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. Read more
The commercial computing, software and services industries have existed for half a century or so each. It might be interesting to review how their pricing and delivery models have evolved over time.
1960s and 1970s
Modern IT is commonly dated from the introduction of the IBM 360 mainframe in 1964-5. But even before then, there was a growing industry in what we’d now call outsourced services, specifically in payroll processing; major players included Automatic Data Processing (ADP), the company that gave us Senator Frank Lautenberg, and a variety of banks. This was (and to this day remains) a comprehensive service, priced by unit of work (e.g., number of payroll checks cut).
IBM mainframes, which quickly came to dominate the market, were in the 1960s and 70s commonly rented. IBM software that ran on them was hence typically priced on a rental/subscription basis as well. The independent packaged software companies, however, often preferred to get paid up front,* and hence sold perpetual licenses to their software. Annual maintenance fees for the licensed software started in the range of 10% of the perpetual license or even less, but migrated up to today’s 20-22% range.