot about IBM from the outside. They gave me the vision of what they wanted the IBM Cloud to look like. I went back to my hotel that night, and I literally didn’t sleep a wink because I was so shocked. My initial thought was, “What does IBM know about cloud?” Then after that meeting I realized that they had all of these things that I had put on my whiteboard that I was going to build and host, but I knew it would take me years and years to get there.
I laid there all night long thinking about it and the next morning I got up and called my banker and said, “This is it. This is the one.” He asked if I was sure, because at that point we had met with dozens of companies, but I knew IBM was it.
I went back to SoftLayer and told the other founders. They didn’t believe it until they heard it themselves from Ginni and Erich Clementi, who had come to pitch directly to my team. The impact that that had on making it successful was enormous. I told Ginni, “You have no idea how critical that meeting was.”
What are some things that have remained constant for you since SoftLayer became an IBM company?
Our vision from day one was to create the de facto platform for the Internet. I actually scratched those words on the whiteboard that I have behind the door in my office. We knew that customers were going to move existing solutions into the cloud. That was obvious. But besides that, we wanted to tee up the ingredients of what comes from the infrastructure to see what people could build.
In 2005, I wish I would have written down what I thought they were going to build because I can tell you that 10 years later some of the most incredible companies in the world have built their entire business on top of SoftLayer. Companies like Dropbox, Yelp, and WhatsApp—everything from social gaming to backup. All of these different companies were able to create different ingredients and build entire industries on SoftLayer.
What were your concerns in joining IBM, and how have those been addressed?
I wish I would have written down what I thought about IBM before I went into it. To tell the truth, I obviously knew what IBM was—it’s a big company that has big contracts—but I had never really been exposed to everything they did. After we were acquired, I thought the biggest challenge we would face was being crushed or overwhelmed by IBM. Thankfully, [IBM CEO] Ginni Rometty had the foresight to leave us as a standalone for a period of time. That allowed us to learn about IBM, and allowed IBM to learn about SoftLayer. It’s been very successful how we’ve slowly integrated the pieces that make sense. We started with HR and accounting, and things that were obvious. The rest we’ve left as stand-alone. We’ve also pulled a few IBMers into SoftLayer. We get insight from them, and they can understand how we operate and translate that back to IBM.
I won’t say there haven’t been frustrations, but a year into it, I’ve been more than surprised at how well we’ve been able to integrate.
(Related: An interview with Marc Jones, SoftLayer VP of product innovation)
Where do you see SoftLayer heading in the next 5-10 years?
We will continue to drive the infrastructure piece for the IBM portfolio. The one thing that brought me here that got me excited about IBM was all of the other pieces of the puzzle that we were trying to build. If you look at Amazon, over the last couple of years they have built each and every feature that they’ve added on to the infrastructure. And even though they do it rapidly, they still have to build every one of them from scratch.
What IBM brings to us is not only do we build new solutions that never existed, but there are literally hundreds of solutions that do exist that we’re bringing to the cloud for the first time.
The speed to market is amazing. Before the acquisition we had what was called “Release Wednesday,” where we released new features and updates and widgets. Now we have Product Wednesday, where we’re rolling out entire software suites. Just the level of speed and agility and how big the portfolio is growing in such a short period of time is amazing.