IBM: Lower Profile, Same Impact
In 2005, IBM executives and university officials in Florida developed an initiative called the Latin American Grid — La Grid, as it became known. The program now wires 10 universities, including Florida International, Florida Atlantic, the University of Miami and schools in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Barcelona, together into a high-tech network.
The public-private partnership provides the schools with a boost in tech horsepower via IBM-donated servers and software and enables them to collaborate on research in areas from life sciences to nanotechnology and hurricane mitigation. The additional resources also help make the schools’ programs more attractive to Hispanic students, who are woefully underrepresented in the computer science field. According to a 2003-04 survey, Hispanics were fewer than 4% of computer science graduates with bachelor’s degrees and barely more than 1% of computer science grads with master’s degrees and Ph.D.s at research universities in the U.S.
For IBM, La Grid serves several purposes. The program advances the collaborative research projects and also helps create a talent pool that the company cultivates with internships and other programs. The La Grid schools identify top students, and IBM executives mentor them — and the company ultimately hires some of the grads. La Grid is part of an overall commitment to diversity: According to the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, the number of Hispanics working for IBM in the U.S. has grown nearly 50% since 1995, and the number of Hispanic executives has nearly tripled. Women represent nearly a quarter of all Hispanic executives and nearly a quarter of the Hispanic workforce in the U.S., according to the HACR.
The La Grid program also is part of the answer to the question, ‘Whatever happened to IBM?’ in Florida. The company made a huge splash in the state in the 1970s when it opened a giant research and manufacturing center in Boca Raton where it designed and built mainframes and, famously, the first personal computer. Economic developers, meanwhile, drooled over IBM’s southern home as the high-tech epitome of “clean, light manufacturing.”
Big Blue seemed to disappear after it sold its Boca complex and moved the manufacturing out of state in the 1980s. But today, while the company’s presence in Florida is in some ways less front-and-center, its impact in Florida — economic and otherwise — is no less substantial. IBM provides a good example of how smart firms evolve to stay competitive and can remain civically engaged even as they pursue their own interests.
About 3,000 IBM employees still work in Florida, says Rick Qualman, a Boca native who heads IBM’s global telecom-
related business and also serves as the company’s state executive for Florida. The employees, scattered around the state, include programmers, salespeople, researchers and more than 70 executives. In 2009, IBM researchers in Florida generated 100 patents, with 40 of those coming from labs in Boca. Overall, the company’s research in Florida runs a gamut from telecom-related software to water-conserving technology and ultrahigh density solar arrays.
The jobs are high-tech, high wage. IBM software engineers typically earn more than the averages in the field, which run between $70,000 and $100,000. In 2008, IBM’s Florida workers collectively earned more than $200 million. Any disconnect between the company’s economic impact and its visibility is easy to explain: More than 70% of its Florida employees work either from their homes or at client sites. More efficiency, less environmental impact.
Qualman’s mobile himself. In a given week, he may spend a day or two at the IBM office in Boca before jetting off to South Africa, Israel or Eastern Europe to help close deals. He’s a great source of sidebar nuggets on the global telecom business: In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, people use cell phone minutes as currency; in many places in the Third World, the operators of cell phone towers are also the biggest consumers of diesel fuel, since the towers, unconnected to an electrical grid, need generators to produce the power that operates them.
As state exec for Florida, Qualman looks after the company’s interests in Tallahassee and participates on the policy level with statewide organizations like the Florida Chamber of Commerce. He believes transportation, healthcare and education are essential pieces of keeping Florida competitive — and that technology is a vital part in advancing each of those areas. He cites the success of the La Grid program; meanwhile, he says, a first-rate science, technology, engineering and mathematics program at a local high school was key to his ability to recruit an executive, who in jobs elsewhere had to figure in the cost of a private school for his children into his career decisions. “I can’t attract the folks I want to if there’s not a good education system,” he says.
IBM’s evolution — and the priorities and values it embraces — is a good example for Florida as the state’s economy evolves from its traditional reliance on real estate development and tourism toward a base that’s more grounded in knowledge and science. The New Florida Initiative being pushed by Chancellor Frank Brogan, former president at FAU, is a page from the same book, calling for $100 million in new recurring funding for Florida’s universities, with half the money earmarked for science- and technology-related education.
Qualman says IBM may not have the same kind of visibility in Florida as it had in its PC-building era, but its presence is just as strong. “People don’t think of IBM as a Florida company, but I think our employees represent exactly the kind of employees the state wants to have,” he says.
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