2011 interviews of Nick Donofrio on his career at IBM

(Ex-)IBMers who ever encountered Nick Donofrio @NMJD in his 44-year career at IBM may appreciate memoirs in two interviews. The first starts with his childhood, through to 1964 when he first started working with IBM.

Grant Lussier: So you basically joined IBM roughly at the halfway point of the history of the company, right?

Nick Donofrio: Pretty much. That’s right. I like to say that. I use this famous chart by Ray Kurzweil. I should get it for you.

Kurzweil 1999, Moravec 1998

Nick Donofrio: The reason I use it is because it has my life on this chart. So he (Kurzweil) plots a hundred years of technology advancement. He is not plotting it for IBM’s benefit. I am using it to describe the life in IBM. It’s a very interesting chart. Semi logarithmic. So what he plots is the amount of computational capability you can get for a fixed amount of money in a fixed amount of time. And it turns out the curve is a hugely super-semi logarithmic chart super exponential. In a hundred years it rises 16 orders of magnitude.

And what I like to point out to people is I started at the point of vacuum tubes, which is about right in the middle of the chart. (Nick points to the Kurzweil chart in his hand that he pulled out of his brief case) It’s about a hundred years and I joined right there. I came out of RPI with vacuum tube skills. I actually designed circuits with vacuum tubes, right? Only to find out that is not where we are. “We are trying to move to the transistors, Nick.” And then nobody knows this, but then we are going to do all of this along the way. So I quickly re-schooled myself, re-skilled myself. This is how I get to Syracuse. I get my Masters degree in Electrical Engineering from Syracuse. I got my degree because IBM had a programme with Syracuse. [p. 10]

Grant Lussier | “The Nick Donofrio Story: Part 1, The Formative Years” | 2013 at http://www.celerasearch.com/articles-news/category/nick-donofrio .

The second part describes the career at IBM, through a series of management positions.  In 1971, Donofrio was assigned a management position in Burlington, Vermont.  He learned from the 360-degree review.

Leadership 101
My initiation into leadership occurred in the “old IBM,” when the hierarchical structure was firmly entrenched. It was pretty rugged. I was in Burlington, overseeing about ten circuit designers in my department. I was really close with them. The supervisory assessment process at the time was a survey taken of the people reporting to you, and the reports of the managers ranked best and worst were sent to the leaders at corporate. The rankings were 1 to 5, with 5 at the top. I got my opinion survey back; I was flabbergasted by how bad it was. I was terrible. I didn’t get a 1, but like 1.4. I was crushed, and I thought, “I’ll be jobless. I’ll be the worst on site.” It was a very humbling experience, but it taught me some important lessons. One: that just because I “knew everything,” that didn’t mean that I was a good leader. I needed to let people do their jobs. Two: I was going to have to learn how to ask for help. Without the assistance of my staff to steer me in the right direction, I was a goner.

More broadly, I think this event taught me that change is important. You have to be willing to evolve and to be okay with not having every answer.  [p. 7]

At age 42, he was the corporate director of development at the IBM headquarters in Purchase, NY.

Nick Donofrio: [Around 1987] IBM hit the wall essentially because it was not paying attention to what its clients wanted. It was making better and better things every year, but they were not the things that people wanted to buy. They were ranked the number one company in the world in the ’80s, so they were everybody’s envy. It was a slow and gradual degradation. In a few years, it started to fall off the backside. [p. 5]

In 1995, Lou Gerstner asked Donofrio to lead server group (i.e. over 100,000 employees across RS/6000, S/390, AS/400 and PC servers). The marketplace was competitive, but the approach was different.

Grant Lussier: So, you are saying the market is large enough for the server business worldwide to have multiple players?

Nick Donofrio: Right. It was then for sure. In order to successfully grow, we often forged partnerships and relationships with the very folks we competed with day in and day out. Alliances, industry organizations, standards, all these and more become part of the daily routine. The only way for anyone to survive and thrive was to find partners. Cooperation and competition quickly turned into ‘coopetition’. If you build a large enough ecosystem, it turns out they really do come! The only way for anyone to survive is by finding a partner to deal with…it’s a different direction from the way we had functioned previously.. And that’s become the mantra moving forward.

In hindsight, he reflects on his career.

Grant Lussier: What do you think that you’ll be remembered for?

Nick Donofrio: When I look back at my career, seems like I was smart enough to take what I learned at RPI and continually reapply it in a time of very high transition and change! And that is how I made my- self; that is how I made my name. Rather than be the guy with the first idea, I was the guy with the last idea. I learned that there was nothing wrong with not being first, or not being in the lead. As an engineer, I’m a problem solver at heart. That is what I did for a living; solved problems!

When it comes to getting along in the world, there’s nothing wrong with being a good, hard-working person, with caring a lot about people and trying to do the right things. So because I kept those ideas in mind, I always felt comfortable with myself. I never had to be something I wasn’t. And as a result I was never afraid of change. I actually thrived on it! I hope the legacy I left behind is the sense that you can not change fast enough given how fast the world is changing around you.

Grant Lussier: So you would say that being good is more important than being great?

Nick Donofrio: Yes. And I think good people should always win. Even though they often don’t, even though life isn’t kind or fair, that doesn’t mean that someone should become bad or compromise them self to get forward in the world. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve been asked, “Why are you always willing to listen to people, and to reach out to people?” I guess that is just the way I was raised. I enjoy giving back and helping people and realizing that there are so many people so much brighter than me in the world who could do so much more with just a little help.

Along the way, I also came to believe each one of us is the ultimate creator of our situation. You get either what you want or you get what you deserve. But whatever you have in the end, it is yours. You have no one to blame, or to credit, but yourself. That is the truth as I see it. In the end, for peo- ple like you and me who’ve been at liberty to exercise our wills in life, it is a pretty sobering philosophy. If it didn’t work out well for you, it didn’t work out well for you because you decided that it didn’t work out well for you. If you didn’t really want it that way, you would have kept working to get something different. But you decided you were going to set- tle, right? Or you decided that you were powerless, right? There are only a handful of ways, if I remember correctly, to resolve conflict—you either fight, you flee, or you change. This stuck with me, as IBM developed me into a better and better leader and manager. [pp. 10-11]

Grant Lussier | “The Nick Donofrio Story: Part 2, The IBM Years” | 2013 at http://www.celerasearch.com/articles-news/category/nick-donofrio .

Nick Donofrio is IBM Fellow Emeritus, retired as IBM Executive VP Innovation & Technology in October 2008. He says he’s not retired, just graduated from IBM, in this speech in 2013.

“21st Century Innovation / Technology” | Nick Donofrio | November 14, 2013 | Bentley College at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9BDOBcLes8