March 30, 2015

Corporate culture in enterprise IT — the dignity crowd

These days, when one thinks of corporate culture in the tech industry, what comes to mind are probably:

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:

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.

What does this all boil down to? Well, what these three examples share is:

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.


4 Responses to “Corporate culture in enterprise IT — the dignity crowd”

  1. John Imlay, the jolliest huckster | Software Memories on March 30th, 2015 5:41 am

    […] value perspective, the ideal culture to build is another question, that I’ll address in a separate post. But in any case, John Imlay was a likeable, successful character, and the planet is a poorer place […]

  2. Rick Wagner on March 30th, 2015 12:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing these stories. I started in 1990 with Systematics, a great banking software company started by a core of ex-IBMers. Corporate culture was strong there, too.
    That was a nice time, just before the era of massive and regular layoffs. Sadly, Systematics was acquired by larger holders, and the business world changed. It’s nice to remember, though.

  3. Curt Monash on March 31st, 2015 4:34 am

    Hi Rick,

    I visited Systematics once, making Arkansas one of the few states I’ve visited but never slept in. 🙂 IIRC, it was one of several vertical market software vendors in regulated industries (banking, insurance, hospital care) to try to combine remote and on-premises offerings in one company. That would be like offering packaged software and SaaS versions of the same apps today. That stopped working as a model around the time of Systematics’ heyday.

  4. Richard Warren on July 25th, 2018 9:10 pm

    What a hoot! I remember MSA as a very professional group that sold my employer Owens-Illinois (a Fortune 50 company at the time – before KKR) on a COBOL generator, allowing systems analysts to generate the programs directly instead of scoping specifications for COBOL programmers. As a senior SA, I really enjoyed interviewing operation personnel and translating their needs directly into MARK IV. I’m 84 now, and remember the good times.

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