IBM’s First Female CEO on Why Bob Dylan Is Talking to a Computer

Ginni Rometty is reinventing Big Blue for an artificial intelligence future.

The following is a condensed and edited interview with Ginni Rometty, CEO, IBM.

You joined IBM 35 years ago. What was the company like back then?
What struck me was the seriousness of the kind of things we did. We were building complex back-office banking systems. We were rolling out ATMs. That, to me, is true to this day about IBM. It lives at this intersection of inventing great technology but, more importantly, applying it.

I’ll tell you a funny story: When I went for my interview, I didn’t have a blue suit. In my mind, I needed one—so I went out and bought one. I had a great interview, and when I came home and took my jacket off, I realized the price and size were still on it. I thought, That was gracious. No one told me.

Did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?
What I knew was I liked math and science, and I never wanted to memorize everything. I wanted to understand where it came from. I’m the kid that tried to take Latin in school, because I felt if I could understand the root of everything, then I could understand why it worked. That was what took me into engineering. And the reason I stayed is, engineering teaches you to solve problems. It teaches you to think.

IBM almost went away in the early 1990s. What happened?
We stayed too long in one era and had to reinvent ourselves, which, by the way, wasn’t the first time. We’re the only tech company that is 105 years old, the only one that has transformed multiple times. IBM existed a good 50 years before mainframes—we started with scales. To this day, mainframes are still here. They’ve been reinvented, and they’re still 10 percent of our business. They run airline systems. They settle currency exchanges.

How does that reinvention compare to the current one?
Typically, when there’s been a transition time in our industry, it’s been driven by one big change. This time there were multiple changes—data, cloud, mobility—all happening at once, and that accelerated the change both for us and our customers.

On my first official day, at 7 a.m., I went to our primary research lab in Yorktown Heights [N.Y.] and broadcast to all of IBM from there. We are still the largest commercial research organization in the world. There are 12 labs around the world, more than 3,000 researchers. Last I checked, we take 10 percent of the world’s Ph.D.s in math. I said there will be a new way of computing, and it’s going to be driven by this huge amount of data. It’s going to transform industries, and it will change the way the IBMer works.

IBM’s revenue has declined for the past 17 quarters. Does that bother you?
It doesn’t bother me. If you go back for a decade, revenue has been pretty much flat, but the margin has gone up 10 points. We have always had a business model that is about moving to the next level of higher value, for clients and our investors.

A big part of IBM’s reinvention is Watson. When I see a TV commercial where Watson is chatting with Bob Dylan, what exactly is the product you’re selling?
It’s a service. It runs on the IBM public cloud, and you get it via an API [application programming interface, a set of tools for coders within an operating system].

Artificial intelligence is one of 50 things that Watson does. There is also machine learning, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and different analytical engines—they’re like little Lego bricks. You can put intelligence in any product or any process you have. That’s why I went to the Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of this year. We don’t make end-consumer devices anymore, but we will be inside many things consumers touch: robots, fitness and wellness, medical.

We’re developing a product with Medtronic that will predict hypoglycemic events in people with diabetes three hours or more in advance. Will people know that it’s Watson? That’s not important to me.

You helped prepare Watson for a Jeopardy! match in 2011. Did you know he would win?
We were holding our breath. We knew he’d been well-trained, but it was open domain. He didn’t know the questions in advance, you know.

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Do you use any AI systems in your day-to-day life? Do you talk to Siri, for instance?
Yeah, sure, I’ll do dictation. But with services like Siri, what you’ve got is natural language processing. And natural language processing is an important part of Watson, but it isn’t the only part. You’re going to start to see Watson in everyday life, but we don’t know what people are going to do with it. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal about how Georgia Tech created a teaching assistant using Watson. There were nine teaching assistants, and Jill Watson was one of them. The irony was it was an AI class, and the kids didn’t know she was a bot.

In that example, Watson is potentially taking a TA’s job. How do we as a society cope with that?
As technology advances, there will always be routine things that can be replaced—and that will be true with this technology. On the other hand, Watson Oncology is rolling out in India, where there are only 1,000 oncologists for a billion people. Most cancer patients in India have no chance of seeing an oncologist. These systems are going to help a doctor or a nurse practitioner make a treatment decision.

You’ve made health care, and especially cancer detection, a major focus for Watson. But cancer has frustrated technologists for years. We’ve had a war on cancer for more than 40 years, and life expectancies haven’t gotten much better.
Life expectancy has gotten better with certain cancers. Great progress has actually been made, but the war on cancer keeps expanding. Years and years ago, breast cancer had four treatments. There can be 800 choices now. That’s what’s begging for this kind of applied technology, because it’s beyond what any doctor could handle.

There was a time when getting a job at IBM was a golden ticket. But today, I’m guessing from time to time, some top engineer comes into your office and says, “I’m thinking of going to Facebook or Google,” or one of these other sexy startups that you’re suddenly competing with. What do you say to that person?
It goes both ways. People from Google and Facebook come here because they really want to have an impact on serious things. We are trusted with clients’ most valuable data. We are trusted with their most valuable processes. So that is why people come here. It’s why they stay. We get almost a million and a half applications a year. We still have the very best picks.

“I wanted my tenure to be defined as being the CEO of IBM, not about being the woman CEO of IBM”

We’re talking in your Watson headquarters in Manhattan. Do employees not want to go to Armonk anymore?
No, no, no. I’ve got a lot of stuff going on in the city today. But we have 150 real estate projects like this around the world, open workspaces conducive to small teams collaborating. I think a large part of my job is to keep reinforcing our transformation.

Are you willing to share who you’ll vote for in November?
No. I’ve got employees with all different views. We’ve endured many changes of governments. In Brazil, we’re 100 years old. And there have been leaders who have come and gone. We’ve worked with all of them.

Did your appointment as IBM’s first female CEO feel momentous to you?
I felt a great sense of responsibility for IBM and a great sense of responsibility to be a role model. But IBM’s commitment to diversity goes back a long time. We had the idea that there should be equal opportunity 11 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. To take the most recent example, we ship breast milk for women employees who have just had children and who travel. It’s a big deal to keep women in the workforce.

When you joined IBM in 2012, there was an opening to take a stand and say, “We’re not going to sponsor the Masters,” a longtime IBM beneficiary that didn’t allow women to play. Why didn’t you fight that battle?
I felt, and I still feel, that I wanted my tenure to be defined as being the CEO of IBM, not about being the woman CEO of IBM. So you make your choices. [Rometty joined Augusta National in 2014, becoming the club’s third female member.]

Why did IBM speak out against North Carolina’s bathroom bill, which prevents transgender people from using the public restroom of their choice?
We’re one of the largest employers in North Carolina. We’ve had a long dedication to LGBT rights. And you know what? This is a really competitive industry, and you need the best workforce. So you’ve got to be open to everyone.

Was there any blowback?
None. If anything, our employees expected it.

 

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