By Sarah Ellen Rindsberg
Today, when the name “Watson” is mentioned, it invariably refers to the eponymous IBM creation that trounced the two biggest Jeopardy! champions back in 2011 (unless, of course, one is referring to James Watson, no slacker himself in the discipline of unraveling the mystery of DNA). Behind this triumphant Jeopardy! player is the vast array of resources and knowledge known as IBM (International Business Machines), your friendly corporate neighbor in Armonk. Corporate headquarters is located at 1 New Orchard Road and the legal division occupies the building at 1 North Castle Drive, together on over 400 acres of land.
IBM began in 1911 when three firms merged, creating a mouthful called the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. An industrious fellow named Thomas J. Watson, Sr. joined its ranks in 1914, became its leader and transformed the firm into Big Blue–IBM’s moniker. Yes, indeed, the Jeopardy! winner owes its name to the firm’s founder. Much more to come on the contemporary Watson’s antics and accomplishments.
The company’s product line evolved swiftly from commercial scales, time clocks and punch card tabulators into gigantic computers. The contemporary marketing mix is a far cry from the original variety of hardware. Today’s firm provides extensive consulting services, software and hardware. “Software is a much larger component of what we do,” observes Stanley S. Litow, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs.
IBM’s illustrious CEOs included, among others, the founder’s son: Thomas J. Watson Jr. In 2012, Virginia (Ginni) Rometty took the helm, managing the company whose financial stats at the end of 2013 read: revenue $99.7 billion; net income $16.4 billion; total assets $126.2 billion. When Rometty is not conducting business in the global marketplace, she is often found in Armonk and at nearby sites in Westchester.
Executives chose to move the firm from New York City to Armonk in 1963 for many of the same reasons as its fellow suburbanites: “It’s attractive, near transportation and in close proximity to other divisions in Westchester and New York City,” Litow says. Locations nearby include Somers, Yorktown Heights (The Thomas J. Watson Research Center) and White Plains. Another key factor was the firm’s rapid growth, necessitating a sizable space which could readily accommodate a campus structure.
Big Blue places a high priority on the local community. In 1995 when the firm subdivided its property, approximately 23 acres were donated to the Town of North Castle to be used as a park. This parcel was fully equipped with playing fields, tennis courts, a basketball court, playgrounds and a field house; all, much appreciated and used by community members of all ages.
Community involvement continues in many forms including “take your child to work day”; this nationwide program, usually held during the school year, is held, instead, by IBM in the summer to accommodate the local schools’ academic calendars. In preparation for this year’s “take your child to work day,” the spirit team in Armonk decided to expand the purview of the day to include a broader message: that of community service. This year, employees decided to incorporate “the importance of making a difference in the community where we live and work,” explains Mary Murray, Program Manager for Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs. One hundred backpacks filled with school supplies specifically for middle school students were assembled in partnership with The Sharing Shelf, a program of Family Services of Westchester. The Sharing Shelf distributes the backpacks each year to needy children in 15 school districts in Westchester County.
Armonk resident and IBM employee Joao Perez moved here from his native Brazil in 2000, and has become passionate about helping students at the John F. Kennedy magnet school in Port Chester, a Westchester community where 90% of the population is Hispanic. In a country where the dropout rate for Hispanics is about 70%, Perez and IBM wanted to see how they could reduce this number. “Human Resources found the key time [for retention] is between fifth and sixth grade,” Perez says. Mentors from IBM help the fifth graders with math and science. In addition, IBM has given a grant for a state-of-the-art garden and donated personal computers. While in fifth grade, the students are taken on a tour of Columbia University to raise their aspirations. “I was a speaker at graduation several times,” Perez says proudly.
In addition, IBM provides goods and services to community organizations. Last year two servers were donated to Family Services of Westchester. This organization, which provides support to families, children and individuals, also received two impact grants which include workshops run by IBMers. In the tech roadmap workshop, IBMers worked with members of Family Services to determine “what technology they currently have and envision what they’ll need five years down the road,” Murray says. A workshop on strategies for social media was also conducted at that time.
In October, the ECCC (IBM is known for its abundance of acronyms, this one representing Employee Charitable Contribution Campaign) embodies the spirit of giving back. Local organizations are invited in during the campaign to discuss their work and present volunteer opportunities. This endeavor is linked to IBM’s emphasis on education. Employees are encouraged “to constantly learn new things and build up their professional skills. One of the ways to build skills is through volunteering,” Murray adds.
IBM is also accessible and responsive to requests for volunteers. At ibm.biz/communityorg, schools and nonprofits may complete a template to describe their volunteer needs. This information is posted for IBMers to peruse and choose.
One of IBM’s current products and services includes the tools to analyze big data. Herein lies a valuable application of Watson’s capabilities: the prompt delivery of healthcare advice to save lives. In collaboration with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Watson’s cognitive computing skills shine. By sorting through patient records containing treatment and outcomes, Watson is able to deliver viable treatment options in seconds flat.
This type of care is not limited to MSKCC. “Hospitals all over the world learn from it,” Litow adds. And Watson doesn’t even need to make house calls, his expertise is delivered globally via the cloud.
Sarah Ellen Rindsberg was raised with a white THINK plaque on her desk, a vestige of her mother’s tenure at IBM as one of the first female programmers in 1955.