IBM turns 100 with Western at helm

Bruce Ross, BESc’85, knew IBM inside and out long before IBM knew Bruce Ross.

For his fourth-year engineering project at The University of Western Ontario in 1985, Ross took an IBM PC and integrated it with an Instron mechanical testing machine. He wanted to take pen-and-paper plotting into the digital age. Those early attempts at analog-to-digital conversion under the guidance of his professor, Douglas Shinozaki, were not exactly common. But Ross simply needed to understand how they worked.

“Engineering really drove a sense of curiosity,” Ross reflects. “People say, ‘How have you gone on your own career path?’ I let curiosity reign as well as the desire to reinvent myself and see new things. I’ve been here over 25 years, but I’ve had so many different jobs I cannot tell you, I have seen so many exciting things.

“And that’s one of the hallmarks of IBM, if you look at our history, we continually reinvent ourselves.”

Today, Ross credits that curiosity, in part, for his rise to president of IBM Canada, the latest in a line of Western alumni to helm Big Blue. And as the company celebrates its centennial this year, perhaps no one better reflects the modern IBM than Ross, a success story cut from the mold of the company’s leadership strategy.

“If you look at it, the 100th anniversary gives us an opportunity to reflect on the enormous innovations we’ve been able to bring to the market and to humanity,” Ross says. “Our ability to thrive for 100 years is founded on a strong innovation investment in the good times and the bad times. We’ve never wavered from that investment.

“It gives us a sense of pride for what we’ve done and what we’re doing.”

IBM has worked its way into every corner of modern life through countless innovations – mainframe computers, fractal geometry, Sabre reservation system, UPC bar codes, pulse laser technology (later used for laser-eye surgery). The corporation also pioneered the social agenda, among the first to set policy to protect against race and gender discrimination well before government compulsion on the matters. “These are things that actually make the world smarter, better,” Ross says.

For the better part of its century, Big Blue has had plenty of northern connections as well. Established on Nov. 29, 1917, IBM Canada encompasses research and development, manufacturing, sales, marketing and service operations north of the border for its U.S. parent company. It maintains divisions in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia as well as sales and service centres across the country.

“In Canada, we like to think of ourselves as the home of analytics, big data” Ross says. IBM Canada is not simply a satellite office for its U.S. headquarters. More than 40 per cent of IBM Canada’s output – research and development, manufacturing – is for global consumption. “We see Canada’s place in the global economy, not just execution in the local economy,” Ross says.

That research originates both inside and outside IBM Canada. “My job is to make sure we’re a meaningful part of research and development in this country,” Ross continues. “That includes working in partnership with universities. Those are the kind of things our team can rally around,” Ross says.

When he speaks, there is an audible pride about his company. Ross is a true-believer, and wants to share it with anyone who will listen. “I couldn’t be more excited about the agenda our company is on right now,” he says.

He brings that message, about the reallife applications of IBM’s research agenda, to students at every opportunity. “That’s why when I speak to those engineering and business students I say look at the intersection between business and technology as one and the same today,” he says

“It wasn’t when I graduated from university.”

Starting at IBM Canada right out of Western Engineering in 1985, Ross worked a series of engineering, sales and marketing jobs until 1997. It was then his IBM Canada journey truly began.

“To create the next generation of leadership,” Ross explains, “we would take you out of a traditional client-facing environment and place you in a crucible where you could learn the business holistically, but you could also be evaluated as well.”

New York. Boston. Eventually the United Kingdom. It was at that last stop Ross served as general manager for IBM Global Technology Services (GTS), overseeing the U.K., Ireland and South Africa. From there, he was tapped to head IBM Canada in 2010.

“I’ve got Canadian parents, American kids and an English dog as I like to say,” Ross laughs. “We’ve been all over the place, which has been hugely important in how IBM is developing leaders in the 21st Century versus what we would have done back in 1985.”

Back in the 1980s, IBM’s business model was geographically focused. But exploding opportunities in emerging markets forced them to think bigger, broader. Ross was the beneficiary of this new approach to leadership training.

“We have spent a lot of time on moving our talent and giving them experience in other geographies. It’s almost two ways,” he says. “One way is taking talent from major markets – Canada, the United States, the U.K. – and moving them into emerging markets like South Africa, Vietnam. And at the same time, you move the talent the other way so they can learn from their experiences in the major markets and take that back.”

Ross’ experience allowed him to build an expertise – in his case services – and parlay that into the firm’s highest office. Today, he oversees the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of the IBM organization in Canada. “I couldn’t have told you back then I would move my wife and family nine times or I would have worked in these different geographies,” he says. “As a company grows, as a company expands and changes, there are huge opportunities if you are willing to put yourself into a spot where you can take some risks.”

Even prior to Ross, Western has played a huge part in the development of IBM Canada. Some might say Big Blue has been fueled by Big Purple.

Four Western alumni have served as president of IBM Canada, all in the last half century. The late Jack Brent, HBA’31, LLD’72, was president from 1962-69; John M. Thompson, BESc’66, LLD’94, was elected president in 1985, CEO in 1986 and chair from 1988-91; Bill Etherington, BESc’63, LLD’98, was president from 1991-95; and Ross has headed the firm since 2010.

“We, as the Canadian team growing up today, owe a huge amount to the legacy of what those two leaders (Thompson & Etherington) provided,” Ross says. “I am fortunate to be mentioned as a footnote to these guys. They really paved the way for IBMers in Canada, not just to grow up within the Canadian organization, but to grow internationally.” Of the Western alumni to lead, three – Thompson, Etherington and Ross – came of age in the Faculty of Engineering. And if you ask them, they would wonder why you would hire anybody else but an engineer to run your company.

Thompson stressed the jack-of-all-trades nature of his training – showcasing both theoretical and applied sides of engineering. “I think the kinds of graduates that came out of Western were both,” he says. “There were some who were very technical and there were some who were more broadly based in science and physics and math. We came out with the problem solving skills engineering gives you…and were probably more broadly-based as business people.”

He continues, “I think engineering makes you a good problem solver. It doesn’t necessarily give you the business acumen to do strategy and things, but it gets you to analyze problems well. Good leaders have to be good strategists.” Etherington came up during the “golden days” when IBM was interviewing aggressively on campus. At the end of his third year, again at the end of his fourth, he interviewed with IBM. Both years, he was accepted for a summer job, but by the time they got back he had taken a summer job at Atomic Energy Canada where he worked both years. But he kept his eye on Big Blue.

“I knew IBM from the interview,” he says. “I knew IBM from the course we were taking.” Etherington sees his engineering background as an advantage of the time. “I think in those days the sale of technology, of computing was more of a technical sale,” he says. “So IBM tended to hire about half engineers. Because they felt when you first called on a client you had to explain was ‘How does this thing work?’ ‘How does a punch card work?’ ‘How do computers work?’ So they tended to bias their hiring to people with technical background.”

Both Etherington and Thompson marvel at the corporation’s staying power. “IBM is pretty unique in the fact that it has survived and survived in an industry that has changed so much,” Etherington says. “Going from selling meat slicers to selling the Jeopardy’s Watson Supercomputer or building big and operating big networks for companies is a huge difference.”

Thompson agrees. “I can’t tell specifically (where we’re going), all I know is if you have all the right people and keep your mind open …. and by the way you focus on customers big time. You’ve got to have strong customer focus. That and strong research and great talent,” he says. “And if you do that and if you have good leaders, you will prevail. You can’t always tell exactly what it is, you can’t predict it all. “But you have the right DNA to be able to survive through all those shifts.”

Ross nods to the unique challenges and pressures of running an iconic organization. Today, IBM Canada continues to push innovation and increased competitiveness not only inside the company, but across the country.

“Our challenge is to lead in those areas. Our job is to lead in those areas, and not follow,” he says.

But in the end, like it was with his predecessors, it still boils down to the ability to understand technology, and the ability to apply it to the real world.

Ross still reflects on his predecessors’ legacies today. “You feel a sense of responsibility and accountability to the leaders who came before us,” he says. “They taught me, maybe not directly, but we have a responsibility to hold the torch high.”

Ask anyone who knew Ross at Western and they would tell you risk-taking was in his DNA. As a guy who picked up a detached retina in a rugby match in his second year, Ross considered sports an important part of the Western experience. Oftentimes, he would ride his bicycle from his house 10 kms out to Fanshawe Lake at 5 a.m., and then back in time for a full day of classes.

A championship rower for two years, he can still talk about beating defending champion Queen’s University in 1984 for the P.C. Fitz-James Trophy, awarded to the Ontario University Athletic champions. “We didn’t like to come in second,” he laughs.

Many of those lessons learned in the boat still ring true. “Rowing at the same time as being in a high-performance academic program taught me to multi-task,” Ross says. “If I slept in, eight guys were going to sit on the beach.”

He continues, “It was very clear the boat was only as fast as the slowest person in it. And it didn’t matter how good you were, if your team wasn’t good enough, then you were not going to do well,” Ross says. “And if your team wasn’t doing well, and you needed to replace somebody to make it go faster, then you did that. You weren’t afraid. If you wanted to compete at the highest level, then that’s sometimes what you had to do.”

Combine those lessons, with what he learned from his engineering days, and you start to understand not only what makes Ross the leader he is today, but what IBM Canada is all about. “I think what you’ll hear from a lot of people, and certainly from me, is it teaches you how to solve problems,” Ross says. “The problem-solving learning I did in engineering school, and at Western, translates into everything I do.”

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