Senior Vice President, Technology and Manufacturing
My passion is for engineers and scientists, the people who generate real wealth in the world. I think we need more of them. The need for technical talent is clearly a critical issue in my industry, the information technology industry. Yes, we are going through a bit of an up-and-down in the economy and, yes, this will be a very difficult recruiting year for young women and young men on college campuses around the world. But we will get over that.
What’s scary, though, is the long-term trend in the information technology industry toward huge shortages of engineers and scientists. Predictions are that there will be a shortage of perhaps two million, globally, within five years. If they are right, the debate over H-1B visas will be silenced because there will be no one to come here to solve our problems. Clearly, the solution to our problems is to generate more engineers and more scientists, to encourage people to focus on careers that can literally generate more real wealth in the world.
My bona fides are pretty straightforward—34 years with IBM. I am an engineer, an electrical engineer. I did honest work for a living. For almost half of my career, I did real things, made real things, designed real things that actually worked and generated wealth for IBM. For the last half of my career, you will have to excuse me, I have been an executive involved completely in management.
I have been a member of the board of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) for 10 years. Bill Friend, a member of the NAE Committee on Diversity in the Engineering Workforce, is a personal friend of mine, and he is the reason I am chairman of the board of NACME. I am just coming to the end of my four-year stint, so I will soon be passing the baton on to someone else. I have also been involved with National Engineers Week (NEW) for perhaps the last seven years, as IBM’s executive contact. We chaired NEW
this past year on its fiftieth anniversary. All of those things put together mean something to me and are part of what we at IBM consider best practices. I recommend them to you for making a difference in engineering, science, and diversity.
Diversity to me means gender diversity, racial diversity, and ethnic diversity. I am just as passionate about women in technology as I am about underrepresented minorities in technology. You know what the numbers are so I am not going to bore you by spouting data. If you don’t know what they are, NACME has a wonderful publication called the NACME Journal, which has all of the latest data. And the data are incredibly disturbing. Over the past 20 years, all of the progress we have made was made in the first 10 years; we have made virtually no progress in the past 10 years. That is a horrible indictment of me and my involvement, but it is unfortunately true. When you look at enrollments and graduation rates, we have gone nowhere. The numbers have flattened out.
It is time for us to think differently about what we are doing. We now know we cannot expect to make continuous progress. So the best thing to do, based on my industry experience, is to stop doing what we have been doing and try to be creative and think “out of the box.” We have to start coloring outside the lines and come up with some type of breakthrough thinking.
You know, I find it very stimulating to come here. Number one, I love the National Academies Building. Number two, as most of you probably know, this is the birthplace of NACME; it was born just outside of the Great Hall in this building about 27 years ago, when the National Academy of Engineering recognized that diversity was going to be a huge problem and that we had to do something about it. So, they met and created NACME, which started out with an incredible agenda and incredible objectives. Unfortunately, I am very saddened to tell you, we missed them all. We missed them all. Back then, they thought that by this point in time we would be a $25 million organization that would generate at least 20,000 underrepresented minority engineers in this country. Well, we are not. We are barely half that. We are a $10 million organization, and we have supported 10,000 underrepresented engineers. Not a total failure, of course. We wouldn’t have made the progress we have made without NACME, but we are not getting the job done.
I don’t know the other organizations as intimately as I know NACME. I know GEM (the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc.) quite well because IBM is deeply involved with GEM. I know the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference, and I know some others, but not as intimately as I know NACME, which is in my blood after 10 years. I also know that NACME is one of the most organizationally competent organizations in this community. NACME’s present leader, John Slaughter, is an incredible force for change as he has been for his entire life—when he was head of the National Science Foundation, chancellor of the
University of Maryland at College Park, and when he was president of Occidental College, where I met him.
Given our lack of progress, the growing need for change, and perhaps the right leadership, even in these tough times, we may be at the right point in time to make significant changes. I believe that if a company has the right vision, now is the right time to make substantive changes. Look at the demographics. This is the perfect time. Very soon, there is going to be an abundance of brilliant students—women and underrepresented minorities—who are going to be looking for something to do, and there are not going to be enough jobs for them. They are either going to go back to school, or, I hope, IBM will hire them all and make a substantial change in the mix in the company.
We are very proud of our diversity efforts. I am not going to spout off about them to you, but we don’t come late to this arena. IBM has been fighting in this arena for 80 years, because that is the way we grew up under Mr. Watson, Sr. This was his idea. He wasn’t confused about morals and ethics. He wasn’t confused about business. He just thought diversity was the right, rational, sane thing to do. After all, we are the International Business Machines Company. We have always liked the idea of diversity of thought—we operate in 160 countries around the world. We have eight research facilities in eight different countries around the world to capitalize on diversity of thought. We appreciate the fact that women see problems a little differently than men. We appreciate the fact that underrepresented minorities bring a diversity of thought and creativity to thinking about problems and solving them. We have no trouble getting behind these types of efforts, but there are lots of problems.
I’ll give you my perspective, based on the three hats I wear. I am chairman of the board of NACME, a senior executive with NEW, and a senior vice president of IBM. From a NACME perspective, we cannot allow ourselves to be continuously fractionalized and marginalized in our efforts to address diversity in engineering, but we do. Too many of us are asking the same people for the same things, over and over again. We can’t afford to keep doing that, especially in bad times, because they will begin to throw darts at the board and say “yes” to this and “no” to that. Why? Because they are simply out of money. We can’t keep dividing our efforts into finer and finer pieces. It doesn’t make sense.
First let me talk from a NACME perspective. As some of you might know, I spoke at the closing banquet of NACME’s “Forum 21” in Baltimore on Saturday night, and my charge to the organization and to John Slaughter was simple. We have to find a way to collaborate more, align ourselves more, perhaps even consolidate some of the myriad organizations that seem to be saying the same thing to corporate America, because corporate America is going to be an incredibly difficult place to get support.
Even in NACME, commitments from incredibly strong, capable, well intentioned, well meaning corporations are falling by the wayside because they just
don’t have the resources. That is going to be the reality for the foreseeable future. We have to deal with the issue of too many of us saying too many of the same things to too many of the same people. We have got to align our efforts in some way.
I think now is a good time for us to think about ways of getting our agendas moving in the same direction. John Slaughter understands this and is moving in this direction. If ever there was a right person, a collegial leader, who was willing to give and take, to give and get, it is John. So, I am hopeful. I pray that we can pull something off here. By the way, Bill Wulf, president of the NAE, sits on the board of directors of NACME. This shows that we are working together in some ways, but we need to do much more.
My second point of view is from NEW. I don’t know if you are aware of the value of NEW, which is a great force for change in this country. I like it because it gives us an opportunity to get back into the school system and do something about math and science so we can influence the outcomes, the possibilities, the probabilities, the options for young women and young men from underrepresented minorities in the elementary school system, which is incredibly important for us. In grades 4, 5, 6, and 7, most children make career-altering decisions. They are deciding they hate math or they don’t like science or they don’t like the science teacher or they hate the math teacher and, therefore, hate math. These are career-altering decisions. These same young women and young men will then tell you they want to become doctors or astronauts or engineers.
They see no linkage, no cause and effect. They have no idea that what they do now will affect their futures and change their options. That is why I like NEW. It lets me, lets us, lets IBM, lets all of you who participate get back into the schools and show kids what can happen, how real wealth is generated, how exciting being an engineer can be from a math and science perspective. You can make a difference. You bring your liquid nitrogen, your polymers, your smoke and mirrors and you show young people that they can make a difference in the world. This is what engineering and science is all about.
Last year, IBM chaired the fiftieth anniversary celebration of NEW. NACME, NAE, and many of your companies have been partners with NEW. Many of you have chaired NEW activities. My only frustration is that NEW’s presence in the schools only lasts for two or three weeks. We have to find a way to stay invested in our K through 12 system, especially in grades 4, 5, and 6.
Perhaps the proudest part of IBM’s involvement with NEW is “Girls in Technology,” an educational module that was rolled out across the country in 2001. As a result, tens of thousands of young women in grades 6, 7, and 8 had the opportunity to work in a technology-oriented company to see what engineering and science are all about. We developed the module three or four years ago at IBM and then passed it on to NEW.
The third perspective is from IBM, where I am responsible for IBM’s technology, and for our worldwide population of technical professionals. IBM has
160,000 technical people out of a company of 320,000 worldwide. We are 160,000 strong—engineers and scientists in every discipline, including software, services, hardware, manufacturing, research, and development in the field and in the support structure. We have an incredible program to attract, retain, and develop people, to address their cares and concerns. Two programs that I am very proud of deal with diversity, in terms of ethnicity, race, and gender. One is the Women in Technology Council; the other is called the Multicultural People in Technology Council.
IBM created these two groups for technical people to give them a forum for expressing their ideas. The main thing we want to learn from all of our diversity councils is why they want to be at IBM. What does it take to make them happy here? Do they feel comfortable here? Are they at home here? Are they uncomfortable here? If so, how can we fix it? Women in Technology brings together women from 160 countries. The common bond among these women is that they feel their technical contributions are not being recognized. I didn’t lead this initiative, but I started it and I sponsor it. Remember, senior executives have to sponsor these things.
I thought we could do the same for African-Americans, Hispanics, and so on, but then I realized we could end up with a lot of separate groups. A bright young woman in Raleigh came up with the idea of having a Multicultural People in Technology Council. The group includes people from all minorities—Asian-Pacific Islanders, African-Americans, Latinos, Latinas, Native Americans, and many others. Once the group got started, it began to create its own agenda, hold its own conferences, build its own networking structure, build its own mentoring network. All it took was a little bit of help from me, a little bit of money, a lot of nurturing, and a lot of publicity.
We created these two councils for our own preservation, not because the government said we had to have them. IBM needed them to maintain diversity of thought. Our technical people respect diversity of thought.
We are the most inventive company in the United States, and have been for the past eight years, and I guarantee you, we will be for the ninth year when the books close for this year. We have built an environment where people feel somebody is listening to their concerns. Now, we are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and I am still not happy with our numbers or with the mix of people. They still don’t look right. There aren’t enough women or underrepresented minorities getting some of the $3 million a year we give at our awards conference to especially gifted people. We also have a 300-person academy of technology. I don’t like the mix there either—not enough women or underrepresented minorities. It is always dangerous, of course, to try to manipulate things. Technical people go nuts if they feel the heavy hand of management reaching into their pockets, taking their arms out, and making them vote for this or that. But we will make progress. I guarantee you that before I retire we will make substantial progress.
I always harken back to a famous book written by a famous IBMer, Fred Brooks, a founding inventor of System 360. He worked in Poughkeepsie, and he didn’t spend a lot of time with IBM, but he did some incredibly bright work. When he left IBM, he went to work for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a computer scientist. I think he has just retired. In his book, The Mythical Man Month (Addison-Wesley, 1995), he simply says there is no silver bullet for software. There is no silver bullet, no magic potion that can fix things. Things only get fixed if you take the problem personally, and you want to make a difference. It is that simple. If you care enough about it to put your money where your mouth is, and you put somebody in a leadership position to do something about it, you can make a difference.
I hear from our chairman all the time asking why I can’t fix things right away. But fixing things takes time and sustained effort. In addition, you simply have to take things personally. That is my story whether you like it or not, and I am sticking to it.
Questions and Answers
Gary Downey (Virginia Tech): As someone who works in a world of technical people, what is your take on engineering education in this country today?
Nick Donofrio: Actually, I am pretty hopeful, pretty optimistic. I should have also told you I am on the board of trustees of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), which is my alma mater. I got my master’s degree from Syracuse University, but I never actually attended Syracuse. I worked full time and got my degree at night. So, I grew up the hard way. I was at RPI when it was a tough school, when the dean or the president looked at us and said, “Look to your right, look to your left; one of you won’t graduate.” And they meant it. We were lucky that half of us got out the door, but they delivered at RPI. I don’t think there is anything wrong with engineering education in our college and university systems. I am incredibly impressed and awed by the brilliance of new graduates at IBM.
I will also tell you that they are happier and more well rounded than any students I have seen before. Perhaps one thing we can do a better job with is convincing engineers and scientists that part of their mission, part of their job is to explain complicated things simply and succinctly. I heard a wonderful lecture on quantum computing just the other day by a guy in the forefront of the field. He had simplified quantum computing into an incredibly understandable presentation that ignited me and the audience to want to learn more. In our lifetimes, we might actually switch to the quantum model. The speaker was an IBM Fellow, very qualified, with a huge portfolio of patents. He barely comes out of his office. But, lo and behold, he did a brilliant job of simplifying a very complex subject. I think it is critical that we be able to express ourselves.
We need to focus on that more because we tend to think the more difficult a problem is, the more we say about how complex it is, the more jargon we use the better we are doing. But that is not true. We have to simplify things, to get them down to understandable facts.
I am not saying everybody has to be a business person. I have already told you we only need a few business people to count the money in the counting room. We do need a lot of people who can make things and generate the money. Usually, we can teach people the business skills they need. I am not against MBAs, but I have been incredibly successful without one. We need more engineers and more scientists who can sell their ideas, communicate their ideas, talk about their ideas.
Today’s engineering students are more gifted than ever. I would never be hired back into the company if I graduated with my 3.1 GPA from RPI this year. We typically don’t even look at kids unless their GPAs are in the 3.4s or 3.5s. I would have had to do something incredibly important to get IBM’s attention now. And I worry about that, too, by the way. We spend a lot of our time on campus talking to professors and department heads asking who the brightest people are. We know GPAs don’t always correlate with success, but it is the only thing we can use to screen people unless we have qualitative input from deans or department chairs or the students have experience in co-ops or as interns.
But in general, I like the education system. But I want people to be a little more articulate—not necessarily charismatic, but articulate.
Jim Johnson (Howard University): You spoke of the need for organizations to address the need for more minorities and women in quantitative fields. But I also think there is a need for corporations to get together in a coalition to provide some building blocks to attack systemic problems in cities.
For example, in Washington, there are at least half a dozen corporations, but their lead line is here is my product, we want you to use it, rather than let’s identify problems and see how we can pool our resources and make changes and then use our products as a way of demonstrating or a way for students to practice how to improve and move forward with the change. What do you think about a coalition of companies coming together to attack systemic problems and investing their resources in a way that puts their names up front?
Nick Donofrio: I would have to agree with you. IBM, under Mr. Gerstner’s leadership, has shifted its philanthropic giving to education reform in K through 12. We built a national alliance to bring governors together because we believe education at that level is a state issue, not a U.S government issue. It may even be a city issue and not a state issue.
The alliance is a self-perpetuating group for reforming education. Mr. Gerstner believes in rigorous standardization of instruction and of certification, so he looks first to the administration, then the faculty, and then the students. This is a
very old formula of discipline in structure that says we know what we are teaching them, and we know they are learning something. Let’s invest our money in those parts of the system. Physical structures are just physical structures. Let’s invest our capital in people, whether in the administration, the faculty, or the students. That is our K through 12 initiative in a nutshell.
Other companies have joined us, but we have not created the kind of alliance you are talking about. There is no real pooling of energy in the alliance other than conferences once or twice a year to share ideas. We run our own K through 12 program, G.E. runs its own, Ford and GM and DuPont and everybody else runs their own. There is no sense of togetherness. But it is not a bad idea, though, maybe something whose time has come.
But K through 12 education has clearly got to be the centerpiece of any reform. That is where all the problems are. We can’t fix them at the college and university level because it is too late. They are what they are by then. Thank God for Howard graduates, but the fact is we are not getting enough good people. I would like to see more cooperation with colleges and universities to improve K through 12 education. The idea has fallen on deaf ears. Colleges and universities seem to be more interested in buildings. They offer us naming opportunities for only $5 million. I say we don’t want a name on a building and we don’t have five million bucks. We tell them if they don’t get in line on our K through 12 initiative, they will get no money from us.
In the nine years Mr. Gerstner has been with us, we have not funded college and university activities. We participate in partnerships, and we run programs. In fact, I run the university relations program. We give grants for things that a university does for us, so, we do share in some university research projects. But I don’t want to see a Nick Donofrio Gymnasium or a Lou Gerstner Memorial Auditorium
Ray Mellado (Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference): I have two questions about information technology. A couple of weeks ago I heard Robert Card, the undersecretary of energy, and Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM talking about security at our nuclear and DOE facilities and national labs around the country. What do you think about information technology security in the short term and long term and how do you see it evolving?
Nick Donofrio: There are lots of things that can bring us to our knees in the information technology industry. People happen to be first on my list. We don’t have enough talent, and we don’t get the job done. I think that is clear to you.
Second is security and privacy, which I put together. The whole world is on line, and e-business thinking is real. The dot com mania is over, and we are going back to the real business of business. Electronic communications and commerce is the way business is going to be structured, both inside and outside. There are people here in Washington who are proposing to build their own
Internet with a different set of standards. I think that is nuts, to be honest with you. We don’t need that. We need more secure systems and better administrators. We need better enforcement. I attended President Clinton’s conference of industry leaders at the White House after e-Bay was attacked with a denial-of-service attack.
The single biggest problem with security systems worldwide is that nobody uses them. Our own experience suggests that one-third of the customers we service never change the factory default settings in their software. That is like getting a briefcase with the tumblers on it, and leaving zero, zero, zero, zero in as the combination, and then locking your family jewels in it and expecting nobody to steal them. The default number never has been changed on one-third of all the installed software. I could probably pick most of your telephones, as well, by the way. Most of you probably never changed the default settings on your answering machines either. Most of you have one or two digit codes, and if I were patient enough, built a little program, I could dial into your homes and listen to all of your messages.
Ray Mellado: Second question, if I may, on information technology. How does it fit into K through 16 education?
Nick Donofrio: I don’t have time to give a presentation on the future of technology, but let me just say that in 30 years we have experienced a six order of magnitude improvement—exponential or superexponential improvement. And it is going to continue that way for the next 30 years. All of that technology is likely to come to the “front of the house,” meaning it is going to be where people use it.
I think the issue of computer literacy will eventually disappear because everybody is going to be naturally dealt with at the computer front end. I think computer literacy is terribly important, but the concept will be eradicated. Think about it. Are you electricity literate? Are you telephone literate? Are you tv literate? Do you understand the inner workings of those technologies? The answer is that you are not now, but 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago, you were. You were either electricity literate or you electrocuted yourself when you flipped the switch on. You were also telephone literate. It was either that or you listened to everybody’s conversations, because most telephone connections were party lines. Computer literacy will disappear because natural interfaces will develop. Our young people will be able to use this stuff just like they use pencils and pens. We believe in a “pervasive” world, pervasive computing. The desk top era is over. We are going to have a computer-pervasive world, and human-friendly instruments and tools will be given to people.
That doesn’t mean that the world will be less complicated or that we won’t need any more big ideas. It means exactly the opposite. Remember, the simplification I talked about? We have got to find a way of simplifying the complexities we have created. That is where the real value will be. The need for
information technology will be incredibly higher, and we will be able to use it more in teaching, not just in college and universities, but also in K through 12.
Participant: I would like to ask you a short question about your talk, which I really enjoyed. You did something I find myself doing, which is—and everybody in technology does it—making fun of people who go into management because they aren’t doing real work. Do you think we are making our workplaces less culturally hospitable than they could be because we don’t value management?
Nick Donofrio: Actually, that is an interesting question. In my company, we have the opposite problem. Our women and underrepresented technical people actually move to management far too often because they think it is easier. They think they can get ahead faster, and they don’t want to compete on the raw bona fides of their intelligence and their capability. They think life will be easier for them, and in some cases they are right. I mean, some parts of our business are incredibly baroque, complex, difficult, and challenging.
Women are incredibly smart at finding the path of least resistance and getting there. They move very quickly to where they think they are going to rise to the top. I want to keep more women in technology longer. Of course, they can make up their minds and go wherever they want, but I want to see them go into management later, not earlier in life. The same thing is true for underrepresented minorities.
I am a manager, and I am an executive. Unfortunately, I am on the dark side, not the enlightened side. I mean, I have run $20 billion businesses, so I know what it is like on the management side. Management is important, but only if you have the technical talent to pull it off. You have to recognize that there are fewer management opportunities in a company than technical opportunities. We have 55 fellows, 210 distinguished engineers. Technical excellence is a better vehicle for technical people to become executives than for them to try to bend themselves into something else and climb the management ladder. We hear from technical people that they are being forced up the management ladder and that they don’t like it, that they would prefer to have careers on the technical side.
We may be unique at IBM, and that may be just our problem. But I don’t think so. I worry deeply about IBM because of our history—you have to remember that we started as a sales company. Mr. Watson, Sr., was a cash register salesman for NCR before he founded IBM. The company still puts a premium on selling and selling talents. I am trying to exert as much pressure against that as I can to keep people on the technical side as long as I can.