IBM Visionary Steps Down

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 07-16-2007
How do you say goodbye to a legend? Well, if you're IBM, you don't. You just let them "retire" and you continue to tap their expertise on a part-time basis.

That's what IBM is doing with Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the company's just-retired vice president of technical strategy and innovation. Wladawsky-Berger just retired in June after 37 years on the job. But he will stay on in a part-time capacity, doing pretty much what he'd been doing for the last several years—looking for new technologies and new markets IBM should get into and then figuring out the way the company should attack the opportunity.

Some say Wladawsky-Berger is a visionary in that he always seemed to be at the forefront when IBM was looking to get into new, game-changing technologies, such as supercomputing, Linux, the Internet, On Demand, SOA (service oriented architecture) and more. And IBM chief executives, including Lou Gerstner and Sam Palmisano, have personally tapped Wladawsky-Berger to lead some of these efforts. Yet, the ever humble Wladawsky-Berger attributes his "vision" to his penchant for "finding where the smart people are and hanging with them."

Wladawsky-Berger, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, came to IBM in 1970 and he started out at the company's Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Here he started technology transfer programs to move the innovations of computer science from IBM's research labs into its product divisions. 

Wladawsky-Berger joined IBM's product development organization in 1985, and he continued his efforts to bring advanced technologies to the marketplace, leading IBM's initiatives in supercomputing and parallel computing including the transformation of IBM's large commercial systems to parallel architectures.  And Wladawsky-Berger has managed several of IBM's businesses, including the large systems software and the Unix systems divisions. 

Read more here about IBM taking the top spot on supercomputer list.

Indeed, Wladawsky-Berger said one of his key strengths is his ability to match his technology prowess with his business acumen. He said it is not enough to come up with innovations, you also have to be able to find a way to bring the technology to the market, while at the same time "making your numbers."

In an interview with eWEEK, Wladawsky-Berger also reminisced about some of the technologies that got away. In other words, Wladawsky-Berger noted that among the technologies that he and his cohorts in IBM Research came up with was a multi-tasking PC operating system that IBM never took to market.

"We had really good ideas for building a multi-tasking PC operating system based on DOS," Wladawsky-Berger said. "And we could never convince IBM to embrace that. We did prototypes, we had it working, it was totally DOS compatible, and it was a multi-tasking operating system. And I always have wondered how the PC world would have gone and our encounters with Microsoft and Windows versus OS/2, if we had been successful with this PC multi-tasking operating system."

In February 2006, Wladawsky-Berger was appointed visiting professor of Engineering Systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's interdisciplinary Engineering Systems Division. And this fall he will be teaching a graduate seminar on technology innovation at MIT, he said.

Meanwhile, Wladawsky-Berger counts as one of his most satisfying accomplishments, helping to right IBM's flailing mainframe business by applying microprocessors and parallel architectures to the mix. "The project to help transform the mainframe with microprocessor technologies and parallel architectures was particularly sweet because our backs were against the wall," Wladawsky-Berger said. "So this was more of a case of we either do this or we're gone. Because if we hadn't been able to reinvent IBM's mainframe business, the company would have been in dire straits. Or IBM would have become a very different company."

To read an in-depth interview with Wladawsky-Berger, click here.

Cuban-born Wladawsky-Berger came to the United States at age 15 and likes to make a lot of baseball references when discussing technology and business. For instance, surviving in the core of the technology industry is "like playing in the big leagues," he said.

Moreover, Wladawsky-Berger has some interesting opinions on healthcare IT, energy management and green IT, and on the issue of counter-terrorism and what he calls the "long cultural war."

Here's to you, Irving WB.

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