CONFESSIONS OF A FALLEN IBM-ER. THE HOLLOWING OUT OF CORPORATE AMERICA’S SOUL.
My Father was a proud IBMer. IBMers are a proud bunch. When you joined up with Big Blue, usually it was for life, and you were more or less indoctrinated with the corporate philosophy of IBM: The crew cut hair, conservative business suits, white only dress shirts, second to none after sales service, and especially, loyalty to The Company which bordered on religious zeal, and military discipline.
Such was the case with my father. He was born William James Stuart, February 26, 1927, in Montréal, Québec, Canada, of a French-Canadian mother, and Scottish-Canadian father. He virtually never got to know his father, since he died when my father was only five years old, in 1933, of a kidney infection. He had been an amateur boxer and had already lost one kidney in a particularly brutal amateur bout, having received a multitude of body blows. The second kidney became infected, and there being no antibiotics as of yet to speak of, he died in his early forties, leaving my grandmother to raise my father and uncle during the depths of the Great Depression in the poverty of the working class districts of east-end Montréal.
My grandmother Stuart, by virtue of her having a marketable skill, that of being a typist and book keeper, part of which she learned at the American School of Montréal, and partly because she had an excellent mastery of the language of Shakespeare, was able to land an office clerk’s job with a dredging company. This company had the contract with the federal government, which was one of the few organizations which was still solvent in Canada during those very dark years, to dredge the ports up and down the St. Lawrence River so that what little commercial shipping was coming into Canada could still do so.
With her meagre salary, she managed to send her son Jim to technical school. My father was an excellent student in the scientific and technical courses that he took, but, by his own admission, a little lackadaisical in writing skills, which he later regretted. He graduated in 1946 from Montréal Technical School, just after the war, at a time when most able-bodied men were still overseas, either in body bags, wounded in the hospital, or waiting to be demobilized and shipped back home.
My father was therefore in a particularly excellent position to benefit from the emerging post war boom which was to come. He initially worked heavy construction for one year, for ridiculously low wages (less then 1$/hour Canadian), as an electrician’s apprentice, trying to earn his master electrician’s card so as to practice the trade for which he had been trained.
The government of the Province of Québec in the mid-to late 1940s, however, was very hostile towards enabling any sort of regulatory framework to emerge so as to protect or promote the economic well-being of people such as skilled tradesmen, to recognize their training and to enforce a system of rules to have such training respected by professional organizations.
This government, run by a man called Maurice Duplessis, a right-wing strong man who ruled his Province with an iron fist for several decades, went even so far as to specifically facilitate strike breaking, using his Provincial Police force as baton-wielding goons to put down labour unrest.
When my father would go to the office which was in charge of giving out trade certifications, after having completed his four year course of schooling and one year apprenticeship, he was summarily told that his services were not needed. However, he saw many of his contemporaries working on construction sites who had no trade qualification whatsoever, installing electrical equipment, and they had no trouble obtaining gainful employment.
My father therefore concluded that the Duplessis regime’s management of his Province was thoroughly corrupt, and that he wasn’t going to bother trying to work as an electrician.
He would’ve wanted to go to McGill University and become an electrical engineer, but again, his province and country had yet to enact legislation which provided for public pensions for retired persons. So he felt compelled to look after his aging Mother , and therefore forfeit his chance to fulfill his dream of becoming an engineer, so that he could work to support her, who’d after all, worked so hard to support him throughout the Depression.
Public pensions did exist in Canada as of 1927, but they were based on a means test. You had to prove that you were in an actual state of hardship before the government would give you a pension. It was not a universal entitlement.
So my father eventually got a job with IBM. He began on September 1, 1950, and eventually spent his entire working life there, over 35 years. He started off as a Customer Engineer, or repair man, then field manager, then capped of his career as a middle manager, being promoted to overseeing the Québec city office. He had over fifty Customer Engineers under his supervision, covering a territory which was essentially everything outside Montréal, which was bigger than the size of several U.S. states combined.
All throughout my father’s career, he was filled with the pride of being an IBMer. I still have all of his memorabilia from all of his training sessions, seminars, awards, etc. The pictures of my father with his graduating class of management trainees at the IBM management school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. looks like something straight out of a graduation photo of officer cadets from West Point: All the guys have got crew cuts, everyone’s got virtually the same business suit and white shirt on, and are lined up in military formation for a group shot in front of the building.
You could tell that the model of social organization and human resources management which had been so successful in helping America win the war was now being replicated in peace time.
My Father went on training sessions to Lexington Kentucky, London, England, Toronto, Ontario, Poughkeepsie, NY, and so on.
I’ve still got the Polaroid shots of my Dad’s stay in Lexington, and the memories of seeing him off at the airport when he went to London. Working for a big multinational US corporation was something my father was very proud of, because to him, his company had a corporate philosophy which mattered, especially as it related to after-sales service.
My father got indoctrinated with the legendary IBM after-sales service philosophy of being there for the customer, of showing up with suit and tie, fixing the machine, even staying with the machine and nursing it back to health for as long as it took before it was working properly again before he left the customer.
Such was the case with some of the early vacuum tube-operated computers that IBM sold. IBM technicians were kept at the client’s worksite around the clock to keep the computers functioning.
This, my father believed in. It all changed, however, when personal computers were introduced, and that spelled the end of my father’s career and of my father’s belief in IBM’s commitment to the customer, and of my father, period.
When the IBM PC was introduced in the early 1980s, my father was one of the first to buy one, purchasing it on the employee payroll deduction plan. He was keen to remain on the cutting edge of what his company was doing and embarking upon as a corporate paradigm shift.
He was soon to be tragically consumed and, in his mind, betrayed by the digital age.
When my father found out that IBM was getting out of the after sales service business, it broke his heart. IBM products were now made with cheap microprocessors and integrated circuits in plants overseas, and the company considered that it was cheaper to throw away the machines and get the customer to buy new ones rather than to try to make money repairing them.
To my father, this was to be a cold, cold day in his life and in his career. He’d worked his entire life for a company which purported to be about rendering service to one’s fellows, but when the imperatives or expediencies of profit were considered, service to one’s fellows was summarily relegated to the dustbin of history.
My father let his health suffer. He ate too much, he didn’t exercise anymore, and he drank one or two too many glasses of sherry with supper, and would fall asleep over his newspaper after supper. He hated his job now, but he still got up every day and went to work. He was offered a golden handshake but refused it. He preferred the humiliation of being demoted and watching a younger man take his place rather than abandon his principles of after sales service.
He went back to the level of a field manager, and started taking service calls on a pager at home in the evening. He couldn’t let go of the notion that the Company was going to abandon the customer to some heterogeneously anonymous army of subcontractors who were now going to service his company’s products.
It eventually killed him. One day, six months before he was to finally take his pension at age sixty, after being pestered to do so for months if not years by my mother, my dad came home from the mall. He’d brought in the groceries that my mom had bought and didn’t even put them away. He immediately went and sat down on his sofa.
I heard him do this from my bedroom upstairs where I’d been sleeping in that Saturday morning. My father eventually fell asleep and had a heart attack and died of a pulmonary edema in his sleep while he was on the couch and I slept upstairs, oblivious to what was going on downstairs.
The hollowing out of corporate America had taken its toll on yet another proud servant and warrior in its ranks. I often wonder what would’ve happened if my father had lived, if he’d reacted differently to the spiritually-demoralizing events of his career. Would he be still alive and in good health?
Would my mother not have suffered so much in her latter years and become an alcoholic, drinking herself to death for the last twenty two years of her life after the day of my father’s death?
What, exactly, were we fighting for in WWII? Did we sacrifice all of those men and women for the cause of liberty, freedom, and democracy, so that corporate expediency could provide us with a few decades of uninterrupted prosperity? Only to be followed by the inevitable turning of the screw of market forces, causing the squeezing of the life-blood out of Middle America, leading possibly, to another self-indulgently orgiastic feast of blood letting so as to satiate the seemingly insatiable blood lust of the Lords of high finance?
It would appear that this is where we are heading as a civilization, that our prosperity as a civilization will only be re-established through participation in another truly enormous world war, thereby re-aligning the relationships of economic and financial power on our planet to the satisfaction of those for whom such things truly matter.
In the meantime, there are proud IBMers everywhere, both current and former, with stories to tell, both good and bad, about their time with Big Blue. I don’t know if the religious and military fervour of the company has waned, as its corporate philosophy has weakened in the after-sales service side of things, but all I know is that the world lost at least one of its IBM ers to the vagaries of the hollowing out of corporate America.
Will Big Blue and the rest of corporate America ‘fill in’ what has been hollowed out by the imperatives of globalization? One certainly hopes so. The reality of it is that probably many more warriors both from Big Blue, as well as from Navy Blue, Olive Drab, and Leather Necks, will likely lose their lives before true American justice can be done, and my father’s death can truly be said to have not been in vain.