These days, when one thinks of corporate culture in the tech industry, what comes to mind are probably:
- Internet juggernauts — Google, Facebook and their younger siblings.
- The cheapskates at Amazon.
Most of that is at the internet companies, although there are exceptions — any kind of companies can have ping-pong tables, beanbag chairs, and a bunch of dogs* running around the office.
*I mean literal pooches, not bad products. WibiData used to even post headshots of the dogs on their employee page.
But there was a time, before the internet era, when similar things could be said of enterprise IT companies. The biggest fuss about culture was perhaps made among the more buttoned-down crowd, including IBM (most famously), MSA (the example that made me think of this subject), and EDS (who commissioned a Ken Follett book about themselves). They are all I have space for in this post. But there were also the beginnings of recognizable Silicon Valley start-up culture, and I hope to discuss that in the future.
The dignity crowd
I still chuckle when I see an IBMer in a company-issued polo shirt, because there was a time when IBM had a strict dress code of conservative suits and ties. Along with that went never drinking alcohol in a customer setting, in an era when boozy business meals were the norm. The point of all these rules, I think, was twofold. First, IBM wanted to be seen as a trusted, dignified adviser to customer organizations. Second, IBM generally wanted some kind of rules so that the behemoth corporation would be a team.
And IBM was more than a collection of people; it was an organization. Employees with 20+ year service might average one city-to-city move per year. (Hence the joke that IBM stood for I’ve Been Moved.) But whoever was involved with your account — if your systems stopped working, IBM would do whatever it took to get you back running fast. And a large fraction of IBM’s sales effort was spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) as to whether rival vendors would care for customers equally well.
EDS (Electronic Data Systems, founded by Ross Perot) fancied itself as a cross between IBM and the US military. Even computer operators had to be clean-shaven and wear jacket and tie. A large fraction of hires were military veterans,* and an extreme “Do it now! No excuses for failure will be accepted!” ethos flowed through the company.
*Indeed, generic college recruiting didn’t get serious until about a decade after EDS was founded; at least, that’s what Bob Sharpe once told me.
The extreme example, of course, is when two EDS employees were arrested and held by the failing Iranian government. Aspects of the story that I believe (some of which were documented in the Ken Follett book On Wings of Eagles) include:
- A dozen EDS employees, some of them then or later quite senior, volunteered to go into Iran and get their colleagues out.
- A requirement for being accepted onto that team was that you had killed somebody in combat.
- The leader was a well-known retired US officer, known for other prisoner extraction attempts.
- The team carefully rehearsed an armed extraction.
- The team infiltrated Iran, and discovered that their plan wouldn’t at all work. So they waited until the revolutionaries broke open the large Tehran jail in which the executives were being held. (Indeed, it is claimed a local Iranian EDS employee started the relevant riot.)
- (Part of) the team collected the execs and drove to Turkey.
- The team leader killed or persuasively threatened to kill (stories about that part differ) a recalcitrant Turkish border guard as they were entering the country.
That culture dissipated in the 1980s, after EDS was acquired by General Motors.
MSA (Management Science America, led by John Imlay) copied IBM’s demeanor, to the point that MSA’s logo was in the exact style of IBM’s — three letters compounded of many thin horizontal stripes. One exception: MSAers weren’t required to forgo alcohol. MSA print ads tended to feature senior and middle executives — many of whom I knew personally — “standing behind” the product. More on MSA is at the link above.
All three of my example companies had a strong interest in employee training.
- IBM is said to have trained lots of folks in IT, many of whom would leave the company and be IBM customers thereafter. (That’s sort of like McKinsey consulting today.)
- IBM also had a sales training program that included teaching you how to read upside down (in those days there were informative papers on people’s desks). My former colleague Jon Fram told me that part. Less clear is whether they taught lip-reading as well.
- EDS had a famed technical training program, somewhat modeled on military boot camp.
- MSA piggybacked on the EDS training program as best it could, as well as on sales training programs at other firms.
What does this all boil down to? Well, what these three examples share is:
- Strong focus on teamwork, and on whatever employee training, encouragement or uniformity seemed helpful in fostering it.
- Strong engagement with customers on the “Let us take care of your success” level.
That all worked well up through, say, the mid-1980s, when IT was still mysterious to most people, and post-WW2 business norms were widely accepted. Then it didn’t hold up as well in the face of more aggressive upstarts such as Microsoft and Oracle. But those are stories for another time.